Perspective on U.S. Middle East Policy

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Robert Siegel talks with Michael B. Oren, author of Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present. The book is about the history of America's political, military, and intellectual involvement in the Middle East.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Here's a scene from Michael Oren's new history of America's involvement in the Middle East. It's called "Power, Faith, and Fantasy."

A Canadian clergyman tells a wartime American president there can be no permanent peace until the civilized nations atone for their 2000 years of persecution of the Jews by restoring them to their national home in Palestine.

The American president replies restoring the Jews to their national home in Palestine is a noble dream and one shared by many Americans.

I might have thought possibly FDR during World War II or possibly Woodrow Wilson during World War I. In fact, the words are those of Abraham Lincoln speaking during the Civil War.

Michael Oren, the Israeli American historian, joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.

Mr. MICHAEL OREN (Author): It's a pleasure to be here.

SIEGEL: Where did this American sympathy for the restoration of the Jews to Palestine come, at a time when the Jewish presence in America was much, much, much smaller than it is today?

Mr. OREN: Actually in 1776, the Jewish presence in American was .04 percent, but the people that founded this new America were Puritans who had arrogated the role as the New Israel and they looked up this new world as the New Canaan, literally. And that created a sense of kinship between them and the old Jews and the old promised land, which was then Palestine under the Ottoman Empire.

So they felt that it was their duty both as Christians and as Americans to help fulfill God's promises to the Jews as expressed in the Old Testament to restore them to their ancient promised land. So you have President John Adams saying he wished that the Jews would form an army a hundred thousand strong to move into Palestine and to reclaim it as a Judean kingdom.

Elias Boudinot, the president of the Continental Congress, predicted the Jews would return to Palestine and make the desert bloom like a rose. And then you have in 1884 a book called "Visions of the Valley," which calls on the United States government to spearhead an international effort to detach Palestine from the Ottoman Empire, give it to the Jews. And that book is written by a professor at NYU named George Bush who was the direct forebear of two later presidents of the same name.

SIEGEL: It was the purpose of this restoration of the Jews to Palestine was to anticipate the second coming, the millennium.

Mr. OREN: Certainly. And most of these people with visions where Jews returned, the restoration, literally, to the Holy Land, also assumed that the Jews would convert during that process. The Jewish state ultimately would be a Protestant Christian, say, and that would help bring about the end of days and the return of Christ to earth as well.

SIEGEL: Another later chapter of American involvement in the Middle East is the role that Civil War veteran officers - and we're speaking now of both the officers who had served in the Union army and for the Confederacy - appear in Egypt as the people who created the modern Egyptian army.

Mr. OREN: But in addition, they also created a school system for teaching literacy and civic values to Egyptian children. And so they were also engaged in imparting American ideals to the people of the Middle East.

SIEGEL: Another odd connection with Egypt. The Statue of Liberty is actually conceived initially not by an Egyptian, but in Egypt.

Mr. OREN: By a Frenchman, Bartholdi, who had sold the idea to the Egyptian government to grace the entrance to the Suez Canal. His original vision called for an Arab woman with a veil to hold this torch, and this would serve as a lighthouse at the entrance of the canal. But in 1869, the Egyptian government went bankrupt and Bartholdi was left without a customer for his statue. And in despair he traveled to the United States and he passed Bedlow's Island going in New York Harbor and he thought, that would be a good place to put my statue.

He sold it to the Americans with some French backers, but they insist on replacing the Arab woman with a veil and today you have an American woman holding that torch.

SIEGEL: There's a theme to American involvement in the Middle East that's been remarked upon in other works as well, and that is the enormous importance of missionaries who almost perhaps uniquely have a greater role in Islam, but don't convert anyone.

Mr. OREN: Well, missionaries leave the United States at the beginning of the 19th century ostensibly to convert the Jews and, failing that, to convert the Arabs. In fact, they failed at both. Neither the Arabs nor the Jews in the Middle East in any great numbers wanted to become Congregationalists or Presbyterian Christians.

And so out of frustration, they begin to build hospitals and schools. They built the first modern elementary and secondary schools in the Middle East. And later these schools evolve into the first modern universities of the Middle East. The American University of Beirut, the American University of Cairo, through which once again these Americans begin to impart American ideas of patriotism of civic pride, which translate into the birth of the Arab Nationalist movement. The first Arab Nationalists are graduates of the American University in Beirut.

SIEGEL: There is a character who contributes greatly to - well, one of the dimensions you include in the title - power, faith - now fantasy. There is a character I'd like you to tell the story of, Sol Bloom, who for decades was a Manhattan congressman and actually in the 1940s chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Mr. OREN: Sol Bloom comes from really an impoverished immigrant family from Chicago. I think he never graduated second grade, went to work in a brush factory. But he had a great talent for business. By the age of 14, 15, he's already an independent entrepreneur working in the Chicago theater. And finally, made so much money they took he's first vacation at age 19, went to Paris and saw a Middle Eastern dance exhibit of Algerian belly dancers, which were unknown in the United States. And he thought to himself well, I can import this to the United States. And he imported them just at the time of the 1893 Chicago Exposition.

And he sold this idea to the organizers of the World's Fair, and they put on a major exhibition that catered an entire Middle Eastern town, which was attended by literally millions of Americans - tens of thousands of Americans rode on camels there. And he introduced these belly dancers, which were quite scandalous for America of the 1890s. But he found that he had no music for them to dance to. And so he sat down at the piano and he began to finger out what he thought was a Middle Eastern melody, and it went something like this.

(Soundbite of humming)

Mr. OREN: And it became a smash hit. Later on, Sol Bloom would regret that the one thing he didn't do at the 1893 World's Fair was to copyright that song, which later became the background for innumerable Middle East fantasies, cartoons, movies. Later on, he became a congressman, as you mentioned, Robert, who played a seminal role in the debate surrounding the creation of the Jewish state in Palestine.

SIEGEL: Would a Muslim reading this history be wrong in coming away with a message that American dreamers, thinkers, travelers, soldiers, diplomats, have viewed Islam, almost consistently with contempt from the 19th century until rather recently.

Mr. OREN: With very few exceptions. Certainly back in the colonial period, in the 19th century, America engaged what can now be called, for a better word, Islam bashing. You have long tractics(ph) being written by prominent theologians like Cotton Mather and John Edwards against Islam. John Quincy Adams in the 1920, 1820s rather, writes a 40-page treatise against Islam. I doubt he had ever met a Muslim.

I think in a certain level, this is a part of a legacy of the Crusades that the Puritans brought with them from Europe to the United States. And the image of the hostile Muslim, the Saracen, persists throughout the 19th century, well into the 20th century, as well.

I think it's only recently that Americans have begun to take a deeper look at Islam, perhaps even post-9/11, to distinguish between different forms of Islam, different interpretations of Islam. Though America, I believe, has a long way to go, it has made significant progress in this way.

SIEGEL: Well, Michael Oren, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. OREN: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Michael Oren, who is the author of "Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present."

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