Oren interview, continued

Web Extra | Part two of Marvin Olasky's interview with author Michael Oren

Issue: "Is Romney rolling?," May 19, 2007

Part two of Marvin Olasky's interview with Michael Oren, author of Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present (Norton, 2007). Oren, born in New Jersey in 1955, is now is a Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. Read Part I of the interview now ...

WORLD: You write that early 19th century Americans such as Elizabeth Cabot Kirkland were stunned when they visited the Middle East?

OREN: The wife of Harvard's former president, Elizabeth Cabot Kirkland toured the Middle East in the late 1830s and wrote vividly of her impressions. She was one of the thousands of Americans who, over the course of the nineteenth century, came to the Middle East not as soldiers or missionaries but as tourists in search of romance and adventure.

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WORLD: And what did they find?

OREN: They found corruption, backwardness, and cruelty. Americans were appalled by the lack of tolerance they found for Middle Eastern Jews and Christians, by the poverty and ignorance they encountered, and, especially, by the abuse of Muslim women. In one shocking description of an Egypt street, Kirkland wrote of seeing a corpse with its head placed between its legs and a sign over its head reading, "I engaged in politics."

WORLD: Why, following the Civil War, did one observer say that American visitors to the Middle East "often think with their purses, admire with their cheque books and appreciate with their yawns"?

OREN: Many Americans appalled by intolerance were themselves intolerant of Middle Eastern Muslims, Jews, and even Orthodox Christians. They earned a reputation for painting their names on ancient monuments and for buying "genuine" artifacts. A former Confederate officer who served as an advisor to the Egyptian army in the late 1860s wrote about those cheque books and yawns, but Mark Twain, visiting the Middle East in 1867, was even less complimentary in his description of these Yankee tourists. He called them "American vandals."

WORLD: We tend to think of Theodore Herzl and other European Jewish figures jump-starting a Zionist movement, but you trace some roots to 17th century Puritans...

OREN: "Restorationism" had its roots in the Puritan movement of the seventeenth century. In their search for a source of strength that would enable them to endure their suffering at the hand of the Church of England, the Puritans looked back to the Old Testament. There they found a God who spoke directly to His people, in their language, and who promised them to rescue them from exile and restore them to their Holy Land. The Puritans appropriated this narrative-they became the New Israel and the New World became their New Promised Land.

WORLD: And Americans felt that kinship with Old Israel?

OREN: They felt an attachment to the Old Promised Land, then known as Palestine, part of the Ottoman Empire. Many of them concluded that, in order to be good Christians and Americans, they were obliged to assist God in fulfilling his Biblical promises to the Jews. Thus, John Adams declared that his fondest wish was that "100,000 Jewish soldiers...would march into Palestine and reclaim it as a Judean kingdom," and Abraham Lincoln acknowledged that the dream of restoring the Jews was dear to a great many Americans and pledged to help realize that dream after the Civil War.

WORLD: You report that John D. Rockefeller, J. Pierpoint Morgan, William McKinley and other leading American Protestants signed a petition in 1891 staking a Jewish claim to Palestine, and that Theodore Roosevelt later wrote that "it is entirely proper to start a Zionist state around Jerusalem." The Princeton Review, though, a Reformed journal, denounced restoration as "radically false" and opposed "to the whole drift of... New Testament teaching."

OREN: Rockefeller, Morgan, McKinley, and Roosevelt all subscribed to the doctrine of restorationism. Perhaps the greatest expression of it occurred in 1891, when real estate mogul William Blackstone submitted a petition to President Benjamin Harrison urging the United States to spearhead an international effort to take Palestine from the Turks and return it to the Jews. The Blackstone Memorial, as it was called, was signed by 400 prominent Americans, including Rockefeller, Morgan, and McKinley, proving that support for the renewed Jewish state was anything but a peripheral movement.

WORLD: Woodrow Wilson was pleased that a minister's son "should be able to help restore the Holy Land to its people." Harry Truman, who backed formation of Israel over State Department objections, said, "I am Cyrus," referring to the ancient Persian ruler who authorized the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Jimmy Carter was so impressed with his Camp David Accords that he said they "had now become almost like the Bible." Why have so many presidents, when it comes to Zionism and Israel, had such grand thoughts about their own roles?


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