Today the Weekend Reader brings you Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict by John Judis, senior editor at The New Republic and contributing editor at The American Prospect. The ongoing conflict in the Middle East has been a pertinent issue for every American president since Harry Truman. Each has taken a different approach and a few have sought to mediate serious negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The historical context provided by Judis in Genesis is the foundation for his criticism of the pro-Israel lobby here in the U.S. He argues that the unwillingness of top Israeli officials to live peacefully with a Palestinian state — something that has remained consistent since the Truman presidency — will only continue unless an American president stands up to the pressure from this country’s powerful — and largely right-wing — Zionist leadership.
You can purchase the book here.
On Wednesday, September 8, 1948, Harry Truman was in a sea of troubles. He was in the middle of an election he was expected to lose; the Soviet Union was blockading Berlin; and, in the Middle East, Israel and five of its Arab neighbors were at war. That morning, Truman’s first visitors in the White House were a delegation from the Jewish War Veterans of America, headed by Brigadier General Julius Klein.
It was supposed to be a routine fifteen-minute visit—a chance for the war veterans to invite Truman to their National Encampment in Monticello the next week—but Klein surprised the president by presenting him with a long list of demands related to the new state of Israel. They included ending the arms embargo that the United States had imposed on all the combatants, granting Israel a $100 million loan to help it settle immigrants from Europe’s displaced persons camps, and championing Israel’s membership in the United Nations.
Truman was taken aback. As Klein later recounted, the president said, defensively, that he was “the best friend the Jews had in America.” And then he said something that clearly shocked Klein and the delegation. He complained to the Jewish War Veterans that he and British foreign secretary Ernest Bevin “had agreed on the best possible solution for Palestine, and it was the Zionists who killed that plan by their opposition.”
Truman was referring to the recommendations of the Anglo-American Committee, which came out in the spring of 1946, and to the plan negotiated by the American Henry Grady and the British official Herbert Morrison for implementing the recommendations. The committee called for allowing 100,000 Jewish survivors of Hitler’s final solution, who were marooned in displaced persons camps, into Palestine. But it also recommended organizing Palestine into a federated state that would be neither Arab nor Jewish.
Klein reportedly left the meeting looking glum. One thing that must have bothered him was that, just four months before, Truman had recognized the new Jewish state of Israel. Now he was saying that the “best possible solution” had not been a Jewish state but a state that was jointly administered by Jew and Arab. And he was blaming America’s Zionists for blocking this solution.
Truman has sometimes been portrayed as a Christian Zionist whose decision to recognize Israel was in line with his own deepest convictions. But that is not reflected in his comment to Klein. Truman was a Jeffersonian Democrat who rejected the idea of a state religion— state religions were what had caused centuries of war in Europe. He didn’t think that a nation should be defined by a particular people or race or religion. Far from being a Christian Zionist, Truman was deeply skeptical about the Zionist project of founding a Jewish state, as he repeatedly told Jewish leaders during his first year in office. He had personally overseen Henry Grady’s work in developing the recommendations for a federated Palestine.
Truman backed down in October 1946 and supported a Jewish state in a part of Palestine. He did so to some extent, as he told Klein, because of political pressure from Zionist organizations. In the upcoming November elections, Truman feared that the Democrats could lose key races if the Jews, in response to attacks on Truman from the Zionist groups, voted for the Republicans. He also backed down because, with the Cold War beginning, he could not use American forces to help impose the kind of solution he and Bevin favored. After October 1946, Truman’s wishes for a federated or binational Palestine found expression only in repeated private complaints to people like Klein.
Was Truman right in the first place to advocate a federated or binational Palestine? Truman was not insensitive to the plight of European Jews, who had lost 6 million to Hitler’s final solution, and who had been, and still were, blocked from emigrating to Western Europe or the United States by draconian immigration laws. Truman had infuriated the British and Palestinian Arabs by insisting that the survivors of the Holocaust be allowed to emigrate to Palestine. But Truman also understood that Europe’s Zionist movement, beginning in the late nineteenth century, had been seeking to create a Jewish state in a land where another people had lived and made up the overwhelming majority for 1,400 years. Truman didn’t know all the details of this history, but he knew enough of it to fear that establishing a state where either Jews or Arabs dominated would likely lead to war and injustice, so he sought to create a state with a federal arrangement that might satisfy the aspirations of both peoples.