Close your eyes, breathe in deeply, now exhale slowly… That was easy, wasn’t it? Not for everyone…
But The New York Times devoted the entire center of its op-ed page to a 1,300 word evaluation by Tony Judt – an NYU professor whose previous essays asserted Israelis were “trapped” in the “story of their own uniqueness;” their “invocation” of the Holocaust was “special pleading;” the term “terrorist” was a “rhetorical device” (comparable to “Communist”); Ariel Sharon had “blackmailed” America; Israel might be described as a “rogue state;” the “fascist” label “fits better than ever;” a Jewish state was an “anachronism” that was “bad for the Jews;” and it “has no place” in the modern world.
Not surprisingly, Judtdismissed assertions of anti-Semitism and raised instead a “pressing question” he asserted we “cannot ignore”:
It will not be self-evident to future generations of Americans why the imperial might and international reputation of the United States are so closely aligned with one small, controversial Mediterranean client state. It is already not at all self-evident to Europeans, Latin Americans, Africans or Asians.
Let’s rewrite those sentences to put Judt’s point in clearer relief, eliminating the tendentious adjectives (“imperial” might and “client” state) as well as the euphemistic one (“Mediterranean” for “Middle East”): Judt cannot understand why the U.S. would closely align its power and prestige with a democratic state under attack in the Middle East, since the state is “small” and “controversial” and unpopular in the world.
Judt’s question epitomizes the cynicism and amorality of realism – the school of foreign policy analysis that relies on power and interests as the determinants of international relations, and which values stability above all else.
But Judt is not a foreign policy expert; he is a historian. As a result, a historical answer to his professed puzzlement over America’s commitment to Israel may be the best response – using some twentieth century international history, and some American history even older than that.
Before he became president, John F. Kennedy visited Palestine and Israel twice – once in 1939 and again in 1951. Hewrote about his firsthand experience in his 1960 collection of speeches entitled The Strategy of Peace.
In 1939 I first saw Palestine, then an unhappy land under alien rule, and to a large extent then a barren land. . . . In 1951, I traveled again to the land by the River Jordan, to see firsthand the new State of Israel. The transformation that had taken place was hard to believe.
“For in those twelve years, a nation had been born, a desert had been reclaimed, and the most tragic victims of World War II . . . had found a home.
Kennedyrecalled his trips in his preface to his February 9, 1959 speech to the Golden Jubilee Banquet of B’nai Zion in New York City, which he reprinted in The Strategy of Peace. The speech will be useful to future historians seeking to understand what is not self-evident to historians such as Tony Judt.
Kennedy began by noting the parallels between America and Israel:
[O]ur own history as a nation and Israel’s have many parallels – in the diversity of their origins, in their capacity to reach the unattainable, in the receptivity to new ideas and social experimentation. . . .
“History records several such breakthroughs – great efforts to which spiritual conviction and human endurance have combined to make realities out of prophecies. The Puritans in Massachusetts, the Mormons in Salt Lake City, the Scotch-Irish in the Western territories were all imbued with the truth of the old Jewish thought that a people can have only as much sky over its head as it has land under its feet.
Kennedy then turned to a contention that, even in 1959 – twelve years after the re-birth of Israel and its endorsement by the United Nations – was already being used to discredit the Jewish state:
I would like to . . . dispel a prevalent myth . . . the assertion that it is Zionism which has been the unsettling and fevered infection in the Middle East, the belief that without Israel there would somehow be a natural harmony throughout the Middle East and Arab world.
Quite apart from the values and hopes which the State of Israel enshrines . . . it twists reality to suggest that it is the democratic tendency of Israel which has injected discord and dissension into the Near East. Even by the coldest calculations, the removal of Israel would not alter the basic crisis in the area. . . .
The basic rivalries within the Arab world, the quarrels over boundaries, the tensions involved in lifting their economies from stagnation, the cross pressures of nationalism – all of these factors would still be there, even if there were no Israel.
Kennedy noted the values that Israel shared with the West, the historic role Israel had already played, and the promise that Israel’s example held for the entire Middle East – using words that have an obvious relevance nearly 50 years later:
Israel, on the other hand, embodying all the characteristics o a Western democracy and having long passed the threshold of economic development, shares with the West a tradition of civil liberties, of cultural freedom, of parliamentary democracy, of social mobility. . . .
The Jewish state found its fulfillment during a time when it bore witness, to use the words of Markham, to humanity betrayed, “plundered, profaned, and disinherited.”
But it is yet possible that history will record this event as only the prelude to the betterment and therapy, not merely of a strip of land, but of a broad expanse of almost continental dimensions.” [Emphasis added]
Kennedy’s speech reads as if it were an early draft of Natan Sharansky’s The Case of Democracy, the book George W. Bush said was the key to understanding his foreign policy.
But it was also simply another instance of “Americanism” – a term first used by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. David Gelernter analyzed the concept last year in the pages of Commentary magazine, tracing the fundamental precepts of “Americanism” – freedom, equality, democracy – to the Hebrew Bible.
Freedomwas the message of Exodus, which Bible readers in the 17th and 18th centuries believed predicted the fate of nations. Equality was derived from Genesis, with its message that every individual was created in God’s image. Democracy came from Deuteronomy, which Thomas Hooker and other colonial preachers interpreted as directing that “the choice of public magistrate belongs unto the people, by God’s own allowance.”
Gelernter wrote about the centrality of the Bible to the American creed:
The Bible is not merely the fertile soil that brought Americanism forth. It is the energy source that makes it live and thrive; that makes believing Americans willing to prescribe freedom, equality, and democracy even for a place like Afghanistan, once regarded as perhaps the remotest region on the face of the globe. . . .
From the 17th century through John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Americans kept talking about their country as if it were the biblical Israel and they were the chosen people.
Gelernter traced the connection between America and Israel to the earliest sources of American history and religious belief:
Where did that view of America come from? It came from Puritanism . . .
The “political” goal of Puritanism was to reach back to the pure Christianity of the New Testament – and then even farther back. Puritans spoke of themselves as God’s new chosen people, living in God’s new promised land – in short, as God’s new Israel. . . .
Freedom, equality, democracy: the Declaration held these truths to be self-evident, but “self-evident” they were certainly not. Otherwise, America would hardly have been the first nation in history to be built on this foundation.
Deriving all three from the Bible, theologians of Americanism understood these doctrines not as philosophical ideas but as the word of God. Hence the fervor and passion with which Americans believe their creed. Americans, virtually alone in the world, insist that freedom, equality, and democracy are right not only for France and Spain but for Afghanistan and Iraq.
Americans, virtually alone in the world. Tony Judt considers it a telling criticism that neither he nor the rest of the world can understand why America would commit its might and reputation so closely to the “small” and “controversial” state of Israel. But in fact that commitment is central to America’s purpose in the world. Both America and Israel are exceptional nations – because of their commitment to freedom, equality and democracy in the world.
George W. Bush is only the latest in a long line of American presidents – including Lincoln, Truman, Kennedy and Reagan – who considered Americans “an almost chosen people” (in Lincoln’s phrase), in a country whose beginning “in 1776 really had its beginning in Hebrew times” (in Truman’s words), establishing not just a home but a “shining city upon a hill” (in Reagan’s repeated use of the words from John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon) – a people that stood ready to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe” (in Kennedy’s phrase) to assure the success of liberty.
Kennedy’s most famous statement in his Inaugural Address was the sentence in which he enjoined his fellow Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” But what came immediately after – and which concluded his address – is arguably of greater historical import:
My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man. . . .
“With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.
Nearly half a century later, George W. Bush ended his First Inaugural Address with a story and an observation that went back to America’s original religious convictions and then brought them forward:
After the Declaration of Independence was signed, Virginia statesman John Page wrote to Thomas Jefferson: “We know the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong. Do you not think an angel rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm?”
Much time has passed since Jefferson arrived for his inauuration. The years and changes accumulate. But the themes of this day he would know: our nation’s grand story of courage and its simple dream of dignity.
We are not this story’s author, who fills time and eternity with his purpose. Yet his purpose is achieved in our duty, and our duty is fulfilled in service to one another.
Never tiring, never yielding, never finishing, we renew that purpose today, to make our country more just and generous, to affirm the dignity of our lives and every life.
This work continues. This story goes on. And an angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm.
At the time, Americans thought they were living in a time of unprecedented peace. But it was only a holiday from history, and four years later George W. Bush devoted virtually his entire Second Inaugural Address to the new battle for freedom and democracy in the world, using ideas and rhetoric with a direct connection to Kennedy’s address.
One of the forefronts of that new war is in Israel, the target of an unrelenting barbaric Islamic fascism, genocidal in intent and openly committed to replacing the liberal democracy championed by America – not only in Israel but throughout the Middle East, Europe, and beyond.
Whether Israel succeeds or fails will set the course of the 21st century, in the same way the outcome of the Spanish Civil War – a struggle between fascists and anti-fascists that foreshadowed World War II – did in the 1930s.
Tony Judtundoubtedly does not understand why George W. Bushwould commit America (as he did on March 20, 2006) to “use military might to protect our ally Israel” – such a large commitment to a small and controversial state. Nor would he likely have understood why John F. Kennedycommitted U.S. power and prestige in 1962 to Quemoy and Matsu – two “small” and “controversial” islands a few miles off the coast of China – to protect a free Taiwan (itself a small and controversial country).
But perhaps that is because he is a professor of European history, rather than American.
About the Author: Rick Richman, whose work has appeared in The New York Sun, The Tower Magazine, and The Jewish Press, among other publications, is a prolific writer who appears regularly in Commentary magazine and its group Contentions blog, where this originally appeared. He also maintains the Jewish Current Issues blog (www.jpundit.typepad.com/jci/).
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