Three US Presidents’ failure to effect right of return calls on Jews to examine our role in society

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When we hear someone call for the “right of return,” we tend to think the speaker is a Palestinian solidarity activist or a radical who doesn’t believe that Israel has a right to exist. How many of us understand that for many years, American presidents of both parties also called for the right of return, as essential to the American interest in stability in the Middle East?

I certainly didn’t know this till I read Victor Kattan’s book showing that the Truman administration had opposed the "brutal" Israeli policy toward the refugees in the late 1940s–but did very little about supporting the refugees in the end. Well now I am reading Geoffrey Wawro’s new book Quicksand and I came on several passages about presidential stances on the right of return of Palestinian refugees. They show that over three decades, Truman, Kennedy and Nixon all felt that the return was important. And of course the U.N. has called for the return of the refugees again and again.

Why then didn’t it happened? Read the passages from Wawro:

If the Jews and Arabs would not agree to the [Bernadotte plan that called for the return of refugees and the division of Jerusalem, Truman’s secretary of state George] Marshall wanted the UN to impose it “as the best possible basis for bring peace to a distracted land.” … Marshall did not reckon with the power of the Jewish lobby. Israeli foreign minister Moshe Sharett successfully argued that the Arab states were trying to “ruin” Israel by “uniting to force Israel to take back refugees” and construct homes for them. But the “refugees” were Palestinians, and the Israelis had deliberately and systematically destroyed their homes. Surely the Palestinians retained some rights in their native land. When Marshall in Paris publicly announced America’s intention to implement the Bernadotte plan in the UN General Assembly, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, cochairman of the American Zionist Emergency Council, counterattackeda t home inWashington…pronounced himself “profoundly shocked” by Secretary of Marshall’s support of the Bernadotte plan….

[Bernadotte is assassinated by the Stern Gang, in Jerusalem in September 1948]

Brought belatedly to his senses,

Truman did what he should have done before and after the Bernadotte assassination: he demanded that the Israelis accept the return of at least two hundred thousand Palestinian refugees to their homes and that they make real concessions…

Straining to solve the Palestinian refugee crisis once and for all, Kennedy, who had visited Palestine and absorbed its complexities during the British Mandate years, eagerly backed the Carnegie Endowment’s Johnson Plan in 1962. Named for Joseph Johnson, the endowment’s president, the plan gave the Palestinian refugees—whose number had now swelled to 1.3 million—the choice of returning to their homes in Palestine—now Israel—or resettling with cash compensation in other Arab states. Israel opposed the plan—as well as Johnson’s call for a “Palestinian entity” (forerunner of the Palestinian National Authority) and a UN trustee for confiscated Arab properties in Israel—and ultimately agreed to accept no more than twenty thousand refugees, less than 2 percent of the total, which was tantamount to rejection. Kennedy, who had named Myer Feldman White House “desk officer for Israel”—a new position that reflected the power of the Israel lobby—heard arguments from both sides. “The faster you disengage from this plan the better,” Feldman warned him. “Otherwise… there will be a violent eruption both domestically and in our relations with Israel.” But Secretary of State Dean Rusk warned of “political repercussions” in the Arab world if Kennedy did not begin to lean hard on the Israelis….

Nixon told an NSC meeting in June 1970 that failure to solve the Palestinian refugee question was one of the “major lapses” of the post-World War II era.

It is clear from Wawro’s book (and, regarding Truman, reading Michael Cohen’s book, Truman and Israel, which anatomizes Zionist lobbying) that both Truman and Kennedy were forstalled by domestic political pressures levied by political aides– usually Jewish aides who were sympathetic to Zionism–the nascent Israel lobby. In Truman’s case this included the refrain that Democrats had lost seats during the ’46 Congressional elections because he was trying to be evenhanded in Palestine. In time, Kennedy complained of Zionist "control" being exercised by Jewish donors, via bundler Abe Feinberg, who had huge access to the White House following his work to save Kennedy’s chestnuts in the ’60 election.

In time, Nixon would express rage over "domestic political considerations" playing any part in his Middle East policy.

What the extracts show is that as there was no overarching American interest in supporting Partition in the first place, neither was there such an interest in denying the human rights of the refugees. There was a special interest, which many influential American Jews shared. And the refugees were blocked from returning, and the issue festers.

This is the reason that I continually state that the absence of a Palestinian state is a Jewish political achievement—63 years after it was first promised. The other amazing lesson about the passages is that the exact same political constellation holds in our politics today, only today it is both more powerful and more openly scrutinized. The access that Eddie Jacobson, A.J. Granoff and Max Lowenthal and Rabbi Stephen Wise had with Truman is echoed today in the presence in the corridors of the Obama White House of Rahm Emanuel and Lee Rosenberg and Michael Froman, all Zionists.

What is also obvious is that this political constellation has never produced peace, it is incapable of it, it is one sided. But I believe that this is the way that American Jews have come to understand power. We are a tiny minority, we have little choice but to exercise it via our own cultural gifts—elite gifts of prestige, financial success, and access.

As I frequently say, this way of exercising influence worked for my ancestors in the 1890s when the nascent Jewish lobby of financiers convinced Presidents Cleveland and Roosevelt to pressure the Russians to free my people. And a good thing.

But it hasn’t worked in the Palestine question. It has produced an imbalanced policy again and again. The next generation of American Jews must ask themselves if this is the way. I believe, as Yonatan Shapira, an Israeli pilot said last week to a Jewish audience in New York, that the only way out of the mess is if Palestinians at last lead, if Jews give up their exceptionalist ideas about themselves and take the lead from Palestinians, who know the issue better than we do.

This is true when it comes to the right of return. It is Israel’s “nightmare scenario,” as a friend once put it it to me. But it is a basic idea of human rights, and one that the United States sought to enforce again and again, and I would argue that presidential policy was nullified. And of course the issue festers, and resonates in the Palestinian Diaspora, most of whom, by the way, would not elect to return but are damned if they will give away that right.

I don’t think it is so hard for Jews to get their heads around the idea of Palestinian return. For an obvious reason: The Jewish state, which so many Jews still believe in, was politically constructed out of the suffering of Jewish refugees in Europe. I don’t think it can be politically redeemed until it accepts the rights of the Palestinian refugees. Notice I am not talking about a Jewish state or a binational state or actual numbers of folks who would return; I am talking about recognition of a basic human rights issue, ignored forever. 

A right that so many of our presidents recognized. It seems to me that this history is a strong argument for Jews of conscience to reject power politics, and begin to trust the grass roots.

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