Book review of “The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People.” by Walter Russell Mead

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More than half a century ago, the great American Jewish historian Jacob Rader Marcus warned: “A people that is not conscious of its past has no assurance of a future.” His words would make an apt epigraph to Walter Russell Mead’s magisterial new book, “The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People.”

Mead, a professor of foreign relations and humanities at Bard College, notes that the ancestral homeland of the Jews may be just a speck on the world map, but “it occupies a continent in the American mind.” That space, he found, is filled with misinformation, subject to prejudice and swamped by emotion. “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,” he writes. He set himself the task of helping Americans understand the “real history of their relationship with the Jewish state,” the importance of Zionism and Israel’s place in American world strategy.

He has achieved that goal. Any careful reader will come away from this book armed with facts, history and context, and with a clarity absent from most discussions of the subject. At a time when “replacement theory” has become acceptable political rhetoric on the right, and with antisemitic incidents at an all-time high, this volume is more than timely — it is necessary.

Mead tackles head-on the narrative that a secret Jewish cabal controls American foreign policy on Israel. Election by election, he cites the facts: George W. Bush, whose Iraq War was “allegedly taken in Israel’s interest,” saw Jews voting heavily against him in 2000 and 2004. Donald Trump, who moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and delighted Benjamin Netanyahu by terminating the nuclear agreement with Iran, lost the Jewish vote by a wide margin. Mead writes, “To blame the Jewish community for policies it dislikes made by presidents it rejects seems, if not virulently antisemitic, at least uninformed.”

Why, then, is recent American foreign policy relentlessly pro-Israel? Because “it emerges from the same kind of political process and struggle that produces the rest of our policies.” A global strategy, grounded in domestic politics — which he spells out, decade by decade — underlies the U.S. stance, Mead writes.

The book sweeps across history to show that Christian ideas about a Jewish return to Israel have played a powerful role in U.S. politics dating back to pre-revolutionary days. “There is a long tradition of Protestant predictions of an ultimate return of the Jews,” Mead writes. “In 1666, Increase Mather took to the pulpit of the First Church of Boston … and told his congregation that ‘the time will surely come, when the body of the twelve Tribes of Israel shall be brought out of their present condition of bondage and misery, into a glorious and wonderful state of salvation, not only spiritual but temporal.’ They would ‘recover the Possession of their Promised Land.’”

Did a Jewish lobby engineer the partition of Palestine in 1947, as many assert? Was President Harry Truman pushed into recognizing the new Jewish state in 1948 by powerful Jewish financiers? Emphatically no: The Jews had so little power during the 1940s that they could not even persuade the U.S. government to bomb the railroad tracks to Auschwitz.

“Stalin would play a much more important role in the process that led the Jews to declare and defend their independence than anything Harry Truman did,” Mead writes. The swift American recognition, in fact, was aimed at beating Russia to the punch. As the United States assumed the great-power role formerly held by Britain, Truman was establishing “the Cold War strategy that would guide the United States for the next forty years.”

This book is filled with similar bold insights: for instance, the impact of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which limited immigration after the great wave that began in 1880 and increased the U.S. population by nearly 50 percent. While Jews were not the main target of the act, they were severely affected. “If the United States had not voted to restrict immigration so drastically, it is probable that the country of Israel would not exist today,” Mead says. Creating a homeland in Palestine was a way for America to help Holocaust survivors “without opening its doors to a flood of immigrants.”

Mead also deals at length with the extraordinary U.S. investment in and the failures of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. “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.”

Why is that? Mead traces this failure to a national characteristic. In the Middle East, “a naive and deterministic optimism has led Americans to one grave error after another.” We overestimate the chances that negotiations will lead to a lasting peace; when they don’t, we blame the parties for their intransigence rather than recognizing their domestic challenges; we have an unrealistic idea of how much American power can sway leaders of small countries fighting for their survival.

Right up to today, Mead’s keen eye discerns strategies and patterns that may have gone unnoticed. Trump’s “firm embrace of Israel,” for instance, “consolidated his conservative support and made it more difficult for the alt-right to pressure him” with its antisemitic leanings. Or consider the U.S. Embassy in Israel: In 1995 Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, ordering the embassy to move within five years. Yet administration after administration delayed the move. Trump did it, showing his followers he would act where “establishment” Republicans — not to mention Democrats — would not.

To be sure, Mead makes clear that American Jews of all political stripes try to influence policy by donating to legislators who share their views. That is the American way. But any impact they may have depends on an administration open to those views and the support of American public opinion.

Throughout, Mead keeps a laser focus on antisemitism. The current “radicalization and polarization … of American politics is the gravest threat to the integration of American Jews since the 1940s,” he warns. Back then, in wide swaths of the United States, Jews could not live in certain neighborhoods or hold certain jobs. Yet polls in the late 1930s found that almost half of Americans were convinced Jews exercised too much power. What could that portend today?

Mead’s assessment of the complicated entanglement of Jews, Israel and the United States testifies powerfully to the historian Marcus’s admonition about the imperative to understand the past to ensure the future. I suspect that Mead wrote this book to guide us there. “The Arc of a Covenant,” drawing from the past to speak to today, merits a wide audience.

Pamela S. Nadell is a professor of Jewish studies at American University and the author of “America’s Jewish Women: A History From Colonial Times to Today.” She is writing a book on the history of American antisemitism.

The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People


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