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.
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?
OREN: Wilson and Truman assisted the Zionist movement out of a faith-based attachment to the Jews and their aspirations for statehood in their ancestral, Biblical, homeland. Jimmy Carter, whose recent book reveals a far more equivocal if not hostile attitude toward the Jewish state, is very much an exception. American presidents had such "grand thoughts" because the United States in the nineteenth-century emerged as the preeminent Western power in the Middle East, endowed with the ability to make draw borders and remake the region's map.
WORLD: On the other hand, you report Truman's anger when his State Department "pulled the rug out from under him." Has the State Department over many decades tended to tilt in a pro-Arab way?
OREN: In 1813 the State Department inaugurated the tradition of appointing American Jews, many of them German-born, as diplomats to the Middle East. The practice reflected the rather quaint assumption that American Jews represented a natural bridge between predominantly Christian America and the Muslim Middle East. The tradition continued to the 1920s, when the descendants of the missionaries, many of whom had grown up in the Middle East and spoke its languages, replaced American Jewish diplomats.
These statesmen were deeply identified with Arab nationalism-and commensurately opposed to Zionism. Moreover, while there was only one diplomatic posting to Israel, there were twenty-one in the Arab world. Numerically, those diplomats well-disposed to Israel were grossly outnumbered. The exclusion of Jews from the State Department ended in 1973, the year that another German-born American Jew, Henry Kissinger, assumed the reins of American foreign policy in the Middle East. The State Department's pro-Arab proclivity has nevertheless continued.
WORLD: Why were US leaders during the 1980s and 1990s "reluctant to acknowledge the hatred of their culture seething in Saudi Arabia or the willingness of Saudi authorities to deflect radical Islamic criticism of their own profligacy onto the United States"?
OREN: The reason is simple: oil. In the decades after World War II, the American economy and much of the American way of life became dependent on Arabian oil. Acknowledging that the Saudis were funding virulently anti-American curricula in schools throughout the Muslim world-a program that spurred fifteen Saudis to hijack American planes on 9/11-was immensely difficult. Only by admitting the connection between oil and terrorism, and by exploring alternative sources of energy, can the United States ultimately protect its citizens from persistent threats from the Middle East.