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date: 23 February 2024

Foreign Policy and Religion: U.S. Foreign Policy Toward Israelfree

Foreign Policy and Religion: U.S. Foreign Policy Toward Israelfree

  • Daniel G. HummelDaniel G. HummelDepartment of Nutritional Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison


Religion has played a constant role in the United States–Israel relationship. Christian and Jewish interests have shaped U.S. foreign policy, especially after the rise of the Zionist movement in the late 19th century and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. The role of religion Israel has historically depended on three interlinking factors: the influence of domestic political considerations in the calculations of American policymakers, the prominence of the Middle East in U.S. diplomatic and strategic thinking, and the beliefs and attitudes of individual policymakers, both their own religious convictions and their assessment of how important religious beliefs are to the American people.

Religion has alternately strengthened and strained the U.S. relationship with the Zionist movement and the state of Israel. At some moments, such as the 1930s, religious attitudes and prejudices worked against closer cooperation. At other times, such as the Israeli–Egyptian peace summit of 1978, religious forces played a prominent role. As a state with special religious significance for many Americans, Israel provides a window into how religion functions in U.S. foreign policy, how its function has changed over time, and how religion has acted as an independent variable in political and policy outcomes.


  • Contentious Politics and Political Violence
  • History and Politics
  • Political Values, Beliefs, and Ideologies


In 1994, Bill Clinton made a rare U.S. presidential appearance before the Israeli Knesset to celebrate the recent Israel–Jordan peace agreement. Near the end of his speech, Clinton recalled the words of his late Baptist pastor W. O. Vaught: “If you abandon Israel, God will never forgive you.” Clinton continued, with apparent approval, “[Vaught] said it is God’s will that Israel, the biblical home of the Jewish people, continue forever and ever” and ended with the promise: “your journey is our journey, and America will stand with you now and always” (Clinton, 1994). Clinton’s explicit invocation of his Baptist pastor and reference to a popular theological conviction that the Jewish people had a divine right to at least part of Palestine was received warmly by his Israeli audience. These statements were also largely uncontroversial in the United States, where a bipartisan and interreligious consensus over U.S. support for Israel had existed for decades.

The extent to which Clinton relied on religious language to articulate the United States–Israel relationship illustrates the consistent role that both Christian and Jewish concepts have played in the longer history of U.S. foreign policy, especially after the rise of the Zionist movement in the late 19th century and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 (Barnett, 2016; Goldman, 2018; Greenberg, 1993; Grose, 1984; Smith, 2013). The role of religion in U.S. foreign policy toward Israel has historically depended on three interlinking parameters of American national life. First, the influence of domestic political considerations in the calculations of American policymakers. Second, the prominence of the Middle East in U.S. diplomatic and strategic thinking. Third, the beliefs and attitudes of individual policymakers, both their own religious convictions and their assessment of how important religious beliefs are to the American people.

Religion has both strengthened and strained the U.S. relationship with the Zionist movement and, after 1948, the state of Israel. At some moments, such as American policy toward Zionism in the 1930s, religious attitudes and prejudices worked against closer cooperation. At other times, such as the Israeli–Egyptian peace summit of 1978, religious actors, language, and attitudes played a prominent role. Attitudes toward Islam have also shaped United States–Israel relations and U.S. policy in the Middle East. As a state with special religious significance for many Americans, Israel provides a window into how religion functions in U.S. foreign policy, how its function has changed over time, and how religion has acted as an independent variable in political and policy outcomes (Inboden, 2008; Miller-Davenport, 2013, Preston, 2006, 2012).

Origins, 1620–1920

American interest in Palestine began long before the rise of the Zionist movement in the late 19th century. Theological reflections about the Jewish people’s migration to Palestine date back to the first generations of settlers in New England. Puritan doyens, including John Cotton (1585–1652) and Increase Mather (1639–1723), highlighted the prophetic end times significance of Jewish settlement in Palestine. For these early colonists, Judeo-centric prophecy—nurtured by the covenantal theology and nationalism of the English Civil War (1642–1651)—provided grist for the worldview that informed early New England settlements. As part of the civil religion in New England, Puritans argued that their destiny was tied to assuring the restoration of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland. Cotton foresaw a “willing people among the gentiles, to convey the Jewes into their owne Countrie, with Charets, and horses, and Dromedaries” (Goldman, 2018, p. 60). As God’s covenanted people, the Puritans linked the fate of their “errand to the wilderness” in North America—indeed the fate of all humanity—to Jewish migration and singled out Palestine as an important piece of land for God’s ultimate plans (Pieterse, 1991; Smith, 2013).

The relative freedom with which European Christians could practice their faith in North America fostered a dizzying variety of religious traditions. The presence of numerous Protestant denominations, Anabaptist sects, as well as Roman Catholics and new American-born movements meant that as the European presence in North American grew, views on the Jewish people and Palestine also proliferated. Two clusters of views were apparent, however. The predominant Protestant denominations rooted on the Eastern seaboard, including Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Lutherans, evinced a theological curiosity about Jewish restorationism on covenantal terms, while revivalist movements and their resultant denominations, including Methodists, Baptists, and radical sects including Adventists, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, understood Jewish restoration to Palestine in more apocalyptic terms, often as one piece of a millennialist vision. This divergence had many exceptions on both sides, but it also testified to the ways Christian interest in Jews and Palestine in the 17th and 18th centuries was bound up in the development of Protestantism in North America (Clark, 2007; Goldman, 2018).

Many European settlers, however, paid little attention to eschatology and knew even less about Palestine. More relevant to shaping colonial attitudes was the widespread cultural influence of the Bible, as well as travelogues, and captivity narratives based in the Mediterranean basin. The vast majority of colonists, with no personal knowledge of Palestine, the Ottoman Empire, or its inhabitants, essentially understood Palestine as the Holy Land and site of Jesus’ life; the homeland of the Christian faith, which had superseded Judaism and rivaled Islam. The first American missionaries, sent by the interdenominational American Board to Commissioners of Foreign Missions, did not embark to Palestine until 1819, where they met fierce resistance, including from Arab Christians. Their letters back to Americans helped to shape American attitudes toward the region. They described local customs, religious hostility, and Ottoman governance. Travelogues helped to solidify orientalist assumptions that Palestine was largely unpopulated, economically destitute, and culturally oppressive—an attitude that extended to much of the Middle East (Heyrman, 2015; Hollinger, 2017; Kidd, 2008; Makdisi, 2008).

Interest in Jewish settlement in Palestine persisted through the creation of the American republic. Some early Americans, like Puritans before them, linked their fates to Jewish settlement in Palestine. In 1816, Elias Boudinot, a former president of the Continental Congress, wondered whether “God has raised up these United States in these latter days, for the very purpose of accomplishing his will in bringing his beloved people to their own land” (Goldman, 2018, p. 28). Americans continued to link Christian theology, American civil religion, and Palestine throughout the antebellum period. New religious groups, including Mormons, Adventists, and Restorationists (the Stone-Campbell movement) included Judeo-centric and Palestine-centric eschatology or claimed lineages stretching back to the Jerusalem church as described in the New Testament’s Book of Acts. The Mormons in particular followed their founder, Joseph Smith, in teaching that the restoration of the Jews to Palestine would be preceded by the construction of a second Zion in America. Two Zions, one in America and one in Palestine, made Mormons and Jews equal partners in God’s plans and foreshadowed a broader Protestant understanding of shared covenantal responsibilities with Jews in the 20th century (Goldman, 2018; Greenberg, 1993).

While Christian biblical links to Palestine proliferated, American Jews in the early republic tended to downplay any interest in Palestine, often for fear of being singled out by the Christian majority. The rise of Reform Judaism, beginning in the 1840s with local reform societies, furthered this tendency. Reform Rabbis argued against the idea that Jews were a theologically chosen people or that they existed in America as “exiles” from their homeland, preferring instead to universalize the prophetic texts of the Bible into a politics of humanitarianism, liberalism, and full-throated Americanism. Reform Jews wanted to live as a distinct ethnic group within America (remaining concerned about rates of intermarriage and synagogue attendance), but without the theological baggage that many thought had inhibited Jews from assimilating into American life (Sarna, 2005).

Persistent Christian biblical interest in Palestine and the rise of Reform Judaism help explain the way American interest in the Zionist movement in the late 19th century arose. Even before Theodore Herzl’s First Zionist Congress in 1897, American Christians expressed political interest in Jewish migration to Palestine. Clergymen, such as the Methodist preacher, author, and activist William E. Blackstone, brought Jewish migration to the forefront of American politics. The Blackstone Memorial, signed by more than 400 of America’s (overwhelmingly Protestant) politicians, lawyers, and clergy in 1891, asked President Benjamin Harrison, in light of the suffering of more than 2 million Russian Jews, “Why not give Palestine back to them?” (Blackstone, 1891). Blackstone, who himself was deeply invested in biblical eschatology and believed Jews would need to convert to Christianity and settle in Palestine before Christ’s return, nevertheless aimed his appeal to the broader sentiments of “sympathy, justice, and humanity.” The Memorial was Christian, insofar as it was written and signed by Christians and assumed Christian categories, but it also revealed how interest in Jewish settlement in Palestine was a broadly American value, as well (Ariel, 2013; Goldman, 2018).

While American Jewish leaders—most of whom represented Reform Judaism—were opposed to the Zionist movement, many American Jews found in Zionism a hopeful cause. Of the more than 1,000 Zionist organizations in 1900, more than 100 were located in the United States (Cohen, 1989, p. 37). Even as Reform Jews continued to resist the nationalistic particularism of Zionism, the movement received enough popular backing in America and support from European Jewry—though often not from religious leaders—that it continued to gain adherents. When one of the most prominent Jews in American life, Louis Brandeis, became an avid Zionist, American Jews found a leader who both argued for Jewish migration as a liberal value and against the notion that Zionism was inconsistent with Americanism. Brandeis explained to a council of Reform rabbis in 1915 that “Every American Jew who aids in advancing the Jewish settlement in Palestine, though he feels that neither he nor his descendants will ever live there, will likewise be a better man and a better American for doing so ... There is no inconsistency between loyalty to America and loyalty to Jewry” (Brandeis, 1915/1995, p. 496).

With the case of Brandeis, who was a secular Jew, we see how religion both promoted and worked against American interest in Palestine in surprising and unexpected ways. In American Reform Judaism, rabbis, synagogues, seminaries, and appeals to the Bible weighed in on both sides of the Zionist cause. To further complicate the picture, Brandeis contacted Blackstone in 1916 to revive the Blackstone Memorial, which was presented to Brandeis’ friend, President Woodrow Wilson, in the midst of World War I (Ariel, 2013). There is no conclusive evidence that Wilson’s Christian faith, which informed his internationalist foreign policy, specifically informed his views of Palestine or Zionism. But with Wilson’s support for the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the British wartime promise of “a national home for the Jewish people,” the United States officially endorsed the aims of Zionism for the first time (Burnidge, 2016; Urofsky, 1995). This development was the product of religious activism and the alignment of U.S. interests with Jewish migration.

Activism and Diplomacy, 1920–1960

In the wake of World War I, U.S. policy departed from Wilson’s internationalism and prioritized the unilateral pursuit of national interests. The United States did not isolate itself from global events, but under conservative presidents such as Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, it did prefer to create private or ad hoc solutions to international crises. Even in the 1930s under Franklin Roosevelt, American internationalism ebbed until the outbreak of World War II. The fate of U.S. policy toward Palestine in the decades leading up to Israeli statehood was bound up in American attitudes toward internationalism; U.S. intervention in Mandatory Palestine, the arrangement of British control over Palestine between 1920 and 1948, was limited. The vacuum of official policy allowed for activism on the part of religious organizations—both Christian and Jewish—to influence popular U.S. support for Zionism and, alternatively, for Arab populations in Palestine and beyond (Merkley, 1998).

For a growing number of Protestants watching the Jewish–Arab ethnic rivalry in Palestine after World War I, the plight of both Arabs and Jews spurred interest and activity. Protestant missionaries, who had shaped much of what Americans perceived as the Middle East in the 19th century, mostly opposed Zionism as a threat to Arab interests and, more to the point, to their own ministries and status in Arab societies. Jewish migration to Palestine, undertaken by European Jews, was perceived by Arabs as a new phase of British settler colonialism. Missionaries enjoyed special rights under European powers and in a sense represented those powers to Arab populations. They were the first to confront the staunch and sometimes violent reaction of Arabs in response to British Mandatory policy and the increasing flow of Jewish migrants to Palestine. Many missionaries hailed from influential elite liberal Protestant circles in the United States, developed specialized knowledge of regional languages and customs, and eventually worked as diplomats for the State Department, solidifying the government’s “Arabist” point of view which sided with Arab nationalism and opposed Zionism (Hollinger, 2017; Kaplan, 1995; Kieser, 2010).

These same missionaries were part of a generation of liberal Protestants with collapsing eschatological interest in Jews. Throughout the early 20th century, conservative and liberal Protestants began to divide over theological, intellectual, and social differences. Fundamentalists, who began to separately organize in earnest after World War I, almost uniformly held to a premillennial eschatology that shared in the prophetic expectation of Jewish restoration to Palestine. The particular brand of premillennialism popular among fundamentalists—dispensationalism—defined the expectation for a sovereign Jewish nation in Palestine consistent with borders as enumerated in biblical prophecy. Dispensationalists debated over whether Jews were to migrate in “unbelief,” or whether they first were to convert to Christianity. In either case, dispensationalists, as fundamentalists, lost the culture wars of the 1920s—most spectacularly in the Scopes Trial of 1925 but also in the northern Baptist and Presbyterian denominations. After failing to reform these mainline denominations, fundamentalists separated to create their own institutions. In the process, their eschatology lost what sway it had accumulated over the American public. The mainline, or modernist, victors had long since discarded the type of eschatology that included Judeo-centric prophecies (Marsden, 2006; Sutton, 2014).

At the same time, persistent Christian anti-Judaism and revived European antisemitism shaped American opinion in the interwar years. “Although many Americans respected Jews,” writes historian Robert Michael, “antisemitism during the interwar period was more widespread and profound than ever before in American history” (Michael, 2005, pp. 127–128). Anti-Jewish sentiment was captured in the 1924 Immigration Act, which capped national immigration rates to the demographic ratios of 1890, before the largest waves of Jewish migrants arrived. Other examples included the wide circulation of the antisemitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion and disinterest in European antisemitism in the 1930s. These contributed to a political culture, and a religious context, in which long-standing anti-Jewish prejudices ruled the day. Not to be outdone, some fundamentalist preachers, such as Kansas-based Gerald B. Winrod, founder of the organization Defenders of the Christian Faith, trafficked in overt antisemitic demagoguery, going so far as to earn the nickname “The Jayhawk Nazi” for his support of Hitler. Interreligious groups such as the National Conference of Christians and Jews, founded in 1927 in response to rising anti-Catholicism (also a feature of anti-immigrant sentiment), worked to stunt antisemitism and, once the humanitarian crisis in Europe became acute in the 1930s, assisted efforts to evacuate or protect Jewish communities (Schultz, 2011).

Official U.S. policy through World War II reflected the same prejudices as the Protestant mainline. President Roosevelt, while troubled by rising antisemitism in Europe, expended little political capital on the issue. Episodes such as the denial of entry to the M.S. St. Louis in 1939, which carried 908 Jewish refugees from Europe, typified both the structural bias against refugees in interwar America (Jews among others) and the prejudices of the American government. Roosevelt’s wartime calculations further frustrated the Zionist movement. Eager to court Jewish electoral support but also concerned about Arab and international opinion, Roosevelt campaigned in 1940 and 1944 on the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, but after reelection reverted to his more nebulous position that called on all parties to wait until victory over the Axis powers. In the Allied strategy, destroying the infrastructure of the Holocaust and liberating concentration camps was not a top priority. The mass scale of devastation to European Jewry only further strengthened calls by the American Zionist Emergency Council (AZEC), an umbrella organization led by Rabbis Stephen Wise and Abba Hillel Silver, for immediate humanitarian relief by immediately creating a Jewish commonwealth. Far from representing all of American Jewry, however, AZEC had to contend with other Jewish organizations, such as the American Jewish Committee and American Council for Judaism, which were non-Zionist or anti-Zionist (Breitman & Lichtman, 2013).

During the war, mainline Protestants also split on whether to support Zionism. While many Protestants, including the influential Christian Century magazine, remained opposed to the Zionist movement and held a basic anti-Jewish theological orientation, others responded by adopting a Christian Zionist posture that harkened back to the Blackstone Memorial. These liberal and mainline Christian Zionists included Henry Atkinson, member of the World Church Peace Union, Unitarian ministers Carl Hermann Voss and Karl Baehr, and theologians Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. These clergymen were instrumental in founding the American Palestine Committee (1941) and the Christian Council on Palestine (1942), both of which merged under the American Christian Palestine Committee (ACPC) in 1946 and worked in cooperation with AZEC. Responding to European antisemitism, the rise of Nazism, and Jewish genocide, these Christians followed the lead of the more strident Jewish Zionists in calling for an immediate Jewish state (Carenen, 2012; Fishman 1973; Merkley, 1998).

Reinhold Niebuhr’s widely read article in 1942, “Jews After the War,” typified this mainline Christian Zionism (Niebuhr, 1942a, 1942b). Writing in The Nation, an elite liberal magazine, Niebuhr argued for a Jewish state in Palestine not by an appeal to Bible verses or prophecy, but as a commitment to democratic values, Western morality, and justice for the Jewish people as a beleaguered minority. Niebuhr’s arguments were deeply Christian, in that he assumed a basic Christian moral order, a just God, and special interest in the Jewish people, but his arguments were decidedly not based on eschatology.

President Harry Truman, coming into office in April 1945 with almost no knowledge of Palestine, perhaps most vividly embodied the confluence of domestic politics, U.S. diplomacy, and personal beliefs. A committed Baptist who mixed his moral concerns with a belief in the literal fulfillment of prophetic passages, Truman tacitly supported the Zionist movement after he became president, though he maintained, even after 1948, that he preferred a binational (Jewish and Arab) state or federation. Palestine was a secondary issue to rebuilding postwar Europe and the global struggle against communism, but events in the Middle East consistently impinged upon Truman’s time in office (Judis, 2014).

Domestic lobbying by American Jewish organizations fed into Truman’s concerns about winning his 1948 presidential campaign. Though Jews had been decisive Democratic voters in states such as New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, and though the charge that presidents catered their foreign policy to win elections remained prominent, Truman chose to recognize the new state of Israel after it was declared on May 14, 1948, for multiple reasons. Chief was electoral concerns, though of key states with sizeable Jewish votes Truman carried only Illinois (Karabell, 2001, p. 89). Also compelling was Truman’s reverence for the Bible, his personal relationships with concerned American Jews, including his business partner Eddie Jacobson, and his personal horror at the humanitarian crisis of post-Holocaust Jewry. Though U.S. policy was largely peripheral to events in Palestine, Truman later equated his actions to the Persian king Cyrus granting Jewish exiles right of return in the 6th century bce. When Eddie Jacobson introduced him to a Jewish Theological Seminary crowd in 1953 as “the man who helped create the state of Israel,” the retired president retorted, “What do you mean ‘helped’ create? I am Cyrus. I am Cyrus” (Merkley, 2004, p. vii).

Throughout the international developments of 1947 and 1948—the United Nations vote to partition Palestine, Israel’s declaration of independence, the ensuing Arab–Israeli War—U.S. policy was defined by Truman’s halting Zionist sympathies and the State Department’s Arabist tilt. A “pro-Arab lobby,” made up mostly of Protestant missionaries and oil interests, not only was concerned about U.S. relations with oil-producing states but also sought to highlight the dispossession and humanitarian plight of Arab Palestinians. Truman himself had expressed repeatedly that he did not wish to support the creation of religious states, whether Catholic or Jewish (Judis, 2014, p. 205). Though Truman’s initial actions seemed to indicate a U.S. preference for Israel, a U.S. policy emerged that emphasized regional stability, including an arms embargo on both Israel and the Arab states. Truman, and his successor Dwight Eisenhower, wanted the United States to act as a neutral party—committed to an Israeli state but not at the expense of a solution to Palestinian autonomy or further instability in the region. Truman’s framing of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union in his “4-Points” speech of 1949 focused specifically on Turkey and Greece—two states on the periphery of the Middle East—as keys in the emerging confrontation with the Soviet Union. The strategic priority of the Cold War, which included U.S. support for oil-producing Arab kingdoms, limited close U.S. identification with Israel in its formative years (Cohen, 2014; Hahn, 2004).

During the early Cold War, strategy was closely linked to ideology. Israel’s cultural resonance as a religious symbol for American leaders like Truman and Eisenhower (who often referred to Israelis as “Israelites”) gave it a place in the ideological contest being crafted between atheistic communism and the theistic free world made up of the United States, Western Europe, and allies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Eisenhower in particular looked to religion to enhance international cooperation and strengthen anticommunism among allies. Even as Israel’s Jewish population was largely secular, its status as a spiritual beacon of the West was reinforced by numerous factors. Increased Holy Land tourism by Americans, growing to tens of thousands of annual visitors by 1960, engraved the holy sites of Christianity and Judaism on understandings of Israel. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who was largely non-observant as well, spoke frequently on the Jewish contribution to Western civilization through the Hebrew Bible. The Middle East’s regional integration into the Cold War, with Soviet aid flowing to Egypt and Syria and American aid flowing to Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, further solidified Israel’s place among the opponents of atheistic communism (Bialer, 1990; Inboden, 2008).

Even so, domestic support for Israel continued after 1948 from its historical religious sources. The ACPC, as well as the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ), remained the primary Christian organizations pressing for more American support, especially U.S. aid for the nascent Israeli economy and the massive expenses of receiving thousands of Jewish immigrants each month. American Jewish organizations continued to support humanitarian aid, but overall private donations to Israel decreased in the 1950s. With the creation of the American Zionist Committee for Public Affairs (later American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC) in 1951, and continued organizing by mainline Protestants, pro-Israel politics was broadly bipartisan and interreligious, but also a secondary issue in light of the Cold War, anticommunism, and the rebuilding of Europe (Rossinow, 2018; Schoenbaum, 1993).

Under the Truman administration and Eisenhower’s first term, the strategic stability approach to the Middle East was meant to protect U.S. interests in oil, improve United States–Arab relations, and foster a broad anticommunist coalition. Insofar as religious considerations entered U.S. strategy, policymakers like Dwight Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles rejected any specific religious obligation to the state of Israel. Dulles, a longtime leader in mainline Protestant organizations and the ecumenical movement, insisted that Arab–Israeli peace was achievable only through comprehensive negotiations which would entail major concessions by both sides. For Eisenhower, religion mattered insofar as Israeli (Jewish) and Arab (Muslim) societies possessed built in religious counterforces to communism (Ben-Zvi, 1998).

After Israel, Britain, and France hatched a plot to wrest control of the Suez Canal from Egypt in late 1956 (just days before the American presidential election), United States–Israel relations reached their lowest point yet. The United States and the Soviet Union both condemned Israel’s seizure of the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt. Israel sought security guarantees before vacating the occupied territory and remained at loggerheads with the United States until March 1957, when it finally acceded to U.S. pressure. One consequence of the Suez Crisis would go unnoticed for years. In response to the United States’ stance against Israeli retention of occupied territory, an evangelical theologian and committed dispensationalist who viewed the state of Israel as a fulfillment of prophecy, G. Douglas Young, founded an educational institute in Jerusalem the following year, the Israeli–American Institute of Biblical Studies. A graduate school specializing in biblical archeology and promoting Jewish–Christian dialogue, Young’s institute represented the first organized activity of the dormant prophetic interest in Israel since before World War II (Hahn, 2004; Hummel, 2015).

In Eisenhower’s second administration, United States–Israel relations actually improved. Ceasing to view Israel solely as a strategic liability to United States–Arab relations, Eisenhower secretly allowed West German sales of advanced weapons to Israel and promoted closer bilateral relations. Eisenhower’s disenchantment with Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser, who had drawn closer to the Soviet Union since first receiving weapons shipments in 1955, and Israel’s military prowess changed the U.S. calculus. Later presidents would more readily see Israel as a strategic asset (Bass, 2003; Schoenbaum, 1993).

Though official United States–Israel relations ebbed and flowed through the 1950s, cultural and religious ties flourished in the early Cold War and created a popular foundation for the “special relationship” that would develop in later years (Hahn, 1998). As public antisemitism faded in American popular culture and the quotas that had barred Jews from many of the nation’s universities, clubs, and organizations were discarded, Jews quickly Americanized. “Not to identify oneself and be identified as either a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Jew,” wrote the Jewish sociologist Will Herberg in his 1955 study, Protestant-Catholic-Jew, “is somehow not to be American” (Herberg 1955, p. 257). The inclusion of Catholics and Jews into the quintessential American identity—best encapsulated in the era’s embrace of “Judeo-Christian” language—testified to a new demographic and religious reality. Protestants, who had themselves eroded their coherence through the fundamentalist–modernist controversies, were also no longer the only tradition with access to elite influence (Coffman, 2013; Schultz, 2011).

The new tri-faith America made space for Jews and Catholics, and also for the state of Israel. Cultural productions of the era—movies, novels, and music—portrayed Israel as consonant with American values: a society shaped by the Bible, born of immigrants, defined by its frontier, and engaged in a universal mission of human dignity and freedom. The extent to which Israeli reality aligned with this portrayal was less important than its pervasive representation in American culture. From the Jewish-Christian novels of Sholem Asch to Hollywood blockbusters such as Exodus (1960), Americans encountered an image of Israel that made it worth protecting as an outpost of Western values, a humanitarian project for the remnants of the Holocaust, and a triumphant progression in the biblical story of God’s chosen people. For prophecy-oriented Christians, including fundamentalists and evangelicals, scenarios of apocalyptic conflagration that centered in the Middle East (the Battle of Armageddon was commonly expected to take place at Tel Megiddo, 18 miles southeast of Haifa) grew popular amidst fears of nuclear war and the Cold War. The ambiguous role that Israel was to play in these end times scenarios—both as a victor and a nation that would suffer horrible loss of life—contributed to the interest that millions of Christian Americans took in the Arab–Israeli conflict (Boyer, 1994; Mart, 2006; McAlister, 2005).

Even with the fluorescence of cultural productions, explicit religious considerations and domestic pressure groups—both Christian and Jewish—were mostly isolated from the policymaking process through the 1950s. Religious actors were instrumental at key points—in raising awareness of Jewish genocide in Europe, in pressuring Truman in the 1940s—but their influence on policy was inconsistent. Eisenhower’s famous friendship with the leading Christian figure in the 1950s, evangelist Billy Graham, made good headlines—and Graham helped Eisenhower craft his public persona to appeal to religious Americans—but Graham’s influence on foreign policy was modest and his interest, especially in Israel, remained marginal (he visited Israel for the first time in 1960). The creation of a “special relationship” premised in part on religion remained popular among some activists and in popular culture but was not yet a feature of U.S. policy.

Cementing a Special Relationship, 1961–1980

The end of the Eisenhower administration in January 1961 signaled the end of an era in the United States–Israel relationship. In the following decades, United States–Israel relations transformed into the “special relationship” that the United States has forged with only a handful of allies in its history: cooperation based on cultural and religious ties that extends beyond, and sometimes appears to act against, American geopolitical and strategic interests. Domestically, the period from 1961 to 1980 witnessed the rise of both a renewed American Jewish interest in Israel and a politicized evangelical Christianity that transformed American politics. Strategically, Israel emerged as a key U.S. ally in the Middle East and one of the largest recipients of U.S. economic and military aid in the world. And in terms of American leadership, presidents after Eisenhower more readily invoked cultural and religious themes to describe the relationship between Americans and Israelis, culminating in the explicitly religious mission of peace undertaken by Jimmy Carter at the end of the 1970s.

The transition in American leadership from Eisenhower to John F. Kennedy represented not only a generational shift but also a new approach to American global engagement encapsulated in Kennedy’s “New Frontier” slogan. It also ended the first era of United States–Israel relations, which was defined, since Truman’s decision to recognize Israel in 1948, by American strategic concerns in the Middle East. Kennedy advanced a bilateral United States–Israel relationship that, while still deeply embedded in U.S. interests in the Middle East, also transcended these familiar calculations and took on the trappings of a special relationship on par with the U.S. alliance with the United Kingdom (Perra, 2017).

Though John F. Kennedy was America’s first non-Protestant president, his Catholic identity does not seem to have greatly influenced his attitude toward Israel. More important to shifting U.S. attitudes were Kennedy’s domestic political considerations, the changing place of Israel in U.S. strategy, and the fruition of the United States–Israeli cultural ties. Each of these predisposed American administrations in the 1960s and 1970s to draw Israel further into the U.S. orbit.

Like Truman in 1948, Kennedy in 1960 barely won his bid for the presidency. More than Truman, however, Kennedy relied on Jewish Democratic support for his win. In New York alone, Jewish support for Kennedy surpassed his close margin of victory—a fact Kennedy shared with Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in their first meeting in 1961 (Bass, 2003, p. 55). Throughout Kennedy’s short tenure as president, domestic political considerations for a potential 1964 reelection run were never far from his concern. This led Kennedy to warmer relations with Israel, including authorizing the first weapons sale to Israel in 1962 for Hawk missile defense systems. While this sale initiated a bilateral weapons relationship (premised on the older strategy of military parity between Israel and Arab states), Kennedy resisted Israeli requests for an official defense pact on par with U.S. commitments to countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In his last letter to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol in October 1963, Kennedy nevertheless reiterated, “I know you need no reassurance as to the constant and special United States concern for the security and independence of Israel” (Bass, 2003, p. 236).

Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, continued the policy of small weapons sales to Israel. Johnson, an ecumenical-minded Protestant, was apparently told by one of his aunts, a devout Southern Baptist, upon ascending to the presidency, “Lyndon, don’t forget the Jews, God’s chosen people” (Graham, 1983; Sohns, 2017). While publicly cultivating a religious persona by associating with Billy Graham and other pro-Israel Christians, Johnson also saw Israel and the Middle East as secondary in importance to Southeast Asia and the Vietnam War. With the growth of the antiwar movement, which featured prominent rabbis and Jewish intellectuals, Johnson—sometimes tactfully, most times bluntly—implied U.S. support for Israel was affected by American Jewish support for U.S. policies in Vietnam (Ben-Zvi, 2004; Klinghoffer, 1999).

These dynamics came to a head with the Arab–Israeli War in June 1967. Responding to the Egyptian blockade of the Straits of Tiran, Israel launched a strike on the morning of June 5, 1967, that decimated Egypt’s air force. Over the next six days, Israel vanquished the militaries of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan and conquered territories that included the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, West Bank, and East Jerusalem. While Israel emerged as the clear regional power after June 1967, official U.S. policy remained committed to retaining a balance of power in the region (Laron, 2017; Oren, 2002).

Even so, the June 1967 War stirred domestic religious forces that, more than 50 years later, have not entirely abetted. For Jews and Christians who supported Israel, the war took on spiritual, often prophetic, significance. The widely hailed “miracle” of 1967 inspired a new wave of American Jewish identity with Israel. Based less on explicitly theological arguments and more on a renewed sense of Jewish peoplehood, with Israel and the city of Jerusalem at its center, American Jewish Zionism after 1967 retained its humanitarian focus, but also was a prime example of renewed religio-ethnic identity in American society. Many Jews—from Reform rabbis to emerging Jewish neoconservatives—embraced their Jewish identity and asserted support for the state of Israel was integral to it (Hirschhorn 2017).

At the same time, the June 1967 War realigned Christian support for Israel. Among mainline Protestants, Israeli victory and the plight of Palestinian Arabs became divisive and controversial issues—part of a larger struggle for the orientation of liberal Protestantism. For many lay Protestants—and a few longtime Christian Zionists including Reinhold Niebuhr and theologian A. Roy Eckardt—support for Israel remained a humanitarian and Christian ethical imperative. A cadre of Catholic theologians, including John M. Oesterreicher and theologians of Seton Hall University’s Center for Judaeo-Christian Studies, made a similar case in the new spirit of interreligious engagement of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). Though consisting of a minority among mainline and Catholic leaders, these pro-Israel clergy and theologians represented the most direct legacy of the Christian Zionism of the mid-century ACPC and NCCJ (Carenen, 2012).

The less institutionally visible Christian legacy awoken after 1967 recalled the eschatological, millennial, dispensationalist tradition that had stirred William E. Blackstone in the late 19th century and G. Douglas Young in the late 1950s. Far more than the establishment of Israel in 1948, the June 1967 War galvanized support for Zionism among conservative Protestants, evangelicals, fundamentalists, and pentecostals, who continued to view Israel and the Middle East through the lens of prophecy. Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem in July 1967 seemed to confirm Jesus’ prophecy that “Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled” (Luke 21:24). Just a few years later, Hal Lindsey, who received theological training at the dispensationalist Dallas Theological Seminary, published The Late Great Planet (1970), a presentation of the coming end times that featured a large role for Israel, both as a result of the June 1967 War and in the machinations of the Cold War. Lindsey’s book would go on to sell 10 million copies in the 1970s and introduce an entire generation of Americans to the prophetic tradition of pro-Israel Christianity (McAlister, 2005; Weber, 2004).

This prophetic interest dovetailed with growing evangelical interest in Jewish history, Judeo-Christian culture, and acceptance, albeit limited to Jews and Catholics, of more expansive American religious pluralism. G. Douglas Young, the most active evangelical Christian Zionist after 1967, expanded his Institute in Jerusalem into an international center of Jewish–Christian cooperation and undertook dozens of speaking tours in Europe and North America to promote Christian Zionism (Spector, 2009; Weber, 2004).

Renewed American Jewish interest in Israel and a realigned American Christianity fostered one of the most important religious developments in United States–Israel relations: a new interreligious dialogue between American evangelicals and American Jews that centered on shared support for Israel. In 1969, Billy Graham met publicly for the first time with the American Jewish Committee, the leading Jewish defense organization in the 1960s promoting interreligious dialogue. That meeting fostered expanded Southern Baptist–Jewish dialogue throughout the 1970s and the first official Jewish–evangelical meeting in 1975 (Tanenbaum, Wilson, & Rudin, 1978). These meetings were not explicitly political, nor did they produce immediate political results that had direct bearing on United States–Israel relations. But they set the groundwork for a new interreligious relationship between American Jews and evangelical Christians that would replace the Jewish—mainline Protestant partnership at mid-century, and become far more popular and politically effective (Rausch, 1991).

Religious reactions to the June 1967 War also prompted domestic political realignments that shaped the United States–Israel relationship after 1967. Richard Nixon, who saw evangelicals and other social conservatives as key to his electoral coalition in 1968 and 1972, responded to a conservative turn in Israeli attitudes toward the United States. In response to the strategy of détente with the Soviet Union, undertaken by Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Israeli leadership, led by Prime Minister Golda Meir, adopted more favorable attitudes to U.S. policy in Vietnam. Moreover, the Israeli government courted Billy Graham and W. A. Criswell, Southern Baptist Convention president and pastor of the largest congregation in America, First Baptist Church in Dallas, both Nixon supporters. In response, the Nixon administration showered Israel with massive military and economic aid packages and, counter to the overall strategy of détente, treated Israel as a strategic asset in the Middle East (Kochavi, 2009).

The honeymoon was short lived, however. Though the Nixon administration supplied a crucial, weeks’ long airlift of supplies to Israel during the October 1973 War, which caught Israel defenseless and reaffirmed Egypt as a military threat after 1967, the war itself had undermined détente and shown how both the United States and the Soviet Union remained invested in the Middle East. The resulting oil crisis, levied by Arab oil-producing states against countries, including the United States, supportive of Israel, sent shockwaves through the American economy. Moreover, the following year the Jackson–Vanik Amendment inserted Congress into the diplomatic relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union, further eroding détente. Sponsored by Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-WA) and Representative Charles Vanik (D-OH), the amendment to a trade act with the Soviet Union tied U.S. trade policy to the treatment of Jews and human rights violations. Not only did this amendment undermine the strategy of détente, but it raised the issue of religious freedom—which both American Jews and evangelicals would highlight in coming decades, especially for Soviet Jews to freely migrate to Israel (Feingold, 2007).

In contrast to the conservative Jewish and evangelical Christian support for Israel that Nixon courted, President Jimmy Carter offered a rival model of Abrahamic (Jewish, Christian, and Muslim) cooperation that undergirded the most successful U.S. effort at establishing peace in the Middle East, the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt (and, given its financial underwriting of peace, the United States). The irony that it was Jimmy Carter, the first self-described “born again” U.S. president, to break with the growing American evangelical understanding of the United States–Israel special relationship was hard to miss. It would be one of the many reasons Carter’s fellow white Southern Baptists, who voted 56% for Carter in 1976, rejected him four years later by a margin of 34–56 in favor of Ronald Reagan (Balmer, 2014, p. 149).

In the Camp David peace summit, which included Carter, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Carter’s vision for the role of religion in U.S. policy toward the Middle East became clear. As one joint statement issued during the 13-day summit in September 1978 related, “Conscious of the grave issues which face us, we place our trust in the God of our fathers, from whom we seek wisdom and guidance” (Carter, 1978a). Essentially, Carter wanted to tap a tradition of peacemaking at the root of all three Abrahamic faiths, and sought to leverage this interpretation during the laborious and extended peace negotiations. His understanding of both Begin’s Jewish faith and Sadat’s Muslim faith in many ways ran against how the men themselves understood their religious identities.1 Carter rejected, for example, Begin’s assertion of Jewish biblical and covenantal rights to the contested West Bank (which Begin insisted on referring to as Judea and Samaria). Instead, Carter portrayed Judaism and his sense of a shared Abrahamic commitment to peace through the Psalms, quoting Psalm 85: “I will hear what God the Lord will speak: for he will speak peace unto his people, and unto his saints: but let them not return again unto folly” (Carter, 1978b).

Carter regarded his own role less as a representative of “Judeo-Christian” America and more as a peacemaker in the mold of Jesus’ sermonic declaration, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be the children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Projecting this responsibility on the nation, Carter proclaimed, “the generations-old cycle of tragedy and suffering speaks to America’s moral conscience and to our deep and lasting concern for human rights and the expansion of human potential for peoples everywhere” (Carter, 1978b). Peace was Carter’s priority and the pretext for his and the United States’ involvement in the peace process (Bar-Siman-Tov, 1994; Quandt, 2005).

Carter won his greatest achievement in office with Israeli–Egyptian peace, but also alienated American Jews and evangelical Christians who were critical of U.S. pressure on Israel. Throughout the 1970s, a “pro-Israel lobby” made up of Jewish-led organizations like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (President’s Conference) had achieved new levels of organization and influence. Attempts by the Nixon and Ford administrations to impose a peace process on Israel or, in Ford’s case in 1975, to perform an official “reassessment” of United States–Israeli relations, were met with fierce opposition. Though Christians played a secondary role in the 1970s confrontations, interreligious cooperation on Soviet Jews and, by the end of the decade, joint opposition to the United Nations’ attention to the official representatives of the Palestinians, the Palestine Liberation Organization, pointed to even closer collaboration in the future. Carter’s vision of Abrahamic peace ran counter to the longer standing Judeo-Christian, Jewish–Christian affinity promoted by Zionists and especially elevated in American culture since the 1950s and fueled by American Jewish Zionism and evangelical Christian Zionism. In Carter’s own administration, wall-to-wall media coverage of the Iranian Revolution and American hostage crisis heightened fears of Islam and religious terrorism. Sadat’s assassination in 1982 by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that viewed Sadat as a traitor to Islam, further undermined Carter’s Abrahamic approach (Farber, 2005; Jones, 2015; Kolander, 2016).

By the end of the 1970s, religion had permeated important aspects of the domestic politics of United States–Israel relations, the strategic dimensions of U.S. policy in the Middle East, and the categories that Carter used to justify U.S. mediation of Middle East peace. Indeed, religious identities of all kinds—Christian, born again, Islamist, Muslim, Jewish—were emerging as key markers of political identity in international relations. U.S. diplomacy was less isolated than ever from religious currents.

Contours of the Special Relationship, 1980–2018

Since 1980, United States–Israel relations have become increasingly entangled in broader religious currents—both nationally and internationally—with the role of Christians and Jews expanding to include major lobbying support by American Jews; millions of evangelical Christian Zionists helping to create an organized pro-Israel lobby; increased Orthodox Jewish-led settlement activity in the occupied territories; and Islamist radicalization that regards Israel and the United States as the two chief agents of Jewish and Christian domination of the Islamic world. The confluence of these religious forces have by and large reinforced a Judeo-Christian (U.S. and Israeli) affinity, and solidified an assumption—held by all parties—of inevitable conflict between Jews and Christians on one side, and Muslims on the other. Domestic politics, U.S. grand strategy, and the personal views of policymakers have each reflected this convergence and have been shaped by the permeable borders between religion and foreign policy.

In domestic politics, two developments after 1980 have particularly shaped the United States–Israel relationship. The first is the rise of the pro-Israel lobby as a political force shaping congressional attitudes toward Israel. The key Jewish organizations of the pro-Israel lobby date back to mid-century. AIPAC was founded in 1951 by lobbyist Isaiah Kenen. For its first decade, AIPAC was run as the lobbying division of the American Zionist Council, a successor to AZEC. However, due to its international funding, the Kennedy administration forced AIPAC to declare as a foreign agent in 1963. AIPAC’s influence remained marginal through the 1960s and emerged only as Congress authorized increasing amounts of aid to Israel. Not technically a lobby group, AIPAC instead published scorecards and other information about members of Congress and candidates that lobby groups used to send money to pro-Israel candidates. By the 1980s, AIPAC was endorsing or targeting sometimes dozens of candidates each election cycle (Kiely, 2017; Mearsheimer & Walt, 2007; Rossinow, 2018; Rynhold, 2015).

The second major Jewish pro-Israel lobby organization was the President’s Conference, founded in 1956 as an umbrella for Jewish organizations to lobby the White House. In 1986, the founder and longtime leader, Yehuda Hellman, died and was replaced by Malcolm Hoenlein. Hoenlein’s previous work as the founding director of the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry, a public pressure group focused on religious freedom of Jews in the Soviet Union, presaged the more active role Hoenlein saw for the Presidents’ Conference. Hoenlein is also an Orthodox Jew who has responded to both the rise of religious nationalist politicians in Israel and increasing support for Israel by American evangelicals with less alarm than more liberal and secular Jewish leaders.

A third leg of the pro-Israel lobby emerged with force only slowly, culminating in the early 21st century. Evangelical Christian Zionists in fact vastly outnumber the membership and donor roles of both AIPAC and the Presidents’ Conference. Evangelicals began to organize in the mid-1970s, when dozens of single-issue advocacy groups sprung up, including G. Douglas Young’s Bridges for Peace (founded in 1976), the oldest continuously operating Christian Zionist organization. With the rise of the Moral Majority at the end of the decade, however, evangelical Christian Zionism merged with other conservative causes in the Christian right. The foremost spokespeople for Christian Zionism in the 1980s were national Christian right leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson—spiritual authorities with a global media reach and millions of financial supporters who replaced a previous generation of centrist and bipartisan evangelicals led by Billy Graham. For both Falwell and Robertson—and the dozens of lesser known figures in their wake—lobbying for Israel remained secondary to cultural issues including abortion, school curriculum, and gay rights. It was not until 2006, when Texas megachurch pastor John Hagee founded Christians United for Israel (CUFI), that Christian Zionists formed a national lobby organization. Since 2006, CUFI has grown to more than 4 million members—most evangelical Christians—which is more than half of the entire population of American Jews. CUFI targets both congressional representatives and the White House with its lobby efforts (Clark, 2007; Spector, 2009).

These political organizations have benefited from, and helped enhance, strong cultural, economic, and religious ties between the United States and Israel. Among evangelical Christians, Israel as a destination for tourism and as a topic of conversation has in many ways never been more popular. American evangelicals embarking on Holy Land tours numbered close to 300,000 per year in the 2010s. Prophecy-oriented literature featuring Israeli sites and citizens became a massive market success with the Left Behind series (1995–2007), which has sold tens of millions books. Both Jews and Christians operate student-oriented tourism programs meant to instill strong identifications with Israel at a young age. Birthright Israel (for Jews) and Passages (for Christians) both evidenced the deep resources of the movement but also pointed to anxieties about its future. Even as a growing number of American Jews and young evangelicals answered polls in the 2010s more critical of Israel or became disengaged on the Middle East entirely, active Christian Zionist numbers continued to grow and pro-Israel lobby groups remained influential in the Trump administration.

Since 2006, AIPAC, the Presidents’ Conference, and CUFI have increasingly worked together, showing the maturation of decades of interreligious dialogue and cooperation. The pro-Israel lobby has become, in numerical terms, majority evangelical Christian. As American Jewish support for Israeli policies has become increasingly skeptical since the 1970s, and as evangelical Christians have solidified their support and created new political outlets, the shape of the pro-Israel lobby has changed to reflect these new realities. With the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016, CUFI has become even more prominent and played a decisive role in lobbying the new administration to officially declare Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This largely symbolic declaration, which Trump announced in November 2017, is evidence of the role of domestic politics and religion influencing United States–Israel relations.

As the pro-Israel lobby has cemented its place in American domestic politics, changing political realities within Israel have also shaped the role of religion in the “special relationship.” Since the victory of the Likud Party in 1977, labor or conservative coalitions have alternately dominated Israeli politics. Both have vied for American support. Menachem Begin was the first Israeli prime minister to openly and consistently court evangelical Christian Zionists. He did so with knowledge of the growing influence of evangelicals in American politics and the staunch pro-Israel orientation of Christian right leaders such as Falwell and Robertson. Some of Begin’s most controversial decisions as prime minister from 1977 to 1983, including expanding settlements in the West Bank, annexing the Golan Heights, and, most crucially, embarking on the 1982 Lebanon War, were consistently defended by the Christian right. Especially in Lebanon, where Israel’s occupation of Beirut received international condemnation, including from the United States, the Christian right conducted its own “fact-finding” tours (facilitated by the Israeli government) and publicized its conclusion that Israel was in the right (Shindler, 2000).

Begin’s Likud successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, relied on the organized Christian right to counterweight Democratic presidents Bill Clinton (1993–2001) and Barack Obama (2009–2017). Yitzhak Rabin’s embrace of the Oslo Peace process before his assassination at the hands of an Orthodox Yishuv student in 1995 represented perhaps the most vigorous reassertion of the spirit of religious peacemaking of the late 1970s. Since the 1990s, the vast growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the demographic expansion of Orthodox Jews and secular nationalists (including Russian Jewish immigrants who resettled in Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union) has contributed to a rightward shift in Israel domestic politics. Netanyahu, skilled at rallying evangelical Christian support for Israel, has embraced Judeo-Christian language and updated its relevance in the 21st century (Pedahzur, 2012; Shindler, 2000).

Israel has also emerged as the United States’ chief ally in the Middle East. Cooperation between the United States and Israel on intelligence and military matters has been consistent, even through periods of diplomatic strain, including the George H. W. Bush administration (1989–1993) and Obama administration (2009–2017). The United States–Israel cooperation has taken on an inescapably religious veneer, as some of the major threats to stability in the Middle East since the Iranian Revolution have come from Islamist or secular leaders (such as Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein) who have invoked Islam to justify their opposition to U.S. policy. Islamist organizations that have worked against U.S. interests include the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State. Each of these organizations has also featured religiously motivated anti-Israel platforms, further defining a basic religious cleavage (Allin & Simon, 2016).

Even as American administrations pressured Israel to pursue peace negotiations with Arab states and the Palestinians, they prioritized United States–Israel cooperation to combat terrorism and regional anti-American regimes. With the end of the Cold War in 1991, the new strategy paradigm has largely revolved around counter-terrorism and U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. Though U.S. administrations have been at pains to dissuade Americans, Muslims, and the international community that U.S. policy amounts to a “clash of civilizations” or is anti-Muslim (or pro-Jewish), they have struggled to make their case.

Finally, U.S. administrations since 1980 have brought continuity or change to relations with Israel depending on presidential personal beliefs and their electoral coalitions. Since 2008, the United States has exhibited some of its most cautionary policies toward Israel and some of its most embracing—evidencing a polarization in U.S. foreign policy that reflects domestic polarization in American politics. On the one hand, Barack Obama, a broadly ecumenical Christian, has emphasized social justice issues. He was less attuned to pressure from the pro-Israel lobby than any of his predecessors since Eisenhower (who faced a much smaller and less organized lobby) and represented a return to the “evenhanded” approach in the pursuit of improving relations with Arab states and restarting the Israeli–Palestinian peace process. Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, a Presbyterian who has exhibited no consistent religious views, has, on the other hand, cultivated his relationship with evangelical Christians and Christian Zionists (including selecting a self-described Christian Zionist, Mike Pence, as vice president) and committed the United States to a more explicitly pro-Israel approach. The wide spectrum of beliefs and attitudes displayed by Obama and Trump are a microcosm of diverging and polarizing attitudes in the American public, where American Jews are increasingly divided over U.S. policy toward Israel and conservatives (religious or not) have identified as pro-Israel—a substantial shift from the days of Reinhold Niebuhr and Harry Truman (Rosenthal, 2001; Waxman, 2016).

What unites all post-1980 presidents—from Reagan to Trump—is a pro forma commitment to promoting Israeli–Palestinian peace through mediating a comprehensive agreement. The later years of virtually every presidential administration since Carter’s successful Camp David summit has included efforts at reviving the peace process. Presidential visits to Israel have become more common since Nixon’s first trip in 1974. Bill Clinton visited Israel four times, George W. Bush went twice (both in the last year of his presidency), Obama visited twice, and Donald Trump made Israel part of his first trip abroad as president and was the first sitting president to visit the Western Wall. Beyond personal religious beliefs, every president since 1980 has been convinced of the political and diplomatic utility of brokering a peace deal. Close United States–Israel relations have often turned on how presidential administrations perceive Israeli or Palestinian culpability for the lack of progress in the peace process (Ross, 2015).

By the second decade of the 21st century, United States–Israel relations became inextricable from religion. The foreign policy process, key American and Israeli actors, and the very strategic categories that shape U.S. policy toward Israel are tied to religious pressures, religious language, and the personal convictions of U.S. policymakers. This has always been the case, dating to 17th-century clergy who speculated about the role of Jewish migration to Palestine in God’s plans. But the rise of an organized pro-Israel lobby, of deep U.S. involvement in the Middle East, and of global religious tensions that have radicalized religious adherents in the Middle East are all developments that have emerged in the wake of the Camp David peace process. These dynamics will continue to play a significant role in United States–Israel relations for the foreseeable future.

Further Reading

  • Ariel, Y. (2013). An unusual relationship: Evangelical Christians and Jews. New York, NY: New York University Press.
  • Barnett, M. (2016). The star and the stripes: A history of the foreign policies of American Jews. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Bass, W. (2003). Support any friend: Kennedy’s Middle East and the making of the U.S.-Israel alliance. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Boyer, P. (1994). When time shall be no more: Prophecy belief in modern American culture. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
  • Goldman, S. (2018). God’s country: Christian Zionism in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Greenberg, G. (1993). The Holy Land in American religious thought, 1620–1948. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
  • Grose, P. (1984). Israel in the mind of America. New York, NY: Schocken.
  • Hahn, P. (2004). Caught in the Middle East: U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict, 1945–1961. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  • Hirschhorn, S. (2017). City on a hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli settler movement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Judis, J. (2014). Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the origins of the Arab/Israeli conflict. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Mart, M. (2006). Eye on Israel: How America came to view the Jewish State as an ally. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • McAlister, M. (2005). Epic encounters: Culture, media, and U.S. interests in the Middle East, 1945–2000 (2nd ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Merkley, P. (1998). The politics of Christian Zionism 1891–1948. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Quandt, W. (2005). Peace process: American diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1967 (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
  • Urofsky, M. (1995). American Zionism from Herzl to the Holocaust. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Waxman, D. (2016). Trouble in the tribe: The American Jewish conflict over Israel. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


  • Allin, D., & Simon, S. (2016). Our separate ways: The struggle for the future of the U.S.-Israel alliance. New York, NY: PublicAffairs.
  • Ariel, Y. (2000). Evangelizing the chosen people: Missions to the Jews in America, 1880–2000. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  • Ariel, Y. (2013). An unusual relationship: Evangelical Christians and Jews. New York, NY: New York University Press.
  • Balmer, R. (2014). Redeemer: The life of Jimmy Carter. New York, NY: Basic Books.
  • Barnett, M. (2016). The star and the stripes: A history of the foreign policies of American Jews. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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  • Greenberg, G. (1993). The holy land in American religious thought, 1620–1948. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
  • Grose, P. (1984). Israel in the mind of America. New York, NY: Schocken.
  • Hahn, P. (1998). Special relationships. Diplomatic History, 22(2), 263–272.
  • Hahn, P. (2004). Caught in the Middle East: U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict, 1945–1961. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  • Herberg, W. (1955). Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An essay in American religious sociology. New York, NY: Doubleday.
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  • Hirschhorn, S. (2017). City on a hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli settler movement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Hollinger, D. A. (2017). Protestants abroad: How missionaries tried to change the world but changed America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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  • Judis, J. (2014). Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the origins of the Arab/Israeli conflict. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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  • Laron, G. (2017). The six-day war: The breaking of the Middle East. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Makdisi, U. (2008). Artillery of heaven: American missionaries and the failed conversion of the Middle East. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • Marsden, G. (2006). Fundamentalism and American culture (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Mart, M. (2006). Eye on Israel: How America came to view the Jewish State as an ally. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • McAlister, M. (2005). Epic encounters: Culture, media, and U.S. interests in the Middle East, 1945–2000 (2nd ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Mearsheimer, J., & Walt, S. (2007). The Israel lobby and U.S. foreign policy. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Merkley, P. (1998). The politics of Christian Zionism 1891–1948. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Merkley, P. (2004). American presidents, religion, and Israel: The heirs of Cyrus. Westport, CT: Praeger.
  • Michael, R. (2005). A concise history of American antisemitism. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield.
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  • 1. Both Carter’s preference for the Abrahamic framework and his growing criticism of Israel are especially evident in his post-presidency publications. See Carter, (2007).