1620-2020: the 400th Anniversary of the US-Israel Alliance
The Early Pilgrims
The roots of the unique ties between the United States and Israel precede the 1776 US Declaration of Independence and the 1948 founding of Israel. They eclipse the political beltway of Washington, DC, transcend the pertinent role of the Jewish community, are deeper than the intimate diplomatic discourse between the two countries, and exceed the mutually-beneficial bilateral defense and commercial cooperation.
The seeds of US civic culture and the unique US-Israel kinship were planted in 1620 by the 102 “Mayflower” passengers, who landed at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts.
These passengers were inspired by the Old Testament, referring to their departure from England as the “Modern Day Exodus”; the sailing across the Atlantic Ocean as the “Modern Day Parting of the Sea”; and the New World as the “Modern Day Promised Land” and the “New Israel.” They considered themselves the “Modern Day Chosen People.”
Hence, the litany of Biblically-named towns, cities, mountains, deserts, national parks, and forests throughout the United States. For example, in the US there are 18 Jerusalems, 32 Salems (the original Biblical name of Jerusalem), 83 Shilohs (where the first tabernacle stood), etc.
In 2020, these roots are reflected by the statues and engravings of Moses and some 200 Ten Commandments monuments, which are featured in the US House of Representatives, the US Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, the Justice Department, and throughout the US.
Familiarity with Hebrew was quite common among the Early Pilgrims’ intelligentsia and the better-educated clergy. Thus, the ten initial universities offered Hebrew courses, and valedictory addresses at Harvard, Yale and other institutions of higher learning were offered in Hebrew.
Yale University’s seventh president Ezra Stiles (1778-1795) spoke, read, and taught Hebrew in addition to astronomy, chemistry, and philosophy. He urged graduate students to be able to recite Psalms in Hebrew, “because that is what St. Peter will expect of you at the Pearly Gates.”
The official seals of Yale University (“Light and Truth”), Columbia University (“Jehovah” and “Divine Light”), and Dartmouth College (“God Almighty( feature Biblical terms in Hebrew.
The Founding Fathers
The legacy of Moses and the Exodus had a profound impact on the Early Pilgrims, the 1776 American Revolution, the shaping of The Federalist Papers, US Constitution, Bill of Rights, Separation of Powers, and Checks and Balances.
In fact, the inscription on the Liberty Bell is from Leviticus 25:10 — “Proclaim liberty throughout all the Land, unto all the Inhabitants thereof.” The inscription is the essence of the Biblical Jubilee, which was considered by the Founding Fathers as the role model of liberty.
Furthermore, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which was the moral and intellectual touchstone of the American Revolution, was influenced by the Old Testament: “For the will of the Almighty as declared by Gideon, and the prophet Samuel, expressly disapproves of government by kings” (pp. 10-13).
James Madison, the fourth president and the “Father of the Constitution” stated: “We have staked the future of all our political institutions upon our capacity … to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.”
The Abolitionist Movement
Moses and the Exodus played a key role in the formation of the Abolitionist anti-slavery movement, and in the determination of President Lincoln to abolish slavery. Thus, Harriet Tubman, who initiated the Underground Railroad, which freed black slaves, was called Mama Moses.
The anti-slavery anthem of black slaves was composed with lyrics from Exodus 8:1 — “Go Down Moses, way down in Egypt land, tell old Pharaoh to let my people go.”
The Jewish liberation from Egyptian bondage inspired Martin Luther King, Jr., the key leader of the Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968).
US identification with Jewish Statehood
The second US president, John Adams, supported the idea of a Jewish State in the Land of Israel: “I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation.”
On March 5, 1891, six years before the convening of the 1897 First Zionist Congress, over 400 US leaders, including the Chief Justice, House and Senate leaders, and chairmen of Congressional committees, governors, and mayors, signed the Blackstone Memorial, which called for the reestablishment of a Jewish State in the Land of Israel.
On June 30, 1922 Congress passed a Joint Resolution, which was signed by President Warren Harding, “favoring the establishment, in Palestine, of a national home for the Jewish people.”
The 400-year-old roots and the Supreme Court
Theodore White wrote in The Making of the President, 1964: “It was as if Kennedy, a younger Moses, had led an elder Joshua [Lyndon Johnson] to the height of Mount Nebo, and there shown him the Promised Land which he himself would never enter.”
On December 24, 1968, the three astronauts of Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, conducted a direct broadcast to earth, reciting the first ten verses of the Creation from the Book of Genesis.
The depth and potency of these 400-year-old roots were expressed on June 28, 2005, by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who ruled that the Ten Commandment monument on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol was constitutional: “Since 1935, Moses has stood, holding two tablets … in the [Supreme Court’s] south frieze. … Moses was a lawgiver and a religious leader, and the Ten Commandments have undeniable historical meaning.”
These 400-year-old roots have nourished an exceptional bottom-up international relations phenomenon, whereby elected US officials implement the worldview of most constituents, enhancing the ideological, cultural, commercial, technological, and military bond between the United States and its most reliable, systematic, effective, and ideological ally — Israel.
Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: a US-Israel Initiative.