Book Review – “Our Palestine Question: Israel and American Jewish Dissent, 1948–1978” and “The Threshold of Dissent: A History of American Jewish Critics of Zionism”

Book Review – “Our Palestine Question: Israel and American Jewish Dissent, 1948–1978” and “The Threshold of Dissent: A History of American Jewish Critics of Zionism”

Geoffrey Philip Levin, Our Palestine Question: Israel and American Jewish Dissent, 1948–1978 (Yale, 2024) and Marjorie N. Feld, The Threshold of Dissent: A History of American Jewish Critics of Zionism (NYU, 2024)

Review by Peter Eisenstadt

There is a paradox central to the history of American Zionism. If Zionism promised Jews a safe haven from antisemitism, why did it become central to American Jewish life only after World War II, when most American Jews were increasingly confident that the only safe haven they needed was in the United States. These were the years when antisemitism, certainly overt antisemitism, was being pushed to the borders of respectability. African American civil rights leaders looked at the ability of Jews to address anti-Jewish prejudice with a combination of admiration and envy.

One answer to this paradox is that, of course, it was only in 1948 that the Jewish settlement in Palestine became Israel, and it was the very existence of Israel that fostered the ties between American Jews and Israel, despite the fact that, contrary to Zionist theory, the United States was a much safer place for Jews than Israel itself. But there was nothing automatic about the emerging Zionist consensus. It was consciously created, enforced, and policed. It was underlined in 1950 in the so-called “Blaustein and Ben–Gurion Agreement” between Jacob Blaustein, president of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), and David Ben-Gurion, prime minister of Israel. Israel and official Zionism would stop insisting that American Jews who failed to make Aliyah were deficient in their Zionism — it wasn’t as if many American Jews were moving to Israel anyway. In return for this dispensation to live in galut, American Jews would raise scads of money for Israel, with the understanding that their influence on Israeli policies ended with their checkbooks and would not butt in or interfere with (or better yet, try to really understand) internal Israeli politics. They would “support Israel” and leave it to Israelis to figure out what this meant. There were some Jews that fell outside this consensus, but they were, cranky relics of a bygone era of Jewish assimilation, sad Bundists pining for a world that no longer existed, religious fanatics, or communists or other far-leftists.

For the most part, this is how the history of postwar Zionism and postwar American Jewish life has been told, of an enveloping and increasingly intolerant Zionist consensus. And with every crisis in Israel, the unconditional and ask-no-questions embrace became more uncritical and suffocating. But it is only part of the story. From within the bowels of the organized Jewish community there were always brave souls asking the pertinent and pressing questions that needed to be asked. If this dissent was not more widespread, or better remembered, it is in part because some organized Jewish organizations, often with a crucial assist from Israeli officials, did all in their power to crush and marginalize this dissent. It is in this context that two sterling recent histories by Geoffrey Levin and Marjorie Feld provide necessary background on the history of Jewish dissent over Israel and Zionism, and the efforts to make the dissenters go away. (Full disclosure: Marjorie is an old friend; I read several chapters of her book in manuscript, and I am mentioned in her acknowledgements.)

Both books concern themselves with what Feld describes as believers in “mainstream American Jewish ideas.” They have overlapping concerns, but they have different timespans and focuses. Levin’s book is concerned with Jewish attitudes toward the Palestinians over a thirty year period, while Feld has a somewhat wider concern with Zionism as such, and over a somewhat wider time period. The two books complement one another, and both are very much worth reading.

Both Levin and Feld discuss the best-known Jewish anti-Zionist organization, the American Council for Judaism (ACJ), formed from the dissenting remnant left in the 1930s and 1940 when the Reform movement moved away from its negative attitudes to Zionism. It was founded in 1943 and often dismissed as a mere nuisance, a minor irritation to American Jewry’s growing Zionist consensus, but Feld shows that the ACJ was a major participant in debates about the future of Palestine/Israel in the 1940s and 1950s. Although at first the AJC was primarily concerned with a critique of Zionism as an ideology of Jewish nationalism, by the 1950s its leaders, such as Rabbi Elmer Berger, were visiting Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and writing about their experiences. Both Levin and Feld write about the efforts of prominent American Jewish organizations and the Israeli government to marginalize the ACJ, increase internal dissent in the organization, and seek its isolation. In this they were largely successful.

The period from 1948 to 1967, as Levin says, is the “lost generation” of American Jewish involvement with the Palestinian cause. But scratch the surface, and the critics emerge. Both Levin and Feld write about William Zukerman, a veteran journalist primarily in Yiddish publications, who, from 1948 until his death in 1961, published his Englishlanguage Jewish Newsletter. It provided a steady critique of Israel’s policies, including matters of separation of synagogue and state, its campaign against the Yiddish language, and its treatment of the Palestinians. Zukerman has been largely written out of the history of American Jewish life — for what it’s worth, I never heard of him before reading Levin and Feld. And although the Jewish Newsletter was a “little magazine” with a circulation of no more than 5,000, its supporters and sometime contributors — though Zukerman wrote most of the copy — included Hannah Arendt, illustrious New York intellectuals Alfred Kazin and Dwight Macdonald, psychologists and sociologists Erich Fromm and David Reisman, Roger Baldwin, head of the ACLU, and Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas, who in 1952 called Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians “Hitlerism in reverse.” Zukerman often made the point that liberal American Jews, outraged by McCarthyism and racial segregation, frequently looked the other way when it came to civil rights and human rights abuses by Israel. But after Zukerman’s death, the Jewish Newsletter ceased publication, and he had no successor. Also supporting Zukerman was Hans Kohn, a preeminent historian of nationalism who was a former Zionist official in Palestine who became disillusioned with Zionism, supported Brit Shalom and bi-nationalism in the 1940s, and taught for many years at City College of New York. His views on Zionism are explored in Noam Pianko’s Zionism and the Road Not Taken (2010), along with other dissenters from the Zionist consensus, among them Simon Rawidowicz. He was an eminent Jewish scholar who taught for many years at Brandeis, and who called for, in the late 1940s, a substantial return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. (He is featured in David N. Myers, Between Jew and Arab: The Lost Voice of Simon Rawidowicz, published in 2008.)

One of the key figures in Levin’s book is Don Peretz (1922–2017), an American Jew whose father was a Sephardi born in Palestine, who in the 1950s completed what was probably the first dissertation on Palestinian refugees. In the mid-1950s he was employed as the first Middle East expert by the officially non-Zionist but Zionist-friendly American Jewish Committee (AJC), probably the best politically connected American Jewish organization during the Eisenhower years. The AJC, when confronting the increasing prominence of pro-Palestinian voices in the US (notably that of Fayez Sayegh [1922–1980], a Palestinian academic rescued from obscurity by Levin) rather than just reject the criticism as anti-Semitic, tried to look seriously at the problem. In 1956 a pamphlet written by Peretz, “Steps for Middle East Peace,” issued by the AJC, while hardly radical by contemporary standards — it favored resettlement of Palestinian refugees in Arab countries, but did not rule out some return of refugees to Israel — set off the alarm bells in the Israeli government, from foreign minister Golda Meir on down, and Levin details the successful efforts to persuade the AJC to part ways with Peretz. Though Peretz went on to a distinguished career as a Middle East expert, he no longer was in a position to influence policy.

Levin details other efforts by AJC officials, such as James Marshall (1896–1981), son of AJC founder Louis Marshall, to respond to the refugee question, and he discusses the continuing efforts by Israeli authorities to limit the moderate but serious efforts questioning Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians by leaders of the AJC until they eventually disappeared. Levin also discusses the efforts in the mid-1950s of the Israeli government and mainstream Jewish organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League, to blunt the efforts of the American Friends of the Middle East (AFME), an organization backed by the CIA, to provide a perspective sympathetic to the Palestinians to Americans. (The Eisenhower administration, until the turn of Nasser and other Arab nationalists toward the Soviets in the late 1950s, was probably the most even-handed post-war administration on Israel-Palestinian matters.) Despite this, and the support of prominent journalists such as Dorothy Thompson, the AFME faltered. The CIA could overthrow Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, but it met  its match in the growing Zionist consensus.

And so, because of the silencing of dissent, when the Six-Day War happened, American Jews were ill-equipped to understand the complexities of the pre-1967 relations between Israel and the Palestinians, and nonplussed in its aftermath, when Palestinian organizations, with tough antiZionist talk and armed resistance, emerged as major players in the Middle East. And as Feld notes, when many Black organizations, after 1967, became less supportive of Israel, it was another nail in the coffin of the so-called “golden age” of the Black-Jewish alliance. But after 1967 there was an increasingly prominent Jewish left that the Jewish mainstream tried to neuter, crush, or ignore. Although the Palestinian issue was not as central to this Jewish left as some of its successors—it was more concerned with the problems of American Jewish assimilation and recasting Zionism as the “national liberation movement of the Jewish people”—the question of the Palestinians and the occupation was an important issue. It was in part this left-Zionist spirit that led to the formation of Breira, which in the early 1970s became the largest and most influential left-Jewish organization of its time. When in 1976 some leaders of Breira met with moderate members of the PLO, and this was disclosed by the useful idiot of the Israeli hasbara effort, Wolf Blitzer, then working for the Jerusalem Post —it suffered a torrent of abuse from established Jewish organizations, its funding dried up, and by 1979 it ceased to be. A somewhat similar left-Jewish organization, New Jewish Agenda, was founded in 1980, and shut down operations, also primarily for financial reasons, in 1992.

Levin’s narrative ends with the end of Breira, while Feld’s goes through the early 1980s and Israel’s first invasion of Lebanon in 1982, though she discusses more recent events briefly. Perhaps one reason to end where they did was that the basic pattern of American Jewish attitudes toward Israel and Palestine have wavered perhaps, but the underlying realities have budged very little. There have been a few left-Zionist organizations with more staying power than their predecessors, such as Americans for Peace Now, founded in 1980, and J Street, founded in 2007. But Feld would argue that both fall within the “Threshold of Dissent” of her title. In order to be accepted as critics of Israel, Jewish organizations apparently first have to establish their “pro-Israel” bona fides, which muddies their critique and makes it difficult to ask fundamental questions about the nature of Zionism, and of Israel’s past and future.

And then, out of nowhere but foretold by a century of Jewish-Palestinian violence, came October 7th and the Gaza War. Levin’s book was published before October 7th. Feld’s book, appearing several months later, was able to make reference to it, but of course no one knows the long term impact on American Jewish attitudes to Israel, except that the debates have become and are likely to remain more contentious and bitter than ever. In some ways it is a changed world. For the first time since the early 20th century, anti-Zionism, has become a central part of American Jewish debate over Israel. The Jewish organization that has probably received the most attention since October 7th is the stridently anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace. Israel is no longer able to squelch strong criticism from the political mainstream, Jewish or non-Jewish. The question of whether or not Israel has committed genocide in the Gaza War is, whatever your opinion, no longer a wild, rhetorical accusation, but something that has to be seriously debated. Senator and Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said recently that he had “clear and profound disagreements with the prime minister [Netanyahu], which I have voiced both privately and publicly, and will continue to do,” an astonishing statement from the “most powerful Jew in American politics.” On the other hand, the Israeli government and many American Jewish organizations are trying, with increasing desperation, to insist that nothing has changed. Schumer’s statement quoted above was a lame attempt to explain why he agreed to allow Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress. The Jewish/Zionist establishment (which more and more relies on Christian Zionists) has pushed back on this new discourse in the only way it knows how; dismissing critics of being enemies of Israel and antisemites.

In this new and still evolving situation, what lessons can we draw from the work of Levin and Feld? Is there a new threshold of dissent? I hope, no doubt in vain, that the shopworn categories of Zionist/non-Zionist/anti-Zionist can finally be retired. There are only two positions on Israeli and Palestinian realities; there are people who are working toward a solution of the IsraelPalestine problem in which both peoples, in some arrangement, can live in dignity and a measure of equality, and there are those who are not. There are Zionists and contra-Zionists on both sides. The basic division is between people who are seriously trying to solve problems and fools who only seek to exacerbate them; between those who are helpful and those who are not.

Perhaps more than any other history, that of Israel and Palestine is one of counterfactual alternatives. We study it less to understand what actually happened, but what might have happened, of the paths not taken. The current crisis, and the work of Levin and Feld, ask us to retrace our footsteps. What if the suggestions of the critics of the 1950s had been taken seriously? What if there had been some sizable return of Palestinian refugees? What if more attention had been paid to the status of the Palestinians in Israel? What if the territorial gains of the Six-Day War had not been celebrated as a great victory but seen, from the outset, as deeply problematic?

Time has never been on the side of IsraeliPalestinian peace, though proverbial wisdom often can be found on both sides of this (and almost any other) issue. On the one hand, it is perhaps true that “time heals old wounds” but this works much better for minor cuts and abrasions than it does for the wounds of history, where there is little healing and no immune system. On the other hand, it is also true that “a stitch in time saves nine.” Generally, the sooner a problem is addressed, the easier it is to try to fix. The time to address the problems of the Israeli wars of 1948 was in 1949. The best time to think through the consequences of the Six Day War was in 1967 and 1968. As for what comes after the Gaza War, there is no time like the present. As monumentally difficult as positive steps forward seem in 2024, they will be that much more difficult in 2034 or 2044 if the underlying causes of the war are allowed to fester. The deep and profound changes needed in both Jewish and Palestinian society and politics won’t be found on any conventional Zionist or antiZionist to-do list. The persons and organizations Levin and Feld write about knew this. They were not always right, but we can learn from their clear thinking. And we can admire and emulate their bravery, their refusal to be cowed or intimidated by their many dismissive critics, and their political and intellectual courage.





Peter Eisenstadt is a member of the board of Partners for Progressive Israel and the author of Against the Hounds of Hell: A Biography of Howard Thurman (University of Virginia, 2021).


Leave A Comment