Band of Brothers


Band of Brothers

A look back at the special relationship Israel once had with the United States and Britain.

We have written much of late about the sinking relationship between the United States and Israel. Of course, it wasn’t always this way.

When William Bradford stepped off the Mayflower in 1620, he borrowed his new world proclamation from the Prophet Jeremiah: “Come let us declare in Zion the Word of God.” For Bradford, Michael Oren writes in Power, Faith, and Fantasy, Zion “was not the old Promised Land of Canaan but its new incarnation, America.” William Bennett made a similar point in Our Sacred Honor: “Like the Jerusalem of old, America’s ‘New Jerusalem’ was to become God’s promised land to the oppressed—an example to all humankind.” In Character of Nations, Angelo Codevilla says there was a tendency for “Americans to equate themselves with the children of Israel.”

The first American statesman to draw a parallel between the biblical Exodus and the establishment of colonial America was Benjamin Franklin. In Joshua’s Altar, Milt Machlin said Franklin described early America as “God’s new Israel.” Franklin’s grandfather had said the people of New England “are like the Jews—as like as like can be.”

This New Israel concept became especially poignant during the Revolution, Oren wrote. King George iii played the role of pharaoh, while George Washington was Moses. “Yale president Ezra Stiles noted that the number of Israelites present at Mount Sinai—3 million—was precisely the population of the United States at the time of independence,” Oren wrote. “Harvard’s Samuel Langdon suggested that ‘instead of the 12 tribes of Israel, we may substitute the 13 states of the American union.’”

With this idea rooted in the minds of leading educators of the day, one can see why early America avidly supported the prospect of a Jewish state in Palestine.

U.S. and British Support

“The proposition that the United States should actively assist the Jews in returning to Palestine was neither new nor, in the antebellum period, considered especially radical,” Oren wrote. Neither was it seen as unusual across the Atlantic, in Britain, where the movement for Jewish statehood found its origin. In 1840, the British foreign secretary strongly urged the Ottoman government to encourage European Jews to “return to Palestine.” In 1853, British politician and restorationist Lord Shaftesbury argued for a Jewish state in Palestine by coining the phrase, “A land without a people for a people without a land.”

The New York Times heartily endorsed British initiatives to encourage wealthy Jews to buy land in Palestine with a view toward eventually building an independent state. “So much has been said for generations of the Jews regaining possession of Jerusalem,” the Times wrote on Jan. 20, 1879, “that it is agreeable to think that they are likely to do so at last. They certainly deserve Jerusalem.”

After returning from a tour through Palestine in 1888, American evangelist William Blackstone began work on a petition for Jewish statehood, which he submitted to President Benjamin Harrison in 1891. The “Blackstone Memorial,” as it was called, carried signatures from more than 400 prominent American businessmen, clergymen, journalists, politicians and educators, including John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Cyrus McCormick, Speaker of the House T.B. Reed and chief justice of the Supreme Court, Melville Fuller.

Why not give Palestine back to the Jews? the petitioners asked the president. “According to God’s distribution of nations it is their home, an inalienable possession from which they were expelled by force. Under their cultivation it was a remarkably fruitful land sustaining millions of Israelites who industrially tilled its hillsides and valleys. They were agriculturists and producers as well as a nation of great commercial importance—the center of civilization and religion.” Blackstone urged President Harrison to use the influential power of his office to arrange for an international conference to consider Jewish claims to Palestine as their ancient home.

Of course, there were those who opposed Jewish statehood for various reasons. But without question, the United States and Britain were the two most ardent supporters of a new homeland for the Jews. Yet, even with the support of a worldwide empire and a fledgling superpower nation, the Jews may still have been without a home had it not been for the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe which resulted in a massacre that overwhelmed the world with horror.

The Foundation of Zionism

As a young reporter for a Viennese newspaper, Theodore Herzl was in Paris in 1895 covering the trial of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus. Like Herzl, Dreyfus was Jewish. As an unknown officer in the French Army, Dreyfus had been wrongfully convicted of espionage. Before exiling him to a South American island, the French Army, rife with anti-Semitic fervor, subjected Dreyfus to public humiliation before an angry mob in Paris.

Herzl witnessed the spectacle. “Kill the Jew!” the mob shouted. A shock wave rolled through Herzl’s being, Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre wrote in O Jerusalem! “It was not just for the blood of Alfred Dreyfus that the crowd was clamoring; it was for his blood, for Jewish blood. Herzl walked away from that spectacle a shattered man; but from his anguish came a vision that modified the destiny of his people and the history of the 20th century.”

A year later, Herzl published “The Jewish State.” A year after that, he founded the World Zionist Organization (wzo). The Zionist movement had begun. Herzl had become firmly convinced that Jewish integration into Europe simply would not work. Emigration was the answer. He wrote, “The Jews who wish for a state will have it. We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes.”

“Churchill and the Jews”

During the First World War, Zionists wanted the British to conquer the Holy Land and then help to establish a Jewish state. A brief letter, authored by Foreign Secretary A.J. Balfour in November 1917, proved to be one giant leap on the path to statehood. Later known as the Balfour Declaration, it asserted that the British government viewed “with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object.”

British forces entered Jerusalem one month after Balfour’s letter. A year later, on Nov. 11, 1918, the war ended, signaling the beginning of a massive Middle East makeover. Because of promises Britain also made to the Arabs during the war, the task of identifying borders for a new Jewish state proved to be very difficult, as many Arabs viewed the Balfour Declaration as a betrayal of British trust.

On Feb. 8, 1920, Winston Churchill wrote, “We owe the Jews in the Christian revelation a system of ethics which, even if it were entirely separated from the supernatural, would be incomparably the most precious possession of mankind, worth in fact the fruits of all other wisdom and learning put together.” Later, he wrote that because of Britain’s conquest of Palestine, the UK had “the responsibility of securing for the Jewish race all over the world a home and a center for national life.”

The following year, after Lloyd George appointed Churchill as secretary of state for the colonies, one of his primary responsibilities was laying the foundation for a future Jewish state, a task that was often met with stiff opposition from members of Parliament. Between Churchill’s appointment and the beginning of World War ii in 1939, more than 400,000 Jews legally immigrated to Palestine.

In Martin Gilbert’s meticulously-researched new book, Churchill and the Jews, he notes how Churchill not only sounded the alarm about Nazism during the wilderness years of the 1930s—he warned of grave danger for the Jewish race. In a parliamentary speech in 1933, Churchill warned, “There is danger of the odious conditions now ruling in Germany being extended by conquest to Poland, and another persecution and pogrom of Jews being begun in this new area.” He made that statement a full six years before World War ii started! Gilbert notes, “At a time when most British politicians doubted Germany’s aggressive intentions, Churchill’s forecast seemed far-fetched. Within 10 years it had come to pass.”

As is now thoroughly documented, the more Churchill warned of the oncoming Nazi nightmare, the greater the ridicule and scorn he withstood, especially coming from Neville Chamberlain and his party—those who were assiduously courting “peace” with Adolf Hitler. Making matters worse for Churchill, right on the eve of the war, the British government laid out a restrictive policy for Jewish immigration to Palestine which would ensure that the Arab population would permanently remain in the majority. Churchill, Gilbert wrote, saw the 1939 “White Paper” as a “betrayal of the Balfour Declaration, and a shameful act of appeasement.”

Even while World War ii was raging across Europe, Churchill found occasion to lambaste what the Jews referred to as the “Black Paper.” Of course, of much greater concern in Churchill’s mind at that time, was the fate of millions of Jews in Europe. Writing to Foreign Secretary Eden in 1944, Churchill said, “There is no doubt that this is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world, and it has been done by scientific machinery by nominally civilized men in the name of a great state and one of the leading races of Europe.”

By the end of the war, two thirds of Europe’s Jewish population had been exterminated. Many survivors of the Holocaust were understandably dismayed at the thought of returning to their home countries. Worldwide support for Jewish statehood increased immensely as the full force of the genocidal nightmare set in. “The Jewish people have waited till the end of the German war,” wzo President Chaim Weizmann wrote to Churchill in 1945, “not only for their deliverance from Hitler, but also from the injustice of the White Paper of 1939.” But with its power and influence already in rapid decline after the war, Britain lacked the means and the will to follow through to the end of its commitment to Jewish statehood.

In response to Weizmann’s request, Churchill wrote, “It has occurred to me for some time … that it might be a solution of your difficulties if the mandate were transferred from Britain to the United States, who, with her great wealth and strength and strong Jewish elements, might be able to do more for the Zionist cause than Great Britain.”

Truman and the Jews

Not unlike William Bradford and Benjamin Franklin before him, Harry S. Truman’s world view was rooted in the conviction that God had a hand in establishing the American nation. “God has created us and brought us to our present position of power … for some great purpose,” Truman said. His religious upbringing, Oren notes, also helped him formulate his Middle East policy. According to David McCullough’s biography, it was Truman’s reading of ancient history and the Bible that “made him a supporter of the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.”

And not just the Jewish state, Oren points out—Arab countries too. “Many Middle Eastern countries, including several that would someday rank among America’s deadliest opponents, owed their independence to the United States.” In negotiating with Arabs about carving out a sliver of territory for the Jews, Winston Churchill was also quick to point out how much the Allied powers had done to help establish independent Arab states in the region, like Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Arab nations, however, would not accept the establishment of Israel in their neighborhood.

Many in the West, however, did—particularly in the wake of the Holocaust. In 1947, surveys showed that Americans favored a Jewish state by a margin of 2 to 1. With British forces exhausted from maintaining “peace” in Palestine, President Truman picked up where Winston Churchill left off. “Americans transformed themselves from largely passive observers of Middle Eastern affairs into the region’s primary architects and arbiters,” Oren wrote.

On Nov. 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed resolution 181 by a 33-to-13 margin. It called for British forces to withdraw and for the formation of independent Palestinian and Jewish states—the two-state “solution” the Arabs rejected from the beginning.

On May 14, 1948, the day British forces withdrew, the State of Israel declared its independence and the United States immediately recognized its existence. Within hours of Israel’s declaration, five Arab armies declared war on the world’s youngest state.

Having yet to attain Herzl’s goal of being able to die peacefully in their own homes, the Jews have been fighting for their survival ever since. Until very recently, the United States and Britain have provided strong support and aid for the establishment of the Jewish state and its continuous right to exist. Like a band of brothers, these three nations have historically worked together to protect one another’s strategic interests.

As President John F. Kennedy once wrote to Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, “The United States has a special relationship with Israel in the Middle East really comparable only to what it has with Britain over a wide range of affairs.”