Loving the Jews
By Aryeh Tepper, Jewish Ideas
Five years before Theodor Herzl published The Jewish State in 1896, an American Methodist lay leader named William Blackstone dreamed of the Jewish people’s returning to their ancestral homeland and rebuilding their ancient country. Blackstone translated his dream into a petition signed by 400 prominent Americans, including the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the speaker of the House of Representatives, and a future president, William McKinley.
Presented to then-President Benjamin Harrison, the petition, known as the Blackstone Memorial, called for a conference of European powers that would pressure the Ottoman empire to surrender control of Palestine and turn it over to the Jews. Although the initiative failed to bear immediate fruit, a quarter-century later Louis Brandeis, then a nominee to the Supreme Court and already a leading figure in the American Zionist establishment, appealed to Blackstone to update the document and present it afresh to President Woodrow Wilson. Blackstone obliged, this time getting organizations and churches to sign on instead of public personalities. One signatory was the Presbyterian Church, of which Wilson happened to be a member.
The plan worked. Wilson was sufficiently moved to inform the British, now regent in Palestine in place of the defeated and decaying Ottomans, that he would support a national home for the Jewish people in the biblical land of their forefathers. The promise of American support gave the British the diplomatic backing they needed to issue what soon became the Balfour Declaration.
William Blackstone was one of many Christian Zionists who, especially in Great Britain and the United States, have contributed significantly to lobbying for the Jewish state both before and after its establishment. His story not only helps put to rest the anti-Semitic canard that a nefarious “Jewish lobby” has been responsible for manipulating American policy in the Middle East. It also points to the role that philo-Semitism, the positive love of Jews, has played in modern—and not only in modern—history.
Some, including some Jews, have tended to brush off this phenomenon as inconsequential, or have suspected it of being but the flip side of anti-Semitism—based, that is, on a similar fascination with imagined Jewish power that similarly prevents its holders from seeing Jews in all their mundane complexity. But there are solid grounds for regarding it as an impulse with “a deep, complex, and significant history” of its own. So, at least, argue the co-editors of Philosemitism in History, a newly published collection of essays.
The book’s contributors find evidence of philo-Semitism in locales and times as diverse as medieval Western Christendom, Renaissance Italy, revolutionary France, Victorian England, Imperial Germany, and 19th- and 20th-century America. One essayist has even uncovered “Philosemitic Television in Germany, 1963-1995.” As for the book’s editors, they assert in their introduction that although most students of the phenomenon trace its roots to aspects of the Christian tradition, “it is actually the Greek and Hellenistic legacies to which the most vital and variegated expressions of modern philo-Semitism owe their allegiance.”
Regrettably, that last statement is unsupported by any essay included in the volume itself. Equally unexplicated is another remark by the editors urging close attention to the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. But, to be fair, the book’s aims are minimalist: “to be stimulating and suggestive rather than encyclopedic,” and to refrain from comprehensive claims. The wide array of movements and personalities enlivening its pages are enough to whet the appetite for further exploration on one’s own.
Without a doubt, the most engaging part of the book is the section on America. In one chapter, Jonathan Karp (one of the two co-editors) focuses intriguingly on three representative African Americans: Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), “the preeminent ‘race leader’ of his day”; Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), the freethinker and novelist; and Paul Robeson (1898-1976), the formidable vocal artist and political radical. All three reconciled “the biblical heritage” of the Jews with the “reality of modern Jewishness.” For Robeson in particular, Karp points out, exposure to Yiddish culture and hasidic song helped him to embrace the African American spirituals that became a critical part of his own repertoire. Unfortunately, when one takes into account the recent growth of anti-Semitic trends within the American black community, the examples of Washington, Hurston, and Robeson also serve as an acute reminder of how ephemeral philo-Semitic moments can be.
The book’s longest chapter, “‘It’s All in the Bible’: Evangelical Christians, Biblical Literalism, and Philosemitism in Our Times,” is also the most politically relevant. Its author, Yaakov Ariel, usefully surveys the prominent Christian Zionists in American history, including William Blackstone. To Blackstone, America’s role was that of a modern Cyrus, helping the Jews return to Zion just as the ancient Persian king enabled the Jews to return to their homeland after the Babylonian exile. Ariel concludes by lamenting that, “As a rule, Zionist narratives have overlooked the role of Christians [like Blackstone] in promoting Zionist ideas and causes.”
He is right about the neglect, though notable exceptions include Ambassador Michael B. Oren’s study of America’s role in the Middle East, Power, Faith, and Fantasy (2007). But it is also important to note a distinction. In the standard Zionist narrative, the modern national movement of the Jews originated in an act of self-emancipation, closer to Joshua’s conquest of the land—even if the land in question was, at first, the inner dispositions and conditioned reflexes of the early Zionist dreamers—than to the release of the exiled Jews from Babylon in an act of royal noblesse oblige. Still, it is absolutely true that, in the political realm, the role played by British and American philo-Semites “in promoting Zionist ideas and causes” was and remains essential.
In the political sphere there is no such thing as absolute independence. No state dwells alone, and the pursuit of its interests by a small country like Israel needs to be informed by a clear recognition of the limitations of its power. The good news is that among the many non-Jewish actors with whom the Jewish state treats, some are real lovers of Jews as well as of Israel. The history and character of that love might benefit from further clarification, but this hardly means that it isn’t real—and immeasurably valuable.