Eran Shalev is a Professor of History at Haifa University. A former Fulbright scholar who received his PhD from Johns Hopkins University, Shalev has written and published extensively on American History and is an International Contributing editor of The Journal of American History. The Following exchange will focus on his new book 'American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War' (Yale University Press, 2013)
Dear professor Shalev,
In your book you present a fascinating picture of an early United States in which references to the stories of the old testament are virtually omnipresent. While much has been said about the early American comparison between the American revolution and exodus, you show just how completely steeped in Hebraic mythology (from Moses to Gideon to Ahab and Navot) early American civic mythology is, and how respectful the founding fathers and the early American leaders were toward the different values they found in biblical stories.
I would like to start this exchange with a rather broad question regarding how much of this deep early biblical influence you feel has trickled down to today's public American sentiment toward Israel and its sympathy toward the idea of the return of the Jewish people to the land of Zion (as Michael Oren seemed to hint in his book about American and the Middle East). Beside the important role which Old Testament myths played in the establishment of America's unique political culture, are the emotions and inspiration the early Americans drew from the stories of the people of Israel in any way similar to anything we see today?
I'm looking forward to reading your answer.
The Old Testament indeed suffused the private and public lives of early Americans to an extent that is hard to imagine today. Reformed Christianity, in which the Hebrew Bible held a prominent role, affected a majority of Americans and consequently shaped the political culture of the early republic. Old Testament narratives, the Exodus among them, helped explain contemporary national successes and hardships, and made sense of the revolution and the experiment in republican government. In consequence the young American nation was commonly viewed as an incarnation of the biblical Hebrews, a “New Israel.” Like the biblical Israelites, the United States was seen as having a special relationship with God, and thus a Chosen People.
Real life Jews and modern Judaism had little to do with this powerful conception. Most contemporaries would spend their entire lives without ever seeing a Jew, as American Jewry was still small and concentrated in a handful of cities. By the time that European Jews arrived to the United States in large numbers, and of course by the time that Zionism became a mature ideological movement and Israel was founded, the notion of the United States as a second Israel and a new chosen people had significantly subsided. We are thus running the risk of anachronism in attempting to tie direct links between early American political Hebraism and sentiments toward the modern Jewish nation state.
This is not to say however that the now all but forgotten notion of the United States as the new Israel had not affected modern sentiments toward the state of Israel. Indeed, there are two main trajectories through which that early American biblicism has influenced such attitudes. The unique Christianity that emerged in the wake of the Second Great Awakening (circa 1800-1840) was modern and recognizable, the parent of contemporary American evangelism that holds the Jewish people, and Israel, in special regard. That American evangelism was formed during the heyday of the influence of the Old Testament in America. Evangelicals’ emotional and political commitment to Israel is thus no coincidence, but reflects the cultural context in which that theology was shaped.
Another significant notion, the idea of the United States as a nation with a special role in world history, also evolved from the idea of the United States as a modern Chosen People. The notion that America is a reincarnation of biblical Israel may no longer be popular. “American exceptionalism,” however, the idea that America has a unique historical destiny (such as spreading freedom and democracy, for instance), is still with us. The understanding of America as a “shining city on a hill,” in the words of Ronald Reagan (echoing the Puritan leader John Winthrop), originates in the Old Testament notion of choseness, and is directly linked to the notion of the United States as a new or second Israel.
American evangelicalism and the notion of the United States as holding a unique place in world history are two important ideological strands of the “American mind.” They both evolved in tandem with the distinct American biblicism that I describe in my book; without the universal acceptance of the notion of the second Israel during the early republic it is hard to imagine how such ideologies could have evolved and maintained their vitality for so long. These two ideas also help in making sense of the impressive support that Israel garners in the United States, which outweighs measurable variables (such as votes or donations).
Bill Clinton told of his pastor urging him on his deathbed: “’if you ever abandon Israel, God will never forgive you.’ He [the pastor] said it was God’s will that Israel, the biblical home of the people of Israel, continue forever and ever.” The complex relationship between America's biblical heritage and its modern attitude toward the state of Israel is manifested in Clinton’s promise. Israel’s privileged place in the American theological imagination stems, at least in part, from the religious beliefs of millions of Americans and their understanding of their nation’s prescribed role. It is no coincidence that those ideas originated at a time when the United States was widely understood as a new manifestation of the biblical Israel.