Very Much Present at the Creation: John Judis’s Book on American Jews and the Establishment of Israel

Many of Tikkun’s readers are probably familiar with John Judis as a senior editor of The New Republic and a prolific journalist, or have read his previous books on aspects of American history. Although he has written columns touching on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his new book, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, is his first extended foray into that world. Unfortunately, it has so far received a largely vitriolic reception from some reviewers, including Judis’s colleague at The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier. A New York Times article on Wieseltier’s comments is here and a review in the National Interest discusses this further. But also see an extensive and favorable review by Israeli-American journalist Gershom Gorenberg. I should note that Judis is a friend of mine, so I’m not totally dispassionate on this matter.

It does not take a lot of sleuthing to realize that Judis’s book transgressed a central commandment of mainstream to conservative American journalism on matters relating to Israel, i.e., “Thou shalt not set a different narrative before me.” In fact, Judis’s history, which stresses the importance of American Jewish/Zionist activism and lobbying in persuading President Harry Truman to support the establishment of a Jewish state, is not that different from the received narrative. What is different is that Judis makes explicit that he doesn’t understand how American Jewish liberals could so completely forsake their liberal ideas when it came to opposing Palestinian efforts to retain their homeland. He does not denounce Israel’s establishment or call for its dismantlement, but does say that U.S. Jews should recognize and help to redress Palestinian suffering. For that, he is automatically classed as an anti-Zionist and cast into nether darkness.

To add to his heresy, Judis makes clear in his introduction and conclusion that he has an ulterior motive in writing the book. He sees a very clear parallel between American Zionist willingness to ignore and belittle Palestinian Arabs in 1948, and the American Jewish establishment’s unwillingness to support pressure by President Obama on Israel’s right wing govern­ment to make a viable peace with the Palestinians today. The fact that Judis retells the 1948 story from that perspective makes him vulnerable to charges he is not only an anti-Zionist but also that he is supposedly an abettor to the alleged delegitimation campaign against Israel, which is so beloved as a subject matter for Israeli politicians and American Jewish leaders.

I am not saying, by the way, that Israel suffers from a lack of criticism in the U.S., let alone anywhere else, including in Israel itself. My point is that to be admitted to the “mainstream,” to be reviewed in the New York Times, and to be praised by the Jewish establishment, observance of the above commandment have seemed to be necessary. However, that may be changing (the Times recently reviewed Genesis but, in my view, the reviewer missed Judis’s main point) and it coincides with what seems to be a newfound willingness to reexamine the assumptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps it is generational; it may also be the confluence of various other factors; Secretary Kerry’s energetic attempts to reach a settlement, growing awareness (and fear) of the BDS movement, the overwrought campaign against “delegitimation,” (which attempts to subsume almost all criticism of Israel), and, perhaps, a belated popular influence of the “new” or “revisionist” historians, especially Benny Morris, who appeared in Tikkun in the late 1980s, but has since transformed into a hawk on politics while remaining a revisionist on history. Evidence of the change can be seen in the hosannas accorded to the recent book, My Promised Land, by Ha’aretz journalist Ari Shavit, a centrist. Shavit’s book, a paean to Israel, nevertheless included a graphic and disturbing account of the expulsion of Palestinians from Lydda in 1948, but was received with extravagant praise. See my discussion of Shavit’s book in my blog here.

Judis’s book, in its first 128 pages, provides a remarkably succinct and cogent history of the Zionist endeavor through the Palestinian revolt of 1936-39. Since teaching the history of the conflict, including a seminar focused on the 1930s, is my day job, I can attest that he has plowed through innumerable minefields successfully, with only minor cavils on my part. The rest of the book is focused on the relationship between American Zionists and President Truman, with Truman emerging as a somewhat befuddled leader who tries hard to be even-handed but is unable to resist the personal and political pressure from organized American Zionism, members of his own staff, and others. Truman's traditional no-nonsense and pro-Israel persona suffers a battering in this account. Truman appears reluctant to support a Jewish state and holds on far too long to the partial solutions embodied in the Morrison-Grady plan of 1946, which would have admitted 100,000 Jewish refugees to Palestine and continued the British Mandate or an international trusteeship. He continually accedes to Zionist pressure and then claims he hasn't. The buck never stops, least of all with him.

Contrary pressures on Truman, which have been labeled as those of "State Department Arabists" in many accounts, came from Secretary of State George Marshall, as well as Dean Acheson, Robert Lovett, George Kennan, Loy Henderson and other officials. Judis is clearly partial to their arguments, but argues convincingly that their views were not anti-Semitic or pro-Arab but, rather, based more on fear of a bloodbath or dispossession of one side or the other resulting in long-term unsolvable conflict negatively affecting American interests, which is, of course, what happened.

One of Judis’s central themes concerns his perplexity that the main American supporters of Zionism and Israel before, during, and for many years after the 1940s were leading American liberals who watched out for the underdog on every other public issue. Louis Brandeis, Abba Hillel Silver, Stephen Wise, Eleanor Roosevelt, and others (Jews and non-Jews alike) were leaders in demanding rights for all portions of American society. Yet they evinced no recognition that Zionism involved, in practice, dispos­sessing the Palestinian Arabs of their own homeland, and were unable to see any questionable moral dimension, regarding morality as residing only on the Jewish side. Judis points out that many of them were heirs and leaders of the universalistic Reform Jewish tradition, with which he identifies. Here is where I think Judis's rationalist understanding of that stream of Judaism plays him false.

Reform Judaism in the first half of the 20th century went very far in trying to reconcile Judaism with American life, including a rejection of halachah as binding, a near total elimination of Hebrew prayer—with some even moving the day of rest to Sunday—and also rejecting the doctrine of "chosenness" and the tribal nature of Judaism. I think Judis underestimates the sublimated tribal passions of many liberal non-observant American Jews, which may have been sublimated or repressed but came to the fore with revelations of the Holocaust and the fight for a Jewish state that so closely followed it. (My own parents illustrated that process, though they eventually become dovish on the issue after 1967.) It would have been surprising if more than a small fraction of Jews had been able, in that context, to sympathize with Palestinian Arabs, a people of whom they knew little and who seemed to be irreconcilable enemies.

This is the crucial conceptualization attacked by the book’s critics, which raises a serious (if not exactly new) question for American Jewish liberals today. How should supporters of Israel as a Jewish state deal with Israel’s actions in 1948?

In my own view, we owe it to ourselves to unflinchingly explore the reality of 1948. On the one hand, this was immediately post-Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of Jews were in DP camps, there were already 400,000 Jews in Palestine, and there were precious few voices of compromise among Palestinian Arabs. On the other hand, Palestinian Arabs were already living there and they were the majority of the population, and rightly feared the avowed Zionist aim of attaining a Jewish majority. It is thus understandable that Palestinians refused to compromise on that essential question. (For further examination of this point see a thoughtful article by Natasha Gill and a blogpost where I discuss it.) And the most tragic consequences of the War of Independence/Nakba of 1948 were, of course, for the Palestinians, despite the over 6000 Jews who died. It does not detract from supporting Israel to recognize that Palestinians were the victims of Zionism and of 1948, and that normalizing the situation of the Palestinians, and especially the creation of a Palestinian state, are the urgent leftover business from the events of that year. That cannot mean the destruction of Israel, but support for Palestinian aspirations for statehood today is in Israel’s interest, as well as that of the Palestinians. And it is that viewpoint, which is my formulation of Judis’s argument, which spurred the denunciations of him as “anti-Zionist.”

However, again in my view, Truman's—and others'—oft-stated belief that they saw no reason for a "religious" state was based on ignorance of the essential national (or ethnic) component of Judaism that was emphasized (or exaggerated) by Zionist ideology but which has always been a basic component of Jewish identity, invisible to other Americans who understood Judaism only as a religious belief system comparable to Christianity. Judis mentions this but doesn't assign it its proper place in the hierarchy of values that led American Jews to ignore Palestinian suffering.

On the other hand, Judis leaves no doubt that Arab leaders at most points were even less conciliatory than were the Zionists. He explores the Palestinian dynamic in which Hajj Amin el-Huseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, who had spent the war years in Berlin aiding the Nazi cause, was the paramount if much-resented Palestinian leader who, partly out of (well-deserved) distrust of other Arab leaders, maintained a hard-line set of policies long beyond the point in which they had any relation to political realities. Judis shows how, as is well-known, the leaders of the other newly-independent Arab countries had their own priorities in “helping" the Palestinians, in which Palestinian welfare played a very small role. While we know now that the Zionists were better prepared for war than were their Arab adversaries, this was not something apparent to many, certainly not to most American or Israeli Jews, at the time.

Thus, in the context of the time, I can't really fault American Zionists for their continual and very successful pressure on Truman. If I had been an adult American Jew at that time, even with the values I have now, I probably would have joined the pack and worked for and celebrated Israeli victories, with little or no concern for Palestinian suffering. Yet I come to a conclusion similar to Judis's regarding the situation today, but by a somewhat different route.

I am glad that Israel was established as a Jewish state. I can wish many things were done differently by many people, including Jews, Arabs, and Harry Truman, but even today it is by no means clear that a more just solution would have resulted from any of the conceivable alternatives. As Judis acknowledges, once the Balfour Declaration was issued, it is hard to imagine a peaceful outcome, though he identifies a couple of possible periods, in which events might have moved in a different direction.

While there are some similarities to today's situation—and Judis makes a good case that Obama's first term, with regard to Israel, has many points in common with Truman's—the situation of Israel today is totally different than that of the Yishuv (the Palestinian Jewish community) in 1948. Israel, though not exactly lacking in enemies, is a successful, recognized and powerful state. Unfortunately, its post-Holocaust fears resemble those of 1948 far more than warranted, but its reality doesn't. And American Jews, who care about its welfare owe it to Israel to act on that reality and prevent its fears from aborting its future.

Thus, at this point, both American policy and American Jews should very much care about the welfare and success of Palestinians, as well as that of Israel. It is a commonplace that a Palestinian state is now in Israel's interest, as well as that of Palestinians themselves. While in early 1948 it was hard to see the Yishuv as the stronger party, today it is plain that Israel is the regional superpower. American Jews can learn from Judis's history that unexamined and unstinting "support" can be as dangerous as heroin is to a junkie.

"Present-mindedness" is a sin in the historical profession. However, I think John Judis succeeds in writing an agenda-driven book that is fair and even-handed, and an excellent history that is simultaneously present-minded. It is unfortunate that too many in the Jewish establishment are unwilling to let go of their preconceived certainties.


3 thoughts on “Very Much Present at the Creation: John Judis’s Book on American Jews and the Establishment of Israel

  1. You claim that there was reluctance to acknowledge much less support a Palestinian homeland by behalf of American Zionists.

    (“One of Judis’s central themes concerns his perplexity that the main American supporters of Zionism and Israel before, during, and for many years after the 1940s …..unable to see any questionable moral dimension, regarding morality as residing only on the Jewish side.”)

    But that makes no sense to me unless you are suggesting that Israel did not accept the UN Partition Plan. So far as I understand, Israel was of course very willing to accept the Plan, (as it had also accepted earlier partition plans e.g. Peel.) War was forced upon Israel and the losers were unwilling to do anything by keep warring. So your premise is odd.

    What does puzzle me is what Jordan and Egypt did not establish some sort of semi-autonomous protectorate or even autonomous state in the West Bank and Gaza post 1948 war. If you are going to ask hard questions, you might start with Jordan and Egypt which had the opportunity to create Palestinian homelands when it already held the terrirtory.

  2. Consider how little surprised a displaced American Indian survivor and scholar of shool textbooks to 1960 would be. Near universal orthodox secular belief among all immigrants and their progeny was that all freedom and all opportunity in the US came at no cost to deserving indiginous people. Even the history of invasion and conquest by other armies and peoples was taught and thoroughly learned as conquest, control, and occupation. What of displacement, forced exile? For US Jews, the Spanish inquisition and banishment, coincident with the Columbus story of US ‘discovery’,our own exile, never punctures the balloon of thought of the growth of the US as inimicable to the prosperity of American Indian peoples. The diaspora from Spain innoculated American Jews from consideration of Palestinians because the historically coincident great good of a born-without-sin US was part of all US secular belief.

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