Declare the Word in Zion: America and the Middle East

Book Reviews, Foreign Affairs, Global War on Terrorism, Judaism, Media, Politics, Religion — By on February 22, 2010 at 12:48 am

Relations between the United States and the Middle East have always been complicated.  Given that the Middle East enjoys complicated relationships with every other region in the world as well—including itself—this should come as no surprise.

On 9/11, however, many Americans were surprised.  In the days just after the attack laymen and newscasters alike tried to explain the disaster with theories ranging from the absurd to the offensive.  Former President Bill Clinton, for example, was quick to point to the assumed cruelty of Western Crusaders when searching for an explanation—this despite the fact that, as Rodney Stark points out, Muslim ire regarding the Crusades is a relatively recent phenomenon which did not become intense until after the state of Israel was founded.

The average American pre-9/11 knew hardly anything about the Middle East, let alone the region’s Gordian relationship with our own nation.  He knows a little more now—though usually not enough to help him really understand the many difficulties we have faced in the region.  This puts him at a severe disadvantage because, troop withdrawal deadlines notwithstanding, the age-old conflicts between West and East aren’t going to become simpler anytime soon.

Ambassador Michael Oren’s Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present offers the first comprehensive historical treatment of the United States’ involvement in the Middle East.  Ambassador Oren unpacks and explains the complexity of our relations with the region in a book that is fascinating, easy to read, and vigorously well researched.  He is well qualified to do so; a graduate of Columbia and Princeton and a visiting lecturer at Harvard and Yale, the American-born Ambassador is also Israel’s highest-ranking official in the United States.

Though he lives in Jerusalem, Ambassador Oren is well acquainted with Western perceptions of the Middle East—a good thing, since his book addresses not only the factual chronology of political conflicts and alliances, but also the evolution of the West’s perceptions of the mythically exotic setting for 1001 Arabian Nights. It also addresses the 19th century exodus of protestant missionaries, zealous to convert the infidels in the holy land, be they Muslims or long-standing members of the Orthodox Church.

America’s fascination with the Middle East, argues Oren, began not with 9/11, not with the discovery of oil in the region, not with 19th century protestant missionary endeavors, and not even with the Barbary Wars:

“Come, let us declare in zion the word of God,” proclaimed William Bradford, the future governor of the Plymouth Colony, as he stepped off the Mayflower in 1620.  Bradford was quoting Jeremiah, but “Zion,” for him, was not the old Promised Land of Canaan but its new incarnation, America.  Its inhabitants were not the ancient Israelites but the 101 passengers who had arrived with Bradford, his fellow Puritans.” (p. 83)

The Puritans, explains Oren, fiercely identified with and embraced the Israelites’ mythic escape from Egyptian oppression and search for a Promised Land.  These colonists, familiar as they were with Old Testament descriptions of the Holy Land, “superimposed the map of the old Canaan over the new one they now settled.” (p. 84)

America and Israel, in other words, were joined together mythically, spiritually, and, in a sense, even geographically, in innumerable ways long before they had any political dealings with each other.  As much as the public might like to ignore the problems in the Middle East post-9/11, we are inescapably married to them—and we always have been.  We can withdraw our troops from the region, but we can’t erase the results of centuries of complex American victories and defeats in the Middle East—nor should we.  Fortunately, Ambassador Oren and his writings will continue to avail those who wish to understand the background to the  innumerable challenges that always have and probably always will challenge our relationship with the Middle East. ‘


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