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America's Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood, by Lawrence Davidson

reviewed by
Joel Gordon



n American president on a mission to fulfill Biblical prophecy.  His diplomats at odds with him and viewed as out of touch with the electorate by Congress.   A press corps less concerned with investigative journalism than feeding – and appeasing – popular biases.   A body politic, fed by Sunday School images and millenarian forecasts, accepting of American political-economic-cultural manifest destiny.   

Reading Lawrence Davidson's narrative of the historical positionality of Palestine in the realms of American foreign policy and popular imagination from Britain's declaration of support for Zionist aspirations in 1918 through Israel's declaration of statehood in 1948 one might feel that time has stood still.  One might argue the same with regard to other American policies and imaginings in other times and places.  Still, the persistent symbolic power of Palestine clearly makes it unique.  Such that half a century after the realization of the dreams of political Zionists, the state they created, whatever its unfinished projects and unrealized ambitions, retains a centrality in the vision of Americans that reinforces and perpetuates  its special diplomatic relationship with the United States.

Davidson traces this relationship to the early years of the American republic, when American exceptionalism began to fashion a particular proprietary vision of the Holy Lands.   The religious underpinnings of imperialism – not an American monopoly, but marked in special ways by the American self-view – found in Palestine fertile ground to act upon the belief that, in the words of a Congregationalist minister, “America is God's last dispensation towards the world” (3).   Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, Protestant missionaries took the lead in formalizing a “theocratized vision” (9)of Palestine in which facts on the ground vanished before picturesque tableaus  that would be realized – and reified – in popular adventure novels and, ultimately, Hollywood theologicals.  Davidson's work thus meshes nicely with broader studies of “American Orientalism,” especially those that treat the prevalence of such cultural tropes as backdrop to diplomacy.[1]

America's Palestine is a synthesis of diplomatic history, with a focus on domestic politics, and cultural history.  His story is rooted in diplomatic records, the Congressional record, and newspaper editorials and opinion pieces.  In some respects he covers familiar ground, but his effort to move from the opinions of the State Department's “striped pants boys” (Harry Truman's famous denigration) to those of partisan editors and guest columnists is ambitious, and should lead others – whether to amplify or challenge his arguments – to undertake further work in such areas.  Especially since the primary period that he studies, between Wilson and Truman, is one in which American leaders grappled with the nation's role in a part of the world which the remained in the hands of European imperialist powers.

This is a book with a message.  Davidson argues persuasively that as a consequence of the gospel-based attachment to Palestine, the proprietary tendency to view the Holy Land as an extension of the West, and the cultural bias against Muslim peoples in the region – whether Arabs or Turks – policy makers and shapers of public opinion gravitated easily toward outright support for the Zionist venture.  Davidson's tone is at times deliberately provocative.  He writes of the disregard for the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine as  “a form of ethnic cleansing on the conceptual level” (9).  He concludes his book by ruminating on the “colonizing” of the American mind” (213-22), emphasizing the extent to which American biases and fantasies became compounded in the year's following Israeli statehood.   He challenges Americans to rethink their “bipolar” view of Palestine, one in which the Israelis are viewed simultaneously as Old Testament heroes and American warriors taming the frontier.

Growing support for the Balfour Declaration followed upon the self-satisfaction of Woodrow Wilson who, flattered to think that “a son of the manse should be able to help restore the Holy Land to its people” (16), seemingly approved the British commitment without “serious consultation with the State Department” (17).  In the popular press – Davidson canvasses a cross section of leading American papers from the New York Times and Washington Post to the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times – mandatory Palestine, still a picture from an illustrated Bible, had been liberated by the modern day British Crusaders starring General Edmund Allenby as the latter day Richard Lionheart (22-5).

For “American perceptions of the Holy Land and Zionist visions of Palestine” to become “uniquely meshed” (39), however, purer national myths had to be fused.   Writing in the New York Times, an American Zionist leader thus described Jewish outposts in Palestine as “the Jamestown and Plymouth of the new House of Israel,” the settlers akin to “followers of Daniel Boone” and “Jewish Pilgrim fathers,” Tel Aviv and other urban Zionist enterprises as “Boom Town[s] in Palestine” (46-7).   The general press would quickly follow suit.  Outbreaks of violence in 1929 produced allusions to the Wild West.  The savage rarely proved noble in media accounts, which recall the worst of Kipling.  The Los Angeles Times bemoaned that “sweet reasonableness does not seem to be the strongest point of the Bedouin sheikh.  What he does thoroughly understand and appreciate, however, is the song of the bullet and the crash of the high explosive shell” (95).

Little would change as the Palestine Mandate came to an end in the tragic conflict that Israelis call their “War of Independence” and Palestinians the “Catastrophe.”  The domestic and international considerations that prompted Harry Truman to press the British government to open Palestine to massive immigration in the aftermath of VE Day, then the decision to support both the UN partition plan and Israel's declaration of statehood are by now old stories.  Davidson's contribution is greater for the earlier part of his study.  He outlines the lack of enthusiasm in traditional policy circles for Britain's Balfour commitment.  Wary of interfering in what they perceived to be a British sphere of influence, State Department specialists proposed a neutral posture towards the Mandate.  At the same time they suspected that Britain might treat Palestine like a crown colony and monopolize commerce.   A 1926 Carnegie Endowment report, headlined in the New York Times (during a period of economic downturn in which more Jews left Palestine than entered) predicted the failure of the Zionist colonial enterprise.  A public relations onslaught precipitated a formal recantation.  From the late 1920s onward, Davidson argues, there was little room for anything other than the official Zionist narrative of events.  Consequently, the State Department became increasingly isolated, especially from Congressional leaders who, like many who had elected them, had come to see the Zionist venture as “an extension of U.S. Interests in the Middle East” (137).  Truman's animosity to the “striped pants boys” and his assertion that “no one in any department can sabotage the President's policy” (197) marked a nadir of influence for the professional diplomats and area studies experts as one chapter in the Palestine story closed and another commenced.

Davidson's story is, ultimately, one of the triumph of a dominant political narrative rooted in the symbolic cultural power it could marshal.  His evidence is compelling, even if his broad sweep at times may prompt further investigation.  In studies based – here only in part – on a reading of the press, one might ask for a broader sweep that took into account papers more off the beaten track.   This was a period, after all, when smaller city papers could afford and felt obliged to employ their own foreign correspondents.  But the inclusion of another paper or three would probably not change the story line.  Davidson refers to “inaccurate and incomplete headlines” and stories that “failed to contextualize” communal violence (92-3).  A closer reading of news coverage that ran parallel to the editorials and op-ed pieces in the daily papers that Americans still read for news of the world would be instructive.   There is an effort to balance the dominant Zionist narrative with an alternative Jewish perspective.   Here Davidson focuses on the American Council for Judaism, a religious-based organization that decried efforts to define Jewishness in national terms, and the outspoken anti-Zionist rabbi, Elmer Berger.   This plays well within the parameters established by Christian evangelical Zionist supporters, but it confines Jewish anti-Zionism to the religious sphere, while secular voices remain silent.  

Most intriguing – and disheartening – are the sections in which Davidson elucidates the frustrating efforts of Arab-Americans to simply enter the debate over American policy toward Palestine and, eventually, Israel.  Given popular perceptions of the Holy Land and most of its indigenous inhabitants, then the communal violence that European Jewish immigration produced, it is hardly surprising that Arab-American arguments were brushed aside and that many Americans took for granted that the “Zionization of Palestine” could not occur without bloodshed (106).   Shouting into the winds of war, Arab-American representatives testified before Congress; some  sought to open lines of communication with Zionist leaders.  At one Congressional hearing in 1944 Princeton professor Philip Hitti, the man who almost single-handedly founded Middle East studies in the United States, tried to turn the Wild West motif on its head, suggesting that his government promote open Jewish immigration “on the plains of Arizona and Texas” (161).  The way in which Hitti and other distinguished Arab-Americans were dismissed as peripheral will strike many as further reminder  of how static certain aspects of American public opinion and public policy remain. 


[1]Douglas Little, American Orientalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); see my review, “Mummy Diplomacy,” in Diplomatic History 28 (5): 455-58.  For American millenarianism and Palestine, see Thomas Idinopulos, Weathered by Miracles (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1998).


Joel Gordon teaches Middle East history at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.  He is the author of Nasser's Blessed Movement, Revolutionary Melodrama, and the forthcoming Nasser: Hero of the Arab Nation.


Logos 5.1 - winter 2006
© Logosonline 2006