Zion in America: This Nation’s Unique and Historic Relationship to the Jewish Homeland
As thousands of pro-Israel activists gather this week in Washington, we are reminded of the special relationship that exists between the United States and the Jewish Homeland.
From the outset of the founding of this nation, the idea of America as “the new Zion” would play a significant role. Following the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson attempted to tie the new nation to the story of the Exodus and more explicitly to the idea of redemption and freedom. “Because of the view that America is ‘a blessed nation on a divine mission,’” the early patriots employed these various Biblical themes. It should come as no surprise to find that American cities are named for biblical sites. Cities such as Bethlehem Pennsylvania, Jericho New York, and Providence Rhode Island represent three of more than one hundred names extracted from Biblical sources.
Over the course of the past 240 years of America’s history, Jews have been committed to and involved with the political process as voters, commentators, candidates, and funders. The depth of their political participation reflects in no small measure their abiding sense that their religious culture and ethnic heritage has served as a political roadmap for this republic. Indeed, colonial Jews, as an example, would take great pride that their religious history would inform the American revolutionary story.
Following the Protestant Reformation, Christians began to advocate for the restoration of the Jews to their land. Puritans would frequently pray for a Jewish return to the Holy Land. “They shall receive deliverance from their captivity, restoration unto their own land, with a blessed, flourishing, and happy condition therein.” Indeed, Puritans brought support for Jewish restoration to America. However it was not until the early 19th century that this idea gathered political impetus.
President Ezra Stiles of Yale was an ardent supporter of Jewish restoration. In 1808, the Presbyterian leader Asa McFarland, proposed that once the Ottoman Empire collapsed, there would be a historic opportunity to permit the return of the Jewish people to their land. In 1825, Mordecai Noah, a leading Jewish figure of this period, wanted to establish a national home for Jews on Grand Island outside of Buffalo New York as a temporary Jewish site in preparation for the eventual return of the community to the Holy Land. This initiative received widespread Christian backing for his project.
“Restoration theology” would inspire the first American missionary activity in the Middle East. Many Christians believed that the return of the Jews to their biblical lands, as prophesied in the Bible, was a preliminary but essential step towards the Second Coming. In this particular interpretation, following the return of Jews to the Holy Land, they would come to accept Jesus as their savior and in turn rebuild the Temple, which would be completed in preparation for the Second Coming of Christ.
Other Christian traditions in this nation, in particular the Mormons, would define themselves as the “New Israelites,” drawing upon the “Old Testament” to explain their own oppression and historic journey to Utah. Viewing Salt Lake City as the “new Jerusalem,” the Church of Latter Day Saints would adopt much of the “Temple” literature and imagery in their practices.
Presidents and their Views on Zion:
Over the course of the past two hundred years, this nation’s Presidents would address the issue of a Jewish presence in the Holy Land. Prior to the formation of Israel, a number of this nation’s Presidents would offer various statements calling for the rebuilding the Jewish Homeland: Referenced below are few of these documents:
John Adams in a letter to his friend Thomas Jefferson would note: “I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize man than any other nation.” In a letter to Mordecai Noah, President Adams would comment: “I wish that you had been at the head of a one thousand Israelites, making a conquest of that country and restoring their nation. For I really wish the Jews again in Judea, as an independent nation, once restored to an independent government and no longer persecuted, they would soon wear away some of the asperities and peculiarities of their character…”
Abraham Lincoln in an 1864 meeting with Canadian Christian Zionist, Henry Wentworth Monk, expressed the hope that Jews who were suffering oppression in Russia and Turkey be emancipated “by restoring them to their national home in Palestine.” “This was a noble dream,” said Lincoln, “one shared by many Americans.”
President Woodrow Wilson would endorse the Balfour Declaration, “as laying the foundations of a Jewish Commonwealth.”
Warren Harding would comment: “It is impossible for one who has studied the services of the Hebrew people that one day they be restored to their historic national home and there, enter on a new and yet greater phase of their history.”
Similarly, Calvin Coolidge “expressed sympathy with the deep and intense longing which finds such fine expression in the Jewish National Homeland in Palestine. The Jews were true to the teachings of the prophets. The Jewish faith is predominantly the faith of liberty.”
Herbert Hoover, who sent a message to a Madison Square Garden rally in August of 1929, offered the following: “Great progress has been made in this inspiring enterprise over the last ten years and to this progress the American Jews have made an enormous contribution.”
In January of 1932 Harry Truman would provide a message to the American Palestine Committee: “I wish to express the hope that the ideal of the establishment of the National Jewish Home in Palestine will continue to prosper for the good of all the people inhabiting the Holy Land. I have watched with genuine admiration the steady and unmistakable progress made in the rehabilitation of Palestine and the self-sacrifice of the Jewish pioneers who toil there in a spirit of peace and social justice. It is very gratifying to note that many American Jews, Zionists as well as non-Zionists, have rendered such splendid service to this cause which merits the sympathy and moral encouragement of everyone.”
Other Reflections on Zion:
Indeed, over the course of the 19th century, a number of prominent American figures would address the issue of Zion:
The poet Emma Lazarus, whose words are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, proposed in 1883 that Palestine should be as “a Home for the Homeless, a Goal for the Wanderer and an Asylum for the persecuted and a nation of the denationalized.”
In 1891, in the aftermath of the Russian pogroms authorized by Czar Alexander III, key American political officials, including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and Speaker of the House, would call upon the political powers to consider the formation of a Jewish political presence in Palestine. A clergy group presented a petition to President Benjamin Harrison and his Secretary of State, James Blaine, expressing concern over the fate of Russian Jewry. They called for the first international conference “to consider the Israelite claim to Palestine as their ancient home, and to promote in any other just and proper way the alleviation of their suffering condition.”
“Why not give Palestine back to the Jews again? According to God’s distribution of nations, it is their home – an inalienable possession from which they were expelled by force. Under their cultivation was a remarkable fruitful land, sustaining millions of Israelites, who industrially tilled its hillsides and valleys. They were agriculturists and producers … the center of civilization and religion.
We believe this is an appropriate time for all nations, and especially the Christian nations of Europe, to show kindness to Israel … let us now restore to them the land of which they were so cruelly despoiled by our Roman ancestors.”
In 1917, Lord Balfour sent a letter to Lord Rothschild, President of the British Zionist Federation, stating that the British Government would facilitate the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. President Wilson expressed his support for the Balfour Declaration, when he stated on March 3, 1919:
“The allied nations with the fullest concurrence of our government and people are agreed that in Palestine shall be laid the foundations of a Jewish Commonwealth.”
After Wilson left office, his successors expressed similar support for the Zionist enterprise.
Of particular importance to the American connection to the Zionist idea and later to the welfare of the State itself, has involved the Congressional statements and actions affirming this relationship. One can look back to the joint Congressional resolutions of 1922 and 1944 that unanimously supported the implementation of the Balfour Declaration. In 1922 the House Foreign Affairs Committee proposed:
The Jews of America are profoundly interested in establishing a National Home in the ancient land for their race. Indeed, this is the ideal of the Jewish people, everywhere, for, despite their dispersion, Palestine has been the object of their veneration since the Romans expelled them. For generations they have prayed for the return to Zion. During the past century this prayer has assumed practical form.
Further, it should be noted that during the period of the late 1930’s to the mid-1940’s, 33 state legislatures representing 85 percent of the American population, would adopt resolutions favoring the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Governors of 37 states, 54 United States senators, and 250 congressmen would sign petitions to the President.
Following the Second World War, America’s political role in the Middle East would shift from one of passivity to one escalating responsibility and authority. The United States would ultimately become the primary mover for an experiment in Jewish state building. Correspondingly, the American Jewish community would carry the major Diaspora responsibility for both advocating for and in supporting the development of the State of Israel.
The Zion saga is deeply embedded in the American story, in part defining the current relationship of the United States to the Jewish State. The outcomes here are instructive:
Diplomatic and political relationships emerge over time and are built around shared historic, cultural and religious themes that bind nations together. Political support does not occur in a vacuum but rather is constructed around experiences and values that serve to build support for a political cause.