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Just after midnight, on June 5, 1968, Jerusalem born-Palestinian Sirhan Sirhan murdered U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy in the kitchen pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Kennedy had won the California Democratic Party presidential primary earlier that evening.
Like his brother, President John F. Kennedy, RFK repeatedly had expressed admiration and sympathy for the small Jewish state struggling against an Arab economic boycott, war, and terrorism, including in a recent prominent synagogue address.
Repeating “Kennedy Must Die,” Sirhan purposefully committed the first modern act of Arab terrorism on U.S. soil on the first anniversary of Israel’s miraculous victory in the Six Day War of 1967, when a sovereign Israel liberated Jerusalem for the first time in 2,000 years.
Remarkably, 50 years later, six of the seven U.S. Senators who are declared candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination recently voted against the anti-Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions bill in the Senate, and remain mute about a rapidly rising tide of anti-Semitic rhetoric and anti-Israel views among progressives and radicals in their party.
Democrat leadership in the Congress has now failed to condemn Represenative Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) by name, or to remove her from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, after she invoked anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish money in politics and the dual loyalty of pro-Israel American legislators. One might ask why Speaker Pelosi put a freshman with a long history of anti-Israel hostility on this committee in the first place.
Pew public opinion polls documented by the Middle East Forum have shown for a generation a growing disparity in the affinity of American citizens towards Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship, with Republicans and conservatives far more supportive than Democrats and liberals of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem or standing by Israel’s defensible borders or counter-terrorism policies vis à vis Hezbollah and Hamas.
The decline in bipartisan support for Israel has been building over time. It is now fair to say the political left has rejected the centuries-long history of American Zionism.
On Thanksgiving Day in 1799, American Reverend Abiel Abbot sermonized:
It has been often remarked that the people of the United States come nearer to a parallel with Ancient Israel than any other nation upon the globe. Hence, our American Israel is a term frequently used, and common consent allows it apt and proper.
What are the roots of this remarkable sentiment?
Long before the 1948 re-birth of Jewish sovereignty in the modern state of Israel, the Holy Land was a matter of deep religious affinity, with early Americans believing they were establishing God’s New Israel. These feelings built a tremendous kinship between the American people and the Biblical land of Israel.
The earliest colonial pilgrims modeled their arrival to the new world after the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. William Bradford led the first settlers to Massachusetts on the Mayflower, in 1620, declaring: “Come let us proclaim the word of the Zion in the new Promised Land.”
A decade later followed the Puritans, led by John Winthrop, who sermonized aboard the Arbella: “We shall find that the God of Israel is among us . . . For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill.”
Early Americans used Biblical names for their children and their new towns. Future President James Madison, father of the U.S. Constitution, studied Hebrew and the scriptures at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1771.
American founders Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson proposed in 1776 that the original Great Seal of the United States of America reference Moses leading the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, or wandering in the desert wilderness, from bondage to the Promised Land.
Our nation’s first President, George Washington, offered special blessings to the Jewish communities of Newport, Rhode Island and Savannah, Georgia, suggesting that your God is our God. Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams both expressed hope for the return of the Jews to Judea “as an Independent Nation.”
Nineteenth-century Christian Zionists promoted restorationism, praying for the safe return of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland. They cited Genesis 12:3, God’s commandment to cherish his covenanted nation: “I will bless those that bless you, and curse those that curse you, and through you all the nations of the world shall be blessed.”
American Christians rejected the philosophy of Supersessionism, or the “replacement theology” of some Christians that promoted the suffering of European Jews for having rejected or killed Jesus Christ. Instead, American Zionists believed they were “grafted” onto the Jewish tree of life, and expressed sincere gratitude to their older Jewish brothers for bringing their messiah.
The prominent biblical scholar George Bush, a Christian Hebraist and Bible scholar at NYU, in his widely popular Valley of the Vision, (1844), advocated the return of the Jews to “their paternal soil,” “the land of their fathers.” Bush’s brother was an ancestor of two future American presidents.
President Abraham Lincoln, expressed to many the “noble dream” of the restoration of the Jews to Palestine, and was reported by several scholars to have expressed to his wife his last words before assassination, on April 14, 1865: “We will visit the Holy Land and see those places hallowed by the footsteps of the Savior. There is no place I so much desire to see as Jerusalem.”
In 1891, concerned at the pogroms of Czar Alexander III against the Jewish population of Russia, 413 prominent Americans, including the speaker of the House and the chief justice of the United States, petitioned President Benjamin Harrison to organize the first international conference “to consider the Israelite claim to Palestine as their ancient home.”
In the early 20th century, President Woodrow Wilson endorsed the British Balfour Declaration, in 1917, stating: “I did it, because to think that the son of Presbyterian ministers would have the honor of restoring the Jews to their holy land.”
A Joint Resolution of Congress, in 1922, unanimously endorsed the Balfour Declaration, and legislatures in 33 states, representing roughly 85 percent of the U.S. population, also adopted resolutions supporting creation of a Jewish state. Governors of 37 states, 54 U.S. senators, and 250 congressmen signed petitions to the president.
In the 1940s, Benzion Netanyahu, the scholar and father of the future Israeli prime minister, came to the United States to lobby for American support for Israeli statehood. His efforts were successful, and both political parties established pro-Israel planks in their party convention platforms.
Every modern day president has endorsed what American-born former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren has described as spiritual connection, shared democratic values, military to military strategic alliance, and growing commercial and trade ties.
This legacy of bipartisan political support for Israel does not deny important moments of disagreement between friends. Several presidents have piqued the pro-Israel community.
President Franklin Roosevelt was deeply ambivalent to Jewish rescue and relief from Nazi atrocities during the war. The War Refugee Board serially blocked Jewish immigration, and FDR turned away the German S.S. St. Louis refugee ship from the port of Miami—908 Jewish passengers returned to various countries in Europe, 254 of whom were murdered in the Holocaust. When Roosevelt met with King Ibn Saud in 1945, aboard the USS Quincy, in order to secure oil resources, the president reaffirmed his commitment not to move forward in support of a Jewish state.
Fortunately, after World War II, the Truman Administration lobbied for the land partition resolution, the U.N. compromise accepted by the Jews and rejected by all the Arab states. When Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948 the United States was the first nation to recognize 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 as another sovereign nation, but as an embodiment of the great ideals of our civilization.”
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, as the Commander of Allied Forces in World War II that defeated Nazi Germany, helped to rescue the remnant European Jewry that survived the Holocaust and carefully documented Jewish suffering for fear that as time passed history would forget. But Eisenhower did side with Egypt’s Nasser during the 1956 Suez Crisis when Britain, France, and Israel sought to keep open the canal. He came to regret his threat of sanctions to force Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula, later acknowledging this had encouraged Arab radicalism.
President Richard Nixon was known to be hostile to many American Jews in the media, but is gratefully remembered for his decision to rush desperately needed military supplies to Israel during the 1973 war.
President Carter saw himself as a neutral peacemaker between Arabs and Jews, but tilted heavily against Israel. His U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, controversially met with the Palestine Liberation Organization terror group. Carter expressed hostile views about Israeli land settlement policies in his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, met with Hamas terrorist leader Khaled Meshaal in Syria, and evoked early Christian anti-Jewish sentiments in his Sunday sermons.
President Reagan’s $8.5 billion sale of the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) to the Saudis in 1981 was controversial, but not injurious to Israel. Reagan’s longtime friendship with the Jewish community in Hollywood and his affinity for Israel as a “strategic ally” against the Soviet Union was profound. His Strategic Defense Initiative laid the foundations for the Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and Arrow Missile Defense systems, which protect Israelis today from mortar, rocket and missile attack. Reagan and his Secretary of State George Shultz were also forceful advocates of the emigration to Israel of Russian Jews, resulting in a lasting impact on the growth and success of the modern Israeli nation.
President George H. W. Bush’s 1991 public questioning of pro-Israel American citizen lobbyists on Capitol Hill was harsh, but his efforts to assist in the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry via Sudan, in Operation Moses and Operation Sheba, grant him a favorable legacy in Israel.
Perhaps most consistently heartfelt was the expression of friendship by President George W. Bush, who spoke in the Israeli Knesset to warm appreciation from his hosts and maintained a consistently positive approach to the “special alliance.”
President Obama’s many disagreements with and slights against Prime Minister Netanyahu, his advocacy of the controversial Iran nuclear deal, and his rare opposition to Israel at the United Nations stand out as a particularly rough period for U.S.-Israel relations. Obama’s gifts to the Islamic Republic of Iran produced virtually unanimous disapproval in Israel and broad skepticism in the United States.
Finally, President Trump has castigated Iranian calls for the destruction of Israel, sponsorship of regional terrorism and hegemonic ambitions in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and cooperation with Palestinian Sunni enemies of Israel. He has re-imposed sanctions on the Iranian Mullahs, confronted Palestinian glorification of mass murder of innocent Israelis and Americans, and moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, causing many Israelis to consider him a modern day Cyrus, revered for standing by the Jews.
In his book The Israel Test, scholar George Gilder measures the character of political actors by their views toward Israeli democracy and its dynamic economy, which produces advanced agriculture, bio-medical technology, communications systems, cyber security and missile defense capabilities, and efficient energy production, among many modern human achievements.
One who met this test was civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. At a private dinner in Cambridge, on October 27, 1967, MLK strongly rejected criticism of Jewish national rights by a black Harvard University student: “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism!”
Famed Soviet dissident and Jewish leader Natan Sharansky has explained that singling out for delegitimization only Israel, among all the nations enjoying independence and self-determination, is a form of anti-Semitism.
Notwithstanding Dr. King’s sentiment, and the virtually universal reciprocal support for minority civil rights expressed by American Jewry, black leaders from Rev. Louis Farrakhan to Pastor Jeremiah Wright to Rep. Omar’s predecessor Keith Ellison, have expressed consistent antipathy to Israel.
The foreign-policy Left, which is hostile to American exceptionalism and strength, (the “Blame America First” constituency scolded by former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Jeane Kirkpatrick) also castigates Israel as, variously, America’s little brother, regional super-power, white colonizer, human rights violator, theocracy, and successful capitalist nation-state. Quite the multi-count indictment from voices which remain silent about the actual suffering of millions under Arab tyranny and Islamic barbarism.
Recent growth of Jewish radical groups, and the political rise of some Muslim communities, the Christian Left, and campus anti-Israelism have all changed the dynamic within Democratic party politics vis à vis the U.S.-Israel “special alliance.”
By the time of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, the political world witnessed a rare, unscripted, chaotic, and revealing moment when at least half of the Democrat delegates in the hall loudly booed when ex-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa unilaterally asserted, after three failed resolution voice votes, that the ayes had achieved a two-thirds majority to reinstate language in the party platform asserting that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital.
With the arrival of #TheResistance and the new women’s movement, led by the intense anti-Israel agitator Linda Sarsour, and with the 2018 election to Congress of aggressive “progressives,” prominent Democrats can no longer deny that hostility to Israel is a major feature of Democratic party politics, mimicking rising anti-Jewish leftism in Europe, and ending the long tradition of bipartisan pro-Israelism throughout American history.
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