WALTER RUSSELL MEAD
How William Blackstone, Henry Cabot Lodge, and their fellow Christians saw a Jewish state as deeply American.
On March 5, 1891, Secretary of State James G. Blaine presented William Blackstone of Chicago to President Benjamin Harrison. It was a miserable March, and the day was wet and dismal, with temperatures hovering around freezing. But as Blackstone entered the White House, he was bathed in light. The White House of the day was not the austere Federalist mansion that we know today: In 1882 Chester A. Arthur sold the old decorations at auction and asked Louis Tiffany to redecorate the interior in a more modern style. Tiffany’s pièce de résistance was a 50-foot-long screen inlaid with stained glass that stood across the entrance hall.
In 1891, the rooms were already beginning to look dated. President Harrison had electricity installed that year, though both he and his wife, Caroline, refused to touch the light switches for fear they would be electrocuted. The garish light of early modern bulbs (far brighter than those of today) did no favors for the elaborate iridescent designs with which Tiffany, anticipating illumination by soft gaslight, had painted the rooms. In 11 years, Theodore Roosevelt would strip it all out and take the mansion back to its Federalist roots.
Blackstone’s business with President Harrison that day was to present a document that history remembers as the Blackstone Memorial, a petition asking President Harrison to use his influence to persuade European leaders to prevail upon the Ottoman sultan to open the province of Palestine for Jewish settlement and the creation of a Jewish national home.
Blaine, Harrison, and Blackstone were an odd trio. Harrison was a model of personal rectitude presiding over a corrupt administration that made, like many late-19th-century presidencies, prodigious and unbecoming use of the spoils system. A devout Presbyterian, he had served as a brigadier general of volunteers in the Civil War before entering politics. Afflicted by dermatitis on his hands, when he greeted Blackstone he was probably wearing his trademark gloves. (The president’s political opponents dubbed him “Kid Gloves Harrison” in an effort to portray him as a fop and an Anglophile.) Harrison almost certainly would have been smoking; he’d tried to quit and failed, and now relied on a supply of cigars provided by a tobacconist from his hometown of Indianapolis. Harrison was portly and, at five foot six, the second shortest president ever. As of 2022, he was the last bearded occupant of the White House.
James Blaine, in contrast to Harrison, was so famously corrupt that his 1884 nomination for the presidency had caused the Mugwump revolt among Republicans who, like the Never Trumpers of a later time, would rather break with their party than support an unacceptable candidate. Blaine lost a close election to Grover Cleveland, but remained, as he had been for decades, a force to be reckoned with in national politics. As secretary of state, he focused on expanding America’s role in Latin America. A Congregationalist, Blaine was also anti-Catholic: Today he’s mostly remembered as the man who promoted the “Blaine amendments” in many state constitutions that limit the parochial school system’s access to public funding.
William Blackstone, the memorial’s originator, was a self-ordained evangelical minister, a well-known Christian apologist, a best-selling writer, and a close associate of Dwight Moody, the most famous evangelist of the day. Blackstone, like Moody, was a biblical literalist; in the face of the skeptical theologies emerging in response to the critical insights of German biblical scholarship, Blackstone believed that the Bible was the literal Word of God and that it was an infallible guide to past, present, and future events. Like Moody, Blackstone was a premillennialist, believing that the transition from the realm of human history to a post-historical utopia under God would only happen after terrible wars and vast upheavals had overturned the existing order and demonstrated the futility of human reforms apart from God. Blackstone’s popularity, and Moody’s, reflected the growing power of dystopian fears about the future in the world of American religion.
In the history of American religion, Dwight L. Moody’s career marks the beginning of modern evangelicalism. Moody’s movement rejected both the increasingly liberal theology of the American Protestant establishment and the reforming optimism of what would soon become the Social Gospel movement. Although a supporter of charitable organizations and movements for individual reform like the temperance movement, Moody held out little hope for political action aimed at producing deep social change. He famously summed up this view by saying, “I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said, ‘Moody, save all you can.’” Moody’s tireless preaching and impressive demeanor sparked major religious revivals in both Britain and the United States, with special appeal among those who felt deracinated and dispossessed thanks to the economic and social upheavals of the time, and the views he popularized remain influential in many evangelical and Pentecostal circles to this day.
William E. Blackstone (1841-1935)WIKIPEDIA
But wrecked vessel though the world might be, there was one political cause that, to the eyes of Moody and associates like William Blackstone, had promise. While more liberal and optimistic Christians hoped that Jews returning to Palestine would succeed by adopting American democratic and economic principles and therefore demonstrate to the world that the way to usher in a triumphant utopia was to follow the American example, Moody and Blackstone looked for very different but equally significant consequences to flow from the still hypothetical return of the Jews to Palestine. The contemporary fulfillment of Bible prophecy would, they believed, dramatically confirm the power of the Bible. If texts that were more than 2,000 years old could predict contemporary events better than conventional experts and practical politicians, this would clearly demonstrate the divine inspiration of the holy books. At the same time, the return of the Jews would confirm the theological views that Moody and Blackstone advanced. The Jews would return to Palestine in a darkening world, against a background of crisis and conflict. Their return was not a sign that God was blessing the work of earnest Protestant social reform by ushering in a new era of peace; it was a sign that God’s long-suspended judgment was about to fall on a sinful world. The maelstrom in the imperial zone of the Ottoman, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian Empires, the rising and falling of great nations, the wars and the tumult of wars, like the social conflict and decay at home, were the signs of a great purpose moving toward fulfillment. It was both a terrifying and a reassuring picture; the ship was sinking, but the lifeboat was sound.
There’s no evidence that President Harrison had much interest in Blackstone’s theology, but he certainly intended to give the minister a friendly reception. Blackstone’s associations with Moody were well-known, and like the later evangelist Billy Graham, Moody was a power in the land. In 1865, Moody had entered Richmond with Grant’s victorious army. In 1876, Grant along with members of his cabinet attended one of Moody’s services. Before his death in 1899 at the age of sixty-two, Moody is said to have preached to 100 million people in the United States and abroad; before the mass communications technologies of the 20th century, no single person in human history had reached an audience of this scale.
But it was not only the power of Blackstone’s spiritual associations that won him an audience with President Harrison. Among the 400 signatures on Blackstone’s petition were the names of J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Cyrus McCormick, the editors of most of the leading American newspapers, leading clergymen from the East Coast and the Middle West, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and the speaker of the House of Representatives. It had also been signed by prominent media corporations, including The New York Times. Not many such petitions cross a president’s desk on any given day, and the bearer of such a document will inevitably receive a courteous hearing even when, as in this case, the petition asks for something outlandish.
We do not know very much about the motives of most of the people who signed the memorial, but it seems unlikely that Episcopalian men of the world like J. P. Morgan or hard-nosed Baptist businessmen like John D. Rockefeller believed that they were hastening the Second Coming and the end of the world by endorsing Blackstone’s idea. For many of the signers, the petition merely expressed the long-held belief among both religious and secular people of the 19th century that the Jews, like the Greeks and the Italians, could regain some of their ancient glory and greatness if freed from foreign rule and oppression. Others were moved by the appalling spectacle of deliberate, state-sponsored cruelty in Russia and elsewhere against innocent and helpless people. Some may have been moved to some degree by the spiritual forces that drove Blackstone. Some may have wished to support Blackstone out of regard for Moody and his movement—not because they shared Moody’s theology but because many upper-class Americans thought that the spread of revivalist ideas through the urban working class (and Moody’s ministry was chiefly aimed at this group) would help keep socialism at bay. Some no doubt were chiefly drawn to the potential of the Blackstone proposal to divert Jewish immigration from the United States to a faraway land. And it is possible that, even at this early date, there were a few political calculators who understood that to advocate both for the creation of a Jewish homeland and for immigration restriction hit a sweet spot in American politics.
Most American Jews of the day had a different view. Blackstone presented his petition as though it were the brainchild of a joint Jewish-Christian meeting, but he was only able to persuade a handful of Jews to sign it (and only after he had granted them permission to print a reservation about some of the language). In fact, there was significant Jewish pushback against the memorial, which can be summed up in the phrasing of a leading Reform rabbi, Emil G. Hirsch, whom Blackstone had approached early in his project: “We, the modern Jews, say that we do not wish to be restored to Palestine. … The country wherein we live is our Palestine.”
Rabbi Hirsch’s observation was more than a casual aside. Reform Judaism was originally built around a modernization of Jewish faith that explicitly rejected the goal of a return from exile. For Reform Jews, steeped in the atmosphere of the European Enlightenment and its approach to Jewish emancipation, any talk of a Jewish state was an attack on the ideas that allowed Jews to participate in the life of the countries in which they lived. They not only dismissed the idea of a return to Palestine as a naive fantasy with no hope of realization; they deplored it as an assault on the values that, as they saw things, offered the only possible security for a Jewish minority in a non-Jewish state.
Despite the religious foundations of his interest in Palestine, Blackstone drafted his memorial in largely secular terms. Given the misery of the Jews in Russia, and the mass migration from Russia that was already 10 years old, something needed to be done. “But where,” the memorial asks, “shall 2,000,000 of such poor people go? Europe is crowded and has no room for more peasant population. Shall they come to America? This will be a tremendous expense, and require years.”
The answer seemed obvious. The European powers were already in the habit of carving slices off the Ottoman Empire to create homelands for its various minorities. Why not reserve a slice for the Jews? Or, in the language of the memorial, “Why shall not the powers which under the treaty of Berlin, in 1878, gave Bulgaria to the Bulgarians and Servia to the Servians now give Palestine back to the Jews? These provinces, as well as Roumania, Montenegro and Greece, were wrested from the Turks and given to their natural owners. Does not Palestine as rightfully belong to the Jews?”
The Blackstone Memorial had no immediate impact on history. The president made some friendly remarks of appreciation and referred the document to the State Department, where horrified officials sat on it until all memory of the document, and even the original document itself, had vanished.
Yet the ideas behind the memorial, both religious and political, lived on. For the next 60 years, whenever the Jewish Question emerged into world politics, non-Jewish Americans responded with the logic and program of the memorial. The United States should support the creation of a Jewish home in the Middle East; it should use diplomatic rather than military or even economic means to achieve this goal; and it should not do this work on its own but in concert with other powers.
The Blackstone Memorial was the first draft of America’s proposed answer to the international Jewish Question. Blackstone would live to present a new version of his petition to Woodrow Wilson in 1916, see his principles enshrined in American law in 1922, and, by the time he died in the 1930s, see the establishment of a flourishing Jewish community in Palestine. Had he lived longer, he would have seen President Harry Truman stubbornly stick to the Blackstone principles in the face of bitter criticism until he was able to recognize the existence of a Jewish state that, with American diplomatic (but not economic or military) assistance, had been voted into being by the United Nations.
It took a war to put the Blackstone Memorial back on the agenda. In 1914, the Ottoman Empire threw in its lot with the Central Powers against the alliance of Russia, Great Britain, and France, and plans for its partition and destruction took root in the allied capitals. The Russians, whose emperors considered themselves the heirs of the Byzantine Empire, wanted Constantinople and control of the straits that would give them unrestricted access from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. France had long ties to the Levant; Paris wanted control over modern Syria and Lebanon. The British, already focused on the potential oil riches of the Middle East, wanted to create friendly Arab states under puppet rulers and to bolster the security of the Suez Canal.
At the beginning of the war, Palestine was of little concern to anybody except those who lived there and to the struggling Jewish Zionist movement that, so far, had only managed to settle a few tens of thousands of Jewish settlers in a land they did not seem very close to conquering. But the British, newly attuned on the Middle East after Winston Churchill determined that oil should be the future fuel of the British navy, envisioned a Jewish settlement in Palestine that would cover one flank of the Suez Canal, and serve as a source of supply for British forces in the region.
Canal security and oilfields, however, were not the only motives behind the Balfour Declaration. A major aim of British policy up through 1917 in World War I was to draw the United States into the conflict. With American help, victory over Germany seemed likely; without it, the war might never be won. But drawing America into the war meant overcoming strong anti-British, anti-Allied sentiment inside the United States. Many Americans were descended from German-speaking immigrants who still sympathized with the worldview of their ancestral home. Many others had Irish backgrounds and were fervently anti-British at a time when the movement for Irish independence was moving to a climax. British diplomats searched frantically for groups they could persuade to support an American declaration of war.
American Jews were also largely unsympathetic to the Allied cause when war broke out. Leading Jews were mostly of German origin, and like other immigrants from Germany, often retained an ancestral sympathy for the fatherland. But if some Jews were pro-Germany, almost all American Jews were fervently anti-Russia. Hatred of the tsar, the most brutal and vindictive enemy of the Jewish people in the world at the time, was nearly universal among American Jews. If the Russian tsar was numbered among the Allies, American Jews did not want to help him survive.
The British government believed, like so many through history, that Jews were more powerful than was the case, more united than was the case, and more pro-Zionist than was the case. Drastically overestimating the power of the American Jewish community, and completely misreading its attitude toward Zionism, the British government hoped that the promise of Palestine as a national home would swing the allegedly vast and united power of the American Jewish community behind the Allied cause.
These geopolitical and political concerns combined with a streak of pro-Zionist feeling that was relatively widespread in a Britain still impacted by the evangelical religious tone of the Victorian era. Britain’s own immigration restriction law had been passed in 1905, limiting ships with more than 20 steerage emigrants from putting in at British harbors; the act effectively put an end to large-scale Jewish immigration into Britain and was supported by, among others, a rising politician named Arthur Balfour.
Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899)LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Around the same time as he pushed the immigration restrictions, Balfour made the acquaintance of Chaim Weizmann, one of the most important Zionist leaders of the 20th century. Over the years, Weizmann would impress upon Balfour that for at least some British Jews, support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East could bring Jewish gratitude even for British politicians who opposed open immigration. In 1917, Balfour himself visited America to float his idea with an explicit eye to this dynamic. Shortly thereafter, with the approval of the British War Cabinet, Balfour as Britain’s foreign secretary sent his famous letter to Lord Rothschild: “His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.”
While the British were debating the merits of what would become the Balfour Declaration, the young and fragile American Zionist movement sought to persuade Woodrow Wilson to endorse the plan. After learning that the State Department no longer had a copy of the memorial, Louis Brandeis, then a Progressive activist with ties to Wilson and the most conspicuous leader of the small American Zionist movement among Jews, tracked down William Blackstone. Aged 74, Blackstone busied himself with collecting new signatures to add to the impressive list already on the memorial, including a wide group of important Protestant leaders around the country. The Presbyterian church in which Wilson had been raised and of which he was a loyal member added its endorsement.
The United States had declared war on Germany in April of 1917; by October the first significant American forces were entering the trenches. The Balfour Declaration was issued on November 2. On December 11, British forces under General Edmund Allenby entered Jerusalem unopposed as the Turks retreated, and for the first time since the Crusades a Christian power found itself in control of the city that witnessed the climactic scenes of Jesus’s life.
Coming so quickly after the Balfour Declaration, the conquest of Jerusalem ignited a media firestorm across the United States. Allenby, in a piece of inspired theater, entered the city on foot. This was a deliberate dig at Kaiser Wilhelm II, who insisted on opening a gap in the wall by the historic Jaffa Gate (the gap in the old Ottoman walls is still visible today) so that he could enter on a white horse. The contrast between Jesus, who made his own entry to Jerusalem riding a donkey colt, and the imperious Kaiser had been widely noted at the time. Allenby’s piety and modesty were notable by contrast; editorialists and preachers around the country noted the difference, and an apocalyptic thrill ran through the American people. Their historical optimism had been sorely tested by the transmutation of the Age of Hope into an Age of Hate, but the Allied victory in Jerusalem and the promise to give persecuted Jews a chance to build a home in the lands of the Bible pointed to a meaning behind all the madness. God was mysteriously at work behind the noise and thunder of the war; a higher purpose was being fulfilled through these human events. A better world could and would emerge from the terrible slaughter.
The next year, Theodore Roosevelt responded to the revival of the Blackstone Memorial by writing that “there can be no peace worth having” until “the Jews [are] given control of Palestine.” The American press went wild. As the New York American commented in an editorial entitled “Christianity Has Captured Its Capitol [sic], and Jerusalem Is Henceforth for the Jews”: “Whatever else is doubtful, it is certainly true that the passage of Jerusalem into the hands of the Allies means the swift establishment of that re-gathered and redeemed Zion for which the world’s Jews have dreamed ever since the tribes were scattered in the breaking up of Israel. … The Universal Jew, who for centuries has been a religion, not a nation, is to come at last unto his own.”
Even after Woodrow Wilson’s international agenda was stalled when the Republicans regained control of Congress in 1918, support for the Balfour Declaration remained bipartisan. Support for Zionist aspirations in Palestine quickly became part of the boilerplate foreign policy prescriptions of American politicians in both major political parties. This was not only true of Wilson and the liberal internationalists around him; it was true of the Republicans who opposed him and defeated his League. Indeed, from World War I on, one of the foreign policy ideas that united liberals, conservatives, internationalists, and isolationists in the United States was that the United States should offer diplomatic support to the goal of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Not only Theodore Roosevelt but his cousins Franklin and Eleanor backed this idea; so did Henry Cabot Lodge, Wilson, arch-isolationist William Borah, Herbert Hoover, and Calvin Coolidge.
Supporting Britain’s Balfour Declaration was exactly the kind of distant advocacy that the Blackstone signatories endorsed. The United States would not administer Palestine; it would not send troops to defend the peace there; the American government would send no aid to Jewish emigrants. This was the kind of engagement that even isolationists could applaud, and in any case, as Americans understood the situation, support for the Jewish national home in Palestine matched the ideas that were shaping American policy worldwide.
The New York Times had been under non-Jewish ownership when it endorsed the Blackstone Memorial; by 1922 it had been sold to a Jewish owner, and it subsequently opposed Zionism.
The Blackstone approach would become the law of the land under the Lodge-Fish Resolution, which Henry Cabot Lodge—the Massachusetts Republican who was a close friend and associate of Theodore Roosevelt, an inveterate enemy of Woodrow Wilson, and one of the most influential American foreign policy actors of his times—introduced in the Senate on April 12, 1922. The document, a joint resolution of Congress, read: “Resolved … that the United States of America favors the establishment in Palestine of the National Home for the Jewish People, in accordance with the provisions contained in the Declaration of the British Government of November 2, 1917, known as the Balfour Declaration.” After some tweaking, it passed by overwhelming majorities—in fact, unanimously in the Senate—and was signed by President Warren Harding on September 21.
The American Jewish community was less united than the Senate when it came to the Zionist agenda. Most of the country’s most prosperous and powerful Jews were firmly against what they saw as a foolish and dangerous idea. In 1891, The New York Times had been under non-Jewish ownership when it endorsed the Blackstone Memorial; by 1922 it had been sold to a Jewish owner, and it subsequently opposed Zionism.
In 1919, 31 of the most influential Jews in America, led by the former ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, presented a petition to Woodrow Wilson as he left for the Paris Peace Conference requesting him to oppose the Balfour Declaration: “We do not wish to see Palestine, either now or at any time in the future, organized as a Jewish State,” they declared. A later edition of the petition signed by almost 300 prominent American Jews was presented to the American peace commission during the postwar negotiations.
In June of 1918, the Zionist Organization of America had asked each member of Congress for their opinion on Zionism and the Balfour Declaration. Sixty-one senators and 239 congressmen (from 43 and 44 states, out of 48, respectively) replied, mostly positively, with few differences in party or region. But one of the few to object was Fiorello La Guardia, at the time a Manhattan congressman. La Guardia, the Jewish-Italian leader who was a leading opponent of immigration restriction and had emerged as a leader in both ethnic communities, wrote, “I do not believe that it is to the interest of the Jews or the world to isolate them or to separate them with an effort to form a distinct and separate nation. While, of course, they are racially one, still the Jews of America, England, France and Italy are no different than their fellow countrymen.”
During the Lodge-Fish hearings, the American Jewish community had to be represented by two sets of witnesses, due to the deep split within it. Rabbi David Philipson read into the record an 1897 resolution from the Union of American Hebrew Congregations: “America is our Zion. Here, in the home of religious liberty we have aided in founding this new Zion, the fruition of the beginning laid in the old. The mission of Judaism is spiritual, not political, its aim is not to establish a state, but to spread the truths of religion and humanity throughout the world.”
The large majority of the members of Congress who supported Lodge-Fish came from states and districts where there was no significant Jewish vote, and most of the congressmen and senators who voted for the resolution had no expectations of significant Jewish financing for their political campaigns. By and large, rich and well-connected American Jews opposed the Balfour Declaration and the Lodge-Fish Act and would remain distinctly cool to the political agenda of the Zionist movement until World War II was well under way.
To most Americans support for a Jewish homeland in the lands of the Bible looked like the logical application of their general principles on national issues to the unique situation of the Jews. The Jews were a people like other peoples and their natural destiny, which was also their right, was to exercise self-determination in a homeland of their own. Because, uniquely, the Jews were a minority everywhere and a majority nowhere, they needed to build a homeland where they could become the majority and exercise self-determination. Once they had that homeland, they would have a place where they could be safe, there would be no humanitarian case for further Jewish immigration to the United States, and freed from oppression and persecution they could prosper.
This homeland had to be somewhere. Palestine struck most Americans as the natural and obvious choice. It was, historically, the Jewish homeland, and even for Americans who were not particularly religious, the massive weight of the Bible in popular and intellectual culture ensured that this view was widely accepted. That many Americans believed that the return of the Jews to the Holy Land was predicted by the biblical prophets was another reason that such a visionary concept won such ready assent from so many people. Beyond that, in practice, Palestine was the only place to which enough Jews might be willing to go.
That Palestine was inhabited by Arabs struck some Americans, Arab Americans and others, as a problem, but for the majority the obstacle was not seen as insuperable, either morally or practically. Racism played a role in this view; many Americans were not ready at this stage to give equal weight to the wishes and the views of non-European peoples. There was also a cultural distance; just as many Americans today will visit Egypt to see the ruins of ancient Egyptian culture but show no interest whatever in the history and monuments of Islamic times, so most Americans in the 1920s knew little and cared less about what had happened in Palestine between the fall of the last Jewish commonwealth and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The Jewish connection to ancient Judea was more real to many Americans than the connection of Palestinian Arabs, Muslim or Christian, to the Palestine of the 20th century. This point of view was obviously one-sided, but it was so deeply implanted in American culture that we cannot be surprised at its predominant influence on the political debate.
Henry Cabot Lodge (1850-1924)LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
There were other, at least somewhat more respectable, reasons behind the general American disposition to overlook the claims of Palestinian Arabs to Palestinian land. Americans at this time saw Palestinian Arabs more as part of a larger Arab nation rather than as a unique people. This cannot be attributed simply to ignorance or bigotry. Exporting ideas like “nation” and “nation-state” from the Atlantic world to the Middle East is no easy task, and many Middle Easterners have fallen into difficulties when using categories derived from Western historical experience to describe Middle Eastern realities. In 1917 there were Arabs living in Palestine who identified themselves as members of the Palestinian people. There were others who identified as Arab, or as Syrian, or as Muslim, or as Christian, or as Druze. The strong and vibrant Palestinian national identity that we see today is a product of 20th-century history, a product above all of the conflict with Zionism, but also of the frustration of many Palestinians with the half-hearted and often self-interested approaches that many Arab leaders took toward the Palestinian movement. That the Palestinians are a young nation who emerged in the 20th century does not mean that the Palestinians are not a nation or that their national movement is illegitimate; young nations are as legitimate, and sometimes more vigorous, than old ones.
Yet national identity remains a problematic concept. European-based political categories do not always easily translate into Middle East realities. Does “Arab” translate into European political categories as a civilizational or a national word? Does “Arab” as an identity correspond to being “French,” to being “Latin,” to being “European,” to being “Christian,” or to something else? These questions are still difficult to answer in the 21st century; the answers were even less clear in 1922.
In any case, for many of those Americans engaged enough and aware enough to have opinions on the subject at all, it seemed that to the extent there were two sides to the Palestinian question, it was a contest between Arabs and Jews, not between Jews and a nation of Palestinians. And as Americans saw it, if that was the dispute, then awarding Palestine to Jews seemed like the kind of reasonable compromise that American diplomats supported in similar controversies in other parts of the world.
Americans at the time did not just support Zionism; they supported the creation of independent Arab countries across the vast majority of the territory inhabited by Arabs. Carving out a little sliver for the Jews seemed like the kind of commonsense, compromise solution to conflicting ethnic claims that was guiding American policy in Europe. The entire Arab nation was going to be liberated from the Ottoman Empire, and under League of Nations mandates would be prepared for independence. Rather than taking something away from Arabs, many Americans at this time felt that their Middle East policy preferences, taken as a whole, would benefit Arabs as much or more than anyone else. Both the Jews and the Arabs would gain, it seemed to many Americans in these years; neither would get all they wanted, but that was a universal problem in the imperial zone. Nobody was going to get 100 percent of the territory they wanted; at 97 percent the Arabs were going to do pretty well.
There were two postwar American foreign policy decisions that directly affected Jewish interests, the Johnson-Reed Act that drastically cut Jewish immigration and the Lodge-Fish Resolution in support of the Balfour Declaration. The majority of American Jews opposed both. A vocal Zionist minority was strongly in support of Lodge-Fish, and many other American Jews viewed any increase in Jewish settlement in Palestine as a good thing without embracing the political ambitions of the Zionist movement. But on the whole, right up through World War II, the American Jewish community would have gladly traded Lodge-Fish away in order to repeal Johnson-Reed. Both laws, however, remained on the books, and they would shape American policy toward the Zionist movement and the Jewish people for many years.
Of the two laws, Johnson-Reed, which American Jews overwhelmingly opposed, had more impact on events on the ground in Palestine. Without Johnson-Reed’s immigration cap and strict quota system, fewer Polish and German Jews would have been trapped in Europe for Hitler to kill, a thought that must always strike the American conscience with a pang, but many fewer would also have made their way to the swamps and deserts of Palestine. Whether the struggling population of idealistic Zionists could have established their state if the Jewish masses had been free to choose between Palestine and America can never be known. The prewar percentages, however, with only 2 to 3 percent of Jewish emigrants choosing Palestine, strongly suggest that without the restrictive American immigration legislation the Jewish population in Palestine might never have reached numbers large enough to build and maintain an independent state.
This, at least, deserves to be remembered: If “the Jews” ran America, immigration would not have been restricted and Israel would likely not exist. This is part of a more general truth: Zionism only succeeded among Jews as it became clear that the options that most Jews initially preferred—integration into the countries where they lived or, failing that, free immigration into more hospitable places—had failed.
Excerpted from The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People by Walter Russell Mead, available July 5, 2022. Copyright © 2022 by Walter Russell Mead. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Walter Russell Mead is the Ravenel B. Curry III Distinguished Fellow in Strategy and Statesmanship at Hudson Institute, the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College, and the Global View Columnist at The Wall Street Journal.