Art Influences Life in Israel-U.S. Relationship

November 6, 2019

To understand how America perceives Israel, you need to pick up a book. But it’s the not the book you’re probably thinking of, as we discover in “Starstruck in the Promised Land: How the Arts Shaped American Passions About Israel” by Shalom Goldman (University of North Carolina Press).

“I don’t usually read novels. But I read ‘Exodus,’ ” David Ben-Gurion once remarked. “As a literary work, it isn’t much. But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the greatest thing ever written about Israel.”

Of course, America’s fascination with the Holy Land hardly began with Leon Uris’ 1958 novel or the “Exodus” motion picture, directed by Otto Preminger and starring Paul Newman, that followed in 1960. Rather, it originated in Colonial America, where biblical place-names were commonplace, and in the 19th-century United States, where Palestine captured the imagination of American writers such as Herman Melville and Mark Twain. Goldman argues that the untold story of the link is deeply rooted in American culture, both high and low, and no more so than today.

“While much has been written about the diplomatic, military, and religious aspects of the special relationship between Israel and the United States, very little has been said about the mediating role that culture has played in that relationship,” Goldman argues. “In fact, the soft power of the arts — including music, theater, dance, film, literature, and television — has helped shape one of the most significant and consequential relationships in the world.”

Goldman, professor of religion at Middlebury College, is the author of “Zeal for Zion” and “God’s Sacred Tongue,” among other books. He served as a combat medic in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) during the so-called War of Attrition and writes frequently on U.S.-Israeli relations, but perhaps his most arresting accomplishment is the libretto for Philip Glass’ opera “Akhnaten.” As it happens, Goldman pauses to consider the 1991 opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” as an example of how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict found new expression in 2014 on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

“Ultimately, the United States and Israel find themselves locked in an intricate dance on the world stage, a dance made ever more fascinating and fraught by their mutual celebration of the arts.” — Shalom Goldman

As early as 1872, when “American novels, travelogues, and memoirs about voyages to Palestine abounded,” writes Goldman, a fictional travel book titled “Three Vassar Girls in the Holy Land” was a bestseller. But it was the Zionist movement, with its goal of Jewish sovereignty in Palestine, that fundamentally changed the relationship in the early 20th century, if only because, as Goldman writes, “the notion of American exceptionalism resonated with Zionist aspirations.”

Not every American thought leader, of course, was enchanted by the idea of a Jewish homeland. Joseph Kennedy, for example, was notably soft on Nazism and hard on Zionism. On a trip to Hollywood in 1938, Kennedy “harangued” Jewish studio executives on “the dangers that anti-Nazi films posed to world peace.” Goldman suggests that a report on the incident by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to President Franklin Roosevelt was one of the reasons that FDR asked for Joe Kennedy’s resignation as U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom.

Not that the Jewish movie moguls had much to say about the plight of their brethren during World War II, or when the full horror of the Holocaust came to light after the war, or when the State of Israel declared its independence and fought to preserve its existence. The task fell to Leonard Bernstein, who performed in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa at a time when these cities “were not only part of the new State of Israel, but also battlefronts in the Arab-Israeli war.” Then he led 35 members of the new Israel Philharmonic Orchestra to accompany him to the Negev to entertain the troops. Time magazine reported the event under the headline “Mozart in the Desert.”

Still, it was the publication of “Exodus,” which spent more than a year on The New York Times bestseller list, and the release of the movie version that represented a sea change in the attitude toward Israel among Americans. “For Zionists seeking broad American support, ‘Exodus’ could not have appeared at a more crucial moment,” Goldman writes. He points out that the State Department had long been hostile to Zionism and Israel, but now Israel was beginning to be perceived “as a vital counterbalance to Moscow’s embrace of the Arab nations.” As Goldman points out, “the softer cultural factors” — including the book and the movie — contributed to what pollsters described as “a widespread fund of goodwill toward Israel.” Goldman himself, then a young yeshiva student, calls “Exodus” “my introduction to secular Zionism.”

Only then did it become acceptable and even fashionable to depict Israel and its struggle for survival in American motion pictures. Frank Sinatra, Kirk Douglas and John Wayne starred in “Cast a Giant Shadow,” a biopic of Col. David “Mickey” Marcus, whose grave on the grounds of West Point is still a kind of shrine for visiting Jewish families. And then, with Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, Goldman writes, “American support for the emergent country reached new levels of enthusiasm and cultural engagement,” and the parade of luminaries who visited the Jewish homeland ranged from John Steinbeck and James Baldwin to Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.

“Many considered Israel’s victory over the Arab states to be an event of religious or cosmic significance,” Goldman observes, “and this conclusion produced a potent mix of euphoria, self-congratulation, and ethnic pride that strengthened American Jewish identification with the Jewish state.”

Goldman does not overlook the doubts and criticisms that have, more recently, worked to change American perception of Israel. As Israel’s presence in Gaza and the West Bank persisted long after the battlefield victories, and no two-state solution was achieved, the climate began to change yet again. During that period, he points out, “the Jewish settlement effort transformed the physical, political, and ideological nature of Israel.” The 1996 election of Benjamin Netanyahu to his first term as prime minister — “a politician who was as much an American as he was an Israeli” — was the beginning of yet another profound change in American-Israeli relations, a change that reached its highest expression in the “bromance” between President Donald Trump and Netanyahu.

During the same period, however, enthusiasm for Israel diminished among some of its supporters in America. Goldman cites Stevie Wonder as an example. When the music star first visited Israel in 1995, he “seemed to relish the experience,” but he pulled out of a fundraiser in Los Angeles for the IDF in 2012 after a pro-Palestinian group gathered thousands of signatures on a petition that likened Israel’s settlement policies as comparable to apartheid in South African under white rule.

Goldman points out that cultural influence between America and Israel today is fully reciprocal, citing as examples several television shows, including “Homeland,” “In Treatment” and “The Affair,” that reached American television only after the success of their original Israeli versions. 

“Ultimately, the United States and Israel find themselves locked in an intricate dance on the world stage,” he concludes, “a dance made ever more fascinating and fraught by their mutual celebration of the arts.” Thus does Goldman provide the metaphor that best describes what he has achieved in “Starstruck in the Promised Land” — he shows every step of that dance, whether it’s a step forward or a step back.

Starstruck in the Promised Land is available on Amazon. 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

The Arrival of the Zombie Apocalypse

When a society is sick, growing numbers of people can only find the sense of meaning and belonging they need in a group, or movement, that claims to have all the answers for their problems.

Is it Antisemitic to Celebrate 10/7?

President Biden’s position is consistent with the definition of antisemitism that has been adopted by the 33 countries belonging to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.