Review of “Genesis: Truman, American Jews, And the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict” by John B. Judis

In Genesis, John B. Judis traces the history of Zionism from the mid 19th century to the founding of the State of Israel, with emphasis on the role played by the United States Government, particularly by President Harry S. Truman.

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A description of Palestine as “a land without a people for a people without a land” was a mantra of many early Zionists. But the meaning of that clause differed significantly among its adherents. To the followers of Ahad Ha’am (the pen name of the Ukrainian Zionist Asher Ginsberg), “without a people” meant “without a single or specific people.” Thus, the fact that Moslems lived among Christians and Jews in Palestine meant that there was no single “people” of that land. Ahad Ha’am’s version of Zionism sought to make Palestine a center of Jewish culture, but not a Jewish state per se.

Ahad Ha’am

Ahad Ha’am

On the other hand, many Zionists, especially those in the U.S.A. thought (mistakenly) that the land was virtually unpopulated. Other Zionists, primarily followers of Theodor Hertzl and Chaim Weizmann, simply didn’t care about then current inhabitants (overwhelmingly Muslim Arab); they were perceived as mere problems to be disposed of in the formation of a Jewish state. Members of this latter group believed that Palestine was the land of their ancestors from which they had been wrongly expelled by the Romans in the first century C.E. The fact that it had been inhabited by Arabs for about 1300 years was inconsequential. No significance was given to the Canaanites or Philistines who populated the same territory before the Hebrews.

Zionism received a fillip in World War I when the Ottoman Empire (which had ruled Palestine for centuries) sided with the Central Powers, lost the war, and was carved up by the victorious British and French. British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour issued the famous “Balfour Declaration” in which he stated that the British Government “views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” According to Judis, Balfour seems to have seen the declaration as a way of stemming a rising tide of Jewish immigration into England. In addition, the Declaration itself was a nuanced pronouncement that fell far short of promising a Jewish state. Indeed, it exacerbated a spilt in Zionism between the cultural Zionists like Ahad Ha’am (who were content with building a Jewish community in a bi-national Palestine) and the political Zionists (who insisted on establishing a Jewish state).

In any event, with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the British were intent on controlling the Middle East with its oil and the Suez Canal, which provided it with somewhat easy access to its prize colony, India. Among the spoils of the First World War, the British received a “mandate” over Palestine, which they proceeded to treat much like any other colony. Later, with the fate of Jews in Europe becoming perilous upon the rise of the Nazis, the British permitted substantial Jewish immigration into Palestine. Nevertheless, Jews remained a distinct minority of the total population. The Arabs had no use for the newcomers, even though the Jews paid full value for the land they settled and provided a substantial stimulus to the region’s economy.

During the years between the world wars, there were numerous outbreaks of violence between the Arabs and Jews of Palestine. By the end of the 1930s the Jews and Arabs were “irreconcilable.” More and more, the Arabs were seen by both the British and the Zionists as “barbarian, savage, and shedders of blood,” an inferior race not worthy of self-government. It did not help that when World War II broke out, the mufti, the religious leader of the Palestinians, sided with the Nazis and took up residence in Berlin. Judis states:

Over the next decades, even after the Allied victory in World War II and the collapse of Western colonialism…Zionists and later Israelis would continue to view their conflict with the Arabs through [the] prism of higher versus lower races and democracy against fascism and Nazism. They continued to describe Arabs as savages and barbarians, and their leaders as the heirs of Hitler. That included the mufti,…Nasser,… Arafat, and Hamas’s Khaled Meshal. Such a view highlighted Zionism as a national liberation movement for oppressed Jewry and ally of the world’s advanced democracies and obscured its role as a settler-colonial movement that had displaced or driven out a native population.”

World War II nearly bankrupted the British Empire. At the war’s end in 1945, the British were no longer able to maintain the peace in Palestine, but they had no clear plan for what to do once they left the region. The British tried to induce the United States to take their place. Judis asserts:

There was probably never a time after December 1917 that the Jews and Arabs in Palestine could have agreed on their own to share or divide the country. When the Arabs indicated some willingness to deal in the late 1920s, the Jews backed off; and when the Jews might have agreed to partition in the late 1930s, the Arabs weren’t interested. So if any agreement were possible, it would have had to be imposed by outside powers, and then enforced by them until the Jews and Arabs agreed to abide by it.”

But the United States was not eager to impose such a solution. While these events were transpiring in Palestine, the United States was preoccupied with the new Cold War with the Soviet Union. In particular, Stalin had blockaded West Berlin, and Truman had responded with the Berlin airlift. Communists took over the governments of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Proxy battles between the East and West were also playing out in Greece, Turkey, and Iran.

The question arose in American foreign policy circles of how to deal with Palestine. Although President Truman was proud of the sign on his desk that read “The Buck Stops Here!,” Judis portrays him as “anything but decisive in dealing with the future of Palestine.” Instead of taking a leading role in settling the Palestinian situation, the United States passively referred the matter to the newly formed United Nations, where it was handled (in Judis’s words) with “unmatched ineptness.”

1947UNPartition

Plans were proposed to partition the country into Jewish and Arab respective areas, but nearly all the proposals granted the Jews a greater proportion of the country than their residency would merit on a percentage basis. The thought seemed to be, however, that many more Jews would be emigrating to Palestine after the war. The Arabs opposed partition because they still had the majority of the population. The American State Department was against partition, knowing it would cause substantial damage to relations with all Arab countries, and some of those countries controlled enormous supplies of crude petroleum. On the other hand, the Zionist movement was very strong among the American electorate, particularly in New York. President Truman’s political advisors told him he would likely lose the immanent election if he did not side with Jewish interests. Truman’s personal predilections opposed any kind of religious state, but he found himself under tremendous pressure from American Zionists.

Meanwhile, both the Arabs and the Jews attacked each other and the British. Before any plan was agreed to by the interested parties, the British were so strapped for cash that they simply withdrew their troops in 1948. The Jews promptly proclaimed the establishment of the new state of Israel, and a civil war broke out immediately. The Israelis were much better organized, and they prevailed militarily over the Palestinian Arabs rather easily. The governments of neighboring Arab states launched an invasion against the Israelis, but they were too distrustful of one another (with good reason) to work in concert. Moreover, each Arab government was more interested in making a land grab than in helping the others, much less helping the Palestinians. The result was that the Israelis prevailed again, although Transjordan (today’s Jordan), whose “Arab Legion” was the only effective non-Jewish fighting force in the region, was able to take control of what is now known as the West Bank.

Atrocities were committed on both sides of the conflict. The Israelis drove many Arabs from their homes, and many others fled on their own accord in fear of the Israelis. In fact, so many Arabs fled that that Jews now outnumbered the Arabs in the part of Palestine they controlled. For the first time, the Zionists seized Arab land rather than pay for it. David Ben-Gurion and other Israeli leaders recognized the Arab flight as a great advantage to their new state, and refused to allow any Arabs who left to return. The so-called “right of return” for Jews only is a contentious issue between the Israelis and the Palestinians to this day.

Truman was now confronted with the issue of whether to recognize the new state. Again the American State department wanted to withhold recognition, but domestic politics triumphed, and Truman recognized the State of Israel against the urging of his own State Department. Judis asserts that by 1948 the American Zionist movement had been completely co-opted into a propaganda arm of the Israeli government. Judis avers that the American Zionists weren’t interested in conveying an accurate account of what was actually happening in Palestine and that:

By spreading falsehoods and distortions about an important foreign policy issue, [the American Zionists] did American democracy a disservice. Silver [a leader of the movement] showed how a narrow nationalist agenda had undermined his own moral integrity. The truth had become, in effect, whatever served Israel’s cause at that moment.”

Judis does not simply assert conclusions. He gives numerous accounts of meetings between Truman and Zionist leaders and describes their tactics in detail. He cites entries in Truman’s diary where the president complains that he has never been under such severe pressure from “the Jews.” Judis concludes:

American recognition of Israel has often been heralded as a triumph of Truman’s diplomacy and foresightedness, but it was…a product of political pressure and strategic indecision.”

President Truman meeting on May 8, 1951 with Prime Minister David Ben Gurion of Israel and Diplomat Abba Eban.

President Truman meeting on May 8, 1951 with Prime Minister David Ben Gurion of Israel and Diplomat Abba Eban.

Judis’s thesis can be summarized in two paragraphs that appear near the end of the book:

After his presidency, Truman gloried in helping to establish a Jewish state, but when all the reasons and rationalizations were put aside—when all the perverse circumstances of history, including the twisted leadership of the Palestinian Arabs, were taken into account, and even when the horrors of the Holocaust were fully acknowledged—Palestine’s Arabs had still gotten screwed, and screwed by people who over the centuries had suffered even worse indignities, yet who had always claimed to stand for better….

And the main lesson of this narrative is that whatever wrongs were done to the Jews of Europe and later to those of the Arab Middle East and North Africa—and there were great wrongs inflicted—the Zionists who came to Palestine to establish a state trampled on the rights of the Arabs who already lived there. That wrong has never been adequately addressed, or redressed, and for there to be peace of any kind between the Israelis and Arabs, it must be.”

There are no heroes on either side of the conflict in Judis’s book.

Discussion: Even before the Holocaust, the situation for Jews in Europe was not optimal. Nevertheless, Herzl’s and Weizmann’s Zionist idea of establishing a Jewish state in the midst of Arabs seems a bit mad. The claim of the Jewish people for that land was based on an apocryphal promise from a tribal god. From a legal coign of vantage, the statute of limitations on the claim must have run after 1900 years; and in any event, the Arabs surely established their claim to the land by 1300 years of adverse possession. However, during and after the Holocaust of World War II, NO country (that includes the United States) welcomed an influx of Jewish refugees. Thus some version of the Zionist project became absolutely necessary. It is a pity that the views of the moderate Zionist Ahad Ha’am did not carry more weight and that the project was carried out in a manner that almost guaranteed a state of permanent warfare.

Evaluation: This book sheds light on many of the issues that still are in contention so many years after modern Jews began immigrating to Palestine. It should be required reading for United States foreign policy analysts.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

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