March 24, 1953 – Langston Hughes Testifies Before Senator Joseph McCarthy

Joseph Raymond McCarthy (November 14, 1908 – May 2, 1957) was an American politician who served as a Republican U.S. Senator from Wisconsin from 1947 until his death in 1957. He was most notable for making claims that there were large numbers of Communists and Soviet spies and sympathizers inside the federal government and elsewhere. With Republicans taking control of the Senate in 1953, McCarthy became Chairman of the Committee on Government Operations and the Subcommittee on Investigations. In this capacity, he held hearings (later known as the Army-McCarthy Hearings because of McCarthy’s investigation of the Army Signal Corps), during which he called 395 witnesses to testify against themselves and others.

Senator Joseph McCarthy

Senator Joseph McCarthy

African-Americans who vocalized objections to the treatment of blacks in America were considered suspect by McCarthy (and by the FBI). Two of the witnesses called to appear before McCarthy were black: the political activist Eslanda Robeson, wife of Paul Robeson, and the poet Langston Hughes. (At the time of the hearings, there were few blacks in influential positions.)

On March 24, 1953, Langston Hughes testified before the Subcommittee. He was permitted to read a statement to defend himself from charges of Soviet sympathies. He began by stating “I was born a Negro.” He went on to delineate just what that meant in American society at that time. He could not attend the nearby school, the movie theater wouldn’t admit him, white boys stoned him, and his father left the country because this country would not admit him to the bar. At his high school, primarily attended by very poor immigrants, follow students began to tell him about Eugene Debs, a well-known socialist in the early 1900’s. Hughes stated:

“I became interested in whatever I could read that Debs had written or spoken about. I never read the theoretical books of socialism or communism or the Democratic or Republican party for that matter, and so my interest in whatever may be considered political has been non-theoretical, non-sectarian, and largely really emotional and born out of my own need to find some kind of way of thinking about this whole problem of myself, segregated, poor, colored, and how I can adjust to this whole problem of helping to build America when sometimes I can not even get into a school or a lecture or a concert or in the South go the library and get a book out.”

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

He went on in this vein for a little longer, but by then, the Senators realized they were better off without tackling Hughes. The Subcommittee dismissed him.

Throughout the early 1950s, McCarthy continued to make accusations of communist infiltration of the U. S. government. In August, 1954, a Senate committee was formed to investigate censuring McCarthy. In December, the Senate voted 67-22 to condemn McCarthy, calling his behavior as a committee chairman “inexcusable,” “reprehensible,” and “vulgar and insulting.” Though he remained in the Senate, McCarthy thereafter was largely ignored by the Congress, the White House, and most of the media.

The term “McCarthyism,” coined in 1950 in reference to McCarthy’s practices, was soon applied to similar anti-communist pursuits. Today the term is used more generally to refer to public attacks on the character or patriotism of political opponents.

The McCarthy Committee might have saved themselves some embarrassment by reading the poetry of Langston Hughes before calling upon him to testify.

Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Nor ever
Through compromise and fear.

I have as much right
As the other fellow has
To stand
On my two feet
And own the land.

I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.

Is a strong seed
In a great need.

I live here, too.
I want freedom
Just as you.

Langston Hughes, Democracy, 1949


Review of “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel” by Ari Shavit

Ari Shavit is a well known, left-leaning Israeli journalist and a columnist for Haaretz (Israel’s oldest daily newspaper). This book is an apologia for his home land, but also an unsparing cri de coeur addressed to his fellow Israelis to make it better. Shavit relates the history of Israel from early Zionist days in the late 19th century to the present through examples of archetypical individuals. Although he personalizes the narrative, he also discusses the gnarly political and philosophical issues raised by the actions of, and even the very existence of, the Jewish state.


Shavit is torn between his love of his native land and the immense difficulty (as he sees it) of solving the problem of what to do about the millions of Muslim Arabs who live within or near its boundaries and who will not recognize its legitimacy. The problem is truly intractable: the Jews need a safe refuge from the persecution they have suffered since the Roman conquest in the first century C.E.; and the Arabs have a pretty legitimate claim to the land they inhabited almost exclusively for about 1300 years.

The early Zionists are typified by the author’s great-grandfather, the Right Honorable Herbert Bentwich, a prosperous English Jew. In 1897, Bentwich perceived that Judaism in Europe was in trouble in two ways. First, in Eastern Europe, Jews were the object of vicious pogroms that threatened their physical safety. Second, in Western Europe, Jews were assimilating with the rest of society and were attenuating, if not actually losing, their Jewish faith. In any event, Bentwich was wealthy enough to pull up stakes and establish his family in Palestine.

Shavit describes Bentwich as arriving in Palestine and seeing an empty country. In Shavit’s words, the Arabs living there “are hardly noticeable to a Victorian gentleman,” who as a “white man of the Victorian era, cannot see nonwhites as equals.” Shavit’s great-grandfather “does not see because he is motivated by the need not to see.” And in this respect, he was typical of the early Zionists. [Cf. also Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, by John B. Judis.] Shavit says that among the early Zionists only Israel Zangwill had a clear view of the Arab population of Palestine, and Zangwill asserted that the Zionists must “drive out by sword the tribes in possession, as our forefathers did.”

Zionist Pioneers in 1912

Zionist Pioneers in 1912

Prior to 1948, few Zionists would have admitted to agreeing with Zangwill. At the same time, few of them would have looked on their Arab neighbors as equals. Shavit describes the early Zionists as living in a state of denial about the Arabs. He states:

An obstinate disregard [of the Arabs] was crucial for the success of Zionism in the first decades of the twentieth century, and a lack of awareness was crucial for the success of Israel in its first decade of existence. If Israel had acknowledged what had happened [to the Arabs] it would not have survived. If Israel had been kindly and compassionate, it would have collapsed. Denial was a life-or-death imperative for the… nation into which I was born.”

Many of Israel’s current problems can be traced to the after-effects of its overwhelming victory in the 1967 War. Shavit says, “The Israeli nation was drunk with victory, filled with euphoria, hubris, and messianic delusions of grandeur.” Accordingly, it undertook a “futile, anachronistic colonialist project,” i.e., the settlement of the Arab-occupied West Bank [Judea and Samaria, to many Israelis]. The settlements have entangled Israel in a predicament that cannot be untangled:

The settlements have placed Israel’s neck in a noose. They created an untenable demographic, political, moral, and judicial reality.”

Shavit himself is very troubled by some of the tactics employed by his countrymen in controlling the Arabs, or as he says, “imprisoning an entire population.” Nevertheless, he cannot bring himself to protest too vigorously because of his belief in the necessity of a Jewish homeland. He observes:

This is a phenomenon without parallel in the West. This is systematic brutality no democracy can endure. And I am a part of it all. I comply.”

Shavit is deeply pessimistic. He fervently desires peace and justice, but his Arab neighbors are some of the most xenophobic and religiously intolerant people on the planet. To Shavit, the fundamental flaw of the Israeli Left was that:

…it had never distinguished between the issue of occupation and the issue of peace. Regarding the occupation, the Left was absolutely right. It realized that occupation was a moral, demographic, and political disaster. But regarding peace, the Left was somewhat naïve. It counted on a peace partner that was not really there. It assumed that because peace was needed, peace was feasible. But the history of the conflict and the geostrategy of the region implied that peace was not feasible. The correct moral position of the Left was compromised by an incorrect empirical assumption.”

Moreover, he sees the problem for Israel is even deeper and thornier than a resolution of the settlements in the West Bank. The problem goes back to the founding of the country in 1948:

What is needed to make peace between the two peoples of this land is probably more than humans can summon. They [the Arabs] will not give up their demand for what they see as justice. We shall not give up our life. [Arabs and Jews] cannot really see each other and recognize each other and make peace.”

Uncomfortable as he is with the justice of the situation, Shavit quotes Moshe Dayan’s assessment in 1956 as “the most sincere words ever spoken about the conflict”:

…without the steel helmet and the gun’s muzzle we will not be able to plant a tree and build a house. Let us not fear to look squarely at the hatred that consumes and fills the lives of hundreds of Arabs who live around us. Let us not drop our gaze, lest our arms weaken. That is the fate of our generation. This is our choice—to be ready and armed, tough and hard—or else the sword shall fall from our hands and our lives will be cut short.”

Moshe Dayan in the 1950's

Moshe Dayan in the 1950’s

Shavit rightfully lauds the energy and achievements of his countrymen. He contrasts the thriving Israeli society and economy with its torpid and resentful Arab neighbors. He notes that for the past 40 years Israel’s possession of atomic weapons has helped make it safe from invasion by hostile Arab regimes, but he fears that nuclear monopoly may not be permanent.

Shavit is not always consistent in his assessment of the possibility of peace with the Arabs. Although early in the book he sees no real possibility of a solution, he is highly critical of the current Israeli government for not attempting more creative approaches out of its predicament. He fears that Israel’s secular Jewish majority will become a minority vis-à-vis Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews, who do not serve in the military and who tend not to be economically productive. He says:

Secular Israelis are the ones working, producing, and paying taxes. Once they are outnumbered, Israel will be a backward nation that will not be able to meet the challenges of the third millennium….Fewer and fewer Israelis run faster and faster to carry along the Israelis who don’t run at all. A flawed political system guarantees the special interests of the ultra-Orthodox, the settlers, and the mega-rich. But the productive middle class has been abandoned by the state. That’s why this exhausted middle class is growing bitter. It feels the nation has betrayed it. It sees the Israel it loves disintegrating.”

Shavit is consistent, however, in describing his country’s treatment of the Arabs:

The State of Israel . . . has not yet found a way to integrate properly one-fifth of its population. The Arabs who were not driven away in 1948 have been oppressed by Zionism for decades. The Jewish state confiscated much of their land, trampled many of their rights, and did not accord them real equality….To this day there is no definition of the commitments of the Jewish democratic state to its Arab minority.”

Shavit’s concluding paragraphs are wonderfully written. They summarize the tensions inherent in Israel’s precarious position in the world. They express his affection for his country, which he embraces enthusiastically, warts and all. A few of his pithier observations follow:

We probably had to come. And when we came here, we performed wonders. For better or worse, we did the unimaginable….There will be no utopia here. Israel will never be the ideal nation it set out to be, nor will it be Europe-away-from-Europe….This free society is creative and passionate and frenzied….We respect no past and no future and no authority. We are irreverent. We are deeply anarchic.”

There was hope for peace, but there will be no peace here. Not soon. There was hope for quiet, but there will be no quiet here. Not in this generation….So what we really have in this land is an ongoing adventure. An odyssey. The Jewish state does not resemble any other nation. What this nation has to offer is not security or well-being or peace of mind. What it has to offer is the intensity of life on the edge.”

Evaluation: I have quoted the author more extensively than is usual in book reviews. This is because he writes so passionately and so well. I greatly appreciated his analysis and his candor. This book has a message that is important for Americans, particularly American policymakers. By better understanding its history and current situation, we can be a loyal friend to Israel even though we recognize its shortcomings. And as a true friend, we should not simply rubber stamp the policies of a government that has [in Shavit’s words] “turned Israel into a semi-pariah state.” But we must also recognize the temperament of the Israeli people, who will not tolerate being dictated to by a country with its own interests, not Israel’s, at heart. Accordingly, we would do well to find common ground with the westernized secular middle class to which Shavit belongs, and gently prod their government in directions that serve our mutual interests.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random ouse, a Penguin Random House Company, 2013

March 20, 1995 – Terrorist Sarin Attack in Tokyo

On this day in history, twelve (some sources say thirteen) people were killed, and more than 5,500 others sickened when packages containing the poisonous gas sarin were released on five separate subway trains in Tokyo, Japan.

While nearly 200 members of the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult had been convicted in the nerve gas attack, including its leader, Shoko Asahara, two other fugitives escaped capture. One of the two, a senior cult member, was apprehended finally in 2012. The second was arrested not long afterwards, having been spotted at a 24 hour comic book cafe.

Aum founder Shoko Asahara (who referred to himself as the “Sacred Emperor of Japan”) and 12 of his followers were put on death row in Japan for their involvement in the attack.

March 19, 1891 – Birthdate of Earl Warren

On this day in history, Earl Warren was born in Los Angeles, California. He sought the nomination for the U.S. President of the Republican party in 1952, but lost out to Dwight D. Eisenhower, who then nominated Warren under a recess appointment as the 14th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution requires that the most senior federal officers must be confirmed by the Senate before assuming office, but while the Senate is in recess the President may act alone by making a recess appointment to fill “Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate.” To remain in effect, a recess appointment must be approved by the Senate by the end of the next session of Congress, or the position becomes vacant again.

President Eisenhower nominated Warren as Chief Justice on September 30, 1953, and he was confirmed by The Senate on March 1, 1954.

Warren is best-known for four landmark decisions enacted during his tenure: Brown v. Board of Education (347 U.S. 483, 1954), Gideon v. Wainwright (372 U.S. 335, 1963), Reynolds v. Sims (377 U.S. 533, 1964), and Miranda v. Arizona (384 U.S. 436, 1966).

Warren retired on June 23, 1969, after fifteen years of service, and died on July 9, 1974, at the age of eighty-three.


March 17, 1912 – Birthdate of Bayard Rustin

On this day in history, Bayard Rustin was born in Pennsylvania, moving to Harlem, New York in 1936.

Bayard Rustin was an influential civil rights activist and an advocate of nonviolence. Unfortunately, he was both gay and a member of the Socialist Party of America, both of which were considered anathema. (To the horrified possibly self-hating and closeted eyes of J. Edgar Hoover, the former affiliation was even more egregious than the latter.) Prior to 1941, Rustin had been a member of the Communist Party, and this also did not sit well with Hoover, who wielded an enormous and deleterious influence during his tenure as the head of the FBI.

Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin

Because of the controversy that accompanied him, Rustin took an “advisory” role to Martin Luther King, Jr., even though it was Rustin’s ideas and Rustin’s organization work that fueled King’s greatness. Rustin was among the founders in 1957 of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and was an instrumental organizer of the August, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King gave his historic “I have a dream” speech before several hundred thousand people. Rustin was careful to stay in the background, however.


(Three weeks before the August 28 march, Senator Strom Thurmond, later to be exposed for his own sexual “peccadilloes,” publicly attacked Rustin on the floor of the Senate by reading reports of his Pasadena arrest for homosexual behavior a decade earlier — documents he probably got from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.)

After the march, King distanced himself more from Rustin, afraid that he and the civil rights movement would be harmed by association with Rustin. Although Rustin continued to issue advice, he could not participate to the extent he had previously, and it was a great loss for both King and the movement.

From left, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bayard Rustin in 1956

From left, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bayard Rustin in 1956

After the passage of the civil-rights legislation of 1964–65, Rustin focused attention on the economic problems of working-class and unemployed African Americans.

In a brilliant analysis of the future of the civil rights movement published by Commentary Magazine in February 1964, Rustin argued

…without making light of the human sacrifices involved in the direct-action tactics (sit-ins, freedom rides, and the rest) that were so instrumental to this achievement, we must recognize that in desegregating public accommodations, we affected institutions which are relatively peripheral both to the American socio-economic order and to the fundamental conditions of life of the Negro people.”

He asked:

What is the value of winning access to public accommodations for those who lack money to use them? The minute the movement faced this question, it was compelled to expand its vision beyond race relations to economic relations, including the role of education in modern society.”

He noted that there is a widespread assumption that “the removal of artificial racial barriers should result in the automatic integration of the Negro into all aspects of American life” and he pointed out the many ways in which the framework of existing political and economic relations actually pose a barrier to the struggle for black equality in America. As he noted then:

We are not expanding territorially, the western frontier is settled, labor organizing has leveled off, our rate of economic growth has been stagnant for a decade. And we are in the midst of a technological revolution which is altering the fundamental structure of the labor force, destroying unskilled and semi-skilled jobs—jobs in which Negroes are disproportionately concentrated. … Whatever the pace of this technological revolution may be, the direction is clear: the lower rungs of the economic ladder are being lopped off. This means that an individual will no longer be able to start at the bottom and work his way up; he will have to start in the middle or on top, and hold on tight.”

(Indeed, Eugene Robinson argues in his 2011 book Disintegration that the problem of the “broken ladder” remains true today.)

Rustin bemoaned the fact that “…[politicians] apparently see nothing strange in the fact that in the last twenty-five years we have spent nearly a trillion dollars fighting or preparing for wars, yet throw up our hands before the need for overhauling our schools, clearing the slums, and really abolishing poverty.”

Rustin’s proposals to fix the system were considered “revolutionary” because of his insistence that “the civil rights movement will be advanced only to the degree that social and economic welfare gets to be inextricably entangled with civil rights.”

In later years, Rustin became the head of the AFL–CIO’s A. Philip Randolph Institute, which promoted the integration of formerly all-white unions and promoted the unionization of African Americans. In the 1970s, he became a public advocate on behalf of gay and lesbian causes.

He also served on many humanitarian missions, such as aiding refugees from Communist Vietnam and Cambodia. He was on a humanitarian mission in Haiti when he died in 1987 at the age of 75.

On November 20, 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Bayard Rustin’s partner Walter Naegle accepting the medal from President Obama. (Photo by Patsy Lynch)

Bayard Rustin’s partner Walter Naegle accepting the medal from President Obama. (Photo by Patsy Lynch)

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.


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.”


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

March 13, 1865 – The Confederacy Approves Recruitment of Black Soldiers

On this day in history, the Confederate States of America, fighting for the right to keep blacks in a permanent condition of enslavement, passed an Act of Congress authorizing the President “to ask for and accept from the owners of slaves, the services of such number of able-bodied negro men as he may deem expedient, for and during the war, to perform military service in whatever capacity he may direct.”

The concluding section of Article I of the Act was careful to add:

SEC 5. That nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize a change in the relation which the said slaves shall bear toward their owners, except by consent of the owners and of the States in which they may reside, and in pursuance of the laws thereof.”

You can read the entire Act here.


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