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.
After he gave up trying to impose a federated state, Truman continued to press for an equitable resolution to the conflict between the Arabs and Jews. His concern was partly strategic. He was worried, as was his State Department and Pentagon, about taking the side of the Zionists and alienating the region’s Arabs at a time when the United States and its allies might need Arab oil to fight a war against the Soviet Union. But Truman’s foreign policy views were grounded in personal morality. He saw the world divided between good guys and bad guys and between underdogs and bullies. He worried about fairness. He was outraged by what had been done to the Jews in Europe, but he was worried about a settlement that was unfair to Palestine’s Arabs.
In October 1947, when the United Nations was debating partition, Truman favored a division of Palestine that would give the Arabs, who still made up two-thirds of the population, a proportionate majority of the lands. After the wars of 1948, he favored a peace agreement between Israel and the Arab states that would at least restore the 40 percent of Palestine that the UN had earlier allotted to the Arabs and would allow many of the 700,000 Arab refugees displaced by the war to return to their homes. But Truman was beaten back in each instance by a powerful American Zionist movement working in tandem with the Jewish Agency in Palestine and later the Israeli government. In the end, the new Jewish state took up almost 80 percent of Palestine, and Palestine’s Arabs were dispersed and deprived of a state of their own. Europe’s Jews had been given their due, but it was at the expense of Palestine’s Arabs.
Should American Zionists have been expected to fight tooth and nail for their Jewish brethren overseas? Yes and no. The American Zionist movement was led in its first decades by liberals and progressives like Louis Brandeis, Stephen Wise, Felix Frankfurter, David Dubinsky, and Horace Kallen. Zionism also attracted the enthusiastic support of Christian liberals, including Reinhold Niebuhr, Henry Wallace, and Eleanor Roosevelt, and of the country’s most liberal media, including The Nation, The New Republic, the New York Post (in its earlier incarnation), and the daily PM, which featured I. F. Stone’s journalism.
These liberals and progressives supported labor rights, civil rights, and the first amendment. Wise was a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Many of them had also backed Wilson’s call for the self- determination of colonial peoples. But when it came to Palestine, they were oblivious to the rights of Palestine’s Arabs. In the movement’s first decades, American Zionists averred that the Jews were emigrating to a largely unoccupied wasteland or desert; later, when it became clear that Arabs already lived there, they insisted that these Arabs, who could trace their lineage in Palestine to 638 c.e., could easily pick up and move to Jordan, Iraq, or Syria. After the 1948 wars, they contended that the Palestinian refugees had either fled of their own accord or were induced to flee by Arab leaders.
As liberals and progressives, they might have been expected to help Truman fashion a compromise that recognized the rights of Jews and Arabs, but they did nothing of the kind. They excoriated Truman for doing what in any other context they would have condoned and supported. In 1948, Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party targeted Jewish voters unhappy with Truman’s attempts to reach a compromise between Jew and Arab with pamphlets warning that “a vote for Truman is a vote to rebuild Nazi Germany.” These liberals seemed to be willfully ignorant of what was actually going on in Palestine.
Truman was a genuine liberal who had moral qualms about Zionism. He was also the last president to express them. But almost every American president since Truman has tried to find a way to improve the lot of Palestinian Arabs— through trying to get Israel to allow refugees to return and later by trying to persuade the Israelis to leave the occupied West Bank and permit the Palestinian Arabs a state of their own. Yet Truman’s successors have, as a rule, suffered the same fate as he did. They began with a moral and strategic conviction that something had to be done to right the situation of the Palestinians, but under relentless pressure from supporters of Israel (and after 1948 from the Israeli government itself), they gave up.
That’s what happened to Barack Obama during his first term. When he took office, he declared that Israel had to stop expanding into the West Bank and agree to the existence of a Palestinian state. “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,” Obama declared. “It is time for these settlements to stop.” But at odds with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and facing sharp opposition from his supporters in Washington, Obama eventually backed down. By the end of his first term, he was heeding Israel’s wishes to focus on the threat from Iran rather than on settlements, and was opposing a Palestinian effort to win recognition at the United Nations.
This pattern of surrender to Israel and its supporters began in the Truman years. The actors have changed— the Zionist movement now calls itself the “pro-Israel” movement— and the issue itself is no longer whether there should be a Jewish state, but whether there should also be a Palestinian state and, if so, whether it should constitute more than a few barren hills carved up by checkpoints and security barriers. But the underlying problem remains the same: whether an American president and the American people can forthrightly address the conflict of Jew and Arab in the Middle East, or whether they must bow to the demands of a powerful pro-Israel lobby and an increasingly rightward-leaning Israeli government.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, you can purchase the full book here.
Excerpted from Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict by John B. Judis, published in February 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2014 by John B. Judis. All rights reserved.