Reading History: “Starstruck in the Promised Land” (by Shalom Goldman)

Note: My thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book for review.

From its founding, Israel has had a particularly strong relationship with the United States, and it has, throughout the latter half of the 20th Century, become increasingly critical to American foreign policy in the Middle East. While it was, at first, praised by those on the left, as the plight of the Palestinians became more of an issue in the international community, the stance of both American popular culture and (to a lesser extent) political culture changed, so that it was those on the right who championed Israel and those on the left who sharply criticized (and often condemned ) its actions.

While numerous books have been written about the relationship between the United States and Israel, less examined has been the ways in which various figures in popular culture–singers, actors, and writers–have played a key role in the formation of such attitudes. That’s where Shalom Goldman’s Starstruck in the Promised Land comes into play. Drawing on a wide variety of documents and evidence, Goldman convincingly demonstrates how key popular culture has been to the ways in which Americans think about Israel.

Even before the founding of Israel as a state, Americans were obsessed with the Holy Land. Throughout the 19th Century, American literary figures from Herman Melville to Mark Twain visited the region, and though they were hardly positive in their commentary, they nevertheless revealed how key the Middle East was to the American psyche. For Christians, especially those of a more apocalyptic bent, the region was a key part of their theology and their vision of the world.

As Goldman moves into the 20th Century, we see how more and more literary and artistic figures took up the cause of Israel. These ranged from composers such as Leonard Bernstein to authors such as James Baldwin. Bernstein in particular would become a key figure in Israel, often staging concerts for Israeli soldiers. As a scholar of film and popular media, I particularly enjoyed the ways in which Goldman interweaves the politics and history of the modern state of Israel with some of the key figures and texts of the era. Films like Exodus and singers like Johnny and June Cash were especially vital to the Israeli cause, the former by figuring the Israeli founders as freedom fighters not unlike those in many western films (the film’s leading man was Paul Newman) and the latter by continuing to highlight the integral relationship between Christianity (particularly of the evangelical variety) and Israel.

Goldman also demonstrates the extent to which American political stances on Israel–as well as those of our popular culture figures–have mapped quite neatly onto the cultural wars. Just as evangelical Christianity became a dominant political force in the latter half of the 20th Century, so they saw an embrace of Israel as key to their own cultural and social beliefs (hence the trips that the Cashes, devout Christians, made to the Holy Land). At the same time, as civil rights became a stronger current on the American left, it became more and more common for American entertainers to take up the cause of the Palestinians.

Just as importantly, Goldman discusses his own biography and how that has shaped his own stance on the subject. It is sometimes easy to forget that politics, for all of its ugliness, actually involves real people whose lives and identities shape how they think about and engage with the thorny questions associated with this troubled region.

Overall, this book is a strong contribution to our understanding of the deep history of the relationship between the United States and Israel. Goldman writes with erudition and nuance, recognizing that there are no simple solutions in the dilemma of Israel, and that the relationship between the United States and one of its key Middle Eastern allies has been and may always be complicated and messy.

This book is necessary reading for anyone who wishes to gain a nuanced and balanced understanding of this particular aspect of foreign policy. Given the extremes of emotion that Israel tends to arouse in both those on the left and the right, this book’s equanimity is a gift indeed.

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