Walter Russell Mead is not Jewish, but he knows more about Jews than most Jews. The son of an Episcopal priest from South Carolina, Mead is the Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College, and previously taught foreign policy at Yale, a subject about which he has written several books. But when we first met, some 10 years ago, he wanted to tell me about the Blackstone Memorial.
The Blackstone Memorial was a petition presented to President Benjamin Harrison in 1891. It was signed by 431 prominent Americans, including J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, future President William McKinley, the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and numerous congresspeople, as well as several notable organizations, including the Washington Post and New York Times. What urgent message did this star-studded manifesto convey to the American president? It was a plea to return the Jewish people to their historic homeland in the Middle East. Far removed from the work of Jewish activists, it was compiled years before the Jewish writer Theodor Herzl would kick off the modern Zionist movement. Mead had come across the remarkable document in the course of researching what would eventually become his next book.
A decade later, he has finally published the results of his inquiry into the historical roots of American support for Israel. The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People tells the story of the non-Jewish relationship to the Jewish state from before its founding to the present day. Part original scholarship, part counterintuitive history, part meditation on American identity, part debunking of anti-Jewish conspiracies, there is nothing quite like it. If I could force people to read one book about America and Israel, it would be this one.
It’s also quite topical. Yesterday, President Joe Biden arrived in Israel, kicking off the latest visit by an American president to the tiny country. If history is any guide, the trip will occasion the same rehashed talking points about the U.S.-Israel relationship, its origins, and its merits. Mead’s book is the antidote to this stale sermonizing. You will learn more from it than from most of the contemporary coverage.
In advance of Biden’s trip, I sat down with Mead to talk about why Zionism succeeded in spite of the preferences of many Jews, how Israel won its independence with repurposed Nazi weapons, and how an imaginary planet explains why so many people believe that Jews control America.
Yair Rosenberg: Let’s start with the Vulcans. Like most people, I know of them as aliens from Star Trek, like Spock. But it turns out that the name “Vulcan” derives from something far more interesting, which you use as the organizing metaphor for your book. What does “Vulcan” have to do with the idea that Jews or Israelis control American foreign policy?
Walter Russell Mead: In the 19th century, this very famous French astronomer, Le Verrier, did some calculations and discovered that there was something wrong with the orbit of Uranus. It wasn’t where it was supposed to be. He decided that by Newtonian laws of gravitation, there had to be another planet out there that exerted a pull on the orbit—and he figured out where he thought it should be. He sent a letter to another astronomer who pointed his telescope at the sky where the calculation said this planet would appear, and there it was. This is how Neptune was discovered, by sheer intellectual calculation. It just impressed the heck out of everybody. But the story didn’t end there.
Le Verrier continued to explore and he discovered that there was something wrong with the orbit of Mercury too. So he did all of these calculations and again predicted another planet. Soon after, a French astronomer in a village was looking through his telescope and discovered the new planet. Big news all over! They named the planet Vulcan, because it was inside the orbit of Mercury and close to the sun, like Vulcan, the ancient Roman god of the forge, who was sort of burned black by being so close to the sun. Astronomers all over the world started to confirm this discovery. Thomas Edison was part of a group that saw it. But there was a catch: Because it was so small, you could only see Vulcan at special moments, like when it transited the sun or when there was an eclipse.
After a while, they began to notice that it didn’t add up. The planet didn’t match the observations; the sightings didn’t really accord with each other. Something was going on. Some suggested that there had to be two planets there to account for this. Later on, Einstein, with his theory of relativity, gave another explanation for why Mercury’s orbit was weird: It had to do with the effect of the sun’s gravity on light. There was no planet Vulcan after all, even though for 30 years that had been the “settled science.”
Well, as I say in the book, astronomers don’t often go on wild-goose chases like that, but political scientists lead more interesting lives. As you look at the historical record, you often find that all kinds of famous, well-educated, intelligent people have fundamentally mistaken the nature of the forces they’re dealing with. Which brings us to our subject. There’s a theory out there that when it comes to Israel, American foreign policy gets pulled off course. Normally, America circles the sun of its natural national interest on a stable, predictable orbit, but every now and then, when the subject of Israel comes up, there’s a tug, and the U.S. wavers from the orbit it’s supposed to be in. And so begins the quest for planet Vulcan: What is the hidden force? What’s the dark matter that is pulling the U.S. out of its orbit? For many students of American foreign policy, the answer has been “the Jews,” or “the Israel lobby,” or “the evangelicals.” There’s been this sense that there must be some reason why America behaves “weirdly” around the question of Israel.
What I’m trying to do in the book is a deep dive into why Americans think the way they do about Israel. Has American policy toward Israel been influenced by some hidden hand, some sinister lobby, or actually, does Israel policy work pretty much the way a lot of our other policies do? Now, my conclusion in the book is that there is no planet Vulcan. There is a pro-Israel lobby in America; there’s several, and they function the way lobbies do. But there’s nothing unique or special about how they function or how powerful they are. Israel policy works in America like the rest of our foreign policy.
Rosenberg: As you note in the book, the Vulcan theory of American policy toward Israel rests on three assumptions:
(1) That the Jews are united in their position when it comes to Israel and Zionism;
(2) That the 1 to 2 percent of the American population that is Jewish is powerful enough to impose this collective preference over the national interest of the 98 percent of the population that is not Jewish;
(3) That there is an actual shared concept of the American national interest that this Jewish or Israeli preference overrides.
Through a pretty exhaustive history of the founding of Israel and subsequent U.S. policy toward it, your book challenges all three of these assumptions. Can you summarize the problems with each?
Mead: Let’s start with the idea of the American “national interest.” It’s a phrase that’s very easy to use and everybody thinks they know what it means. But in fact, it’s quite hard to know what the national interest is at any given moment, and reasonable people disagree about it. In my book Special Providence, I talked about how the history of American foreign policy is a history of arguments between four completely different ways of thinking about the national interest. There’s a commerce-centered view, which I call Hamiltonianism; an idealistic, values-based Wilsonian foreign policy; a kind of isolation to preserve the purity of the United States in a dangerous world, which I call Jeffersonian; and a populist, Jacksonian nationalism that says, Let’s not bother anybody until they bother us, but if they bother us, let’s go out and whomp ‘em. All of these views are internally consistent. They’re deeply rooted in American culture. They’ve been powerful in American politics for 200 years. But they lead to very different descriptions of the national interest and very different prescriptions for achieving it. At any given moment, American policy is a compromise between various elements of these schools, as people struggle to control the steering wheel of American foreign policy. To try to reduce that to some simple, monistic, obvious national interest which all intelligent people agree about—like there’s a thermometer you can look at that’ll tell you what the temperature is—is just not how life works.
Rosenberg: The contested nature of the national interest explains why theories like the Vulcan theory miss something fundamental about American policy. The other half of this, in your telling, is that just as there’s no clear national interest, there’s also no clear “Jewish interest.”
Mead: Yes. At one point, I write that I thought of subtitling this book Don’t Blame Israel on the Jews. Because the idea that there’s some kind of monolithic Jewish view about the importance of Zionism, the definition of Zionism, the priority of Israel in Jewish life—there is not now and never has been unanimity among American Jews, or for that matter even among Israeli Jews, about any of these questions.
If you go back, as I do, to some of the early years of the Zionist movement, you’ll see that the Zionists originally were just this weak, marginal group in Jewish politics. Most Jews in the 19th century were still Orthodox, and they would have said that it was blasphemous for the Jewish community to attempt to retake Palestine. That was a job for the Messiah and would come on the divine timetable, not as a result of human political action. Then you had the Reform Jewish movement, which was based on the idea that the exile from the land of Israel was not so much a punishment as a mission. The role of the Jewish people was to work for the well-being of the people of whatever nation they lived in, not to try to be a separate nation.
In fact, when Zionism first began to be discussed in America, Christians were far more enthusiastic about the idea than the American Jewish community, and the Zionist movement in that community was a small minority. And, by the way, after Orthodoxy and Reform, probably the most important Jewish movement was socialism, and true Marxian socialists—although there are lots of sects and varieties—would say that it was bourgeois nationalism for the Jews to try to establish a state. They should build the transnational brotherhood of all workers, rather than some special little Jewish plan.
So Zionism was this tiny minnow in the Jewish world. But the secret of Zionism was that it was the one idea for Jewish survival in the conditions of the 20th century that a significant number of non-Jews—philo-Semites and anti-Semites—could agree on and support at critical moments. From Eleanor Roosevelt to Joseph Stalin.
What did the world’s Jews mostly want in 1900? Most of them just wanted to be able to live where they were and not be disturbed. To go about their business, study, pray, raise their children, and just live as Jews. That was Plan A. But increasingly, that was coming under pressure as anti-Semitism rose in Europe, and obviously by the 1940s, it had become utterly impossible. If Jews couldn’t live in peace where they were, Plan B was to migrate to someplace where they could start again. For many years, the United States was the favored destination, but also Canada, Australia, Brazil, Argentina, and other countries. But starting with Britain in 1905, and progressing into the U.S. in 1924, and Latin America in the 1930s, country after country closed its doors to immigration, just as Jews grew more desperate to migrate. So Plan B could not get the critical non-Jewish support that it needed to work. That left Zionism as Plan C: Let’s have our own state where we can go.
And here, from Theodor Herzl on, the Zionists found a degree of sympathy among non-Jews for this idea, in high places and low places. The most improbable and crazy-looking of all of these ideas for the Jewish future turned out to be the most practical. So to say that Zionism is a program that a united, determined, all-powerful Jewish community rammed down the throat of the Gentile world is to miss the history. In actuality, Zionism was the one project for Jewish survival that non-Jews in sufficient numbers could be induced to support to make it feasible. Herzl knew that Jewish power was not going to make Zion in the sense that the Jews of Europe couldn’t simply impose themselves on the Gentiles. The history of the Zionist movement is not of a movement of a people who are so powerful that they can have anything they want and this is what they picked.
Rosenberg: In fact, Herzl himself was a journalist who tried very hard to assimilate into the upper-middle-class non-Jewish society in Vienna of his time, and only reluctantly arrived at the conclusion that this would not work.
Mead: He was one of the most assimilated Jews of his day. He did not have his son circumcised. At one point after he’d published his book on Zionism, the chief rabbi of Vienna came to visit him, and much to everyone’s embarrassment, the Herzl family was in the middle of decorating their Christmas tree when he got there. Before he was a Zionist, Herzl had proposed as a solution to the Jewish question that the Jews of Europe convert en masse to Roman Catholicism. Zionism was not the triumphant battle cry of a victorious ethnic group that through its power in banking and finance and the press could just make the Gentile world dance to its tune. Zionism was a weird, crazy, desperate stab at survival. And it was the one option that turned out to work.
There’s far more in this book than one could possibly cover in a single conversation. That’s why I’ve asked Mead to do a live audio Q&A with Deep Shtetl readers next week. We’ll be holding an in-person Twitter Space this coming Tuesday, July 19, at 1:30 p.m. ET, where you’ll be able to ask all your questions. To join the conversation, all you have to do is click this link, though you’ll need a Twitter account to pose questions. Looking forward to hearing from you!
Rosenberg: One of the things that struck me while reading your history of Israel’s creation is how much of it depended on completely contingent historical factors. We tend to gravitate toward grand narratives of history in which people of consequence impose their will on the world and change it, but often, what actually tips the scales is something happening at the right time and the right place. For example, in order for Israel to be founded, the Zionists needed the British to withdraw from their United Nations mandate in Palestine. But the specific impetus for British troops leaving the area didn’t come from Arabs or Jews. It came from a 1947 blizzard that most of us have never heard of that paralyzed Britain and crushed its already fragile postwar economy, precipitating far-reaching retrenchment of its global empire. This wasn’t the work of the Jews—the weather-control machine wasn’t operational yet…
Mead: Those space lasers were around even longer than you think!
Rosenberg: It’s all falling into place. But more seriously, this freak weather event opens up the space for the United Nations to partition the land between its Jews and Arabs, Israel to declare independence, and then for President Harry Truman to recognize the state. Can you talk more about that, and more generally, the role of forgotten and contingent events in this story?
Mead: Look, the process that led to Israeli independence has been written about by a lot of people, and frankly, by a lot of people who know more than I do about the history of this very specific period. But what I tried to do, which I think allowed me to see things from a different angle, was to put myself, as a generalist, back into that time period. And when you do that, what you realize is that in 1945–47, the whole world has burned down. Millions of people are homeless and starving. Civilization is collapsing. Communism is sweeping Europe. Empires are crashing. It’s not clear what kinds of states will be emerging in the postcolonial world. All of this is up for grabs. And at the same time, the American economy is in terrible turmoil: huge inflation, the greatest wave of strikes in American history, totally polarized politics. In 1948, when Truman runs for his own presidential term, the Democratic Party splits into not two, but three different political parties.
In all of this, for Truman and for many of the other actors, “the Palestine problem”—as people thought of it then—was just a very small piece of the puzzle. It got a lot of press, but the U.S. didn’t have any troops there. The Soviet Union didn’t have any troops there. There was no oil there. The numbers of people were tiny. It was not the forefront. The Israeli War of Independence in the winter and spring of ’48 happens at the same time as the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia and the start of the Cold War. The U.S. is beginning to draft the Marshall Plan. All of these things occupied a lot more bandwidth in Truman’s mind than the problem of Palestine.
Books that focus on the Palestinian question at this time naturally put it in the center and interpret everything through a kind of Palestine-centric lens. But really, as you step back and look at this, you see what Truman is doing. His big problem is that he needs to hold the Democratic Party together as he shifts away from Franklin Roosevelt’s foreign policy—the foreign policy that most liberals of the day preferred—of “be nice to Stalin, distance yourself from Britain, and make the United Nations the center of American diplomatic activity.” That was the liberal program that most of the Democratic Party wanted. Truman saw it was impossible. But he was not popular in the party, was not really seen as the true heir of Franklin Roosevelt, and somehow had to get the party there. This is where the Israel issue fits in.
What Truman found was that giving a role to the United Nations in the solution of the Palestine problem was very, very popular with liberal Democrats, and particularly with Eleanor Roosevelt. She was not only an official member of the U.S. delegation to the UN, and therefore a member of the administration, but she had a syndicated national newspaper column, one of the most popular in the country, and would often criticize the decisions of the administration of which she was a part. Her prestige as the true bearer of the flame of the sainted Franklin Roosevelt was so immense that Truman knew that if he lost her, he could not be renominated. And this—his struggle to keep the Democratic Party united and keep Eleanor Roosevelt on board—had much more to do with the evolution of his Palestine policy than any of the sometimes frantic and intense lobbying from American Jews and other non-Jewish sympathizers with the Zionist cause.
Rosenberg: This is something really fascinating that I’d never understood but your book helped me understand. Having researched people like Albert Einstein and other liberal lions of the time like Eleanor Roosevelt, I saw that they were incredibly committed to the idea of the United Nations. They truly believed that we were at the advent of a world government that would run through the UN. This claim was the essence of enlightened liberal opinion at the time and featured in books that topped the best-seller lists.
Today, this all seems almost comically naive. I never understood how so many smart people thought that a broken world filled with misgoverned states was somehow going to come together in an institution that would be greater than the sum of its parts, rather than simply reproduce their dysfunction. It seems obvious now, but of course, it wasn’t obvious then. As you explain in the book, there’s a sort of apocalyptic thinking at work here. People have just experienced the near-end of the world; they’ve witnessed nuclear weapons; they can foresee the destruction of humanity. To them, it’s either that or this: global collapse or global governance. They can’t see other options. So as an article of faith, they have to believe that humanity can get together and create this single body and adjudicate its problems. And the first test case for that, in some ways, is, Can it adjudicate the Palestine problem? Can it mediate between the Jews and the Arabs? That’s why the UN and its partition for Palestine has this totemic significance among liberals. And Truman has to keep those people on board and in his boat electorally, even if he thinks that this is pretty naive and isn’t going to work out the way they think.
Mead: Exactly. I mean, Truman certainly hoped the best for the United Nations. But he was quickly becoming aware that really the problem was Stalin.
Rosenberg: This also gets at one of the things that your book brings out, which is the significant role of the global left in the creation of the state of Israel, much more so than is commonly discussed. Much scholarship focuses on the drama of Harry Truman and what was going on in his head. But in fact, the physical survival of the Jewish state owes a lot to Stalin finding a way to funnel surplus Nazi weapons to the Israelis.
Mead: It has to be one of the greatest ironies in history that Israeli independence was won with repurposed Wehrmacht weapons created in the Skoda arms factory in Czechoslovakia. It’s underappreciated in the U.S., but I believe better understood in Israel, that Stalin’s military assistance to the Jews in 1948, at a time when the U.S. had put them under an arms embargo, was actually critical to the military success of the state of Israel in the War of Independence.
Rosenberg: Most people don’t realize that the U.S. put the fledgling Jewish state under an arms embargo in the first place. In fact, the U.S. was pretty lukewarm toward Israel for much of its early existence. In the book, there’s a line about this.
Mead: “Israel did not grow strong because it had an American alliance. It acquired an American alliance because it had grown strong.” And that’s a really important thing to understand about this history that most people do not.
Rosenberg: The U.S. only starts seriously selling arms to Israel after it is victorious in the 1967 war and essentially proves its value as an ally.
Mead: By the way, this is one of the reasons that I think the Vulcan theory that a secret Jewish cabal is controlling American foreign policy on Israel is so unbelievably absurd. Look at the history. In the 1930s, Hitler is imposing anti-Semitic legislation in Germany. The American Jewish community is desperate to try to save Jews in Europe. They throw everything they can into the fight to allow Jews to just emigrate to the United States—and they get nowhere. Then in the 1940s, it’s World War II, the Holocaust is going on, and the truth is coming out. The Jews go to President Roosevelt and beg for a diversion of a few Air Force patrols to drop bombs on the rail lines leading to Auschwitz. They get nowhere. Now obviously, if there were a Jewish lobby that was all powerful, this is one of the things they would have done something about! But the Vulcan theory posits that somehow between 1944, when they can’t get bombs on the train lines to Auschwitz, and 1948, when Truman recognizes Israel, they evolved from abject, powerless peons into the total dictators of American politics, able to play the president like a puppet. Then in 1953, they all die of the plague and Eisenhower comes in and conducts American policy on Israel, as you know, as if the Jewish lobby hardly existed at all.
There’s really no way to fit those conspiracy ideas into the facts, and yet all kinds of people are devout Vulcan theorists. They just know it’s true. To me, that is a sign of the power not of individual anti-Semitism, because it’s not necessarily connected to a kind of a negative individual sentiment about Jews, but of the power of cultural stereotypes and memes about cold Jewish power manipulation. It’s a terrible revelation of how even the United States, a country that is far less historically susceptible to anti-Semitism than just about any country that comes out of Western civilization, is still vulnerable to these really terrible ideas.
“The secret of Zionism was that it was the one idea for Jewish survival in the conditions of the 20th century that a significant number of non-Jews—philo-Semites and anti-Semites—could agree on and support.”
Rosenberg: There’s this arresting line in the book that reads, “The single most important thing about Israel that most Americans do not understand is that the Jewish state was founded on a reasonable and historically justified skepticism about the ability of the liberal order to protect Jews.” Could you unpack that and explain what its implications are—not just for non-Jewish understanding of Israel, but for Jewish understanding?
Mead: It’s always good to go back to Herzl to do this. As we’ve discussed, he was a well-known liberal Jewish journalist who worked for the most prestigious Austrian paper of the day, and was their correspondent in France. He ended up despairing of the possibilities of Jewish assimilation in Europe, despite his own very successful assimilation, and launched the organized form of the modern Zionist movement.
Herzl’s horrifying insight was that the Enlightenment principles that he lived by and that he loved, the spirit of tolerance and openness, the emancipation of the Jews that had opened doors across Europe for Jewish people—this was not going to last. The realization came partly from covering the Dreyfus case, in which a Jewish officer was framed for treason, while Herzl was a correspondent in Paris. But he also saw the rise of anti-Semitic demagogues in Vienna, which probably made a bigger impression on him. Karl Lueger became the mayor of Vienna, and he’s actually praised in Mein Kampf by Hitler as a kind of pioneer of anti-Semitism. And so Herzl had what he described as an almost religious experience: a vision that if the Jews didn’t get out of Europe, they were all going to be killed. This is in the 1890s. He admired Émile Zola and the Dreyfusards who fought to get justice for Captain Dreyfus and ultimately succeeded. But the liberals, he foresaw, would not be able to save the Jews. The philo-Semites would not be able to save the Jews. A terrible tragedy is coming and we’ve got to get out.
Israel is basically full of Jews and the descendants of Jews for whom Herzl turned out to be correct. There are the Jews who fled from the ruins of Europe after the 1940s, and the smaller number who escaped before then. Then there are the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were forced to flee Arab persecution in the years after Israeli independence and are still fleeing today. For those Jews, it seems utterly clear that liberal principles cannot save the Jews. Even though liberal principles are nice and we like them and want to live by them as much as we can. Freedom of speech, democracy, all these things are terrific! But the global liberal order, the European liberal order, the European enlightenment—these cannot save the Jews.
American Jews, by and large, are the descendants of Jews for whom Herzl was wrong. Wrong in the sense that they’re here in America, and they’ve lived now for 100 to 150 years as proud Jews. Yes, there’s been a little trouble here and there. But on balance, the Jewish story in America has been one of growing acceptance. The doors have been open. So, when American Jews look at Israel, there’s a strong tendency among some to say, Well, wait a minute Israel, why don’t you trust the international liberal order? Why don’t you trust that the UN and the international system will protect you? If you make territorial concessions to the Palestinians, that’s the smart thing to do. You should not always be trying to hoard your strength and build an iron wall or an Iron Dome around your country; live and let live, take risks for peace.
These kinds of things are easy to say if you live thousands of miles away, but are also easier to say if your family history is one of success in a liberal society, which has opened more and more doors to you. Obviously, there are Israeli Jews who think more like American Jews and American Jews who think more like Israeli Jews. Let’s not stereotype this or make it simpler than it is. But nevertheless, by and large, there’s a real disconnect between how Israeli Jews and American Jews often look at some of these basic questions of security and policy.
The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People is available in both hardcover and ebook editions.
Stay tuned for more from my conversation with Mead in the next subscriber-exclusive edition of Deep Shtetl. We cover his thoughts on the role of Israel on the Christian right, why Israel moved from being a left-wing cause to a more right-wing one, and how he became interested in the story of the Jews in the first place. To read that edition—and access other Deep Shtetl subscriber exclusives—you’ll need to subscribe to The Atlantic if you haven’t already. All readers are welcome to join our live conversation on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. here.