In 1844, a biblical scholar and professor of Hebrew at New York University published a pamphlet urging the establishment of a Jewish state in the place then known as Palestine.
The name of this early Zionist who argued for the recreation of Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel: George Bush.
But the astonishing thing about this manifesto is not just that the author was a forebear of two later U.S. presidents of the same name. It was that his advocacy of a theological/political position known as “restorationism” – support for the “restoration” of the Jewish people to their historic homeland – was common in 19th century America.
This little-known fact is just one among many that can be discovered about attitudes toward the Middle East in what may well be one of the most important books on the subject to be published in this or any other year.
Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present, by Israeli historian Michael Oren, fills a void that has long existed in the historiography of the Middle East. Until the release of this beautifully written and meticulously researched volume this month, there simply was no comprehensive history of American involvement in the region.
Oren, who is based at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, has written a book overflowing with colorful tales of American travelers, pilgrims, businessmen, missionaries, diplomats, soldiers and sailors who weren’t merely observers of this pivotal area of the globe (the term for which was actually coined by the American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan). Americans have, from the very beginning of our own history as a nation, played a crucial role in shaping the Middle East. And as Oren illustrates, we, in turn, have been influenced by this interaction.
Indeed, the formation of the United States of America as a constitutional republic in 1789 is, in part, a result of our first encounter with the Arab and Muslim world: the long struggle with the semi-independent city states of North Africa known to us as the Barbary Pirates. It was the inability of the independent 13 American states – which had no federal government or navy – to protect shipping and sailors from the depredations of those early terrorists that motivated many to push for the enactment of the Constitution.
If that nearly forgotten war bears a strange resemblance to the contemporary conflict with Islamist terrorists, it is no coincidence. Oren recounts the shock of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams who, while serving as American ambassadors in Europe during the 1780’s, met with the Abd al-Rahman, a representative of the pasha of Tripoli, a major source of anti-American terror on the high seas.
In making exorbitant demands for American tribute, Al-Rahman told Adams and Jefferson that his country was fighting under the authority of the Koran, which authorized them to make wars on all non-believers and to enslave all Western prisoners in terms that Al Qaeda would have appreciated.
“Every Mussulman [sic] who should be slain in battle” with America, he said, “was sure to go to Paradise.”
Oren’s book is filled with a host of such encounters that may be new even to those who have been reading about the subject their entire lives. Such tales are a delight for history lovers. But aside from pleasure for the general as well as the specialized reader, there is a far broader moral to be learned from this volume that speaks directly to contemporary political debate.
Although the content of Power, Faith and Fantasy is far too comprehensive to be neatly summarized in even a lengthy review, there is a concise conclusion that can be drawn from the book. It is that the ideas promulgated by men such as former president Jimmy Carter or professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, authors of the infamous “Israel Lobby” article in the London Review of Books, ignores two centuries of history, as well as smears Jews and other friends of Israel.
Oren illustrates throughout his book just how deep the roots of American support for Zionism run. The George Bush anecdote is but one of numerous incidents in which mainstream American Christians spoke out for the Jewish rights to Zion long before Theodor Herzl did.