Leaving the wreckage of his London visit behind, Mitt Romney has gone to Jerusalem where he must hope better things await. London was a lost opportunity but ultimately unimportant; the Israel visit, however, matters much more to the ex-governor and to his campaign.
The press almost always overlooks this, but the argument over Israel policy in the United States is not primarily about Jewish votes. Jews — who are under two percent of the population — are the last white ethnic group that is solidly Democratic. The GOP is gradually making inroads, especially among the Orthodox, but President Obama is virtually certain to do better among Jews than among Catholics or the white working class. A recent Gallup Poll showed the President leading his challenger by 65 percent to 28 percent among Jewish voters; that is down from the 78 percent he received against John McCain in 2008, but overall American Jews remain among this President’s most enthusiastic and committed supporters.
Presidential candidates stressing their pro-Israel positions by supporting hard line Israeli leaders are more likely to be chasing non-Jewish than Jewish votes. In American politics, taking a strong pro-Israel stand is a way of communicating your commitment to American exceptionalism and to American global leadership. While there are plenty of individual exceptions, as a general rule of thumb voters who are skeptical about the value of the US Israel alliance or who have serious concerns about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians are voters who have qualms about the idea that America is an exceptional country with a mandate to change the world. Voters who identify strongly with Israel and want the US to support it tend to favor a strong US national defense and a forward leaning foreign policy.
For many voters, the perception that President Obama is cool toward Israel strengthens their suspicion that he is somehow cool toward traditional American values and that he is skeptical of the US assuming some kind of transformational world role. Anti-Israel equals pro-Jeremiah Wright.
By stressing the strength of his emotional and political commitment to Israel, Governor Romney hopes to strengthen his claim to be running as the red-blooded, truly American candidate against what the GOP devoutly hopes voters will see as the cosmopolitan, Europe loving, Israel-criticizing, Noam Chomsky-reading, French-thinking socialist now living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
For Romney, this is an important opportunity if only because this is one of the places where his Mormon faith intersects with mainstream American thinking. Mormons are one of many American religious groups who supported the return of the Jews to the Holy Land even before the rise of the modern Zionist movement among Jews and as a group Mormons tend to be about as pro-Israel as Southern Baptists.
From the website of the LDS (Mormon) church, an entry from 1991 commemorating the 150th anniversary of Orson Hyde’s visit to Jerusalem in 1841:
One hundred fifty years ago, on October 24, a Sunday, Elder Orson Hyde of the Quorum of the Twelve climbed the Mount of Olives. There, with pen and paper, he recorded a prayer of dedication previously given him by revelation. In the prayer, he asked the Lord to inspire “kings and the powers of the earth” to help “restore the kingdom unto Israel.” He also prayed that the Lord would remember his promises to all the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
For many Mormons, the ingathering of the “old Israel” in Palestine and the gathering of the Latter Day Saints in America are both signs of God’s action in modern history, and both causes are hallowed in Mormon faith by the direct support of Joseph Smith. As the website relates, Smith blessed Orson Hyde with a mission to facilitate the return of the Jews to the land of the Bible, saying:
“In due time thou shalt go to Jerusalem, the land of thy fathers, and be a watchman unto the house of Israel; and by thy hands shall the Most High do a great work, which shall prepare the way and greatly facilitate the gathering together of that people.”
In the 1830s, when Smith gave Hyde this mission, the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine seemed fanciful — as fanciful perhaps as the idea that the Church of Latter Day Saints would one day be a religious community with millions of believers and settle a substantial section of the American west. That both prophecies came true — that Smith’s vision for America and his vision for Jerusalem have been so largely fulfilled — is for many Mormons a powerful historical argument for the truth of the religion they profess.
Although many features of Mormon theology strike evangelical, mainline and Catholic Christians as far-fetched and even outré, “restorationism” or the belief that God would return the Jews from their exile back to the Promised Land before the end of times is one of the points of contact between Mormon and conventional American Christian belief. From the time of Cotton Mather in 1690 right on up through 1948, there is a steady stream of American Christian theological writing that interprets the Bible as predicting the return of the Jews.
That belief has been and remains a pillar of American support for Israel ever since, and among evangelicals as well as among Mormons the return of the Jews has become a powerful apologetic argument for the truth of their own religion. That the Bible predicted something that seemed so unlikely that then actually happened strikes many people as evidence that the Bible is inspired by God.
For Governor Romney’s campaign, then, visiting Israel and stressing his support for Israel (and the support of many Israelis for him) is a way of solidifying the governor’s support among Republican evangelicals, but also of reaching out to a broader community of voters for whom the ‘miraculous’ establishment of Israel serves as a powerful sign of God’s continuing work in history. It is a way of reinforcing his claim to be an authentically American heartland candidate in the race, a toot on the ‘dog whistle’ conveying the message to tens of millions of Americans that whatever investment banks he may have worked in, however many extra scriptures he believes, and however many times he has changed his views on important public policy issues, he “gets it.” He knows America is an exceptional nation with a unique world mission, he knows that God is guiding history, and he knows that America must stand by Israel — that miraculous sign of God’s continuing rule.
This part of his foreign trip matters much more to the Governor than either the British or the Polish visits. Americans by and large like both Britain and Poland but they don’t think about them very much, and they don’t think of either country as requiring a lot of help from the United States — though most Americans would be ready to stand by either of these countries should trouble come.
But Israel is a different matter. Large numbers of Americans perceive that Israel is in more danger than either Britain or Poland, and that the United States is the only real friend Israel has. They also think that Israel’s most bitter enemies are also deadly enemies of the United States. After the Iraq and Afghanistan wars there is not a lot of American appetite for launching new wars in the Middle East, but if anything that heightens the degree to which many people want the government to support what they see as the one real ally we have there.
Foreign policy experts can — and do — dispute many details of this vision of Israel’s situation and America’s interests, but the idea that Israel needs us and that it is both our moral duty and a strategic interest to support it to the hilt has sunk so deeply into the American public mind that Governor Romney can hardly go wrong in standing up for it.
It sounds odd, but it is very true: Israel is as American as apple pie. By showing how much he loves Israel, Governor Romney is telling millions of voters that he is a solid and loyal American. And by raising the bar for what it means to be a ‘true’ supporter of Israel, he forces President Obama to try to compete on this terrain.
You don’t score points in American presidential politics by looking less pro-Israel than the other guy; any success Governor Romney can claim at staking out a position as Israel’s best friend will boost his chances in November than anything that could happen in either London or Warsaw.
[Image is a detail from Mitt Romney's No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.]