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Of Texas, Cowboys and Militant Zionists (Part 2 of 3)

What are the parallels between the intellectual and religious genesis of Texas and Israel?

April 7, 2002

What are the parallels between the intellectual and religious genesis of Texas and Israel?

The fierce religiosity of Anglo-Celtic Texans (see Part 1), like so much else, can be traced back to Ulster and Scotland — via Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia. The 18th century Scots who moved to the American colonies from Northern Ireland combined frontier brutality with simple and fervent Calvinism. Much as the Protestant Dutch Afrikaaners of South Africa did, these Protestant Scots-Irish Southerners compared themselves to the ancient Hebrews.

So, of course, did black Americans — who chose to dwell on the exodus of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. The Southerners who populated Texas much preferred other portions of “the Bobble.” These were the verses about the conquest of the Promised Land and the annihilation of the Canaanites.

For all their nominal Christianity, white Protestant Southerners have never been comfortable with a meek and mild Jesus. The deity who turned himself over for execution without a fight, counseled his followers to turn the other cheek when struck and commanded forgiveness of one’s enemies has never been popular in Texas and other parts south.

Deep down, most Southern men prefer Hebrew tribal generals such as Moses, Joshua, Gideon and David. Their idea of religion is kicking Canaanite butt at God’s command.

Ironically, some of those U.S. fundamentalists appear not to realize that the Old Testament heroes whom they admire on the one hand and the modern Jewish liberals in Hollywood whom their preachers teach them to despise on the other belong to the same ethnic group.

For example, many illustrated bibles in the United States depict the ancient Hebrews — as well as Jesus — with blue eyes and Northern European features.

A friend of mine had an acquaintance who applied for an apartment in Dallas. When he told the landlady that he was from Israel, she replied in relief, “Oh, good. I thought you might be a Jew.”

It is with good reason then that Southern religion in the United States has been called “Old Testament Protestantism.” Amazingly, Southern Protestant morality resembles that of Orthodox Jews — or traditional Muslims.

It emphasizes strict religious obedience. Indeed, some of the laws governing morals in Texas and other Southern states are near-literal transcriptions from the Book of Leviticus.

Even today, Protestant preachers mobilize their flocks to prevent the repeal of archaic sodomy laws. They fear that cities such as Dallas and Houston will be punished like Sodom and Gomorrah.

In addition to its legalism, this Old Testament Protestant morality is also communal. Its single, seamless moral code is enforced by the community, employers, schools, the state and — until a few decades ago — by the lynch mob. Among clannish, tight-knit, old-fashioned Anglo-Celtic Southern Protestants, as among Orthodox Jews, there is little toleration for deviance from tribal norm.

The result has been intellectual and cultural sterility — and the persistence of pre-modern superstition. When I was growing up in Austin, a liberal university town, fundamentalists a few hundred miles away in Waco regularly burned “satanic” books and records.

In the 1980s, when I worked at the state capital, Brother Lester Roloff — a sort of Protestant mullah — put a curse on the Texas legislature. An acquaintance of mine who studied paleontology at Harvard was asked by a rural Texan neighbor, “Are they teaching you about that Karl Darwin?”

That’s right —”Karl Darwin” — the bearded foreign theorist of both socialism and evolution. Was it any surprise when George W. Bush, during the 2000 presidential campaign, announced that Jesus was his favorite philosopher — and that the jury is still out on the theory of evolution?

One more surprise: The gun-toting, Bible-thumping Anglo-Celtic Texan in conquered Mexican and Indian territories — with his admiration for the Hebrew patriarchs and professed devotion to the Ten Commandments — is remarkably similar to the gun-toting, Torah-thumping Israeli settler in the conquered Arab territories.

The “sabra” ideal of a certain strain of Zionism — macho and militaristic — is a cousin of the Southern/Western “redneck” or “cowboy,” right down to the contempt for the disposable “Canaanites.”

And that is precisely why the Sharon edition of present-day Israel and Texas before the civil rights revolution have so much in common. In my view, both combine populism within the majority ethnic nation with the cruel subordination of ethnic minorities.

A generation ago, T.R. Fehrenbach, the great Texan historian, compared the Texans to the Israelis. Is it no coincidence, then, that the products of two very similar societies, Texas’s George W. Bush and Israel’s Ariel Sharon, appear to be most themselves when they are waging war on behalf of their tribes — or relaxing on their ranches?