Book Matters

Book Matters
“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

The Arc of A Covenant:

The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People

By Walter Russell Mead

This is a deliberately big book, 585 pages of text, with nearly a hundred more pages of notes and index. Its ambition is also huge: to present and explain the relation between American identity on the one hand, and on the other, the Jews and Israel. Mead takes that relation to register our changing sense of what it is to be an American.

Evidently, the topic Mead has set himself overspills the boundaries of political history as standardly conceived. His stated purpose is “to clear away the mistaken ideas and perceptions that any conversation about the Jewish people naturally and inevitably attracts.”

What’s packed into Mead’s view of “any conversation” about Jews? Well, he enters his imaginary conversation by countering a misconception he calls “the Vulcan theory.” Mead borrows the name from a 19th-century hypothesis that explained irregularities in planetary motion by postulating the existence of a planet, “Vulcan,” whose gravitational field would account for those deviations. As it turned out, Einstein’s relativity theory would better explain the irregularities and the hypothetical planet soon dropped from scientific memory.  

Here’s Mead’s analogy: when U.S. foreign policy bends toward Israel favorably, “Vulcanists” imagine that a hidden cabal of Jews is exerting gravitational force sufficient to pull our policy makers out of orbit. However, as Mead shows in several examples, our policy bends toward Israel only when the bend is thought to be in our national interest. More important for Mead’s argument, when policy-makers in Washington think our national interest conflicts with Israel’s, Jewish voters and lobbyists have been powerless to reverse those decisions.

That’s interesting, and – where he gives instances of U.S. policy bending against the preferences of pro-Israel organizations like AIPAC – informative. However, as an explanation for the “theory” of hidden and nefarious Jewish power, his analogy with the Vulcan hypothesis seems to me strained. I have seen “the theory”— of a nefarious and hidden Jewish cabal – take deforming shape in the minds of people whose previous relations with Jews had been close, loving and well-informed. Jews were not an unknown planet to these people. In my experience, what had contorted their thinking was a gap – a moment of unsolved crisis or personal defeat – a felt disconnection between the links in the narrative of their own lives. Western culture contains layer on layer of anti-Jewish theology and literature. Any of these layers can be grasped at to fill a personal gap.

After purportedly clearing away the “Vulcan” misconceptions, Mead takes up the history of the Zionist project. Once again we see Theodor Herzl. He is a journalist, now in Paris on assignment from a fashionable Viennese paper. He witnesses the drumming out of Captain Alfred Drefus, the Jewish officer framed on a false charge of treason and convicted. From the anti-semitic cries of the crowd, Herzl senses the ominous implications for the Jewish future in Europe. The story of Herzl’s negotiations with figures on the world stage – the Kaiser, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Pope Pius X, King Victor of Italy, Prince Ferdinand of Bulgaria, British sympathizers who were Zionists avant la lettre all this Mead retells, freshening his story with details not widely known. Noted too is the reluctance of assimilated European or American Jews to welcome the Zionist movement, concerned that it might open them to accusations of dual loyalty. 

Now we go back a few centuries. There had been a strand in British Protestantism, visible in America’s earliest settlements, of attachment to the King James Bible and consequent spiritual openness to Jews. In the nineteenth century, that strand blended with American enthusiasm for national independence movements, like those in Greece and Italy. Such enthusiasts raised the question of Jews returning to Zion long before American Jews expressed any interest. Palestine was a preoccupation with Americans.  Our countrymen wanted to visit it. Lincoln, on the morning of the day he was assassinated, spoke to his wife of a voyage to Palestine, as something they could look forward to after his term of office had been served.

Such is the setting for the further story that Mead tells, chapter by chapter, down to the present day. The Balfour Declaration, named after British Zionist Arthur Balfour and endorsed by the League of Nations after World War I, established a British mandate for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

We have quite a story. It’s got chronological depth, geographical breadth, theological controversies, territorial rivalries and great power competitions extending down to the present hour. Clearly, no single version of a story like that could please every reader. How should Mead’s version be judged? It’s well stocked with information and well written. Is it marred by any omissions or additions that should be of concern?

I think so. The omissions are important. Let me cite just two of them. 

Entries for Gaza in the Index do not include the government of Israel’s voluntary withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, which forced the removal of about 8,000 Israeli settlers, with homes, schools, neighborhoods and small manufacturies in a place they’d called home since 1967. The Israeli decision was unilateral, carried out without concessions from the other side. It was effected by the Israeli military and bitterly contested politically on the home front. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon expected that the territory thus vacated would be converted to peaceful manufacture and agricultural uses. Instead and immediately, Gaza became the base for tunnels running up to and under the Israel border and rockets, thousands of which have since been launched into Israel, resulting in high numbers of civilian casualties and deaths. This is a rather large omission.

Now take Mead’s account of the 1973 Yom Kippur war. It occurs in three stages. The first occurrence is on p. 312, in the context of Henry Kissinger advising Israel not to launch preemptive attacks that Golda Meir was allegedly “contemplating.” Next, on p. 328, we get a description of the battles, with Egypt and Syria achieving “significant initial successes” till Israel manages to push them back and gain new ground. Only on p. 331 do we learn that Israel was unwarned by the United States which knew of the pending attacks, unsupplied with vitally needed arms, and “worried about the sustainability of their position.” In other words, totally surprised and running out of weapons, the Israeli military was unable to carry on the fight and close to capitulation.  (Mead fails to mention that, rather than live to see Israel’s surrender, Prime Minister Golda Meir privately planned her own suicide.) By the time the attentive reader has put the clues together, the meaning of the story – Israel’s close brush with national annihilation – has been frittered away. In sum, Mead’s partial disclosures (with disjoined pagination) of what actually happened in the Yom Kippur war are misleading. Clearly he means to give equal weight to “both sides.” But it seems that, in these and other cases, Mead has mistaken even-handedness for full, objective and truthful reporting. 

What about additions? Mead sometimes describes at length certain claims that target Jews to demeaning or discrediting effect. Here the well-known distinction between use and mention might be consulted. When the word is what’s being referred to, we have an instance of mention. Otherwise, when the word refers to something beyond itself, we have the word in use. With respect to that distinction, I will not quote Mead’s own quotations and paraphrases of demeaning language about Jews, since mention can blend into use. From what I’ve noticed, the more a demeaning word or discrediting claim is mentioned – the more smoothly that blending is achieved.

All I can say about use and mention, in Mead’s version of this long story, is that –

there are too many mentions 

for me to mention.


About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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