The Magazine

Close Encounters

American foreign policy at home in the Middle East.

Feb 5, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 20 • By RONALD RADOSH
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This was, Oren points out, "a precedent for future American presidents." The United States did not win at first, but it had taken to heart the advice of our consul in Tunis, William Eaton, who claimed the only language the enemy understood "is terror." Paying tribute only backfired, earning more disdain for America. "Experience," Oren writes, "had taught [Eaton] that in the Middle East power alone was respected and, that in order to gain peace, the United States had no alternative but to wield it." Eventually, the use of power proved to be worth it: It cost over $3 million between 1802 and 1805 to fight the pirates, but it gained world respect for the United States, and reinforced a sense of national pride at home. In 1815 an American fleet sank a large Algerian fighting ship, a step which led to the demise of the Barbary incursions. By 1826, America's 50th birthday, the nation's Mediterranean naval squad was on permanent duty in the Middle East.

Nor was American interest in the Middle East confined to the use of military power. After the soldiers and merchants came men of religion, who sought to gain their own entrée into lands they loved from reading the Bible. Missionaries sought to instill American morals, virtues, and Christianity in a region they considered inhabited by people who practiced a backwards, heathen religion and culture. Some travelers viewed the Middle East through the prism of romance; many would go to find their hopes shattered on arrival. Instead of the romantic, mystical land of literature they had hoped to find, they were chastened to discover a region enveloped by tyranny, poverty, and degradation.

Nevertheless, many Christian missionaries sought to fulfill the biblical injunction by seeking to bring Christianity and freedom to the Muslims. Many of these religious pioneers practiced what might be called Christian Zionism, announcing their intent to secure the area of Palestine for the Jews of the Middle East. That goal, the restorationist idea, had penetrated America's mainstream from its start among evangelical churches in colonial America. Their reasons had a particular religious rationale. As Oren explains, American Protestants and evangelists

held the Jews as their cousins in faith and as the agents of future redemption. By expediting the fulfillment of God's promises to repatriate the Jews to their homeland, Christians could re-create the conditions of Jewish sovereignty that existed in Jesus' time and so set the stage for his reappearance.

It is with amazement that one learns about the attempts of early missionaries to build settlements in the Holy Land, to prepare them for the return of the Jews who had been dispossessed since biblical times. In the 1850s, for example, Walter Dickson sought to establish a colony eventually to be settled by Jews; but Dickson and his family met with failure after a group of Arabs entered their farm and slaughtered the members of his community. Nevertheless, the efforts of these and other Christian settlers led, in the long run, to the creation of lasting institutions, including what would become the American University in Beirut, along with medical facilities that would evolve into great hospitals. Their good works, Oren concludes, helped "lay the foundations of an educational network that would help instill local populations with republican and patriotic ideas."

Thus, it was American Protestants, not Jews, who began to call for an independent, Jewish Palestine. Meeting with Abraham Lincoln in 1863, a Canadian churchman, Henry W. Monk, told the president: "There can be no permanent peace in the world until the civilized nations . . . atone . . . for their two thousand years of persecution [of the Jews] by restoring them to their national home in Palestine." Lincoln responded: "Restoring the Jews to their national home . . . is a noble dream and one shared by many Americans." The restorationist dream was shared by a broad cross-section of the American populace, many of whom actually traveled to Palestine after the end of the Civil War. As the New York Times put it: The Jews "certainly deserve Jerusalem."