Review of New Book on Truman & American Zionists

Review of New Book on Truman & American Zionists

John Judis’s Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict is a superbly researched book that succeeds in being remarkably fair and even-handed.  It is not simply a work of history; in his introduction, Judis writes that the book is “primarily about what Americans can learn from the failure of the Truman administration to resolve the conflict between Zionism and Arab nationalism.”  He narrates  innumerable examples in which domestic American (primarily Jewish) political pressure on Truman distorted American leadership and prevented a possible outcome that might have been fairer to the Palestinians.

However, Judis also is at pains to point out that the Arabs in the 1940’s, and especially the Palestinians led by Hajj Amin el-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, were even less interested in compromise.  His conclusion is not about what could have been in 1948 but rather what can be in the near future, if Obama withstands similarly intense pressure to accept Israel’s priorities in the current negotiations.  He is explicit about the similarity of the two situations and the pressures brought on each president.

Despite his stated agenda, Judis makes his case with remarkable fairness, not skewing the evidence; certainly not glorifying the Arab side.  I should note that the author is a friend of mine and I largely share his political Weltanschauung on this and other issues.  However, as someone who has spent far more of his life closer to Judaism and Israel than has Judis, my own take on some of the choices made by American Jews in 1948 is somewhat different.

The book, in its first hundred-plus pages, provides a remarkably succinct and cogent history of the Zionist endeavor through the Palestinian revolt of 1936-39.  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.

Contrary views, which have been labelled as “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, and asserts 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 and a long-term unsolvable conflict, which is, of course, what happened.

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 Morrison-Grady plan of 1946, which would have admitted 100,000 Jewish refugees to Palestine and continued the British Mandate or a trusteeship.  He continually accedes to Zionist pressure and then claims he hasn’t.  The buck never stops, least of all with him.

Judis confides 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 homeland, and were unable to see any questionable moral dimension, regarding morality as 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 (Jewish religious law) as binding, a near total elimination of Hebrew prayer — with some even moving the day of rest to Sunday — while also rejecting the doctrine of “chosenness” and the tribal nature of Judaism.  I think Judis underestimates the tribal passions of many non-observant American Jews, which may have been sublimated or repressed but came to the fore with knowledge of the Holocaust and the fight for a Jewish state that so closely followed it.  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.

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 was always 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.

Judis makes it clear that Arab leaders at most points were even less conciliatory than Zionists.  He digs deeper into the Palestinian dynamic in which the Mufti of Jerusalem, who had spent the war years in Berlin aiding the Nazi cause, was the paramount leader and he, 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.  He shows how, as is well-known, Arab leaders 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 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.  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.  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.

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 in 1948.  Israel, though not exactly lacking in enemies, is a successful, recognized and powerful state.  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 care about Palestinians as well.  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 (the Palestinian Jewish community) as the stronger party, today it is plain.  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.  For those who are willing to risk having their preconceptions shaken up, reading it is a worthwhile journey.

By | 2014-02-16T02:44:00-05:00 February 16th, 2014|Blog|4 Comments


  1. Ira Weiss February 16, 2014 at 6:29 pm - Reply

    Thanks Paul .. yet another in your long record of thoughtful, knowledgeable, and insightful analyses of the violent conflict that has gone far too long.

  2. Nancy Dunne February 17, 2014 at 7:45 pm - Reply

    Fascinating. I, for one, am ready to buy the book.

  3. Anonymous March 1, 2014 at 3:23 pm - Reply

    This makes exceptionally sober and rewarding reading just as AIPAC’s meeting is opening in Washington, with 13,000 or so vicarious conscripts of Tschal in town….many Amerian Gentiles originally supported Israel along with their Jewish fellow citizens, but the situation has changed and it does seem that heir patience with Jewish tribalism is ending.,..Norman Birnbaum

  4. Sam Jonas March 1, 2014 at 3:35 pm - Reply

    In full disclosure, I have not read this book and I also know Schram to usually be a thoughtful and attentive observer. But there seem to be some large holes in this review that undermine the generally positive view of this book. First, and really foremost, if the Palestinians and their notorious leader el-Husseni were even “less interested in compromise”, why should Truman, mush less the members of the Yishuv, be obligated to expend energy on negotiations that were bound to fail? Furthermore, to exorcise the liberal American Jewish leadership who historically “watched out for the underdog” is to ignore the fact that they, correctly, saw the Yishuv and the new refugees as the underdogs in a region of millions of Arabs, many — including the Palestinian leadership- Nazi-sympathizers.
    Finally, it is ironic that this book has appeared at roughly the same time as the book “America’s Soul in the Balance” by G.J. Wallace. “Soul” documents the deep institutional anti-Semitism of the US State Department in the 1930’s and ’40s, and utterly undercuts Judis’ arguments about the evenhandedness of State’s positions regarding the founding of the state of Israel.

    I don’t know if Judis book has any other redeeming qualities, but these deep flaws bring into question it’s overall value to the current discussion.

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