Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs

U.S.-Israeli ties: The 400-year-old foundations

According to Professor Daniel Elazar, the concept of the U.S. Constitution was inspired by the Bible in general, and by the covenant between God and Abraham and Jacob in particular. 

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint appearance in Jerusalem on May 22, 2017. Credit: Haim Zach/GPO
U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint appearance in Jerusalem on May 22, 2017. Credit: Haim Zach/GPO
Yoram Ettinger
Yoram Ettinger
Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: A U.S.-Israel Initiative.

U.S.-Israeli relations have surged commercially and militarily since Israel’s establishment in 1948, and Israel enjoys a 71 percent favorability rating according to the 2017 annual Gallup poll of favorability (compared to 24 percent for the Palestinian Authority). This positive state of relations has been achieved despite the systematic pressure by all U.S. presidents—from Harry Truman through Barack Obama—and despite persistent criticism of Israel by the State Department, The New York Times and The Washington Post (all three opposed the 1948 establishment of the Jewish state), and other representatives of the “elite” U.S. media.

U.S.-Israeli relations have dramatically expanded in defiance of conventional common sense, but consistent with and nurtured by the 400-year-old ideological, moral, cultural, religious and historical foundations of the United States, which have enriched the U.S.-Israeli saga, featuring a unique people-to-people, bottom-up relationship with elected officials representing the wish of most constituents.

For example, on March 5, 1891—antedating Theodor Herzl and the 1897 First Zionist Congress—U.S. President Benjamin Harrison received the William Blackstone Memorial, which called for the re-establishment of the Jewish state in the Land of the Bible: “Palestine for the Jews.” The memorial was signed by more than 400 distinguished Americans, including the chief justice, additional Supreme Court justices, future President William McKinley, senators, congressmen (including the Speaker of the House, and the chairmen of the Ways and Means and International Relations committees), governors, mayors, university presidents, businessmen, clergy and media editors.

The signatories of the Blackstone Memorial were overwhelmingly Christian movers and shakers, who signed the document well before the emergence of the Jewish political lobby, reflecting the biblical Judeo-Christian roots of the United States.

The seeds of the Blackstone Memorial—and the special affinity of the American people towards the Jewish state—were planted in 1620 when the early Pilgrims, stepping off the Mayflower, referred to themselves as “the people of the modern-day Exodus” who had departed from the “modern-day Egypt [Britain],” experienced the “modern-day Parting of the Red Sea [the Atlantic Ocean]” and arrived in “the modern-day Promised Land [America].”

Hence the 1,000-plus sites in the United States (towns, cities, national parks and deserts) bearing biblical names, such as 18 Jerusalems, 32 Salems (the ancient name of Jerusalem), 34 Bethels, 24 Shilos, 18 Hebrons, 12 Jerichos, Zions, Bethlehems, Mizpahs, Rehoboths, Carmels, Gileads, Moabs and so on.

The prominent stature of the Bible and the Hebrew language among the early Pilgrims was demonstrated in 1640 by the first book written and printed in the New World, the Bay Psalm Book, which transcribed biblical psalms into metered verses. The seals of three of the first 10 universities bear Hebrew inscriptions: Yale (אורים ותומים the power of the Jewish High Priest), Columbia University (יהוה Jehovah and אוריאל Uriel, one of God’s guardian angels) and Dartmouth College (אל שדי one of God’s names).

The special sentiments towards the reconstruction of the Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel were further cultivated by the 18th-century Founding Fathers, who considered themselves to be “the people of the modern-day Covenant.” The iconic symbol of independence, the 1752 Liberty Bell, highlights a verse from Leviticus, 25:10: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” This verse refers to the Jubilee—the cornerstone of the biblical concept of liberty, a cardinal value in the history of the 50 states that is commemorated every 50 years.

In fact, the cement of the American Revolution was Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (January 10, 1776): “For the will of the Almighty as declared by Gideon and the Prophet Samuel expressly disapproves of government by kings … .”

The president of Yale University (1778-1795) and a founder of Brown University, Ezra Stiles, taught Hebrew, urging graduating students to be able to recite Psalms in the original language, “because that is what St. Peter will expect of you at the Pearly Gates.” He called for “the reestablishment of the Twelve Tribes in Palestine.”

According to Professor Daniel Elazar, the concept of the U.S. Constitution was inspired by the Bible in general, and by the covenant between God and Abraham and Jacob in particular. The term “federal” was a derivative of the Latin word foedus, which is the biblical covenant. Moreover, Elazar opined that the first-ever continental republic was not ruled by an imperial ruler, but “through a system of dispersed democratic majorities, coupled with nationwide representation of both individuals and constituent states … [similar to] the federation of [the 12] tribes of ancient Israel.”

According to Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1830 Democracy in America, the United States practiced separation of religion and state, not religion and society. While a government-sponsored religion risked discrediting religion, a society devoid of religion risked immorality and oblivion. According to Tocqueville, religion and liberty are mutually inclusive. In 1967, Professor Robert Bellah wrote that the United States has a civil religion—a set of ethical principles based on the Bible, mostly Deuteronomy. The United States benefits from Bible- (not libertarianism) driven liberty, which is responsibility- and not rights-driven liberty for the common good.

In 1925, President Calvin Coolidge stated: “Hebraic mortar cemented the foundations of American democracy … .”

In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt remarked that “it would be difficult to appraise the far-reaching influence of [the translation of the Bible] upon the speech, literature, moral and religious character of our people and their institutions … .”

In fact, the Bible had a profound impact on the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the separation of powers (Moses, Aharon, the 70 elders, the tribal presidents), the checks and balances system, the requirement that the chief executive must be a native, that the capital city should not belong to any tribe/state, the abolitionist movement (“Let my people go,” “Go down Moses”) and the general public discourse in the United States.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln stated: “The rebirth of Israel as a nation-state is a noble dream and one shared by many Americans.” On June 30, 1922, the U.S. House and Senate ratified the League of Nations’ Mandate for Palestine, which codified the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine, in the entire area west of the Jordan River. President Warren G. Harding added his signature on Sept. 21, 1922. In 1925, the House, Senate and Coolidge ratified the 1924 Anglo-American Treaty, which approved the Mandate for Palestine. In 1943, a joint resolution by the Alabama State Legislature declared: “Urgent need for a Jewish Homeland.”

On May 14, 1948, the U.S. radio icon and world traveler Lowell Thomas told his listeners: “Today, as the Jewish state is established, Americans read through the Bible as a historical reference book.”

On Dec. 24, 1968, Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, entered the lunar orbit, and the three astronauts recited Genesis 1:1-10 in the most-watched TV broadcast at the time: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form … .”

In 2001, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) welcomed the newly elected President G. W. Bush: “Mr. President, we trust that you shall lead us in the best tradition of Joshua and Caleb.” Pastor Nathan Baxter asked Bush, during the inauguration prayer at the National Cathedral, to unite the American people just like King David united the Jewish people.

In 2008, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.), the president pro tem and a legislative giant, announced his retirement from the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee by quoting Ecclesiastes 3:1: “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.”

In 2009, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the floor manager of Obamacare, complimented Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) during a press conference: “Senator Reid displayed the patience of Job, the wisdom of Solomon and the endurance of Samson.”

In 2014, Obama justified his decision to defer the deportation of 5 million illegal immigrants by quoting Exodus 22:21: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

In 2017, there were about 20 million copies of the Bible sold in the United States, which is almost double the number sold annually during the 1950s.

In 2018, the role played by the Bible in the shaping of the U.S. core values, legal and political systems, public discourse and general state of mind is still significant. This was demonstrated by the Nov. 17, 2017, opening in Washington, D.C. (three blocks from Capitol Hill) of the largest Museum of the Bible in the world (430,000 square feet), featuring more than 40,000 artifacts, including 613 Torah scrolls.

In 2018, the statues of Joshua, King David and Judah the Maccabee stand at West Point Military Academy among “The Nine Worthies,” the nine top warriors in human history. The other “Worthies” are Alexander the Great, Hector, Julius Caesar, Godfrey of Bouillon, King Arthur and Charlemagne. The battle cry of the Maccabees—“Whoever trusts God, join me!”—inspired the official motto of the United States: “In God We Trust.” Since 1996 the U.S. Postal Service has annually issued a Chanukah stamp commemorating an event: the second-century-BCE rebellion of the Maccabees against the Seleucid Empire, the few against the many, which inspired the Founding Fathers’ revolt against the British Empire.

In 2018, the bust of Moses faces the Speaker of the House (surrounded by 22 other busts of historical lawgivers, who stare at Moses). It is also found at the Rayburn House Office Building’s subway station and in the main reading room in the Library of Congress. Statues and engravings of Moses and the Ten Commandments are featured in the Supreme Court. Moses and/or the Ten Commandments feature in the U.S. federal courthouses in Cleveland and Indianapolis; the Supreme Courts in Harrisburg, Pa.; St. Paul, Minn.; Lansing, Mich.; and Knoxville, Tenn.; the county courthouses in Cleveland; West Chester, Pa.; Pittsburgh; Fort Wayne, Ind.; and Jackson, Miss.; the appellate court in Brooklyn, N.Y.; the Boston Public Library; the State Capitol in Lincoln, Neb.; etc.

Ten Commandments monuments have been erected on the grounds of the state capitols in Texas (1961), Oklahoma (2012) and Arkansas (2017). On June 27, 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the 6-foot-high Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol. According to Chief Justice Rehnquist:

Religion has been closely identified with our history and government. … Acknowledgements of the role played by the Ten Commandments in our nation’s heritage are common throughout America…. Since 1935, Moses has stood, holding two tablets that reveal portions of the Ten Commandments written in Hebrew, among other lawgivers in the south frieze [of the U.S. Supreme Court]. … Representations of the Ten Commandments adorn the metal gates lining the north and south sides of the Courtroom as well as the doors leading into the Courtroom. Moses also sits on the exterior east façade of the [U.S. Supreme Court] holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments. … Since 1897, a large statue of Moses holding the Ten Commandments, alongside a statue of the Apostle Paul, has overlooked the rotunda of the Library of Congress’ Jefferson Building. A medallion with two tablets depicting the Ten Commandments decorates the floor of the National Archives. Inside the Justice Department, a statue entitled “The Spirit of Law” has two tablets representing the Ten Commandments lying at its feet. In front of the Ronald Reagan Building stands another sculpture that includes a depiction of the Ten Commandments. So too, a 24-foot-tall sculpture, outside the Federal Courthouse, depicting, among other things, the Ten Commandments and a cross. Moses is also prominently featured in the Chamber of the United States House of Representatives. … Moses was a lawgiver as well as a religious leader, and the Ten Commandments have undeniable historical meaning … .

In 2018, the official seals of the United States, the president, the Supreme Court, the House of Representatives and all the executive departments, as well as the U.S. dollar, feature the eagle with 13 stars for the original 13 colonies, arranged in the shape of the Star of David, which is also the shape of the U.S. sheriff’s badge.

Since 1949, the U.S.-Israeli crises have always been “V”-shaped (quick to deteriorate and quick to rebound), not “U”-shaped (quick to deteriorate and slow to rebound), due to the healthy foundations and tissues of the bilateral relationship, transcending the Palestinian issue, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor, disagreements about Iran and so on.

The extraordinary enhancement of the U.S.-Israeli relationship—irrespective of the White House and State Department pressuring Israel—derives from the unique 400-year-old foundation laid down by the Bible-inspired early Pilgrims and nurtured by the Judeo-Christian-driven Founding Fathers and the American people, rather than by policymakers and molders of public opinion.

The unique foundations of the U.S.-Israeli saga were forged prior to the evolution of an organized Jewish community, the Holocaust, the establishment of Israel and the rise of AIPAC on the American scene. These foundations have nurtured a covenant between the American people, their state and federal representatives, on the one hand, and the Jewish state on the other hand. It accords Israel a unique standing: a foreign, but also a value-driven domestic issue.

Ethics of the Fathers, a second-century compilation of Jewish ethical teachings, sayings and proverbs, observes: “Conditional love is tenuous; unconditional love is eternal.” Similarly, Israel is the only unconditional ally of the United States, wholeheartedly reciprocating the value-driven unconditional identification by the American people with the Jewish state.

Ambassador Yoram Ettinger is a consultant on U.S.-Israel relations and the Middle East. He served as Minister for Congressional Affairs at Israel’s Embassy in Washington, D.C., Israel’s Consul General to the Southwestern USA and director of Israel’s Government Press Office.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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