American Zionism: A Mass-Cultural Movement?

by guest contributor Kyle Stanton

Noah's book "Travels in England, France, Spain, and the Barbary States, in the Years 1813-14 and 15." Wikimedia Commons.

Noah’s book “Travels in England, France, Spain, and the Barbary States, in the Years 1813-14 and 15.” Wikimedia Commons.

Mordecai Noah was one of the first Jews to reach national prominence in America. A politician, newspaper publisher, and man of letters, Noah was notoriously dismissed from his post as Consul of Tunisia by Secretary of State James Monroe in 1815. Monroe cited Noah’s religion as having been a hindrance to his professional duties. The event spurred widespread public outrage and criticism from prominent politicians who saw it as an outright display of religious intolerance. A decade later, the Sephardic Jewish playwright entered the national spotlight again through his plan to offer persecuted European Jews a refuge on an island near Buffalo, New York. Although this plan had enthusiastic support from local Christians and some Jews at its inauguration, the project failed within days. Noah then devised plans to settle Palestine with Jews, once again earning himself large-scale notoriety, becoming one of the first American proto-Zionists.

Noah’s story reflects elements of both of the two dominant explanatory approaches taken by scholars to the relationship of America to proto-Zionism/Zionism. Scholars studying this relationship generally approach it either from the field of religious cultural history or the history of American public policy. Thus, the United States’ contemporary support for Israel can be characterized either by the philo-Semitic Protestant religious tradition, often referred to as Christian Zionism, or through a study of the public policy and diplomatic history of the United States. However, Noah’s story also hints at another, usually overlooked arena that has often fueled American support for Israel: pop culture. Noah received support largely from sympathetic Christians but he also drew support and clout on the basis of his role as a State Department functionary. By all accounts, however, much of the attention Noah’s schemes received was based on the celebrity they earned him and the intrigue they generated beyond the small ranks of dogmatic Christian Zionists.

The pop-cultural dimension of the American–Israel relationship is absent from both religious-cultural and public policy-based accounts of the subject.  Scholars who take the religious-cultural approach see the relationship as embedded in Christian Zionism, which in America is rooted in the religious tradition of premillennial dispensationalism. This eschatology maintains that Jesus will physically return to earth to bring his true followers to heaven before the rapture occurs. Jesus’s return is to be followed by a 1,000-year period of earthly peace. It differs on this point with the more mainstream postmillennialism, according to which the 1,000-year period of earthly peace is to take place before the Second Coming. Premillennial dispensationalists place an emphasis on a Jewish return to the Holy Land to trigger the cataclysmic Second Coming of Christ. This has been encouraged by the fact that some dispensationalists have seen Jews as being proto-Protestants due to their dogged resistance to Catholic conversion. The widespread circulation of the dispensationalist Scofield Reference Bible (first published in 1909) after World War I was particularly influential in transmitting premillennial beliefs in Anglophone countries.

A couple notable examples of religious-cultural approaches to the American relationship with Zionism are Fuad Sha’ban’s, For Zion’s Sake: The Judeo-Christian Tradition in American Culture and Stephen Spector’s Evangelicals and Israel: The Story of American Christian Zionism. While the two scholars of literature are far apart politically, they take similar approaches to the topic. They both argue that many Protestant Americans are inclined to be supportive of the State of Israel because of their evangelical thinking.  Shaban argues that this relationship has been made even more important to many evangelicals because they see America itself as representing a New Zion (Sha’ban, 14-19). These accounts are both compelling, but, like most works of the religious-cultural school, they never draw a direct line from these trends to American policy.

Scholars who take public policy approaches to the question of American Zionism generally see the latter as a result of special interests and focus on the political interactions between Congress, the State Department, the executive branch, and lobbyist groups. Many of these scholars see the State Department of the past as a foil to the current America-Israel relationship because of its perceived history of anti-Semitism. Certainly the case of Mordecai Noah provides can provide an opening salvo for this argument. They argue that the State Department should be a rigid guarantor of American interests without regards for back room politics and they urge the State Department to return to the strict protection of purely American interests. Some representatives of this realpolitik line of thinking like John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, George Ball, and Clifford Kiracofe, argue that the relationship between Israel and the United States is one which subverts domestic democracy, tarnishes America’s image in the world, and returns no tangible benefits. These studies largely focus on the political interactions between Congress, the State Department, the executive branch, and lobbyist groups. Many scholars may be understandably averse to discussing the influence of a particular ethnic or religious group’s lobby on American politics. However, these works generally provide a fierce criticism of both Jewish and Christian Zionist politics. They argue that organizations such as these stifle criticism and debate about American/Israeli relations and American foreign policy in the greater Middle East. In these analyses, members of Congress are not animated so much by a philo-Semitic Zionism as they are by campaign contributions. A major drawback of this approach is that it often delegates too much primacy to lobbyist groups on Capitol Hill.

Both of these approaches are helpful in understanding the American-Israeli relationship, and scholars are increasingly adopting elements of both in their analyses of the subject. For instance, Robert O. Smith persuasively argues that the Cartwright Petition of 1649 to have Jews readmitted to England was one of the first Zionist political actions, in that it was advocated by Messianic Puritans (Smith, 96). He uses this argument to highlight the Christian roots and incubation of the idea of Zionism, contextualizing the pre- and post-Herzlian political history of Zionism. Smith goes on to demonstrate the influence of Christian Zionist ideas on important actors in the political history of Zionism, from Lord Balfour to Ronald Reagan (although the impact of these ideas on Jews, who took ownership of Zionism by the end the nineteenth century, remains to explored).

However, in the era of mass consumption, the impact of novels and other works of literature for didactic or propaganda purposes should not be discounted. For instance, the scholarly attention paid to Leon Uris’s best-selling 1958 novel Exodus has been scant in comparison to its impact. More attention has been given to specifically Christian Zionist literature in this regard, such as Tim Lahaye’s best-selling Left Behind series of novels and Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. These works were the product of a growing confidence among pre-millennialists who saw in the Israeli military victory of 1967 a confirmation of their worldview. The growing acceptance of these beliefs in American society can be seen as a reflection of the Cold War threats of nuclear annihilation, which to many premillennial Christians further seemed to indicate that the end-times were near. These phenomena all led many members of mainstream American society to begin sharing a similar apocalyptic outlook with that of pre-millennial dispensationalists. However, most of those who were influenced by these ideas never became premillennialists themselves. Rather, these ideas impacted them as a part of popular culture of the day.

After World War II, newsreels featuring images of emaciated Holocaust survivors and victims were viewed by large audiences throughout the United States. While viewers of the images were shocked and horrified, no mass mobilization for a Jewish state materialized based on American’s knowledge of the Holocaust, even as Jewish organizations cautiously lobbied for the creation of a Jewish state behind closed doors. Similarly, there was not widespread support for Zionism on the part of American Christians between the end of the war and the Eichmann Trial, and it is unclear what exactly gave Zionism legitimacy in the state department after the war. Rather, it was only between Israel’s declaration of statehood in 1948 and the 1967 war—after the appearance of major pop-cultural works that cast Zionism in a positive light—that the US saw growing popular enthusiasm for Israel and Zionism.

Kyle Stanton is a PhD student in history at the University at Albany-SUNY. His research interests include Judaic Studies, nationalism, and the history of tourism.

2 comments

  1. You make an excellent point, Kyle, about the value of novels and other types of popular literature to intellectual history. I’m familiar with Noah’s writing and his story because I curated an exhibition of books donated by their authors and others to the New York Society Library a few years ago, and one of the books I selected for display was Noah’s “Travels”. Noah was a Library member, and our online catalog shows that we hold copies of his works not only in our own historic collection, but also in the Hammond Collection, which is the surviving portion of a circulating library that ran out of a Newport Rhode Island general store at the turn of the nineteenth century. Circulation records and library catalogs, not only at the Society Library but elsewhere as well, are rich resources that can support your argument with detailed information about who was reading Noah’s (and other Zionists) works and when.

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