01/11/2013 11:24 am ET Updated Mar 13, 2013

Unknown History: American Presidents and Israel

The Israeli-American relationship is one of the most hotly debated issues concerning America's foreign policy at large, and questions relating to the Middle East in particular. It may be that "Jews are news," it may be any other reason, but no one can ignore the often-tensed and ferocious tone attached to any discussion referring to this subject. This particular blog, and a lot of the reactions to it, is a vivid indication of this state of affairs.

One of the problems connected with all that is that when emotions are in the forefront of a discussion, historic facts often take a back seat, and this is definitely a recipe for the flourishing of bias, rather than cultivation of objective approach. Denis Brian, an accomplished writer, did something very important to correct this situation. In his newest book, The Elected And The Chosen: Why American Presidents have supported Jews and Israel from George Washington to Barack Obama, he is telling a story little known to scholars, let alone to ordinary Americans and Israelis.

No other than Alan M. Dershowitz, one of Israel's most vocal and influential supporters in the U.S., wrote that he "was shocked... to find out how much He didn't know" about the subject. What distinguishes the book is the ample data about what American presidents did, said and wrote about Jews, Zionism and Israel, which clearly shows a long line of uninterrupted history of empathy towards Jewish national aspirations otherwise known as Zionism.

While the entire story is beyond the scope of that particular blog, it is significant to relate to American presidents from different historic periods in order to realize the issue discussed in its fullest.

It all started with the early Puritans, many of whom believed that bringing back the scattered Jews to their ancient homeland would be a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy as well as doing historic justice to the Jewish people. John Adams, the second U.S. president, corresponded with Mordechai Immanuel Noah, an American Jew who advocated the return of the Jews to Zion. A Zionist by all accounts, almost a century before Herzl. Adams wrote to him, "I could find it in my heart to wish that you had been at the head of a hundred thousand Israelites... march them into Judea & making a conquest of that country... for I really wish the Jew again in Judea an independent nation." The same John Adams also wrote, that "I believe [that] once restored to an independent government... Jews... possibly in time become Unitarian Christians..."!

Here is a question to be asked -- and Brian does not ask it -- whether being a Zionist and still wishing the Jews to convert make such people real friends of the Jews? Jews and others will give many an answer to this pointed question, but Adams' recognition of Jewish attachment to their ancient homeland stands out as an important historic document.

The dilemma posed by Adams' comments is not dissimilar to more recent presidents. FDR was viewed by many American Jews almost as a modern day Messiah; this was a near universal attitude during his lifetime, and still today, his memory is fondly cherished by the vast majority of American Jews. There were many reasons for this attitude, even though already during WW2 some American Jews raised their voice against what was perceived to be the Administration's inaction in face of the terrible genocide taking place in Europe.

Upon his return from the fateful Yalta conference in February 1945, FDR met King Ibn Saud aboard the USS Quincy, as it anchored in the Suez Canal for a short time. In the meeting, FDR defended Jewish aspirations to establish a state, pointed out to the blossoming of the desert happening with the Zionist settlement of the land, and asked the king to support the absorption in the land of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust. All this was rebuffed by the King, and not so politely; still, appearing before Congress on March 1, 1945, weeks before his tragic, untimely death, FDR had this to say about the meeting; "I learned more about the whole problem, the Muslim problem, the Jewish problem, with Ibn Saud for five minutes than I could have learned in the exchange of two or three dozen letters."

Again, a question remains lingering, whether this was a friendly statement from Jewish perspective or just recognition of the brutal realities of the Middle East? Roosevelt successor, Harry Truman, is another interesting case. He recognized the newly-established state of Israel just 11 minutes after the declaration in Tel Aviv by David Ben-Gurion. Yet, by his own admission, Jews were not allowed in his own private home, as his wife Bess and his mother-in-law would not have Jews behind their closed doors. The same Harry Truman was moved to tears, as David Ben-Gurion told him in 1961, that the Jewish people will never forget his support for Jewish statehood.

We can go on and on mentioning presidents like Eisenhower and Nixon, whose attitude was not one-dimensional, including distinctions made between Jews and Israel, but I feel that a point has to be made about current President Barack Obama, whom Brian considers a friend of Israel. I wholeheartedly agree with him, and while I know nothing about the inner councils of the Obama Administration, I will not be surprised if he and people around him complain about what they may consider as a lack of enough gratitude by many in Israel and in the pro-Israel community in the U.S.

The latest American public opinion poll about Israel, conducted by Pew found out that support for Israel outweighed that for the Arab/Palestinian side 5:1. Clearly, many present-day Americans simply follow in a long American tradition of support for Jewish national aspirations and the state of Israel.