Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict

By John B. Judis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 448 pages

During the 60s, when Israel had a socialist government and a socialist economy, John Judis was a socialist in Berkeley, where he became interested in Israel “out of disillusionment with my own country.” During the Six-Day War, he tried to volunteer at the Israeli consulate in San Francisco. In later years, he became upset and offended by Israel’s settlements, and then began questioning American policy after he “discovered how scared politicians were to buck Israel’s powerful lobby.” He describes himself as having long been “the left wing of the acceptable” at the New Republic and “one of the only dissenters” from the magazine’s defense of Israel.

All this led to a “buildup of repressed indignation that fueled the years I spent on this book.” Readers will discover that years of accumulated left-wing anger have produced a book that reads like history but is actually something else. Like The Israel Lobby, the 2007 faux-scholarly tome by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer (brought to us by the same publisher), Judis’s book congratulates itself for its supposed courage in challenging Israel’s supporters; seems scholarly since it has a lot of footnotes; and tells a tendentious story while omitting facts a fair-minded scholar would include.

As the title indicates, Judis seeks to go back to the beginning. He describes the formation of Israel as an act of cultural and political imperialism, with a United Nations resolution endorsed by a distracted and indecisive U.S. president—Harry S. Truman—who was “beaten back” by a “powerful American Zionist movement.” He argues that the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which the foreign secretary of Great Britain recognized the need for a national homeland for the Jewish people, “was itself to blame” for the Arab–Israeli conflict. He believes that Britain and the Jews conspired to “screw the Arabs out of a country that by the prevailing standards of self-determination would have been theirs.” He asserts that the Jews had a “determination to drive Palestine’s Arabs out of the country.” He avers that Truman started a “pattern of surrender to Israel and its supporters,” running all the way to President Obama.

The underlying issue, Judis writes, is whether American presidents must continue to “bow to the demands” of the Israel lobby. In fact, the ultimate issue this book presents is different.

Judis begins by recounting the conflict a century ago between “political” and “cultural” Zionism—the debate between followers of Theodor Herzl (who sought a Jewish state) and Ahad Ha’am (who favored only a “national spiritual center” in Palestine). According to Judis, Herzl’s Zionism was part of “the prevailing framework of European imperialist politics,” while Ahad Ha’am sought to rescue Judaism itself through a cultural center in a binational Palestine. The book reads like a relitigation of the issue, in which it is clear which side Judis favors. For most Jews, however, the issue was resolved long ago: The events of World War II demonstrated that Jewish survival depended on creating something considerably stronger than a cultural center.

Judis asserts there was a “moral contradiction” in Zionism because there were other people living in Palestine. He thinks this turned Jews into colonialists like those who came to America, Australia, and Africa to displace the natives. But Jews came to Palestine in the late 19th century onward as neither invaders nor imperialists (they did not even have a country, much less an empire, to extend). They were returning to the place where their state had stood for 500 years, to a sparsely populated and undeveloped land then holding about 600,000 residents that has proved to have more than enough room for at least 10 million.

Completely missing from Judis’s book is any recognition that Zionism was a movement melding ancient Jewish history with 18th-century liberalism, 19th-century nationalism, and early-20th-century socialism to re-create a state for a people forcibly dispersed from their land. The Arab residents of Palestine had developed no separate national identity. They had lived for 400 years under the Ottoman Turks without any national protest. Their politics during the period of British rule after World War I involved family rivalries, not national parties. Later, after Israel’s war of independence, the Arabs in the area would make no national protest against two decades of occupation by Jordan and Egypt. The colonialists in Palestine were the British, and the eventual Jewish revolt against them (while simultaneously defending the Jewish community there against periodic Arab pogroms) was a national liberation movement.

Zionism was fundamentally moral unless one asserts (as Judis seems to believe) that the Jews were not entitled to a state anywhere because other people were living everywhere. It was precisely the “prevailing standards of self-determination” that led to the 1922 League of Nations Mandate, which formally recognized “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine” and endorsed their “reconstituting their national home” in that land. The Mandate was a recognition that the number of stateless and endangered Jews in the world at that time far exceeded the number of Arabs living in the backwater of a defeated Ottoman Empire, and that self-determination for the Jewish people was not possible without a Jewish state.

Arab national claims were not only far weaker than those of the Jews, but far less urgent, and Arab civil and religious rights were protected under the Balfour Declaration, the Mandate, and Israel’s Declaration of Independence (which appealed to Arab residents—“in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months”—to remain and participate in the state “on the basis of full and equal citizenship”). Israeli Arabs today have more civil and religious rights than do Arabs in the 21 Arab states.

Judis has a pat explanation for why Zionists didn’t see things then the way he sees them now: They were ignoramuses regarding the Arabs. Stephen S. Wise, the reform rabbi who was chairman of the Zionist Organization of America, had an “uncanny ignorance” of the Arab population. The leading American Zionist, Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, suffered from “sheer ignorance” of them. Zionists were prone to a “psychological process” that led to “willful ignorance.” Those who didn’t simply “revel” in a “single-minded pursuit” of a Jewish state adopted “rationalizations”—since “Herzl’s Zionism encouraged willful ignorance.” In 1949, Eleanor Roosevelt suggested Arab refugees should be resettled in Arab countries, where there were vacant lands needing people to work them; Judis accuses her too of being “willfully ignorant.”

This is absurd. Zionists were not only acutely aware of the Arabs; they repeatedly offered them a state both before and after the re-establishment of Israel. In 1919, the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann signed a two-state agreement with the Arabs’ leader—which the Arabs repudiated. In 1937, the Jews accepted the partition proposal of the British government’s Peel Commission; the Arabs rejected it. In 1947, the Jews accepted the UN partition resolution; the Arabs not only rejected it, but started a war the next day. In 2000, Israel offered a Palestinian state on substantially all of Gaza and the West Bank, with a capital in Jerusalem; Arafat rejected it. Six months later, Israel agreed to the Clinton Parameters—a bridging proposal offering the Palestinians even better terms—which Arafat rejected in the Oval Office on January 2, 2001, and then rejected again at Taba the week after Clinton left office.

No people in history has ever been offered a state—and rejected it—more times than the Palestinians. Judis allows that the Palestinians have not had the best of leaders, beginning with their pro-Nazi mufti, who spent World War II in Berlin seeking to have Hitler extend his program to Palestine. But Judis blames the British—for not encouraging better leaders. In early 1947, the Arabs categorically rejected a British proposal to make Palestine a unitary state under a plan that would have led to Arab-majority rule; Judis attributes their rejection of a state on a silver platter to their “fury” from their “understandable resentments” of the Balfour Declaration and of Zionists.

As for Palestinian refugees, Judis cites as his principal source Benny Morris’s 2004 book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, but he ignores what Morris wrote on page seven: “it cannot be stressed too strongly that…[the events], cumulatively amounting to the Palestinian Arab exodus, occurred in wartime and were a product, direct and indirect, of that war, a war that the Palestinians started.” If the Arabs had not launched their war, there would have been no refugees then, nor any today. The moral and historical responsibility for the Arab refugees (as well as the 800,000 Jewish refugees forced from Arab countries) has thus always been on those who, even 65 years later, have yet to assume it. While there was pre-1948 support by some Zionists for “transfer”—a word that covered the compensated shifts or mandatory expulsion of Arabs from Palestine—Morris found the “connection between that support and what actually happened during the war is far more tenuous than Arab propagandists will allow.”

Refugees are an inevitable consequence of any war, as civilians flee military operations from all sides. But the 1948 war featured a five-nation invasion of Israel whose central aim was a “transfer” of Jews not to a neighboring Jewish country but to the Mediterranean Sea. Morris documented that from December 1947 to April 1948, the Palestinian leadership encouraged or ordered a great many villages to send away their women, children, and seniors, which lowered the morale of the remaining males and paved the way for their departure as well. Entire villages, especially in the Jewish-dominated coastal plain, were ordered to evacuate, to facilitate a war conducted by those who today still complain about the refugees their own war created.

The impression of Judis’s scholarship is not improved by his story of Truman, a one-sided tale that disregards the better written, much more nuanced account by Allis and Ronald Radosh in their 2009 book, A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel. In a footnote, Judis describes the Radosh book as the “most complete blow-by-blow account of what happened” in Truman’s recognition of Israel, but he otherwise ignores it.

One example: Judis asserts that Truman—unlike Woodrow Wilson, Arthur Balfour, and British Prime Minister Lloyd George—was not a Christian Zionist, but simply “treasure[d] the Bible for its stories of heroes and for its moral lessons.” The Radoshes note that Truman often quoted Deuteronomy (“Go in and take possession of the land to which the Lord has sworn unto your fathers”); that Alfred Lilienthal, a State Department Arabist, said Truman “was a Biblical fundamentalist who constantly pointed” to those words; that Truman and his chief White House aide, Clark Clifford, exchanged biblical passages on the boundaries of Israel; and that six months after recognizing Israel, Truman wrote Chaim Weizmann that “[w]hat you have received at the hands of the world has been far less than was your due.”

The issue is not whether Truman was a “Christian Zionist,” about which historians are split, but rather why Judis omitted this evidence, available in the “most complete” account of Truman’s actions.

Truman had multiple reasons for recognizing Israel. They included the forceful arguments of Clifford and his other White House advisers, Cold War geopolitical considerations (particularly Truman’s concern the Soviet Union might act first to recognize the Jewish state), Truman’s longtime interest in alleviating the plight of the displaced persons from World War II and the failure of other proposed solutions, his respect for Chaim Weizmann (whom his friend Eddie Jacobson persuaded him to meet at a key moment), and Truman’s biblical knowledge and sense of history. It was also obviously in Truman’s political interest in a close 1948 election, but Judis treats political considerations as if they were the primary ones, or necessarily inconsistent with the other ones, and they were not.

Back in the 60s, when Israel was a socialist country, it was a light unto the nations for the left. These days, many leftists have switched sides and are creating revisionist history for use as a weapon against the Jewish state. In Recovering the Past, the eminent historian Forrest McDonald warned that many professional historians “seek to use the past to influence the present” and “fail the laity if they are impelled by contemporary motivations.” They are “plagued by inherent biases, for the historian who scours the record for preconceived answers manages to find them.” John Judis could serve as Exhibit A. A historian with a chip on his shoulder is an unreliable narrator.

Zionism became the most successful “ism” of the 20th century, establishing a state for a decimated people in a small fraction of the land they once held, building a vibrant democracy and culture while under continual existential threat. The century’s other “isms” (fascism, Communism, National Socialism, and anti-Semitism) succeeded only in killing about 100 million people. In 1948, the support of the American left—the Nation’s editor Freda Kirchwey, PM’s I.F. Stone, and others—was critical to the rebirth of Israel. These days, the left seeks to delegitimize the Jewish state.

Friends asked Judis why he didn’t write a book proposing alternatives to current U.S. policy. He says he is not the one to write such a book, which needs someone “thoroughly acquainted with the current actors.” In other words, he doesn’t know Obama, Netanyahu, and Abbas well enough to make a policy recommendation. But he has written a book that insists the source of the conflict was the Jewish desire for a state; that the state should have gone to the Arabs under “prevailing standards”; that refugees from the Arab war on Israel were the responsibility of the Jews; and that Truman recognized Israel primarily for political rather than principled reasons. Judis’s policy preference is entirely clear to those with eyes to see.

Judis suggests he is bringing a moral vision to Americans who lack a historical perspective, but he lacks the courage to spell out his obvious conclusion. Instead he calls his book Genesis. No faux Elder of Zion could have given it a more misleading title.

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