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U.S.-Israel Relations: Roots of the U.S.-Israel Relationship

Today, the United States and Israel are the closest of friends and allies. The continued strength of the U.S.-Israel alliance is rooted in the shared values of the two nations.

During more than six decades of state-building, Israelis have looked to the United States for political inspiration, financial and military assistance and diplomatic support. Americans, in turn, have viewed Israel with a special appreciation for its successful effort to follow the Western democratic tradition, its remarkable economic development, and its determined struggle against its uncompromising enemies.

If one were forced to reduce the explanation for the unique relationship between the United States and Israel to one sentence, it was probably best expressed by Lyndon Johnson, who, when asked by Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin why the U.S. supported Israel when there are 80 million Arabs and only three million Israelis, the President replied simply: “Because it is right.”

Jewish Influence in Early America

The mutual admiration between Israel and the United States is hardly a recent phenomenon.

The profound influence of Jewish tradition on America’s Founding Fathers can be seen in the Constitution of the United States. Such influence should come as no surprise given John Adams’ view expressed in a letter to Thomas Jefferson:

I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize man than any other nation (Letter to Mordecai Manuel Noah, 1819).

According to Woodrow Wilson, the ancient Jewish nation provided a model for the American colonists:

Recalling the previous experiences of the colonists in applying the Mosaic Code to the order of their internal life, it is not to be wondered at that the various passages in the Bible that serve to undermine royal authority, stripping the Crown of its cloak of divinity, held up before the pioneer Americans the Hebrew Commonwealth as a model government. In the spirit and essence of our Constitution, the influence of the Hebrew Commonwealth was paramount in that it was not only the highest authority for the principle “that rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God,” but also because it was in itself a divine precedent for a pure democracy, as distinguished from monarchy, aristocracy or any other form of government.

Jews also contributed directly to the American Revolution. President Calvin Coolidge paid tribute to their role in the War of Independence:

The Jews themselves, of whom a considerable number were already scattered throughout the colonies, were true to the teachings of their prophets. The Jewish faith is predominantly the faith of liberty.

One original design for the official Seal for the United States, submitted by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams, depicted the Israelites crossing the Red Sea with Pharaoh in pursuit and Moses standing on the other side. The motto was to have been: “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” Another seal was chosen, but the Liberty Bell does bear an inscription from the Old Testament:

And Proclaim Freedom Throughout The Land Unto All the Inhabitants Thereof (Leviticus 25:10).

Although it took some 2,000 years to resurrect Hebrew as a spoken language in early twentieth-century Palestine, Hebrew was actually a prerequisite for early American scholars. Many universities even required it in their curriculum. Hebrew was compulsory at Harvard until 1787, and to this day, Yale’s insignia bears the Hebrew phrase, Urim V’Thummim (oracle learning).

America’s Support for Zionism

American support for the age-old aspirations of the Jewish people to return to their homeland dates from the Colonial period when John Adams wrote: “I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation for, as I believe, the most enlightened men of it have participated in the amelioration of the philosophy of the age.” John Quincy Adams wrote to Major Mordecai Manuel Noah that he believed in the “rebuilding of Judea as an independent nation.”

Not long after the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln met a Canadian Christian Zionist, Henry Wentworth Monk, who expressed hope that Jews who were suffering oppression in Russia and Turkey be emancipated “by restoring them to their national home in Palestine.” Lincoln said this was “a noble dream and one shared by many Americans.” The President said his chiropodist was a Jew who “has so many times ‘put me upon my feet’ that I would have no objection to giving his countrymen ‘a leg up.’”

In 1883, Emma Lazarus, the poet whose words are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, wrote that Palestine should be “a Home for the Homeless, a Goal for the Wanderer and an Asylum for the persecuted and a nation of the denationalized.”

In 1891, pogroms incited by Czar Alexander III provoked an outcry from many prominent Americans, including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and Speaker of the House. Rev. William E. Blackstone and Cardinal Gibbons presented a petition signed by those who were concerned about the fate of the Jews in Russia to President Benjamin Harrison and Secretary of State James Blaine. 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.” They said:

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.

The signatories’ idea preceded the first World Zionist Congress that adopted the program to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine by six years.

Endorsing the Balfour Declaration

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. “It is impossible for one who has studied at all the services of the Hebrew people to avoid the faith that they will one day be restored to their historic national home and there enter on a new and yet greater phase of their contribution to the advance of humanity,” said President Warren Harding.

Calvin Coolidge expressed his “sympathy with the deep and intense longing which finds such fine expression in the Jewish National Homeland in Palestine.”

“Palestine which, desolate for centuries, is now renewing its youth and vitality through enthusiasm, hard work, and self-sacrifice of the Jewish pioneers who toil there in a spirit of peace and social justice,” observed Herbert Hoover (Message to the Zionist Organization of America on the Anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, October 29, 1932),

Congress was no less sympathetic to the Zionist objective. One can look back to the joint Congressional resolutions of 1922 and 1944 that unanimously passed an endorsement of the Balfour Declaration. The House Foreign Affairs Committee stated in 1922:

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 they were expelled by the Romans. For generations they have prayed for the return to Zion. During the past century this prayer has assumed practical form.

Legislatures in 33 states, representing 85 percent of the population, also adopted resolutions favoring the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Governors of 37 states, 54 United States senators, and 250 congressmen signed petitions to the President.

The Campaign for Partition

In early 1947, the British, who then administered a League of Nations mandate for Palestine, decided to bring the question of how to resolve the dispute between Arabs and Jews to the United Nations.

The UN General Assembly decided to set up the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) to investigate the cause of the conflict in Palestine and, if possible, devise a solution.

UNSCOP, composed of representatives from 11 nations, visited Palestine and found the Jewish community very responsive to its inquiries. The Arabs in Palestine greeted UNSCOP with hostility and refused to cooperate. The Arab Higher Committee boycotted the Commission but demanded that the UN immediately grant Palestine its independence.

As one author observed, the contrasting attitudes of Jews and Arabs toward UNSCOP “could not fail to give the impression that the Jews were imbued with the sense of right and were prepared to plead their case before any unbiased tribunal, while the Arabs felt unsure of the justice of their cause, or were afraid to bow to the judgement of the nations.”

One UNSCOP aide was particularly influential, an American named Ralph Bunche. Later Bunche would play a key role in negotiating armistice agreements between Israel and its neighbors following the War of Independence. In 1947, Bunche set up a meeting between two members of UNSCOP and Menachem Begin, the leader of the Irgun Jewish underground. As he was leaving Begin’s hideout, Bunche told the future Israeli Prime Minister: “I can understand you. I am also a member of a persecuted minority.” Richard Crossman of Britain asked Bunche if his exposure to the Jews had made him anti-Semitic “yet.” Bunche answered: “That would be impossible....I know the flavor of racial prejudice and racial persecution. A wise Negro can never be an anti-Semite.”

President Truman with David Ben-Gurion and Abba Eban

The majority of the UNSCOP representatives concluded that the question of ownership or right to Palestine was an insoluble antinomy. Rather than try to solve it, they chose the logical alternative of partition, in which both Jews and Arabs would be given sovereignty in their own separate state.

The United States endorsed the majority report and called on the General Assembly to approve partition. Some dispute exists among scholars as to how vigorously the Truman Administration lobbied for the resolution. Nevertheless, ample evidence exists to indicate that U.S. influence played a critical role in securing the adoption of the partition resolution.

Less than six months later, Israel declared its independence, and the United States was the first nation to grant de facto recognition to the new Jewish State—11 minutes after the proclamation.

“I had faith in Israel before it was established, I have faith in it now,” President Harry Truman said on May 26, 1952. “I believe it has a glorious future before it—not just another sovereign nation, but as an embodiment of the great ideals of our civilization.”

A Historical Commitment to Israel

The recognition of shared values has been a consistent theme in statements by American Presidents ever since Truman.

John F. Kennedy declared: “This nation, from the time of President Woodrow Wilson, has established and continued a tradition of friendship with Israel because we are committed to all free societies that seek a path to peace and honor individual right. In the prophetic spirit of Zionism all free men today look to a better world and in the experience of Zionism we know that it takes courage and perseverance and dedication to achieve it” (Message to Zionist Organization of America Annual Conference, 1962).

Said Lyndon Johnson, “The United States and Israel share many common objectives...chief of which is the building of a better world in which every nation can develop its resources and develop them in freedom and peace.”

The roots of Johnson’s feelings, like those of many other Americans came from the Bible.

As he explained in a speech before the B’nai B’rith organization: “Most if not all of you have very deep ties with the land and with the people of Israel, as I do, for my Christian faith sprang from yours.” The President explained that “the Bible stories are woven into my childhood memories as the gallant struggle of modern Jews to be free of persecution is also woven into our souls.”

Richard Nixon asserted that the United States stands by its friends and that “Israel is one of its friends” (Speech to the World Zionist Organization). His successor, Gerald Ford, reaffirmed his “commitment to the security and future of Israel is based upon basic morality as well as enlightened self-interest. Our role in supporting Israel honors our own heritage.”

“The United States,” Jimmy Carter said, “has a warm and a unique relationship of friendship with Israel that is morally right. It is compatible with our deepest religious convictions, and it is right in terms of America’s own strategic interests. We are committed to Israel’s security, prosperity, and future as a land that has so much to offer the world” (Speech on the first anniversary of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, March 23, 1980).

Ronald Reagan was the first President to state explicitly that Israel was a strategic asset to the United States, a belief he expressed even before he was elected: “Only by full appreciation of the critical role the State of Israel plays in our strategic calculus can we build the foundation for thwarting Moscow’s designs on territories and resources vital to our security and our national well-being.” But Reagan also understood this alliance sprang from shared values: “Since the rebirth of the State of Israel, there has been an ironclad bond between that democracy and this one”  (Remarks at National Conference of Christians and Jews, March 23, 1982).

President Obama with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu

Shortly after taking office, George H.W. Bush said: “The friendship, the alliance between the United States and Israel is strong and solid, built upon a foundation of shared democratic values, of shared history and heritage, that sustains the life of our two countries. The emotional bond of our people transcends politics. Our strategic cooperation—and I renew today our determination that that go forward—is a source of mutual security. And the United States’ commitment to the security of Israel remains unshakeable. We may differ over some policies from time to time, individual policies, but never over the principle.” (Remarks at dinner honoring Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, April 6, 1989).

Bill Clinton took the relationship to another level during his administration. “Our relationship would never vary from its allegiance to the shared values, the shared religious heritage, the shared democratic politics which have made the relationship between the United States and Israel a special—even on occasion a wonderful—relationship” (Letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on occasion of Israel's 50th birthday)

After assuming the presidency, George W. Bush echoed the sentiments of nearly every President that came before him. “We will speak up for our principles and we weill stand up for our friends in the world,” Bush said. “And one of our most important friends in the world is the State of Israel” (Speech to American Jewish Committee, May 3, 2001),

Barack Obama stated that “we [America] stand with Israel as a Jewish democratic state because we know that Israel is born of firmly held values that we, as Americans, share: a culture committed to justice, a land that welcomes the weary, a people devoted to tikkun olam.” Furthermore, “We’re going to keep standing with our Israeli friends and allies,” he said.

The Jewish population in the United States is less than six million; therefore, the political activity of Jews who view strengthening U.S.-Israel relations to be in the national interest alone cannot explain the depth of the friendship that exists. Fewer than 2 percent of the population could hardly have such a dramatic influence on American foreign policy. The U.S.-Israel alliance is rooted in shared values.