In 1844, a biblical scholar and professor of Hebrew at New York University published a pamphlet urging the establishment of a Jewish state in the place
then known as Palestine.
The name of this early Zionist who argued for the recreation of Jewish
sovereignty over the land of Israel: George Bush.
But the astonishing thing about this manifesto is not just that the author
was a forebear of two later U.S. presidents of the same name. It was that his
advocacy of a theological/political position known as "restorationism"
support for the "restoration" of the Jewish people to their historic homeland
common in 19th century America.
This little-known fact is just one among many that can be discovered about
attitudes toward the Middle East in what may well be one of the most important
books on the subject to be published in this or any other year.
"Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present"
by Israeli historian Michael Oren fills a void that has long existed in the
historiography of the Middle East. Until the release of this beautifully written
and meticulously researched volume this month, there simply was no
comprehensive history of American involvement in the region.
Oren, who is based at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, has written a book
overflowing with colorful tales of American travelers, pilgrims, businessmen,
missionaries, diplomats, soldiers and sailors who weren't merely observers of this
pivotal area of the globe (the term for which was actually coined by the
American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan). Americans have, from the very
beginning of our own history as a nation, played a crucial role in shaping the
Middle East. And as Oren illustrates, we, in turn, have been influenced by this
Indeed, the formation of the United States of America as a constitutional
republic in 1789 is, in part, a result of our first encounter with the Arab and
Muslim world: the long struggle with the semi-independent city states of North
Africa known to us as the Barbary Pirates. It was the inability of the
independent 13 American states who had no federal government or navy to
protect shipping and sailors from the depredations of those early terrorists, that
motivated many to push for the enactment of the Constitution.
THE KORAN AND THE CONSTITUTION
If that nearly forgotten war bears a strange resemblance to the contemporary
conflict with Islamist terrorists, it is no coincidence. Oren recounts the
shock of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams who, while serving as American
ambassadors in Europe during the 1780s, met with the Abd al-Rahman, a representative
the pasha of Tripoli, a major source of anti-American terror on the high
In making exorbitant demands for American tribute, Al-Rahman told Adams and
Jefferson that his country was fighting under the authority of the Koran, which
authorized them to make wars on all non-believers and to enslave all Western
prisoners in terms that Al Qaeda would have appreciated.
"Every Mussulman [sic] who should be slain in battle" with America, he said,
"was sure to go to Paradise."
Oren's book is filled with a host of such encounters that may be new even to
those who have been reading about the subject their entire lives.
For example, how many know that the first American arm sales to the Middle
East was not to Israel or an Arab state but goes back to Andrew Jackson's treaty
with Ottoman Turkey?
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Another little known episode that Oren recounts deals with American veterans
of the Civil War, both Union and Confederate, who helped found and train the
Such tales are a delight for history lovers. But aside from pleasure for the
general as well as the specialized reader, there is a far broader moral to be
learned from this volume that speaks directly to contemporary political
Although the content of "Power, Faith and Fantasy" is far too comprehensive
to be neatly summarized in even a lengthy review, there is a concise
conclusion that can be drawn from the book. It is that the ideas promulgated by men
such as former President Jimmy Carter or scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen
Walt, authors of the infamous "Israel Lobby" article in the London Review of
Books, ignores two centuries of history, as well as smears Jews and other
friends of Israel.
Oren illustrates throughout his book just how deep the roots of American
support for Zionism run. The George Bush anecdote is but one of numerous incidents
in which mainstream American Christians spoke out for the Jewish rights to
Zion long before Theodor Herzl did.
DEEP ROOTS OF ZIONISM
Going forward to the 20th century, Oren illustrates that the crucial roles of
Presidents Woodrow Wilson in backing the Balfour Declaration and Harry S.
Truman in giving the new-born State of Israel recognition were not the result of
political calculation but decisions that were based on the deeply held beliefs
of these leaders.
The idea of Israel is something that has always been part of the
sensibilities of American religious thinking. No lobby could possibly create the broad
support for Israel that has run, and still runs, across the spectrum of
mainstream America, powered by both faith and secular democratic values.
Oren shows that the contrary thesis that rejects Zionism also has deep roots
in the tradition of Protestant missionaries. Those Americans came to the
Middle East seeking converts, but wound up founding institutions, such as the
American Universities in Cairo and Beirut, that inculcated the spirit of American
democracy and nationalism in generations of Arab intellectuals.
Ironically, it was thus Americans who founded Arab nationalism. That means
the notion of spreading democracy to the region wasn't invented by George W.
Bush or the "neocons" but rather by the intellectual (and in some cases actual)
ancestors of the 20th century Arabists in the State Department.
The late Edward Said's thesis that saw all Western views of the region as
inherently racist "Orientalism" dominates the academy these days and helps
spread the idea that American power is a force for evil abroad. But Oren's research
stands as a conclusive reproof to this fallacy.
Though oil and profit have played their parts in forming the story of America'
s encounter with the region, more altruistic motives have always tended to
dominate our policies. Despite the negative view that emanates from many of our
intellectuals, Oren is right when he concludes by writing that "On balance,
Americans historically brought far more beneficence than avarice to the Middle
East and caused significantly less harm than good."
While it will be no surprise if many in the current Middle East studies
establishment attack this book, Oren's achievement is must-reading for policymakers
and the general public alike. In an era in which global terror based in the
Middle East is the primary challenge to the survival of democracy, Power Faith
and Fantasy ought to be read and understood by as many Americans as possible.