Starstruck in the Promised Land

How the Arts Shaped American Passions about Israel

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Shalom L. Goldman
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , October
     2019.
     256 pages.
     $28.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781469652412.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Shalom Goldman’s Starstruck in the Promised Land: How the Arts Shaped American Passions about Israel is an exploration of the role that art and artists have played in mediating and manifesting the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel. It is not an argument-driven study or a comprehensive synthesis, but rather an episodic examination of specific figures, works, and incidents that Goldman uses to speak to the peculiar cultural and political bonds that have developed between the two countries.

While Goldman positions the American relationship to Israel as part of a longstanding religious and cultural fascination with the Holy Land—a fascination that Mark Twain was already mocking in the 1860s—most of the work is concerned with the post–World War II era, when American passions for Zionism and then Israel really began to stir.

As Goldman notes, the new Jewish state was a particularly popular cause among American liberals. This included Jewish American artists like Leonard Bernstein, who built connections with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and even performed for Israeli troops during Israel’s war for independence, and non-Jews like Frank Sinatra, who funded a youth center in Nazareth and a student center at Hebrew University after first performing in the country in 1962. Indicative of an even broader American public enthusiasm for Israel—and contributing to it—was the success of Leon Uris’s 1958 novel Exodus and Otto Preminger’s subsequent film adaption, which provided an unabashedly heroic account of the country’s founding (as well as a correspondingly negative depiction of Arabs).

This enthusiasm, Goldman writes, was in many ways invigorated by the 1967 Six Day War, in which Israel conquered large portions of territory from Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, in the process bringing hundreds of thousands of Arabs under military occupation. While some artists of color like James Baldwin condemned the occupation as a form of colonialism, Israel’s conquest of territory that encompassed the boundaries of the biblical Israel also inspired a surge in evangelical interest in the Jewish state.

Among those caught up in the growing Christian Zionist fervor were Johnny and June Carter Cash, who recorded an album and film highlighting the biblical significance of the land in the early 1970s. As American evangelicals more politically conservative than the Cashes organized as part of the emerging conservative coalition in the late 1970s, their aggressive support for Israel—paired with Israeli politics’ own rightward drift—would eventually contribute to making the Jewish state a more distinctly conservative cause.

Still, Israel remained broadly popular among the American public, especially as it developed into a real geopolitical ally of the United States. In 1978, ABC even ran a star-studded television special celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the country’s birth.

However, Goldman notes that this apparent consensus began to crack in the 1980s, especially after the First Intifada (Palestinian uprising) prompted more open criticism of Israeli policies from artists of a liberal bent—criticism that in turn prompted fierce backlash from defenders of Israel’s actions in the occupied territories. Indicative of the changing conversation was the controversy surrounding a 1988 editorial by Woody Allen criticizing Israeli tactics in suppressing the Intifada. While Allen’s editorial indicated the growing acceptability of publicly criticizing Israeli policy in the United States, the vigorous backlash indicated energetic efforts to stifle any such criticism.

Over the subsequent decades, which witnessed the pursuit and collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, prominent American artists continued to develop meaningful connections to the Jewish state. Goldman points to the visits of American divas Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston, and Madonna in the 1990s and 2000s—each of which took on distinctly different religious dimensions—as particularly evocative of the rich and variegated nature of these connections.

At the same time, Goldman notes that the arts have not escaped the increasingly contentious public conversation surrounding Israel, most obviously manifested in the pressure that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement has sometimes successfully put on American artists to avoid engagements in Israel in protest of Israeli policies in the occupied territories.

Even as Israel has become more politically controversial among American artists, though, Goldman concludes the work by observing that the two countries are more culturally intertwined than ever, evidenced in many respects by the rapport between US President Donald Trump and the most culturally American Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir, Benjamin Netanyahu.

As noted above, Starstruck in the Promised Land is loosely structured and highly episodic, with Goldman using dozens of individual anecdotes to examine various aspects of the US-Israel relationship. While the majority of these anecdotes do involve the arts, large numbers of them have nothing to do with the arts at all. Goldman includes, for instance, episodic examinations of American Zionists’ reactions to Gandhi’s critiques of the movement, the relocation of Revisionist Zionist leader Zev Jabotinsky’s remains from New York to Jerusalem, and Jewish American gangster Meyer Lansky’s pursuit of Israeli citizenship. He also includes a number of autobiographical asides involving his own experiences navigating the cultural and political bonds between the two countries.

While these stories are often engaging and illuminating on their own terms—Goldman’s personal reflections provide some of the most intriguing material in the book—their inclusion tends to distract from the work’s stated concern with the arts, serving instead to highlight curiously underexamined or even unexamined aspects of the topic at hand. In other words, the inclusion of discrete sections on the likes of Israeli intelligence official Yehoshafat Harkabi or American academics Stephen Walt and Jon Mearsheimer only accentuates the exclusion of any material on, say, Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist who has been among the most active and outspoken proponents of BDS in the United States.

For readers seeking a comprehensive understanding of how American arts and artists have been implicated in the “special relationship,” such stochastic attentions might prove frustrating. However, for those seeking to enjoy a collection of intriguing episodes about that relationship, curated and explained by an accomplished scholar who has himself been tangled in it, the work’s idiosyncrasies may very well be a virtue.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Walker Robins is a Lecturer in History at Merrimack College.

 

Date of Review: 
April 30, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Shalom L. Goldman is Professor of religion at Middlebury College, a popular opinion writer on US-Israeli affairs, and librettist of Philip Glass's opera Akhnaten.

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