“A Land without a People for a People without a Land”: Civilizing Mission and American Support for Zionism, 1880-1922

From the 1880s through WWI, well-entrenched ideas about the civilizing mission and the white man’s burden justified U.S. continental and overseas expansion, restrictive immigration policies, and popular support for the nascent Zionist movement, which was intent on establishing a “Jewish National Home” in Palestine.  Zionists and their supporters presented their colonial movement to the Western powers as an extension of the Western civilizing mission, adopting the idealistic rhetoric of benevolent imperialism and the Biblical justifications of earlier settler colonies.  Overwhelmingly negative and commonplace American perceptions about Arabs and Palestine, which developed in the 19th century as a result of Protestant missionaries, increasing diplomatic and economic exchanges, travel literature, and, perhaps most importantly, traditional Biblical imagery, contributed to popular American support for the Zionist project and the dehumanization of Palestinian Arabs.  While many scholars have investigated American perceptions of Arabs and Palestine and the popular and official responses to Zionism, they do not adequately explain how American support for Zionism and the dehumanization of Palestinians coincided with US expansion, immigration restriction, and support for white settler colonies.  Nor do they discuss how the discourse on citizenship and nation were fundamental to these processes.  Using periodicals, travel literature, contemporary writings on Zionism, and government documents, this paper attempts to place popular American support for Zionism within the larger discourse on imperialism, civilizing missions, nationhood, citizenship, self-determination, democracy, and migration between the early 1880s (when Zionism became a political movement) and the early 1920s (after the US Congress had passed a resolution endorsing the British mandate and a “Jewish national home” in Palestine).