Home / Articles / Zionism and “Jewcentricity” in American History
Standard discussions of the interplay of U.S. politics with Israel as a Zionist state tend to emphasize the contemporary triangular relationship among the U.S. government, Israel and the American Jewish community. Many topics inhabit the general subject—for example, the U.S.-Israeli special relationship in its strategic and “soft power” aspects, and accusations and defenses about the role of lobbies. But the essential background for these discussions and debates is the role of what can be called Jewcentricity.
Jewcentricity is the tendency to exaggerate the role of Jews and Judaism in consequential human affairs. Non-Jews do it, and Jews do it, too. Sometimes the exaggerations are philo-Semitic (Jews are smart, know how to make money, are the Chosen People….), sometimes anti-Semitic (Jews are cunning, aggressive, clannish….). Jewcentricity is mainly about the role Jews play in the fantasy lives of other people, and the American people compose probably the most Jewcentric society in world history—and in a largely philo-Semitic way. Many non-Jewish Americans tend to exaggerate the influence of Jews for good and for ill—and American Jews, mostly unwittingly, help them do all these things with their own forms of Jewcentricity. This is bound to influence how American leaders and average Americans see Jews in their midst and Jews abroad, how they see Israel, Zionism and the Middle East, and how they see other societies whose views of such matters diverge from their own.
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Jewcentricity is inherent in the worldview of the American Founders—not only those who created the American republic in July 1776, but also the earliest European colonists in the New World. The Puritans saw America as the New Israel and themselves as a new Chosen People within a new Promised Land. They called their houses of worship synagogues, and their scriptural focus lay heavily on the Old Testament—the Hebrew Bible. Their feast and fast days were modeled on Jewish traditions; even the quintessential American holiday of Thanksgiving seems to have been modeled on the Jewish autumnal holy days, a combination of Yom Kippur and the holiday of Succot, or Tabernacles. They interpreted American history, too, from dealing with the natives to speaking democratic truth to monarchical power, in the cadences of what they understood of the Old Testament history of the Jews. It is therefore unsurprising that the descendants of the Puritans in the generation of the American Founding had laudatory things to say about the Jews and their contribution to civilization. Thus America’s second president, John Adams:
“I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation. If I were an atheist and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations. If I were an atheist of the other sect, who believe or pretend to believe that all is ordered by chance, I should believe that chance had ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty Sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization.”
The Puritans made up only one of four “hearth cultures” to found early Euro-American society, as David Hackett Fischer called them in his book Albion’s Seed (1989). Two of the other three were also Protestant and, in the main, Jewcentric as well—Scots-Irish in the south and western mountains, Quakers in the mid-Atlantic. (The Catholics who founded and populated Maryland were less Jewcentric.) The Scots-Irish are key here. They were the largest group, and it is mainly out of that culture that the Jewcentric nature of “low church” Protestantism arose, mainly Baptist but including other denominations as well. This is the origin of what we call today Protestant fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, both very Jewcentric in the passive-aggressive way that dispensationalist theology is—where Jews remain the Chosen People, not displaced by the Church, but only until all are ingathered and then converted or killed in the cosmic convulsions of the end of days.
Taken together, the Puritans and the Scots-Irish created a very Jewcentric American society and political culture, despite the absence of very many Jews. Early American history and rhetoric brimmed with Jewcentric references. For example, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, who (along with John Adams) were entrusted by the Continental Congress to craft a seal for the United States in July 1776, both suggested designs based on the Exodus from Egypt. Yale University’s coat of arms features the words urim v’tumim, referring to the priestly oracle mentioned in the Bible. Dartmouth College’s official seal features the Hebrew words “El Shadai”—God almighty. And so on. Virtually everyone who was not a Native American saw America as a Christian country with a (Protestant) Christian world mission analogous to that of Jews as an exceptionalist, chosen people. Thus did Herman Melville write in his 1850 novel White-Jacket, for example, that “[w]e Americans are the peculiar, chosen people—the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.”
Positive, mostly Protestant, Jewcentricity suffused American literature and politics alike. They often went together. The most famous document in American history as regards the Jews is George Washington’s letter to the synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, setting forth the principle of toleration and religious freedom. The Newport synagogue, the oldest in North America, resonates too in one of the great poems of the antebellum age, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport,” written in 1852. And then there is the inimitable Mark Twain.
Growing up in Hannibal, Missouri, the young Samuel Clemens inherited negative folk stereotypes of Jews, and when the Levys, a Jewish family, came to Hannibal, he joined other boys in hazing the younger members of that family. But as Clemens read, traveled, and matured into Mark Twain, he became the defender of the underdog—blacks and Indians as well as Jews—for which he is justly revered. In 1879 he wrote in a diary that “the Jews have the best average brains of any people in the world” and that the Jews “are the only race who work wholly with their brains and never with their hands.”
This was not strictly true, of course; Twain was waxing Jewcentric. He did the same in the two essays he wrote about the Jews, as well, both in Harper’s magazine. In the first, “Stirring Times in Austria,” he defended the Jews in a shrewd analysis of Austrian politics, and the article attracted a great deal of attention. So Twain decided to write a sequel, “Concerning the Jews” (September 1899), with the expectation that he would please no one. He certainly displeased many. By writing that the “Jew is a money getter, and in getting his money he is a very serious obstruction to less capable neighbors who are on the same quest,” he angered many Jews. It didn’t help that he added a serious historical error that because the Jews exhibited an “unpatriotic disinclination to stand by the flag as a soldier,” they had made no significant contribution to American independence. Twain also fell into a common trap: thinking that there were far more Jews than there actually were.
For all his Jewcentric prejudices and his general tendency to exaggerate, Twain put his finger on the essence of Jewcentricity, the Jewish insistence on difference, and on the dignity of difference, and the response it invariably evokes from the non-Jew: “By his make and ways [the Jew] is substantially a foreigner wherever he may be,” wrote Twain, “and even the angels dislike a foreigner. I am using this word foreigner in the German sense—stranger…. You [Jews] will always be by ways and habits and predilections substantially strangers—foreigners—wherever you are, and that will probably keep the race prejudice against you alive.”
Twain defended Jewish acumen and honesty in business. He also proposed that Jews concentrate rather than diffuse their political influence in Europe, which displeased liberal European Jews who considered themselves citizens of those countries and wished to avoid any actions that might lead to accusations of divided loyalties. Toward the end of his essay, Twain waxed lyrical to the point of mystical. “The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rule, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away,” Twain wrote,
“the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit together in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now who he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal except the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”
It’s hard to get more Jewcentric than that, but Twain did. The most enigmatic statement from his September 1899 discourse was an earlier comment on a new major issue of the day—that of Zionism. Twain asks his readers if they have heard of Theodor Herzl’s plan for gathering the Jews in Palestine with a government of their own. His answer is perhaps tongue-in-cheek—one never knows for sure with Twain:
“I am not the Sultan, and I am not objecting: but if that concentration of the cunningest brains in the world were going to be made in a free country (bar Scotland), I think it would be politic to stop it. It will not be well to let the race find out its strength. If the horses knew theirs, we should not ride any more.”
Twain was not the only nineteenth-century American to be fascinated with the Jews and specifically focused on the new idea of Zionism. Case in point: that long-since-forgotten marvel of turn-of-the-century American highbrow entertainment, John Lawson Stoddard.
Stoddard, born in 1851 in Brookline, Massachusetts, attended Williams College and then Yale Divinity School. He left Yale, however, and traveled during 1874–76 throughout Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and Palestine. After further sojourns, he returned to the United States and embarked upon a career as a public lecturer. Stoddard’s success was enabled by a gimmick: stereographs that he displayed on a screen with a huge stereopticon powered by large lanterns. Stoddard knocked ’em dead with his mega-stereopticon; audiences loved it. Stoddard used his profits to finance more travel, which gave rise to more illustrated lectures. Before long, Stoddard became a celebrity, so popular, indeed, that he was invited in 1897 to lecture before a joint session of Congress.
Stoddard’s Classical and Holy Land Lecture was always his most popular. His lecture and essay on Jerusalem started with an unremarkable narrative about the land’s physical features, its basic history, and its then filth and desolation. But then Stoddard launched into a full-throated attack on anti-Semitism, summoning his strength near the end for a plainly Judeophilic plea for justice and the future of Palestine:
“In a place so thronged with classic and religious memories as Palestine, even a man who has no Hebrew blood in his veins may indulge in a dream regarding the future of this extraordinary people. Suppose a final solution to the ‘Eastern Question.’ Suppose the nations of the earth to be assembled in council, as they were in Berlin a few years ago. Suppose the miserly governed realm of the Sultan to be diminished in size. Imagine some portions of it to be governed by various European powers, as Egypt is governed by England at the present time. Conceive that those Christian nations, moved by magnanimity, should say to this race which they, or their ancestors, have persecuted for so long: ‘Take again the land of your forefathers. We guarantee you its independence and integrity. It is the least we can do for you after all these centuries of misery.’ At present Palestine supports only six hundred thousand people, but, with proper cultivation it can easily maintain two and half millions. You are a people without a country; there is a country without a people. Be united. Fulfill the dreams of the poets and patriarchs. Go back,—go back to the land of Abraham.”
Stoddard’s vision of what might happen when the “Eastern Question” shifted toward its historical answer was not far off track. The Versailles Conference, confirming the Balfour Declaration of November 1917 in the provisions eventually ratified in 1920 at San Remo, bears a striking resemblance to Stoddard’s proposal—even if he failed to predict the event that brought about the Ottoman Empire’s full-blown collapse: World War I. Of course, the vast majority of Americans to whom Stoddard spoke, and who read his books, were Protestant Christians. They had long heard a Jewcentric discourse, one that increasingly took a dispensationalist direction in Stoddard’s day, and one that had been blessed from on high politically. Abraham Lincoln had said in 1863 that “restoring the Jews to their homeland is a noble dream shared by many Americans,” and that the United States could work to realize that goal once the Union prevailed. Lincoln reportedly wanted to visit Jerusalem after his presidency.
American Jewcentricity has also been multiracial. Because the vast majority of white Americans have thought in expansive cadences about the Jews, Judaism, and its sacred literature, it was inevitable that black Americans would, too, and with a special intensity for an obvious reason. Most blacks came to profess Christianity, and the first book most wanted to read as soon as they learned how was the Bible. Naturally enough, blacks saw a parallel to their own circumstances, particularly into the story of the Exodus, of God delivering the Jews from slavery in Egypt. How could they not? That is why so many black gospel songs read as they do, from “Let My People Go” to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Later on, black gentile Zionism was reinforced by perceptions of European anti-Semitism. The Nuremberg laws stigmatized Jews in Germany in more or less the same ways that Jim Crow laws stigmatized blacks in America. Blacks argued during World War II against the incoherence of fighting against Nazi racism while condoning the homegrown American variety.
We should not exaggerate, however. American society has had its anti-Semitic side, more after the arrival of large numbers of Jewish immigrants than before, and the anti-Semitic side in recent years has been multiracial, as well. Still, there is no doubt that American popular support for Zionism in the early twentieth century, and for the State of Israel in its early years and up until the present day, flowed above all from America’s philo-Semitic founding and deep history, as well as from guilt about American “country club” anti-Semitism and then, of course, the enormity of the Holocaust. Harry Truman supported recognizing Israel because he believed it to be a moral necessity, and his domestic policy adviser Clark Clifford agreed with him. Truman knew what he was doing as an American Christian Zionist and pro-democracy Western statesman, as was revealed when, in 1953, then former president Truman visited the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City with his old friend Eddie Jacobson. During their conversation with Rabbi Louis Finkelstein and the historian Alexander Marx, Jacobson said: “This is the man who helped create the State of Israel”; but Truman interjected, “What do you mean ‘helped’ create? I am Cyrus; I am Cyrus!” When in 1961 David Ben-Gurion told Truman that his support for Israel had “given him an immortal place in Jewish history,” it brought tears to Truman’s eyes.
The same is true of Lyndon Johnson: Like Truman, Johnson had several Jewish friends and associates, not least Abe Fortas, whom Johnson appointed to the Supreme Court, and he had political reasons for not wanting to alienate Jews. But all that paled in comparison to a far deeper stratum of belief. “Take care of the Jews, God’s chosen people,” Johnson’s Baptist grandfather had told Lyndon as a young man. And Johnson recalled an aunt saying, “If Israel is destroyed, the world will end.” Johnson’s parents and grandparents, it turns out, were deeply affected by the lynching of Leo Frank by a mob in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1915. Johnson’s parents were so outspoken about anti-Semitism that they once had to stand guard with shotguns on their front porch against menacing Ku Klux Klan mobs. Young Lyndon never forgot it, and unbeknownst even to most of his later close political associates, in 1938–39, as a young congressman, Johnson went out of his way to rescue endangered European Jews by supplying American visas to Jews in Warsaw. He also oversaw the technically illegal immigration of hundreds of Jews into Galveston, Texas. In May 1967 President Johnson remembered all of this, and if his own memoirs are to be believed, he likened Israel in his mind to the surrounded, besieged Alamo, and Gamal Abdel Nasser to the hated Santa Anna.
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American Jewcentricity has been expressed historically with the kind of reverence generally associated with the respect owed religion. That sensibility persisted well into the twentieth century, and there is still plenty of it today. But there is also a lot of mass-marketed, pseudo-religious banality around, which has produced artifacts of Jewcentricity that resemble what amount to omnibus good luck charms.
That seems to partly explain, for example, the phenomenon of The Prayer of Jabez, which owes its origin to one obscure verse from the Hebrew Bible. Its author, the Reverend Dr. Bruce Wilkinson, clearly depended on the existence of a widespread network of philo-Semitic evangelical believers to sell his book—and sell it he did. It also seems to explain Madonna’s embrace of faux-Jewish mysticism and Britney Spears’s Hebrew tattoo on her neck. Some black Americans, too, who have been raised under the influence of the African Methodist-Episcopal and Baptist churches, have adopted the Star of David as a good luck charm worn as jewelry.
Many examples of banalized Jewcentricity flow from our media-fed celebrity culture, which envelops politics as it does anything that can sell the product. It came to light in September 2006, for example, that then senator George Allen, Republican of Virginia, was born to a woman born and raised as a Jew, in Tunisia. According to Jewish law, that makes the former senator a Jew. Only he was not a Jew in any meaningful sense. He was not raised or educated as a Jew. And yet for weeks after this revelation, the press spilled more ink on George Allen’s Jewish origins than on, say, genocide in Darfur. Why? Because Jews is news, and there were no Jews in Darfur.
Stories of hidden Jews, “half-Jews,” Jews deceived by their parents allegedly for their own sake, converted Jews, and, above all, colorfully confused Jews roll through American history. And it is the Jewcentric origins of American society, at base, that keep making them so interesting for so many people. Madeleine Albright’s discovery of her Jewish roots was one such episode from a few years back. Senator, and later Secretary of Defense, William Cohen, had it not been for an insensitive Orthodox rabbi in Maine many years ago, might have lived his life as a Jew. There are the stories of the forebears of Barry Goldwater and Caspar Weinberger, and the story about John Kerry’s paternal grandparents. But so what? What have the semi-Jewish origins of any of these people really to do with the way they have lived their lives? Not much, and in most cases probably not anything. But slice it or dice it any way you will, the Jews are believed to play an outsized role, beyond any objective measure of their actual influence, and thanks to that widespread belief—though in a different and rather weird sort of way—they therefore do. This is Jewcentricity at work.