Obama and the Holy Land

When Lyndon Baines Johnson was a young congressman, he saved 42 Jews from the Nazis. Indirect evidence shows that he rescued another 400 Jews, including the famed orchestra conductor Erich Leinsdorf. While Johnson didn't risk his life to save Jews, as European non-Jews did, there are those who believe that he should be honored in Yad Vashem, Jerusalem's Holocaust Memorial Museum, for being what the Israelis call a Righteous Gentile.

After the 1967 Arab-Israel Six Day War, when he was President, he met with Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin in Glassboro, New Jersey. Mr. Kosygin asked him why America supported Israel against the Arab world with all its population and with all its oil resources. LBJ replied: "Because we think it's right." The Russian leader shook his head in disbelief.

In June 2009, in a speech in Cairo, President Barack Obama announced a historic American tilt toward the Arab and Muslim worlds. It is too early to tell if he, unlike his predecessors, believes in what has been known as the special relationship between America and Israel, However, most of his fellow Americans still believe in it. Not only did they rejoice when President Harry Truman made the United States the first country in the world to recognize Israeli independence in  May 1948, but they  allowed  both Republican and Democratic administrations to put their tax dollars where their feelings are. 

Since 1949, the United States has sent Israel over $100 billion in aid. This amount does not include funds from the Defense Department budget for joint military projects like the Arrow missile, for which Israel has received more than $1 billion since 1986. As far back as 1974, General George Keegan, a former chief of US Air Force intelligence, said that Israel's contribution to the United States was "worth $1,000 for every dollar's worth of aid we have granted her." Perhaps he was thinking of the fully functioning Soviet SAM (surface to air) missile system that the Israelis captured in Egypt and shipped to the United States enabling America to counter a weapon that was shooting down U.S. airplanes during the Vietnam war. In 1979 more than 170 retired generals and admirals sent a letter to President Jimmy Carter urging him to recognize Israel as a valuable and dependable military ally.  

No matter what the state of the US economy, there has never been a demand by the American people to halt or diminish US aid to Israel. There is no such demand now.

What are the historical, religious, cultural, political, and strategic reasons for all this? First of all, America's Christians are the only ones who not only employ the term "Judeo-Christian heritage," but who glory in its usage. Secondly, while the first British settlers in North America never called their settlements New Jerusalem, New Israel, or New Zion, as some of them had wished, as their descendants moved to the north, south, and west, they placed hundreds of Biblically derived names on the map of the future United States. Thus there is a Jericho in Alabama, an Eden in Arizona, a Samaria in Idaho, a Hebron in North Dakota, a Lake Sinai in South Dakota, a Jordan in Illinois, a Zoar in Massachusetts, an Elisha in Rhode Island, a Sodom in Ohio, a Bethlehem in Pennsylvania, a New Canaan in Connecticut, a Goshen County in Wyoming, and an Adam in Florida. Four places in four states are called Jerusalem. And no fewer than twenty-seven towns, cities, and counties are called Salem, which comes from the Hebrew word shalom, which means peace. No other country has so linked its geographic nomenclature with that of the Land of Israel.

There are historical reasons for this. The Pilgrims read the Old Testament. Some did so in Hebrew. Their interest in the Hebrew and the Old Testament was shared by other Americans in later centuries. A student who couldn't translate the Bible from Hebrew into Latin could not in the early days get into Harvard. A teacher who knew no Hebrew couldn't become a faculty member at King's College, the original name of Columbia University. Hebrew was once a compulsory subject at Yale, which has the Hebrew motto Urim V'turim (Light and Truth) on its crest. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon faith, studied Hebrew. In 1902 Secretary of State John Hay wrote a handwritten letter to an Indiana Jew in Hebrew. In the twentieth century Edmund Wilson, the great American social and literary critic, was a student of Hebrew.

Now, the United States has not supported restored Jewish sovereignty in the Middle East merely because many of its more educated Christian citizens knew Hebrew several centuries ago, or because a tiny fraction of them know it now. However, the Hebrew/Old Testament connection in America's intellectual history certainly has nourished the soil in which America's support for modern Israel sprouted.

During the American Revolution, clergymen compared the colonists' fight with King George III to the plight of the ancient Israelites in the Egypt of the Pharaohs. After the Revolution, Christians in all walks of life suggested forms of governance that were similar to their perceptions of those of ancient Israel, and there were those who called for Jewish political restoration in Palestine. 

In 1818 Thomas Kennedy, a Catholic legislator, asked during a presentation in favor of equality for Maryland's Jews: "May we not hope that the banners of the children of Israel shall again be unfurled on the walls of Jerusalem on the Holy Hill of Zion?" In 1819 John Adams wrote to a Jewish citizen: "I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation." In 1845 Brigham Young proclaimed: "The Jews among all nations are hereby commanded, in the name of the Messiah, to repair to return to Jerusalem in Palestine . . . and also to organize and establish their own political government." 

In 1891, five years before Dr. Theodor Herzl published his Der Judenstaat and six years before he convened the first World Zionist Congress, an American Gentile, William E. Blackstone, publicly transformed what had been mainly religious and emotional yearnings of Jews for Palestine into a political manifestation of Jewish nationalism and Jewish self-determination. Blackstone sent President Benjamin Harrison a petition entitled "Palestine for the Jews." It was signed by 400 hundred of the most prominent Americans. If the Great Powers, it asked, could, in the Berlin Treaty of 1878, give Bulgaria to the Bulgarians and Serbia to the Serbs, "does not Palestine as rightfully belong to the Jews?"

Today we associate Christian Zionism with the Christian Evangelicals. They are now in fact the most pro-Jewish and pro-Israel segment of American Christendom. But the first American Christian to call himself a Zionist was the Reverend Dr. Francis J. Clay Moran, in a letter to the New York Times, published over a hundred years ago. After Moran came Adolph A. Berle, a former professor of applied Christianity at Tufts University, who, in 1918, published a book called The World Significance of a Jewish State. Harry Emerson Fosdick, of Union Theological Seminary, in 1927, wrote a book on Zionism called A Pilgrimage to Palestine. In 1929, John Haynes Holmes, minister of New York's Community Church, published Palestine Today and Tomorrow: A Gentile's Survey of Zionism. Dr. Walter Clay Loudermilk, the most renowned soil scientist, ecologist, and environmentalist of his day, also became a Christian Zionist.

In the 1930s he traveled the world to study how people used their land and in what condition they passed it on to the next generation. When he came to British Palestine, he was so impressed by how the Jews treated their land that he wrote that if Moses had foreseen what was to become of the Earth, he "doubtless would have been inspired to deliver an Eleventh Commandment: ‘Thou shalt inherit the Holy Earth as a faithful steward, conserving its resources and productivity from generation to generation. . . . If any shall fail in this stewardship of the land, thy fruitful fields shall become sterile stony ground and wasting gullies, and thy descendants shall decrease and live in poverty or perish from off the face of the Earth." Since the Jews of Palestine were obeying Loudermilk  Eleventh Commandment, he became an ardent Christian Zionist, publishing, in 1944, his bestseller, Palestine: Land of Promise. 

So it is America's Christians, not America's Jews, who made it politically correct for every American President since Woodrow Wilson and every American Congress since the early 1920s to support both the dream and the reality of a renascent Jewish state in the Middle East.

President Obama has been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to tilt toward Iran. In a speech before the Turkish Parliament in April 2009, he said: "I have made it clear to the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran that the United States seeks engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect." This is the same Iran whose president denies the Holocaust and who wants Israel wiped off the face of the earth. Though the Israelis consider Iran's nuclear weapons an existential threat, Mr. Obama is pressuring them not to attack preemptively. However, also in April 2009, Shimon Peres, the President of Israel, and the father of Israel's nuclear weapons program, said that if Mr. Obama  will not soften the Iranian President's approach "we'll strike him." While refusing to go into detail about the military option to foil Iran's nuclear program, Mr. Peres did say that Israel could not carry out any strike against the Islamic republic without America. "We certainly cannot go it alone and we definitely can't go against the U.S."

Mr. Obama is also tilting toward the Palestinians, even though the Norwegian Fafo Institute, the sponsor of the 1993 Oslo Middle East accords, recently found that a majority of Palestinians oppose a two-state solution. Thirty-three percent opt for Israel's annihilation and 20 percent favor a Palestinian state that would entirely engulf Israel. 

For more than sixty years, American. presidents and the American people have been pro-Israel.  As recently as March 3, 2009, the Gallup Poll ranked Israel as the fourth preferred ally of the United States, behind Britain, Canada, and Japan. And as recently as August 10, 2009, seventy percent of Americans say that Israel is a U.S. ally, nearly twice the finding for Egypt, the most highly regarded Islamic country. Only 8 percent of Americans say Israel is an enemy, and 16 percent put it somewhere in between.

So these questions arise: Has President Obama abandoned the special America-Israel relationship? Has he become so pro-Arab that he is anti-Israel, as almost two-thirds of the Israelis now believe, according to the University of Tel Aviv's War and Peace Index of August 9, 2009? Is he, as the British writer Melanie Phillips has suggested, America's first "pro-Islamist President?" Are America and Israel heading for a great confrontation, or at least for the greatest disagreement in the history of their relationship, as U.S. Middle East expert Robert Satloff recently told Newsweek magazine?

On July 4, 2009 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: "We have a brave relationship with the United States, a bond that President Obama himself defined as unbreakable. Indeed, our bond with the U.S. is unbreakable." But that is not the belief of other prominent Israelis. They are not so sure that Israel has a friend in the White House. And they wonder if the connection with the United States is still a good one. For instance, Caroline Glick, the deputy managing editor of the Jerusalem Post, argues that "both in terms of pure economics and of the restrictions the Obama administration is now placing on Israeli use of U.S. technologies and munitions, maintaining U.S. military assistance makes less and less sense with each passing day. Israel may indeed be best served by simply ending its military assistance package. By making clear that it is not dependent on Obama's kindness, it would be expanding its maneuvering room on other issues as well." She is probably alluding to Iran. 

On the American side, Israel's failure to defeat Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza may be be interpreted as meaning that it is no longer a strong military power and is now a strategic liability rather than a strategic asset to the United States.

Whatever the case, one thing is clear: Mr. Obama does not view Israel as Democratic Presidents Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson did. Nor does he view it as Republican Presidents Richard M. Nixon and George W. Bush did. Until the end of his life, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was the chief of staff of the Israel Army during the 1967 Six Day war, believed that Mr. Nixon saved the Jewish state. By warning the Soviets to stay out of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and by replacing the vast amounts of equipment that Israel lost during the first week of that war, Mr. Nixon made it possible for the Israelis to counterattack and beat their Egyptian foes.

Anne Bayevsky, a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute, is convinced that Mr. Obama is "the most hostile sitting American president in the history of the state of Israel." Similarly, John Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former American ambassador to the United Nations, has written that "Relations between the U.S. and Israel are more strained than at any time since the 1956 Suez Canal crisis." And Richard Baehr, the chief political correspondent of The American Thinker, feels that Mr. Obama treats "Israel more contemptuously than any President since the founding of the [Jewish] state." On the other hand, on August 20, 2009 the Israeli news source Debka reported that President Obama has secretly assured Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that confrontation between America and Israel is undesirable, and that relations between the White House and Mr. Netanyahu's office will revert to their normal friendly level.

We shall have to wait and see whether and the extent to which Ms. Bayevsky, Mr. Bolton, Mr. Baehr, and Debka are right or wrong. We shall also have to wait and see what happens if Israel , the modern reincarnation of the Jewish Holy Land, strikes Iran against the wishes of President Obama.
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