On a miserably rainy day in March 1948, 10,000 Jewish Communists and their supporters marched from 7th Avenue and 29th Street to Union Square in Manhattan. “Youthful and disciplined,” the New York Times reported, they “raised their battle cry of ‘solidarity forever’ as they marched through driving rain and pelting hailstones.” The marchers carried the American flag “alongside the blue and white Jewish emblem with the Star of David.” Their signs read “Arms to Haganah,” “Smash the Gentlemen’s Agreement between the State Department and Standard Oil,” and “Save the Jewish State: Smash the Embargo.”
It was not just Jewish leftists, and not just Communists; in 1948, the entire American left supported the creation of the state of Israel. Intellectuals, such as the journalist I.F. Stone and the editor of the Nation, Freda Kirchwey, played an all-but-forgotten role in gaining mainstream support for the fledgling Jewish state at a time when public sympathy and recognition were integral to its survival. Yet today, the campaign to delegitimize Israel has become the 21st century’s version of what the old European social democrats called “the anti-Semitism of the fools.” The global left, including its American wing, reveals, as the British journalist Nick Cohen has put it, an era in which “the notion that Israel is an illegitimate state has gone from the fringe to the mainstream of left-wing discourse.”
This certainly wasn’t always the case; Israel’s establishment would have been difficult, and the state would not have survived, without the strong support of the American left. So it is instructive to look back to the period right before Israel’s creation, and to the earliest days of the new Jewish state’s existence, when the American left celebrated Israel’s founding, to understand how and why this has changed.
The Communists backed the cause of Israel because their worldwide leader, Joseph Stalin, temporarily discarded the anti-Zionist and Arabist positions previously taken by the Soviet Union after the Second World War. On May 14, 1947, Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet Union’s representative at the United Nations, had asserted “the right of the Jews of the whole world to the creation of a state of their own,” as forthright and militant a Zionist speech as any world leader had ever given. Speaking from her exile in Russia, “La Pasionara”—Dolores Ibárruri, the iconic figure of the Communists during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s—saluted Israel and compared the invading Arab armies with the Fascist uprising that destroyed the Spanish Republic.
Soviet support to Israel involved much more than words. The Jews of pre-Israel Palestine fought successfully because of the arms sent to them by the Czech government on Stalin’s orders, including airplanes, rifles, machine guns, and ammunition, which allowed the underground Jewish militiamen of the Haganah to counter the arms of the British and French that supplied the Syrian army. About 200,000 Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe—many from Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, and other Communist states—reached the front lines and helped provide the manpower that was necessary to produce an Israeli victory.
This all represented a change of heart. These were some of the same Communists who once supported the 1929 Arab massacre of Jews living in Hebron, yet who now argued that Israel stood against British imperialism and its forces, which sought a new war with the Soviet Union. Stalin hoped he could gain a bastion in the Middle East that would be pro-Soviet, and thereby hasten the end of British imperialism’s stranglehold on the region. Hence the Yiddish Communist daily, the Freiheit, editorialized in May 1948 that “Palestine had become an important settlement of 600,000 souls, having developed a common national economy, a growing national culture, and the first elements of Palestinian Jewish statehood and self-government.”
The Freiheit’s view was echoed by Stone and Kirchwey. When Stone was asked by the Zionist movement to travel on one of the refugee ships that was set to sail from Italy to Palestine, he agreed. He was assigned to the Beria. It carried 1,500 refugees and was one of the last British ships allowed to land in Palestine and to let its passengers—survivors and others living in camps for displaced-persons—disembark before slamming the door shut in 1946. “Full support of the so-called illegal immigration,” Stone wrote, “is a moral obligation for world Jewry and a Christian duty for its friends.”
Stone’s reportage created a vast reservoir of sympathy for the new Jewish exodus. His series in the leftist New York newspaper P.M. shored up its circulation, and he became a favorite on the lecture circuit. The book he published based on that series, Underground to Palestine, led to a wave of sympathy and support for the plight of Jewish displaced persons, who sought only one goal: settlement in Palestine.
In 1948, Stone published a second book, This Is Israel, a paean to the new Jewish state. Stone’s text was accompanied by photos of the new state taken by Robert Capa, Jerry Cooke, and Tim Gidal. In it, Stone referred to newborn Israel as a “tiny bridgehead” against 30 million Arabs and argued that Israel’s “precarious borders” were made for a “gerrymandered state” and were almost indefensible. He also stressed that among the leaders of Arab invading forces were Nazi collaborators, the main one being the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, and the head of the Arab Liberation Army, Fawzi al-Kaukji, who had led the pro-Fascist revolt against the British in Iraq in 1941. Stone wrote that “German Nazis, Polish reactionaries, Yugoslav Chetniks, and Bosnian Moslems flocked [into Palestine] for the war against the Jews.”
When it came to the issue of why the Arabs fled in the face of Jewish resistance to their armed aggression, Stone was clear. “Ill-armed, outnumbered, however desperate their circumstances,” he wrote, “the Jews stood fast.” The response of the Palestinians was simply to flee. “First the wealthiest families went,” Stone wrote. “While the Arab guerrillas were moving in, the Arab civilian population was moving out.” The Arab exodus was so alarming to the Palestine Arab Higher Committee that it “asked neighboring Arab countries to refuse visas to these refugees and to seal the border against them.”
One will not find in Stone’s book the now common acceptance of the Palestinian myth of the “nakba,” in which Israel’s creation is seen as a usurpation of rightful Palestinian ownership of the land from which Jews forcibly removed them. Indeed, writing about the fight over the village of Safed, Stone’s direct commentary gives the lie to the story told by Mahmoud Abbas much later. Writing an op-ed for the New York Times on May 16, 2011, Abbas claimed that he and his family were forced out of their home in Safed by the Jews, and were forced to flee to Syria.
Stone offered a description of the battle for Safed:
All the roads into the city were in the hands of the Arabs, but that night Haganah troops penetrated into the city over mountain footpaths from the Jewish colony of Ein Zeitim and made a surprise attack on the Arab forces in the central citadel. There was a house-to-house fight in the center of the city. That same night a detachment of Palmach commandos attacked the village of Akbara, two kilometers south of Safed. The news created panic among the defenders of Safed. The Arabs began to flee, even abandoning the huge police station which might have resisted frontal attack for days…and the entire Arab population of Safed, military and civilian took to flight.
Nowhere did Stone write about Palestinian refugees. As Sol Stern has written: “Stone shared the conventional liberal wisdom at the time regarding the post–World War II refugee problems. Wars inevitably produce refugees, and the problem is best handled by resettlement in the countries to which the refugees have moved.” Stone, like the rest of the liberal and left community, expected refugees to be absorbed by the Arab countries to which they had fled. Stone realized as well that Israel was also absorbing the thousands of Jewish refugees who were fleeing at the same time from the Arab lands that no longer welcomed them.
Abandoning his original advocacy of a binational state, Stone gave his support to the 1947 UN partition plan that the Arabs unanimously rejected. Even after the 1967 war, Stone referred to Israel as “the Jewish state” and hoped for coexistence of Jews and Palestinians in an area whose inhabitants accepted the 1947 UN partition plan, which he said offered a “way out for both sides.” As we well know, only one side would continually agree with the terms of that plan. Unlike the rest of today’s Western left, he did not seek to undo the events of 1948 that brought Israel into existence, nor reexamine the partition accepted by the Zionist movement and proclaimed by the UN in 1947.
If Stone was the man who chronicled the earliest settlers in the new Jewish state, Freda Kirchwey was the individual who made its attainment and recognition her main cause, just as she had, in an earlier period, fought for an end to American neutrality during the Spanish Civil War and urged American support for the beleaguered Spanish Republicans opposed by General Francisco Franco and his Falangist forces. Indeed, Kirchwey made the Nation a singular voice in behalf of the Zionist cause, so much so that it in effect became the house organ for the Jewish Agency and its U.S. representative, Eliahu Epstein. She made the Nation Associates the vehicle for gathering major support for a Jewish State in Palestine.
Kirchwey’s pro-Zionist sentiments were cemented during a trip she made to Palestine as the Nation’s correspondent in the spring and summer of 1946. Her impressions of the Jews, the Arabs, and the British were similar to those held by many of the members of the various international commissions dispatched to Palestine. Kirchwey was affected by the achievements of the Jews in Palestine and their rehabilitation of the Holocaust’s survivors. She contrasted their accomplishments to the poverty and backwardness, as she called it, of the Arabs. She also reported disapprovingly on the role played by the 100,000 British troops stationed in Palestine.
In her diary, Kirchwey wrote about her visit to Hebrew University and the new Hadassah Hospital. She was especially impressed by the latter, where, despite an Arab boycott of the Jews, the “corridors [were] jammed with Arabs.” Kirchwey toured Beit Haarava, a Jewish settlement planted in the “world’s toughest spot.” In four years, the communal colony has produced “marvelous crops on land washed until the salt content is just enough to encourage the biggest tomatoes in Palestine,” she wrote. “Fish raised. Colony flourishing. I won’t see a more astonishing achievement anywhere, I’m sure.” She visited Chaim Weizmann for lunch at his house, which she found “a most beautiful place in a fine setting—looking out over fields and orchards that were barren earth when he first went there.”
Kirchwey wrote a major memo addressed to the creation of the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) in which she argued that neither the British nor any Arabs should be allowed to sit on the committee, and only nations that were neutral should be represented. She distributed copies to members of Congress, the U.S. government, and to the press and radio. In May 1947, she wrote another memo of 133 pages titled “The Palestine Problem and Proposals for Its Solution,” which became the major briefing book for the Jewish Agency. She concluded that Britain was using every method of “exclusion and repression to prevent [Jewish displaced persons] from going to Palestine.” The policy, she wrote, served British imperialism as well as the ruling Arab groups, “even at the cost of defending a decadent, feudal, and hierarchical social system.”
Most important, Kirchwey rejected the alternatives for Palestine advocated by Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, and Hannah Arendt for a binational state. Acknowledging that the idea “has a strong democratic appeal,” she countered that it would not “satisfy the needs of the Jews to migrate to Palestine—particularly in view of the consistent opposition of the Arabs.” If such a state was created, Kirchwey predicted, “conflict would inevitably develop between two peoples whose cultural and industrial development is on such contrasting levels and whose approach to social and political problems is so different.” While the Jewish advocates of a binational state were “patient and reliable,” the Arab leaders would never permit it. The only workable solution was partition.
Kirchwey also rejected the demand for an independent Arab state in Palestine. The Jewish population, she wrote, would be at the mercy of an Arab majority led by the Grand Mufti. The exposure of the role played by Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini in the affairs of Arab Palestine was probably the Nation’s most important revelation. Newly published histories, such as those by Matthias Küntzel, Klaus Gensicke, and Jeffrey Herf, have detailed the Mufti’s wartime relationship with Hitler and his role in support of the Nazis while living in exile in Germany from 1941 to 1945. Kirchwey presented the first batch of evidence about the Mufti in her 1947 report. She used captured classified files belonging to the Mufti as well as the German High Command that were discovered by U.S. military authorities in Germany. The files were in the possession of the State Department and obviously were leaked to her by a source friendly to the Zionist project.
Kirchwey’s report about the Arab High Committee was given to all 55 UN delegates, and 5,000 copies were printed and sent to members of Congress as well as to the White House. The Mufti, she wrote, supported and encouraged “the Nazi program of the extermination of the Jews.” As White House aide David Niles wrote to the president, it was “very damaging evidence that the Arab representatives now at UNO were allies of Hitler.”
Her main argument was that the Arab position for an independent Arab state in the former Mandate of Palestine would not allow Jews to live freely. How the Arabs treated non-Jewish minorities as well as Jews offered “striking refutation” of any assurances they were making. She fought to get the U.S. government to honor its commitment to partition, which she feared the U.S. would abandon. There was “no longer the excuse,” she wrote, “to appease the Arabs in the hope of weaning them away from possible Soviet orientation.” The Jewish community was, she wrote, “the only democratic community in the feudal Middle East” and the only one that could play “a leavening influence in spreading democracy” through the region.
When Israel was finally created and after it received de facto recognition from the United States, Eliahu Epstein sent Kirchwey a telegram of congratulations and appreciation. He wrote that he had “no words to express the feeling of gratitude of your work during the crucial months we have all just passed through.” There were few people, he wrote, referring in part to Kirchwey, who had “worked with such devotion and self-sacrifice,” and for Israel’s creation he gave her “a good and honorable share in our success.” He urged that the Nation “keep public opinion at the proper level in our favor when we shall need so much American help in the making of a Jewish State.”
While American public opinion does indeed favor the Jewish state, that is unfortunately no longer thanks to the Nation. Were they still alive, Freda Kirchwey and Eliahu Epstein would surely be saddened and shocked by the vitriolic opposition to the Jewish state that now emanates from the very groups they counted on most for support in 1948. Today the Nation, like most of the Western left, has given up on a two-state solution and instead concentrates on relentless one-sided attacks on Israel and on the demand for a unitary state, which by definition would be an Arab state. Its writers and editors engage in drawing a false analogy between Israel and apartheid South Africa, regularly referring to Israel as a “colonial enterprise.”
Some endorse the phony solution of a “secular democratic state,” the vehicle through which the Palestinians hope to gather support for an end to what they call “Zionist hegemony.” Others purport to be friends of Israel, ignoring the reality Israelis face and announcing their desire to save Israel from its own people and leaders. The left’s positions today are completely different from those of their predecessors 50 years ago, and they sow only illusions.
The support for Israel on the American left came to an end for a few reasons. For those friendly to the Soviet Union—which in the postwar era was the dominant force on the left—Stalin’s decision to revert to the original Arab position, and to work for Soviet influence through Egypt and other Arab nations, led pro-Soviet fellow travelers and the American Communists to again argue that Israel was simply a cat’s-paw of American imperialism in the Middle East.
For independent leftists such as Stone, the positive view of Israel began to fade after the 1967 war. His belief in Israel’s viability and right to exist diminished as he developed pangs of guilt about the result of the spoils of war won by Israel, after its victory gave the Jewish state land it had not previously possessed. As the Palestinian nationalists now used their situation to make the refugee situation their main focus, and used the plight of those dispossessed by the Israeli victory to demand anew “the right of return,” American leftists began to argue that Israel was no longer a legitimate state. It had conquered Arab territory as oppressors and colonizers, they said, putting the blame for a failure to establish peace on the Israeli government, rather than on the Palestinians and their continued rejectionism.
In addition, the commitment of the American left to an emerging black nationalism in the 1960s played a major role in their shift. Groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Party and black radicals such as Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X began to argue that American blacks should take up the cause of Yasir Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization. As these groups gained sway, Americans on the left believed it more important to support black extremists and reinforce their own credentials as supporters of black freedom than to persist in holding to their original commitment to Israel.
Still, for a brief period, roughly from 1945 to 1950, the American left had rightly, proudly stood on principle and fought hard for the creation of a Jewish state on the site of the old British Mandate in Palestine. Now, their descendants advocate sanctions on Israel, economic boycotts, and the establishment of a unitary Arab state to replace the Jewish state. When a writer for the Nation attempts to explain, as Richard Falk did in its pages, that Israel’s “treatment of Palestinians” is comparable to “the criminalized Nazi record of collective atrocity,” he shows how far the left has strayed from the sensible mainstream—and from its own roots.