The self-becoming of the United States’ national identity has been formed from a religious worldview that imagined itself as a new Israel taking a land given by heaven. It is interesting how this religio-political thinking has informed American opinions on the State of Israel.
Zionism is by no means a recent nationalism. Writing before the Nazi genocide of the 1930s and 40s Josef Roth discusses the forming nationalistic ideas within the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, and connects this golden age as one of the formative periods of Zionism in Europe. It was of course within this imperial milieu that Theodor Herzl lived and worked. Judaism has always entertained a cultural memory of a homeland, but the religious Jewish resistance to secular Zionism during the end of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century points to this being an imaginative homesickness rather than the politicisation of the right of return.
True, modern political Zionism, rather than being a Jewish nationalist aspiration, was first the product of English and American Protestantism. English Puritans, from the earliest colonisation of North America, conceptualised their new home as a new Israel, a ‘City on a hill;’ a New Jerusalem. Around their settlements lived their Canaanites, godless barbarians to be cleansed from their holy land. This sacralisation of colonialism gave rise to the American mythos of the nation’s Manifest Destiny, the divine blessing on their subjugation of that new world God had given them. It is not difficult to see how from this religious and colonial expansionism, taken with their literal reading of the Bible, these pioneers identified themselves with the Israelites of yore.
Western imperialism, of which the nascent United States was a product, constructed its own identities against the background of its Orientalisation of the Middle East. It was this Arab, Islamic other that gave geopolitical meaning to their Judeo-Christianity. As America grew to see itself as the fruit of the God’s will, the spread of American, Western religious and political values became an extension of their God’s will for the ordering of the world. Thus imperialism and colonisation were rationalised as good and as indeed the work and will of God made real through the work of white men. Long before the birth of a particularly Jewish political Zionism Evangelical Christians were postulating the return of the Jews – as a Western (good and godly) people – to the home this God had promised them.
It is a fascinating history in that from the beginning this Christian Zionism was always a confluence of religious fundamentalist fanaticism, political power, and imperial ambition. William Eugene Blackstone (1841-1935), as noted by Lawrence Davidson, “drew up a petition addressed to President Benjamin Harrison and Secretary of State James G. Blaine” advocating the return of Jews to Palestine; a document supported by over four hundred influential and powerful Americans “including the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, J. P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller.” This relationship of Christian fundamentalism and US politics has continued in US foreign policy towards Israel and Palestine to the present.
Lawrence Davidson, “Christian Zionism as a Representation of American Manifest Destiny,” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies 14, no. 2 (2005): 157–69.