Next week John B. Judis will publish a long-awaited book titled Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict; and in a sign of the shift in our discourse, The New Republic has excerpted the book here, in a piece titled, “Seeds of Doubt: Harry Truman’s concerns about Israel and Palestine were prescient—and forgotten.”
The piece is spectacular. It reverses the perception that Truman was a Zionist and makes clear that the plainspoken midwestern president believed in the separation of church and state as a universal principle, saw establishing a Jewish state as a mistake, wanted a democracy for all Palestine’s citizens established there, and wanted to see the refugees go back to their homes. But Truman was defeated in these resolutions again and again by the Zionist lobby in American life.
Judis has lifted the rock from a great buried tradition in American policymaking, the belief (defamed as Arabism) that sectarianism would only enflame the Middle East. He shows how a sectarian lobby was able to quash that tradition and — in the piece’s most inspired leap — states that the imposition of a Jewish state in Palestine fed the fires of Islamic nationalism and Osama bin Laden.
You should read the piece in its entirety, for Judis writes in a simple, clear manner, shaking off the clods of scholarship; and some of the commenters are het up. Below I offer a bunch of key excerpts.
Here’s the thesis. Notice that the biographer presents Truman as a noble American character (notwithstanding the fact he called New York “kike” city):
As president, Truman initially opposed the creation of a Jewish state. Instead, he tried to promote an Arab-Jewish federation or binational state. He finally gave up in 1947 and endorsed the partition of Palestine into separate states, but he continued to express regret in private that he had not achieved his original objective, which he blamed most often on the “unwarranted interference” of American Zionists. After he had recognized the new state, he pressed the Israeli government to negotiate with the Arabs over borders and refugees; and expressed his disgust with “the manner in which the Jews are handling the refugee problem.”
Of course, there were good reasons why Truman failed to achieve a federated or binational Palestine, and I don’t intend by recounting Truman’s qualms to suggest that he was wrong to recognize Israel. But Truman’s misgivings about a Jewish state and later about the Israeli stance on borders and refugees were not baseless. Truman was guided by moral precepts and political principles and concerns about America’s role in the Middle East that remain highly relevant today. Understanding his qualms is not just a matter of setting the historical record straight. It’s also about understanding why resolving the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians needs to be high on America’s diplomatic agenda….
Today many say that civil war is inevitable in Israel and Palestine. Truman understood that fear a long time ago.
There were two aspects of Truman’s upbringing and early political outlook that shaped his view of a Jewish state. Truman grew up in a border state community that had been torn apart by the Civil War. That, undoubtedly, contributed to his skepticism about any arrangement that he thought could lead to civil war. And Truman, like his father, was an old-fashioned Democrat. His political heroes were Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, and he shared Jefferson’s insistence on the separation of church and state. He blamed Europe’s centuries of war on religious disputes, which, he said, “have caused more wars and feuds than money.” That, too, contributed to his skepticism about a Jewish state….
Judis is most forthright about the Israel lobby. The essence of the lobby theory is that religion is a more powerful force in history than materialism (that’s the reason Chomsky opposes it). Judis says the lobby overruled Truman’s democratic ideals, and his understanding of a national interest in peace in the Middle East:
Truman was first lobbied to back a Jewish state in September 1945 by Rabbis Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen Wise, the leaders of the American Zionist Emergency Council (AZEC), a coalition of Zionist groups. They urged him to support turning all of Palestine, which was about thirty percent Jewish, over to the Jews. Truman told them that he objected to a religious state, whether Catholic or Jewish. He also expressed fear that trying to establish one would lead to war. In November, Truman repeated his opposition to a Jewish state to a meeting of American diplomats in the Middle East. Proponents of a Jewish commonwealth, Truman said, “didn’t give consideration to the international political situation in that area.” In a December meeting with Jewish representatives, Truman said that “the government of Palestine should be a government of the people of Palestine irrespective of race, creed, or color.”…
Truman fought the lobby with the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, which recommended solutions to the Jewish refugee crisis and the future of Palestine.
The committee handed down its findings in the spring of 1946. It called on Britain to permit 100,000 refugees to enter Palestine, but also recommended that Palestine not become either a Jewish or an Arab state. It proposed instead that it continue under a United Nations trusteeship, administered presumably by Britain. That part of the proposal infuriated the Zionists who successfully lobbied Truman to withhold his endorsement of the plan, but Truman, who favored the idea, sent a State Department official Henry Grady to Britain…
Next Truman got behind the Henry F. Grady vision.
[T]he “Morrison-Grady Plan” … would establish a federated Palestine with autonomous Jewish and Arab regions. The British, or whoever the United Nations appointed, would retain control of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and the Negev until the Arabs and Jews, who would enjoy equal representation in a national legislature, were ready to rule all of Palestine without going to war with each other. Truman and State Department were eager to publicly endorse the plan, but Silver and the Zionist lobby mounted a furious campaign against the proposal….
Again, the lobby, using the levers that it uses to this day, voters and more important, contributions. Truman retreats, licks his wounds.
The Zionist lobby, which itself could call on thousands of activists around the country, was joined by Democratic officials and White House aides who were worried that without the Jewish vote in New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Ohio, the Democrats could lose Congress that November..
Truman, who was sensitive to criticism from the British, insisted that he was immune to political pressure on Palestine, but he gave in, and failed to endorse the proposal he had helped to design.
Truman’s defeat on the Morrison-Grady plan marked the end of his active involvement in trying to shape Palestine’s future. From then on, Truman followed a pattern of fleeting involvement and resentful withdrawal. After agreeing under political pressure to take the Zionists’ side, he would withdraw from the issue, leaving it to the State Department, which generally opposed the Zionists. The State Department would then take a position unfriendly to AZEC [Zionist Emergency Committee], and the Zionist lobby would begin pressuring Truman, using the threat of electoral defeat. With the 1948 presidential election looming, this threat was even more credible than in 1946. Truman and the Democrats had to worry not just about the Jewish vote, but also about fundraising from wealthy Jewish contributors….
Then Partition loomed. Again, Truman was against it; again, humbled.
When the Jewish Agency in Paris issued a new proposal for partitioning Palestine—a breakthrough that occurred over AZEC’s opposition—Truman initially refused to take a public stand, and assured a visiting diplomat that he still could only support “some local autonomy arrangement.” But after visits from Democratic officials worried about Jewish support, lobbying from a major Jewish contributor, and the threat of a Zionist ad campaign against the Democrats, Truman gave in and issued a statement of support. Afterwards, however, a disgusted Truman washed his hands of the issue, writing to a Democratic National Committee official that “the situation is insoluble in my opinion.”…
Partition heads to the U.N. More lobbying:
“I don’t think I’ve ever had as much pressure put on the White House,” Truman wrote in a letter. But after the U.N. passed the proposal in November 1947 and the Arabs took up arms, as the State Department had warned, Truman, resentful toward the “pressure boys,” withdrew and let the State Department handle the repercussions.That winter, the State Department, worried about the raging war, won Truman’s tacit support for abandoning partition and reviving the idea of a U.N. trusteeship. But when America’s U.N. representative introduced the proposal, the Zionist movement reacted sharply…
Even after he recognized the state, in 1948, Truman said he was against it.
Yet throughout this period, Truman continued to admit privately that he preferred the Morrison-Grady plan for a federated Palestine and to blame AZEC and also (at various times), the British, the Jews in Palestine, and the Arabs for its abandonment…
Truman complained of “the fanaticism of our New York Jews,” Judis says, and on a couple of occasions said that the situation would work out the way he’d envisioned, binationalism.
[He wrote] “the report of the British-American Commission [sic] on Palestine was the correct solution, and, I think, eventually we are going to get it worked out just that way.” On May 18, he told Dean Acheson, who was between jobs at the State Department, that in 1946 “we had the problem solved, but the emotional Jews of the United States and the equally emotional Arabs in Egypt and Syria prevented that settlement from taking place.”…
Judis stresses the democratic nature of Truman’s views.
the considerations that led Truman to favor a bi-national or federated Palestine were not fantastic, and remain relevant today…
He was offended by the proposal, pressed by Silver and American Zionists, that a minority should be allowed to rule a majority. He wanted an arrangement that would respect the just claims of both Jews and the Arabs….
The refugees. Truman wanted them to go back home! (As Victor Kattan has documented, Nixon and Kenney also tried).
After Israel was established, and had defeated the Arabs, he supported a peace agreement that would allow some of the 700,000 Arab refugees from the war to return to their homes. (The Israeli ambassador to the United States complained that Truman was “sentimentally sympathetic” to the refugees.) In each case, however, Truman backed down under pressure from the Zionist lobby.
Here Judis becomes very realist, about the costs of the conflict. Has anyone said this in a mainstream publication, about Osama bin Laden?
Opposition to the Israeli occupation was central to the growth of Islamic nationalism in the Middle East in the 1970s and to the rise of international terrorist groups. Osama bin Laden’s 1996 Fatwa was directed at the “Zionist-Crusader alliance.” America’s continued support for Israel—measured in military aid and in its tilt to Israel in negotiations with the Palestinians—has fueled anti-Americanism.
The piece ends safely, with Judis saying there must be a two-state solution, overturning the moral core of his own argument. The piece documents an enormity: the imposition of a religious state on a minority that opposes it; the refusal of that religious state, itself a response to a refugee crisis of a few years’ standing, ever to allow the return of refugees forced out of their homes and away from its borders; the failure of a promise from the world 66 years ago to create a Palestinian state; and the corruption of the American political process by a religious pressure group– something liberals don’t just complain about, but fight hammer and tongs, when Christian groups are doing the pressuring.
The justice narrative will never end in a two-state solution as envisioned by John Kerry and liberal Zionists; because it’s too unfair to Palestinians to work. Judis’s piece was better titled, “Back to the Drawing Board,” with this argument:
A plainspoken Democratic president got it right 70 years ago. This is the only way to resolve the Israel/Palestine conflict. If you fear civil war as much as he did, lobby the world to embrace this idea and compel Israel’s transformation.
The piece can be read as a riposte to two noted authors. A few years ago, David Remnick quipped of Walt and Mearsheimer, if they’re right about the Israel lobby, then if the Israel/Palestine conflict were resolved, Osama bin Laden would go back into the construction business. Good joke. But Judis says Walt and Mearsheimer were right: that the U.S. bears responsibility for the religious wars of the Middle East, because we violated a sacred American principle, separation of church and state.
The other author is Michael Beschloss. This purveyor of the most conventional opinion wrote a book a few years ago saying that Truman showed great courage by recognizing the Jewish state and defying his own State Department. As John Judis makes clear, Truman lacked the courage of his convictions. And lo, we have reaped the whirlwind.