In this Q&A, Shalom Goldman discusses his new book, Starstruck in the Promised Land: How the Arts Shaped American Passions about Israel, out now from UNC Press.
From the days of steamship travel to Palestine to today’s evangelical Christian tours of Jesus’s birthplace, the relationship between the United States and the Holy Land has become one of the world’s most consequential international alliances. While the political side of U.S.-Israeli relations has long played out on the world stage, the relationship, as Shalom Goldman shows in this illuminating cultural history, has also played out on actual stages. Telling the stories of the American superstars of pop and high culture who journeyed to Israel to perform, lecture, and rivet fans, Goldman chronicles how the creative class has both expressed and influenced the American relationship with Israel.
Starstruck in the Promised Land is now available in print and ebook editions.
For readers in the NYC area, Shalom Goldman will give a book talk at the 92nd Street Y this Friday, November 15, at 12PM. Reserve tickets here.
Q: How is the relationship between Israel and America unusual or remarkable?
A: The relationship between Britain and the United States in the first part of the twentieth century was the previous “special relationship” in U.S. history. That was a partnership between two world powers, though one, the U.S., was growing more powerful at the time, and the other, the United Kingdom, was growing less powerful. The U.S.’s special relationship with Israel, first articulated by John F. Kennedy in the 1960s, was highly unusual in that at that time Israel was a small nation with very limited resources, power, and influence. The reasons that this odd international partnership developed to where it is today are varied and complex. My argument in Starstruck in the Promised Land is that cultural forces, particularly the performing arts, are a large—and previously undiscussed—part of the American-Israeli story.
Q: How many years back does this connection go?
A: The connection was forged in 1948 when President Truman granted recognition to the State of Israel within minutes of its declaration of statehood. But in many senses the connection is even older than that. With the establishment of the Zionist movement in the last years of the nineteenth century, many influential American Protestant clergymen, and many members of Congress and business leaders—again, most of them from the then-dominant Protestant elites—expressed support for the Zionist idea.
Q: So what has caused Americans’ deep and enduring fascination with Israel?
A: The fascination with both the idea of Zionism, that there should be a modern Jewish state, and with the realization of that idea in the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, begins with early American identification with Biblical history. The early British colonists understood themselves as a “New Israel,” a refugee people fleeing the “the Pharaoh”—King George III of England. In the first centuries of American life, hundreds of towns, mountains, and parks were given Biblical names—not only in New England, but throughout the continental United States. Salems, Hebrons, Goshens, Bethlehems, and Zions dot the map. Some one hundred and seventy years after the American Biblical experiment declared its independence from Britain, the “original” Biblical nation declared its independence (also from Britain). How could American Christians not identify with Israel? Am I claiming that all Americans over two centuries were influenced by these ideas? No—but I am claiming that many, perhaps the majority, were.
Q: Can you tell me about a “star” in this story who stands out to you?
A: The ones who stand out for me are Johnny Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash. Starstruck in the Promised Land opens with the story of their marriage and singing careers. Both of these aspects of their lives together were linked to Israel. At June Carter’s insistence, the couple honeymooned in Israel in 1968 and toured “in the footsteps of Jesus.” While there they made an album titled The Holy Land, and a few years later, in 1971, they returned to Israel to make a feature-length film, The Gospel Road. In the subsequent two decades they made three more “pilgrimages” (in their words) to the Jewish state. And Johnny’s daughter, Rosanne Cash, wrote “Western Wall,” a haunting song set in Jerusalem.
Q: What do you mean when you say that Israeli culture has influenced American culture?
A: Today, many people—and here I include both Israel’s supporters and detractors—understand Israel’s growth and stability as the result of Jewish advocacy and influence. In both my earlier book, Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews, and the Idea of the Promised Land, and in this book, I demonstrate that Christians’ support for Israel—primarily among Protestants, and to a lesser extent among Catholics—was and is a central and determining part of Israel’s establishment and growth.
Q: Can you give me an example of how Israeli culture has influenced American culture?
A: The recent revolution in quality television programming is one example. Three blockbuster American TV shows—“Homeland,” “In Treatment,” and “The Affair”—are remakes of Israeli originals. And many more remakes are in development. Shtisel, which first premiered in Israel in 2013, is very popular on Netflix right now. In 2017 the trade paper Variety noted that Israel “has now firmly positioned itself as a TV content breeding ground—from silly game shows to subversive comedies—with massive global reach.”
Q: Please tell me about your book’s cover.
A: On the cover is a photo of Paul Newman in the 1960 film “Exodus,” a film that had a very large audience, and very wide influence on U.S. attitudes toward Israel and the Arabs. The film solidified the already pro-Zionist feelings of Americans by appealing to the perceived “Biblical roots” of both nations. But this Paul Newman photo is especially pointed and ironic because Newman’s role is that of Ari Ben Canaan, an Israel Jewish hero—and in this photo he is disguised as a Palestinian Arab.
Shalom Goldman, a popular opinion writer on U.S.-Israeli affairs and librettist of Philip Glass’s opera Akhnaten, is professor of religion at Middlebury College. Among his books are Zeal for Zion and God’s Sacred Tongue.