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The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People

The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People PDF

Author: Walter Russell Mead

Publisher: Knopf


Publish Date: July 5, 2022

ISBN-10: 0375414045

Pages: 672

File Type: Epub

Language: English

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Book Preface

t a time when so many books are being written, and so many of them are so long, the reader of any book is entitled to ask why it had to be written at all and, if the book absolutely had to exist, why it couldn’t have been shorter.

That is particularly true when it comes to books about the U.S.-Israel relationship. There are few subjects in American foreign policy that get as much attention as the relationship between the world’s only Jewish state and the global superpower. Professors and students offer teach-ins and hold demonstrations on university campuses; pastors, rabbis, and imams speak about it from the pulpits; politicians make speeches; candidates get questioned on Middle East policy during election debates; think tanks issue voluminous reports; foundations sponsor a never-ending deluge of roundtables and panel discussions; journalists report and talking heads debate. Enough books on this subject have been published to fill a respectable library; do we really need another one?

I believe we do. One hates to belabor the obvious, but American diplomacy in the Middle East in recent decades has neither been wreathed in glory nor crowned with success. War in Iraq, war in Afghanistan, an ill-considered “humanitarian” Libyan intervention that led to years of chaos, a generation of failure for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, helplessness in the face of Iran’s drive for regional hegemony, failure to prevent a malignant Russia from reentering the Middle East: Americans and the peoples of the Middle East alike deserve better.

When we look at the intense national debate over Middle East policy and, especially, over our policy toward Israel, the discussion is often angry, accusatory, and simplistic. One thinks of the lines from The Dunciad in which Alexander Pope attacks an untalented poet of the day by comparing his poetry to bad beer:

Flow, Welsted, flow! like thine inspirer, beer,

Tho’ stale, not ripe, tho’ thin, yet never clear;

So sweetly mawkish, and so smoothly dull;

Heady, not strong; o’erflowing, tho’ not full.[1]

Sweetly mawkish and smoothly dull is not, unfortunately, a bad description of a large portion of a national Middle East policy conversation that is often emotionally dense but intellectually thin. Proponents of a close U.S.-Israel relationship use phrases like “the only democracy in the Middle East” more as slogans than as serious arguments, and they often presuppose an identity of interests between the United States and the Jewish state that, to me, sometimes seems to represent wishful fantasy more than rigorous thought. Some of the critics of the relationship are much worse, resorting to overheated, under-thought-out polemics about a shadowy, all-powerful “Israel lobby,” a perspective that owes more to antisemitic stereotypes than to disciplined policy analysis.

The “peace process” between Israelis and Palestinians was central to the foreign policy of every American president from George H. W. Bush to Donald Trump. But for all the obsessive attention that the peace process sometimes receives, few Americans understand how politically difficult and morally complex the seemingly simple goal of a peace agreement actually is, or why so prolonged and so indefatigable a series of American efforts should have produced so much more process than peace. Never in American history have so many presidents of so many points of view expended so much effort and political capital on a single objective—and never has so signal a failure in American foreign policy led to so little meaningful reflection and change.

There might have been a time when the United States could afford to fritter its political and economic resources away on vanity projects in the region. But at a time of growing international competition overseas and political polarization at home, the United States must think more wisely and act more deliberately, in the Middle East as elsewhere. That won’t happen unless more Americans understand the real history of their relationship with the Jewish state, the cultural and political importance of the Jewish national movement known as Zionism in American life, and the relationship of our Israel policy to American strategy worldwide.

With these thoughts in mind, and concerned about the way both sides of the Israel debate resort to efforts to “cancel” their opponents—to block speakers, harass people on social media, deprive academics of their posts, and otherwise limit free discussion of an important and complex question—I set about what I originally thought would be the simple task of writing a short, clarifying book about the nature and sources of American sympathy for the Zionist movement and the Jewish state. Among other things, I hoped that this book would discredit the antisemitic legend that falsely attributes American support for Israel to the machinations of a secretive and all-powerful Jewish lobby.

That was the plan more than a decade ago when I started the research for The Arc of a Covenant. But two things happened that disrupted my plan. The first was that writing this book turned into a significantly greater challenge than I expected. The conventional narratives about the relationship were often off base and sometimes flat wrong. To get the story straight I was going to have to take on both pro-Zionist and anti-Zionist legends that have obscured the historical record.

To make matters worse, the more I learned, the clearer it became that the attitudes and ideas that shape American perceptions of Zionism and the state of Israel are deeply rooted and widely dispersed in American history and culture. From the colonial era forward, the American approach to the place of Jews in American society, while never free from antisemitism, was subtly but critically different from that of the European Enlightenment. Long before the modern Zionist movement appeared among Jews, non-Jewish Americans for both religious and secular reasons found themselves looking toward the establishment of a Jewish state in the Middle East as an important signpost on the road to a better world.

I also found that some of the most important developments in the story are incomprehensible without a grounding in the political and cultural context of past times. American support for the Balfour Declaration, for example, the British commitment to create a “national home” for the Jews in the lands of the Bible after World War I, cannot be understood without taking into account the political forces that were leading Americans to cut immigration by 90 percent while supporting “self-determination” for ethnic groups across Europe. Zionism itself can’t be understood without some background in the history of the rise of national movements in the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman empires that once dominated Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East. I was either going to have to give up the Israel book project, or steel myself for a deeper dive and a longer book than I originally expected.

Meanwhile, during the years in which I was slowly coming to appreciate the difficulty of this task I had so rashly taken on, American society and American foreign policy were hurtling into crisis. As Russia and China stepped up their challenge to the American-led “liberal world order” abroad, Americans were losing faith in their national institutions at home and, weary of endless wars in far-off lands, American public opinion questioned the country’s ambitiously globalist post–Cold War strategy. Increasingly it looked as though some of America’s central assumptions about international politics in the twenty-first century were fundamentally flawed. The focus of American foreign policy was in any case moving from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific. Did it still make sense, I found myself asking, to focus on a parochial subject like the U.S.-Israel relationship in such dangerous times?

What kept me plugging away was my growing realization that the very problems that made the book so hard to write brought me to the heart of the challenges facing a divided America in the Age of Trump. The wide-ranging survey of the relationship between American domestic politics and our foreign policy that the Israel story required would help Americans gain perspective on the foreign and domestic policy challenges that have tested us so severely in recent years.

Rather than fighting the complexity of my subject, I decided to embrace it. I would follow the thread to the heart of the labyrinth. If the story took me to Theodor Herzl’s meetings with Kaiser Wilhelm II in Constantinople and Jerusalem, I would follow it there. If the story led into the politics of nineteenth-century human rights movements, if it led to a study of the religious and secular roots of the unique American approach to the integration of Jewish immigrants, if it challenged the pious legends that the American Jewish community produced about its role in the emergence of Israel, I would pursue it.

To write about the American relationship with the Jewish state and the Jewish people is to sketch a portrait of the American spirit at work in the world. That, at any rate, is what I came to believe and what I have tried to do in these pages.

Writing this book has forced me to think much more systematically and deeply about international affairs. My own engagement with American foreign policy began in childhood. I was ten years old at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when newspaper headlines spoke of imminent war and our schools conducted air raid drills to protect us from nuclear bombs. In the fifth grade, my friends and I used to argue about whether our hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was on the Soviet target list for destruction. The playground consensus was that yes, we would be hit early, because the NASA astronauts used the University of North Carolina Planetarium for training. There was, we agreed, no way that the Soviet leaders would leave such an important asset untouched. We did not, by the way, think this was a gloomy forecast. We knew that the lucky ones in a nuclear war would be the ones who died first.

Six decades later, I am as transfixed by the spectacle of American foreign policy as I was during that historic October. For one thing, it matters: American foreign policy remains of supreme importance for the well-being and even the survival of the American people and of humanity itself. Beyond that, it is interesting; few areas of study can match the sheer intellectual challenge of a subject that requires its students to engage with an almost infinite variety of disciplines and perspectives. American culture, economics and the history of economic institutions and policies, religion and religious movements, technological change and its impact on human societies, political ideologies and political history, social movements and intergroup relations, immigration, the histories of foreign countries—these are only some of the subjects to which the study of American foreign policy leads. Any serious student in this genre should travel widely in the United States and abroad, immerse herself in diplomatic history, grapple with issues of strategy and war, and gain some knowledge of practical affairs.

This study is so complex and so far-reaching that nobody ever comes to the end of it. Great foreign policy figures like Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and George Kennan were still learning and still making discoveries and new connections well into their eighties and nineties. The subject is a mountain whose summit can never be reached, but the higher one ascends, the more comprehensive and far-reaching the views.

The student of American foreign policy must also engage with some of the most basic questions about the meaning and direction of life. American foreign policy must be shaped to some extent by our beliefs and intuitions about human nature, our ideas about the meaning if any of the historical process, and the ultimate values that for some take the form of religious belief and for others form the ideological foundations of their sense of identity and purpose.

It is more difficult than it looks to bring one’s deepest convictions into effective foreign policy. Most of those who have sought to turn international relations into a form of religious or ethical mission have been disappointed in the results. This is often because they fail to think the thing through. To act with real moral effect in the world of foreign policy, it is not enough to understand one’s own convictions and the ethical guidance they provide. One must also seek to understand how other people from different religious and philosophical backgrounds understand the world, how those beliefs shape the way others see the world and provide a filter through which they analyze events, and how they seek to translate their beliefs into policy. One will then need to study how these conflicting moral visions interact with unyielding realities and less elevated motives in surprising and sometimes explosive ways, and how the international system in which all these forces collide is more mysterious, more dangerous, and more unpredictable still.

“A statesman cannot create anything himself,” said Otto von Bismarck. “He must wait and listen until he hears the steps of God sounding through events; then leap up and grasp the hem of His garment.”[2] Discerning the steps of God in the rush of world events is not easy; history teaches that many world leaders have listened in vain.

Yet difficult as it is to bring our religious and ethical convictions to bear in American foreign policy, some understanding of and sympathy for the worlds of religion and spiritual hunger remains indispensable for serious policymaking. It is not just that a subject like the Jewish state with its inevitable religious associations brings these questions to the fore. In a world of nuclear weapons, people everywhere come to foreign policy questions and questions of peace and war conscious that, at the extreme, such questions potentially involve the survival of the human race. Periodically other issues erupt into foreign policy debates in which, potentially, the future of the human race is at stake: extreme climate change, the consequences for disaster inherent in the development of technologies like cyberwar software, genetic modification, and artificial intelligence. Foreign policy in our time cannot exclude the consideration of existential threats to human civilization and survival, and debates over foreign policy often lead into or proceed from debates over what human beings should do to preserve our species and even our planet.

The extreme stakes in the world of international politics make it more necessary to think clearly about foreign policy, but they also make that clear thought more difficult. Our emotional responses to the potential for world-ending conflicts and apocalyptic disasters built into international relations today—responses that range from panic to denial—can affect the ability of both elites and mass opinion in the United States and abroad to assess distressing realities in a cool and balanced way.

There have been few moments in the last sixty years as tension-filled as the Cuban Missile Crisis, but in recent years it has become apparent that, after a long period in which global tensions appeared to be easing, the world is drifting steadily into more danger. Since the attacks of 9/11 the international scene has continued to darken; today we worry not only about the threat of terror attacks, but about possible conflicts among the great powers. Problems like climate change add to the challenges and difficulties with which the feeble tools of diplomacy must cope. Just as the twentieth century saw the challenge of foreign policy become more difficult and more consequential for the United States than it had been in the nineteenth, so the tasks of foreign policy in the twenty-first century look to be more difficult and more consequential still. In this often frightening world, Americans are going to have to study foreign policy again, and external events are likely to play an increasing role in our domestic political contests and debates.

Israel policy will inevitably play a role in the debates that lie ahead. Israel occupies a unique place in American foreign policy because it occupies a unique, and uniquely charged, place in the American mind. The U.S.-Israel relationship is not and never has been the most important relationship in American foreign policy. Israel is neither America’s most important ally nor its most valuable trading partner. But the idea that the Jews would return to the lands of the Bible and build a state there touches on some of the most powerful themes and cherished hopes of American religion and culture. America’s long immersion in biblical Christianity and in a theory of progress that both secular and religious Americans have built on those foundations has given the Jewish people and the Jewish state a distinctive place in American historical consciousness and political thought. The state of Israel is a speck on the map of the world; it occupies a continent in the American mind.

That continent is terrain that any serious student of American politics and culture needs to explore for reasons that include, but go well beyond, the study of American foreign policy in the Middle East. The ideas that have shaped Americans’ approach to first the idea and then the reality of the Jewish state are ideas that play an immense and often underappreciated role in virtually every aspect of our domestic life. Debates about Israel policy in the United States often have more to do with debates over American identity, the direction of world politics, and the place that the United States should aspire to occupy in world history than about anything that real-world Israelis and Palestinians may happen to be doing at any particular time.

At a time when Americans are fundamentally divided over the meaning of their heritage and the future of their country’s role in the world, understanding the “Israel factor” in American life has become more important than ever. This is not just a foreign policy story, a story about Jews, or a story about American history; it is a story about American values, America’s role in the world, American identity, and about the fight between conflicting visions of America now dominating our politics. Dispensing with bad theories—like the idea that a cabal of American Jews controls America’s Israel policy—is important, but this book is less about dispelling some rancid urban legends about American Jews than about examining some of America’s deepest and most contested values at a time of great social change.

This will not be a book of policy proposals or of policy advocacy. I did not write it to advance my personal views about Middle East peace or to establish myself as a moral arbiter subjecting Israelis and Palestinians alike to the cool and balanced judgment of my keen, all-seeing eye. I am not going to use these pages to evangelize for my pet ideas about peacemaking, or to draw lines in the sand to divide the Holy Land between its inhabitants. That said, I have views, and I am not seeking credibility by pretending to an indifference that I do not feel. I am glad that the State of Israel exists, though I regret the tragedy that befell the Palestinian people as a result, and I hope someday to visit a free Palestinian state. Overall, I believe that the alliance between the United States and Israel serves American interests well, although Americans need to remember that Israel is a separate state whose interests are not always the same as ours, and as circumstances change the interests of both countries could develop in ways that make the alliance less useful. When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, I have long believed that a two-state solution in which both peoples can shape their own futures through the exercise of self-determination is the approach that best reconciles the interests of the two parties with American interests and principles. There is nothing new about this idea; in one form or another it has been on the table for generations, and it was the basis for the United Nations decision in 1947 to partition British Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. Stating this goal is easy; implementing it has eluded generations of diplomats. This book does not attempt to find the magic, conflict-ending formula that so many past leaders have sought in vain.

I share the concerns of those who fear that the two-state solution is becoming less feasible, but the “one-state solution” of Israelis and Palestinians living peacefully together in a single country seems even less realistic. A one-state solution would require what today is an unimaginable degree of reconciliation between the two peoples.

Having visited Palestinian refugee camps from Gaza to Damascus and beyond and spoken with Palestinian leaders and ordinary people, I am clear that the Palestinians are a people whose tragic history deserves a compassionate and constructive response. It is unjust that Palestinians living on the West Bank do not control their own future. While the United States cannot give the Palestinians a state, I hope we can help them build one. Ending the occupation with the establishment of an independent Palestine would, under the right conditions, be good for both peoples. Even if full peace isn’t possible, it is in the interest of the United States to seek ways in which both Israelis and Palestinians can live in peace and security, to reduce the injustice occupation inevitably entails, and to find methods to make this ongoing dispute less of a blistering sore in international relations.


1. The Mystery of Zion

2. The Quest for Planet Vulcan

3. A Knock at the Door

4. George Washington and the Jews

5. The “End of History” and the American Mind

6. Maelstrom

7. Great Decisions

8. Blackstone and Lodge

9. American Cyrus

10. Cyrus and Britain

11. Cyrus and Stalin

12. Cyrus Agonistes

13. The Cold Peace

14. Alignment

15. The Great Miscalculation

16. The Great MacGuffin and the Quest for the Holy Grail

17. Right Nation

18. Apocalypse Now: Israel Policy Under George W. Bush

19. Israel and the Exceptional American Left

20. Cool Hands, Hot World

21. American Crisis and the Fate of the Jewish People





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