Israel and America, Part 1, It’s 1858 Again

I’d planned on doing something different these next couple posts, but events of the last few days cry out for more perspective than has so far publicly emerged. As an oleh who will always keep and cherish his American citizenship, the squabbling’s ugly and uncomfortable. As a human being who believes that violent Islamism now poses an immediate clear and present danger to civilization, and who believes that Israel and the United States should be joining forces openly and proudly, it’s worse than ugly and uncomfortable. It’s potentially catastrophic.

And the fact that, by and large, I can agree with whatever vilifications each country throws at the leadership of the other, doesn’t generate much hope that the tension will ease when the present sad and sorry duo departs for their hopefully long, healthy and prosperous retirements.

For the fundamental problem isn’t them. It’s us.

The calendar says 2014. But for Israeli-American relations, and for America, and for Israel, it’s 1858 again.

Which means that 1861 is not that far away.

From 1861 to 1865 the United States endured its Civil War, still the bloodiest conflict in that country’s history. Sadly, by 1858, most Americans on both sides had resigned themselves to the inevitability of a break, probably a violent break. The story is far too complex to tell here, and historical parallels are never exact. But certain items scream their relevance.

The United States, like Israel, came into being with a fundamental dilemma: people whom the new rulers didn’t want there; people often deemed irremediably inferior; but people who weren’t going to conveniently disappear. For Israel, it was the Arabs. For the United States, it was two groups. The native Americans were ultimately disposed of, in a centuries-long campaign of ethnic cleansing and extermination. Black slaves posed another problem. They could be neither sent home en masse nor exterminated; they could neither be freed en masse nor assimilated. And those who wanted them condemned themselves both to the scorn of their countrymen and long-term economic stagnation.

In 1776, all thirteen colonies were “slave states,” permitting human bondage on their soil. Slaving (the infamous “triangle trade”) built many a New England mansion. The Declaration of Independence made no mention of slavery, despite the tepid condemnation inserted into the initial draft by the slave-owning Thomas Jefferson. Nor did the Constitution of 1787, mention slavery by name, holding only that the “importation of persons” (Article I, Section 9) could not be ended before 1808 and that slaves were not human beings with rights, merely property to be returned if found absent without leave from their owners (Article IV, Section 2).

The “importation of persons” ended on schedule. Northern states abolished slavery. And the matter seemed uneasily settled. Just let the states do what they wanted.

But it didn’t quite happen that way. Two issues recurred again and again. The first was expansion, specifically, the admission of new states to the Union. The North was growing and industrializing; the South lagged far behind. More states meant more free states. That meant more free-state Congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives, where membership was apportioned by population. But in the Senate each state received the same two votes and senior Southerners often dominated. If somehow, the number of free and slave states could be kept balanced, the free states could not use the federal government against slavery.

The result was a series of patchwork compromises, each offering a temporary balance until the next set of admissions, while anti-slavery sentiment grew.

The second issue was that Southerners demanded more than legislative parity. They wanted the North’s active assistance in maintaining their “peculiar institution.” The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 had long been a dead letter. Now the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 not only reinforced that Constitutional demand, but threatened those who failed to comply (including state officials and police) with heavy fines and other punishments. The North was legally required to support Southern slavery.

Then in 1857, the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision held that the African American was so inferior that he could not claim to be a citizen and had “no rights which the white man is bound to respect.”

The result: by 1858, Northerners had come to realize that there could be no “process” leading to a permanent solution. And even if the slave-holding states seceded, it wouldn’t end there. The South could never be content to stagnate while the North grew ever more powerful. Inevitably, the South would attempt to implant slavery in those territories that had yet to be incorporated into the Union. There had already been one “Bleeding Kansas.” Now there would be many more, for endless decades more.

In sum, by 1858, most Northerners (and more than a few Southerners) had determined that they could no longer be complicit in this evil, and that unless the issue was resolved now, only more evil would ensue.

No longer complicit in this evil . . .

Unless the issue was resolved now . . .


Next: 1858 for Israel, too?

About the Author
Philip Gold made Aliyah from USA in 2010 after several decades as a Beltway "public intellectual" of sorts.
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