History and Historiography

The Great Jewish-American Entanglement

An interlocked mix of faith, politics, and identity lies at the root of America’s unique bond with the Jewish people, argues Walter Russell Mead.

November 1, 2022

The Social Order

The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel and the Fate of the Jewish People, by Walter Russell Mead (Knopf, 654 pp., $29.99)

Wall Street Journal columnist Walter Russell Mead’s The Arc of a Covenant (2022) is a 654-page monument to America’s exceptional bond with the Jewish people. We might make a similar point, in far fewer words, by drawing a contrast with another nation that self-identifies as exceptional. In 1789, France and America marked their entry into modernity by granting Jews equal rights as full-fledged citizens. At the time, only about 1,000 Jews lived in the 13 colonies, to France’s more substantial community of 40,000, spread primarily around Bordeaux (largely Sephardic Jews from Portugal) and Alsace-Lorraine (Ashkenazi and German-speaking). Yet through the second half of the nineteenth century, two emigration waves—from Germany in the 1840s and Russia in the 1880s—worked to turn America into the world’s largest Jewish community (2 million) by the time Congress tightened immigration laws in 1924.

France would vie anew for that title in the interwar period, as 70,000 Jews persecuted in Eastern Europe (primarily Poland) took refuge in Paris. In the postwar period, France strengthened its lead, adding 235,000 North African Jews, who resettled to the Hexagon after Algerian, Tunisian, and Moroccan independence. By 1970, France’s overall Jewry surpassed half a million. Yet the parallel migration of Maghrebi Muslims from those same former colonies would plant the seeds of the anti-Semitism that 200,000 French-speaking Jews in Israel cite as the main reason for having made aliyah to Israel (a whopping 10 percent of the community between 2000 and 2017 alone). Jewish flight at such a scale is unimaginable in America. America’s two-way rapport with Jews, more than with any other group, is an integral part of its soul. “Israel is a speck on the map of the world; it occupies a continent in the American mind,” writes Mead.

Mead calls these two interlocking fates a “great quantum entanglement,” and a singular focus of his magisterial study is to show how little a role Jews themselves played in kindling this relationship. “The perception that America is a pro-Jewish power,” he writes, “antedates significant Jewish immigration to the United States.” This paradox, Mead notes, applies to the wider Zionist movement, whose success in declaring a Jewish state in 1948 ultimately hinged on the support of Gentile politicians, industrialists, and diplomats. “The secret weapon of the Zionists,” he writes, “was their ability to gather up the critical gentile support,” yet replicating that among Jews would, in Theodor Herzl’s mind, “be Zionism’s hardest test.” Israel, he notes later, is “something that gentiles, antisemites included, and Jews made together.” Zionists, Mead explains, were a minority of American Jewry until word of the Final Solution reached the U.S. around 1943.

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