America’s Biblical Roots
JNS.org – The following is an abridged version of the Distinguished Rennert Lecture, delivered on April 19 by Ambassador David Friedman upon receipt of the Guardian of Zion Award from Bar-Ilan University’s Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies.
One of the most common forms of antisemitism in America is the accusation that Jews have dual loyalty, that they support Israel more than America. In the four years that I was ambassador to Israel, I was on the receiving end of that terrible canard more than a few times—oddly enough, often by groups of Jewish Americans.
It’s shameful and it’s nonsense. Not only does support for Israel by American Jews not compromise or undermine support for our host country, but support for Israel is actually a quintessential American value. Indeed, the Bible, so much of which is predicated upon God’s covenant to our forefathers to install, and then later to restore, the Jewish people in the land of Israel, is foundational to the principles upon which America was founded.
While America, unlike many other countries, has no national religion or house of worship, make no mistake that the values of the Bible are deeply infused within our foundational roots. And, it is the God-given nature of those values that makes them unique and that makes America so great.
The Bible is God’s gift to humankind—the formula for how to lead a just, fulfilling and meaningful life. By many accounts—certainly mine—it is the most important written work of all time.
What’s in second place?
Well, we can debate that, but here’s my suggestion—the United States Declaration of Independence. That brilliant document fundamentally changed the way in which we think about the relationship between a government and its citizens.
The Declaration of Independence provided that every human being was created equal and endowed by their creator—remember those words—with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The notion that essential human rights came from God and not man was a revolutionary concept. It made those rights permanent, undeniable, non-negotiable and immune from the vagaries of politics.
How did our founding fathers know which rights God considered unalienable? Our founders knew, because they all read the Bible. There can be no question that the American Republic was sculpted from the lessons of the Bible.
Not surprisingly, all of the unalienable rights identified in the Declaration of Independence—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—find their home in the Bible itself, undoubtedly the strongest single influence on the drafters of the Declaration of Independence.
As we sit here this evening in Jerusalem, about a kilometer from the ancient City of David, we can’t help but see not only the biblical roots of America, but the geographic ones, as well. Not only were our founders strongly influenced by the Bible, but we also know from where that influence was derived.
Indeed, the prophet Isaiah, recognized as a prophet in all three great monotheistic faiths, proclaims, “Out of Zion shall go forth the law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” (Ki mitzion tetze Torah u’dvar hashem m’yerushalayim.)
So, not just philosophically, but geographically as well, it is irrefutable that our great American Republic has its roots in Jerusalem; let’s never forget that. To understand this connection between the birth of America and the values that emerged from City of Jerusalem is to understand all that has transpired since:
It is to understand why the pilgrims risked their lives in the 17th century to reach a new world and establish what many of them referred to as a “new Jerusalem.”
It is to understand how 13 American colonies, all hugging the East Coast, somehow expanded thousands of miles in all directions under the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny”—a doctrine asserting the divine right and destiny of America to inhabit the land from ocean to ocean. Our American founders took to heart God’s words to Jacob as he slept in Bet El and dreamed of a ladder ascending the heavens: Ufaratzta yama vakedma, tzaphona vanegba—“You shall spring outward west and east, north and south.”
Understanding America’s biblical heritage also is to understand why the United States opened a consulate in Jerusalem in 1844, 104 years before the State of Israel came into existence, at which time the new consul general planted an American flag at the Jaffa Gate, and declared that the United States of America hereby “extends its protection to the Jews of Jerusalem.”
It is also to understand why almost every state in the union has cities and towns named after cities and towns in Biblical Israel, from Bethlehem to Shilo to Bethel to Hebron to Jericho to Nazareth to Zion to even Jerusalem.
It is also to understand why President Harry Truman caused the United States to be the first nation to recognize the reborn State of Israel in 1948.
It is also to understand why, in 1995, the United States Senate and the United States House of Representatives, by overwhelming majorities, passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act recognizing Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel and mandating the transfer of our embassy to that city.
It is also to understand why every president since Bill Clinton promised to move our embassy to Jerusalem, or at least to maintain its character as the undivided capital of Israel, although forgive me if I point out that only one kept his promise.
And, finally, it is also to understand why, today, the United States embassy proudly stands in the undivided city of Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish state.
Indeed, just before leaving office, together with Chairman Paul Packer of the President’s Commission for the Preservation of American Heritage Abroad, I officially recognized the City of David in Jerusalem, the place where the Biblical kings ruled and the prophets preached, as an American heritage site.
America’s physical beginnings may be traced back to Plymouth Rock, Valley Forge, the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, the 4th of July or other important points of historical reference. But America’s spiritual beginning, its bedrock foundational principles, its understanding of the God-given rights of every human being, that spiritual beginning occurred with, in the words of Isaiah, “The word of the Lord emerging from Jerusalem.”
Do Jews betray a “dual loyalty” when they support Israel? Absolutely not. Jews who support Israel stand for the very best of our American heritage and our American values.
So many of us today look to our capital in Washington, DC, with such confusion, bewilderment and disappointment. Who are we as Americans? What have we become? What do we stand for?
Where we used to feel such pride and confidence we are now left with uncertainty and even emptiness.
My friends, the answer to this existential crisis in America is not to become a Republican and it’s not to become a Democrat. The answer is to return to the Judeo-Christian values upon which America was forged—to restore our foundational commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; to renew our relationship with our Creator and the eternal principles for a purposeful and meaningful life given to us in the holy Torah.
As we grow more and more untethered from our values, we grow weaker as a nation.
Moses saw this problem 3,500 years ago and warns us about this in Deuteronomy 12:8—“You are not to do as we are doing here today, with everyone doing whatever seems right in his own eyes.”
What an apt description of modern times—everyone doing whatever seems right in their eyes—Ish kol hayashar b’einav.
We are a blessed nation because we are a nation of laws and a nation of values. We were not created a nation of freelancers who chase the latest fad or half-baked theory, all driven to self-validate our poorest choices. Our nation was founded on principles of personal responsibility, equality, opportunity, generosity and accountability—all lessons that emerged from the kings, priests and prophets of Jerusalem.
To my friends here in Israel: you must understand the extraordinary responsibility that you now bear, since 1967, as the keepers of Jerusalem. Like no other nation or army that came before it, Israel has made Jerusalem into a beautiful city worthy of its divine status.
It is open and accessible to peoples of all faiths and even people of no faith, notwithstanding the false narratives proffered by Israel’s enemies. You in Israel are to be commended for your unprecedented care and maintenance of Jerusalem, helped along by some extraordinary benefactors—Ira and Ingeborg Rennert at the very top of the list.
Israel has earned the right to be responsible for Jerusalem and it must never relinquish that right. And Israel must never divide Jerusalem; this is the will not only of the Jewish people, but of millions more throughout the world, and it is even the law of the United States. For so many people around the world, Jerusalem is our north star.
I challenge all Israelis and all Americans to become “guardians of Zion,” to stand for Zion, for Jerusalem, as the eternal undivided capital of the Jewish state, and as the wellspring of all that we hold sacred and worth preserving. In so doing, we will stand for all that makes America and Israel the two greatest nations on earth and the last and best hope for our collective humanity.
David M. Friedman served as United States ambassador to Israel under the administration of President Donald Trump.