Zionism destroyed the liberalism of American Jews

March 22, 2014
Sarah Benton

Poster from the New Zionist Organisation of America* of which Benjamin Netanyahu’s father Benzion was executive director in New York 1940–1948. It was the leading campaign group pressing Truman to create a Jewish state immediately. No-one who read the NZOA letter (Notes and links) could have been confused about the scale of the ‘New’ Zionists’ ambition. This had no relation to the Holocaust, which was known about 10 years after the NZOA was founded.  [Freedom of Palestine meant freedom from the British mandate which was blocking the creation of Israel.]

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

By Paul Scham, Tikkun
March 20, 2014

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 delegiti[is]mation campaign against Israel, which is so beloved as a subject matter for Israeli politicians and American Jewish leaders.

President Truman in his new office:
“I received about 35,000 pieces of mail and propaganda from the Jews in this country,” Harry Truman told Senator Claude Pepper in 1947. “I put it all in a pile and struck a match to it.” The man destined to be canonized by American Jews as a champion of Israel felt exhausted and outmatched by the young but influential Zionist lobby.
from Joseph Dorman in the NY Times, March 5th, 2014

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. Lewis 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.

Advertisement by the New Zionist Organization of America in the New York Times, 1943. (Courtesy of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies). This image appeared in The Tablet to illustrate an article by Lee Smith, May 2012, arguing that the roots of the Israel lobby in the US were actually in the Republican party.

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.

Paul Scham is professor of Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, executive director of the University’s Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, managing editor of the Israel Studies Review, and an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute.

Conservative Critics Say My New Israel Book Is Anti-Semitic. They Must Not Have Read It Very Closely

By John Judis, New Republic
February 20, 2014

The week my book, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, appeared, I got an email from David Horowitz (the Hollywood ultra-rightist, not the consumer advocate), jointly addressed to his comrades Ronald Radosh and Peter Collier, accusing me of having “become a supporter of the Nazis” by having written “a book defending them.” That was followed by condemnatory reviews by Radosh in the Jerusalem Post, Jordan Chandler Hirsch in the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and Rick Richman in Commentary. While these reviews didn’t accuse me of plagiarizing Mein Kampf, they claimed that my book was part of a “new worldwide effort to question the legitimacy of Israel” (Radosh) and the work of a “faux Elder of Zion” (Richman) who “deploys the bigotry of yesteryear” (Hirsch) and insists that Arab massacres against Jews are “justified” (Hirsch and Radosh).

My usual policy on reviews is that any publicity is good publicity as long as the reviewers spell my name correctly. (A negative Village Voice review of my biography of William F. Buckley, Jr. was appropriately entitled “The Betrayal of Judis.”) But I have to admit that I found it disturbing that after reading one of these reviews, an old friend called to ask me whether in my book I really advocated the abolition of Israel. The fact is that I don’t believe in the abolition of Israel, nor in half the things that these reviewers have attributed to me. Here is a brief survey of what they say I wrote and what I actually wrote and believe.

1. Do I think the massacre of Jews was justified? In 1929, Arabs massacred Jews in the villages of Hebron and Safed. Hirsch writes that I “play down or character as understandable responses to Jewish provocation” in this and other “heinous Arab actions.” Radosh writes that I treat it as “a justified Arab response to Jewish provocation.” (The similarity in phrasing is no accident. These reviews are usually pile ons.) Here is what I wrote about the massacre:

In Jerusalem, seventeen Jews were killed by crowds, but the worst violence took place in neighboring Hebron and Safed, where for centuries orthodox Jews, many of them opposed to Zionism, had lived peacefully with Arabs. In Hebron, Arab mobs killed between 65 and 70 Jews and in Safed 18 Jews were killed. Overall, 123 Jews were killed and 116 Arabs–the latter primarily by British police.

I leave it to you: Does this seem like I am “playing down” or “justifying” the massacre?

2. Do I want to abolish or delegitimize the state of Israel? Radosh talks about delegitimization. Richman hints at darker designs. He accuses me of having “written a book that insists the source of the conflict was the Jewish desire for a state… 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.” Richman seems to think I support the replacement of Israel with an Arab-majority state, but that I was fearful of expressing this proposal in my book.

What I was fearful of doing was making proposals that would look outdated within months of my book’s publication, so I avoided any statements about borders or refugees or East Jerusalem. But you’d not have to graduate from a fancy law school to understand that I thought Barack Obama’s initial proposals in September 2009 and John Kerry’s in 2013 for a two-state solution were attempts to resolve rather than exacerbate the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. If Kerry succeeds, I conclude, “the time for an end to the irrepressible conflict could finally come.”

If Radosh or Richman had any doubts about my views, they could have consulted my articles that over the years supporting the attempt to achieve a two-state solution. Radosh quotes from my New Republic essay on Truman, but he seems to have missed this passage:

Truman’s solution to the conflict was, of course, a federated or binational Palestine. If that was out of the question in 1946, it is even more so almost 70 years later. If there is a “one-state solution” in Israel/Palestine, it is likely to be an authoritarian Jewish state compromising all of British Palestine. What remains possible, although enormously difficult to achieve, is the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. That is what the last three American Presidents, sometimes facing opposition from Israel’s lobby in Washington as well as from the Israeli government and the Palestinian Hamas organization, have tried unsuccessfully to promote, and what Secretary of State John Kerry is currently trying to negotiate.

3. Am I a bigot? The Wall Street Journal’s Hirsch claims that I endorse an anti-Semitic view of Herbert Samuel, who was a member of the British cabinet during World War I and later the British High Commissioner in Palestine. Hirsch writes:

A running theme is that had these Jews been patriotic Britons, they wouldn’t have lobbied for Zionism. Mr. Judis uncritically cites Prime Minister H. H. Asquith receiving a pro-Zionist memo from Herbert Samuel, a Jewish cabinet member, and noting in a private letter that “it is a curious illustration … that ‘race is everything’ to find this almost lyrical outburst proceeding from the well-ordered and methodical brain of [Samuel].” Mr. Judis thus deploys the bigotry of yesteryear to bolster his contemporary arguments.

Hirsch conveniently elides the author of the statement that “race is everything.” In my book, the full sentence reads “It is a curious illustration of Dizzy’s [Disraeli’s] favorite maxim that ‘race is everything’ …” Disraeli was of Jewish ancestry. But let me say a few things about this. In writing history, one doesn’t necessarily comment on everything that a politician says. Asquith’s remark reveals his attitude, not my attitude, toward Samuel and his proposal. My attitude toward Samuel is entirely different from Asquith’s. I portray Samuel as a patriotic Briton and a Zionist: “Samuel’s view of Palestine was also shaped by the fact that he was a British official—whose first loyalty was to his government at home—and a prominent member of the left-leaning Liberal Party.” I actually consider Samuel a heroic figure: “He was a creature of his time, but for the most part he refused to treat Palestine’s Arabs as inferior beings with lesser rights.”

I could find numerous other examples where these authors misrepresent my views, but I don’t want to bore you. I would like to conclude instead on one point that is prominent in Hirsch’s review and that is not entirely a misrepresentation and that may lie at the bottom of some, but not all, of these perfervid denunciations of my book. Hirsch charges that “in accusing Zionists of colonial aggression, a new history equates Europe’s mightiest powers with its greatest victims, the Jews.” This mischaracterizes my views, but not entirely.

Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann and the British Zionists who helped draft the Balfour Declaration did not aspire to create an empire like that of the British or French, but to be junior partners of the Western imperialist powers. Herzl, who admired Cecil Rhodes, described the Jewish state as “a part of a wall of defense for Europe in Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism.” The Zionist movement established “colonies” and aspired to create a Jewish state in a territory where, at the beginning of the Zionist movement, Arabs made up 95 percent of the population. American Zionists compared the Zionists in Palestine with American colonial settlers. At the time, colonialism and imperialism were not dirty words they way they are now. So yes, I think much of the Zionist movement—with the exception of Ahad Ha’am and his followers—saw themselves engaged in a mission that could be described as settler colonialism.

I think the problem is that some enthusiastic supporters of Israel may believe that by acknowledging that history, they thereby confirm that Israel is “illegitimate.” But many states, including the United States, are products of settler colonialism and conquest. There is no going back in these cases. What Israel’s early history does suggest, though, is that Palestinian Arabs have a legitimate grievance against Israelis that has never been satisfactorily addressed. It won’t be addressed by abolishing Israel—that’s not going to happen—but it can be addressed by an equitable two-state solution that gives both peoples a state and that opens the way for Israel’s reconciliation with its neighbors. If there is a lesson to Genesis—and I happen to believe that history can tell us things about the present—that’s what it is.

Notes and links

* The New Zionist Organization of America was founded in 1935 as a more militant and uncompromising pressure group for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. In its 1944 letter identifying itself (as required by law) to the Chief, Foreign agents registration section, it stated:

(1) It demands the immediate opening up of Palestine and the Transjordan to Jewish immigration on ascale permitting the inflow of tens and hundreds of thousands, with the clearly announced purpose of forming a Jewish state there;

(2) It calls for the formation of a strong Jewish military force to guarantee absolute security for an unprecedented, vast program of agricultural settlement and industrialization;

(3) It insists that Great Britain fulfill the Balfour Declaration without further procrastination and obstruction;

(4) In case of the continuation or- the present British policy toward Zionism, it plans to negotiate with the governments of other states in order either:

(a) to rescind the mandate or change the mandatory and secure a new arrange­ment which would ensure unequivocal action in behalf of the establishment of the Jewish state in Palestine; or
(b) to declare an independent Jewish state immediately in Palestine.

Truman opposed creation of ‘a Jewish state’, review in Times of Israel, February 2014
Why no-one asked why the Arabs said No, Natasha Gill, July 2013
Here’s John Kerry’s Proposal to Israelis and Palestinians, by John Judis,January 2014
The alluring black and gay faces used by the Israel lobby, Richard Silverstein on the ‘disinviting’ of John Judis by the Museum of Jewish Heritage, February 2013

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