How we got here

The first sentence is a gem: “At a time when so many books are being written, and so many of them are so long, the reader of any book is entitled to ask why it had to be written at all and, if the book absolutely had to exist, why it couldn’t have been shorter.”

That’s how Walter Russell Mead opens The Arc of a Covenant, subtitled The United States, Israel and the Fate of the Jewish People.

Why did it have to be written? Because it’s an informative, exciting and exhaustive (if exhausting) review of how Israel has fit into American foreign policy.

Maybe it could have been shorter. (It has 585 pages of text and 70 more of back matter.) I admit to skimming some parts. But most of it is fascinating. I found the chapters around Harry S. Truman and the creation of the state of Israel simply riveting.

The title, of course, is a play on words. The Ark of the Covenant was (heads up, Indiana Jones fans) a receptacle for sacred objects of Israelite identity. The arc of the relationship between America and Israel has been long and not always bending toward justice. But Americans have always had an almost sacred fascination with the place and the people – Jews especially, but Palestinians as well.

One of Mead’s major contentions is that it is simply nonsense to say that Jews control American foreign policy. Whether mouthed by pro-Zionists or anti-Zionists, it’s gibberish, totally devoid of facts and totally contravened by all evidence.

Commenting on the Trump disaster, he notes, for example: “If American Jews controlled America’s Israel policy, the U.S. embassy would still be in Tel Aviv, the annexation of the Golan Heights would not be recognized, and the United States would be pressing Israel on settlement policy.”

Instead, he says, “the attitudes and ideas that shape American perceptions of Zionism and the state of Israel are deeply rooted and widely dispersed in American history and culture.”

He calls the Jewish influence theory “Vulcanism,” after an imaginary planet called Vulcan that was once thought to orbit the Sun near Mercury. Like Vulcan, overpowering Jewish influence does not exist.

To demonstrate, Mead charts complex and evolving American attitudes toward Israel from the Puritans through Trump. Especially important is the era following World War II. “The cascading disasters and crises of the postwar years were so immense, so unprecedented, so complex, and so terrifying that it is difficult for people today to comprehend the psychological and mental state of our ancestors on whose heads the great storm woke.”

For instance, the blizzards of early 1947 in Britain were so crippling economically that the formerly great empire was forced to totally revamp its foreign policy, especially regarding Palestine.

In the turmoil that followed, the state of Israel was born. Ironically, Israel was able to survive early attacks by Arabs partly because of arms sales brokered by Arab-friendly Russia, which hoped to drive a wedge between Britain and America. American influence in this era was spotty, buffeted by many factions and nominally guided by Truman’s guile, determination and simple luck.

Mead’s writing is clear, often elegant and often droll. The Democracy Train is the American idea that American ideals are automatically transferable to other countries. This Great Miscalculation has misguided our foreign policy for decades. In pursuit of a lasting peace in Israel, it shows up as a quest for the Holy Grail, though it often seems more like a Hitchcockian MacGuffin, a distracting red herring.

You don’t have to be a history nut or a policy wonk to love this book. You just have to be determined enough to tackle a big and complicated subject. It ought to be required reading in the White House, in Congress, in the governments of all 50 states and in the campaign staffs of anyone running for public office.

Enough prideful posturing

I saw it again the other day – on a T-shirt worn by a woman in a public place.

The T-shirt said, “Faith not fear.”

I suppose she was one of those who claim that they have faith in God, and that means they don’t fear coming down with Covid.

With all due respect, that’s horse manure.

Wearing a mask, keeping a safe distance and getting vaccinated are not signs of fear. They are sensible precautions in the face of a deadly virus.

If I wear a seat belt, does that mean I live in fear?

If I don’t prance down the middle of a busy highway, does that mean I have no faith in God?

If I don’t play Russian roulette with a loaded firearm, does that mean I’m a fearful fraidy cat?

How about locking my door at night, washing my hands after using the restroom and … oh, never mind.

Deuteronomy says we ought not to put God to the test. Jesus says that, too. Good enough for me.

          What these T-shirts should read is, “Pride not fear.”

          Pride ain’t faith, baby. There’s a world of difference.

          By the way, I’m just getting over a bout of Covid. Happily, it was one of the milder cases. I was only down for 11 days. Long enough and hard enough for me.

If you have faith and not fear, say a prayer of support for the loved ones of the 11 million Americans who have died of Covid since the pandemic started – not to mention the uncounted other millions from other countries who also have died. And stuff your pride where it should go.

Lost and found

“Mine is a theology of right relationship, in which we week a loving connection with ourselves, each other, with the earth and with a loving God.”

This is part of a statement from a candidate for ministry at a Unitarian Universalist church, as presented in Search, a splendid novel by Michelle Huneven.

The search committee rejects the candidate as being too Christian. Guess that leaves me out of the running, too.

For a short time in college, I attended a UU church with my girlfriend. Later, but before I got into ministry, I also was a guest speaker at a couple of UU churches. The church I attended briefly had a gorgeous Tudor style sanctuary with white walls and dark wood accents. It had a Sunday “service,” but I’m not sure you could call it a “worship” service.

The organ was strong and loud, but the hymns were dreary, and I thought they lacked substance. We definitely were not singing to any deity, nor was “God” ever mentioned, that I recall. I don’t remember any prayers either. There were several readings that, lacking context, had little meaning. The sermons were supposed to be uplifting, but I was never moved beyond the usual wondering, “What’s for lunch?”

The congregation was welcoming in the usual churchy way – which is to say, guardedly. (How else do you welcome new college students whom you’ll probably never see again?) After several weeks, we gave it up. I am not sure what she was looking for. I was fleeing the horrors of a fundamentalist Baptist church. I needed some assurance that Jesus was not a colossal jerk. I had never been in a United Methodist church.

My girlfriend and I did spend many evenings studying in the Wesleyan Center on campus. We camped out in a small room dedicated to John Wesley. The walls of the room were lined with books by and about Wesley. I had never heard of him, and I never cracked a single book besides the ones I brought in to study. Sometimes I wonder how my life might have changed if I’d read from Wesley then, knowing nothing else about him.

Hardly anyone else was ever at the Wesleyan Center, and no one ever said boo to us. Though the place was always open, there didn’t seem to be much happening. It was easy to slip in and out unnoticed several nights a week for a full semester. And then we were gone.

But not quite for good, at least for me. Six or seven years later, I fell in love with a different young woman, and 47 years ago today, we were married. She introduced me to the Wesleyan way of following Jesus. I immediately was hooked, and 30 years ago I committed to ministry in the United Methodists Church.

Michelle Huneven’s book Search kept me up far too late a few nights ago. Relatively close to the end, I couldn’t wait to find out what happened. The ending is tragic. It’s not at all the ending I wanted. But if you know anything at all about the way churches work (UU or Methodist or Baptist or whatever), it’s painfully realistic. (Damn, I hate realistic books. Give me a happy ending any day.)

          Though he didn’t last long in the running, I really liked the candidate I quoted earlier, because he sounds exactly like me. “Mine is a theology of right relationship, in which we week a loving connection with ourselves, each other, with the earth and with a loving God.” Amen to that!