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John Judis’s Truman book is a landmark in anti-Zionism

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Rabbi Stephen Wise, from the Clarence Darrow collection
Leading Zionist lobbyist, Rabbi Stephen Wise, from the Clarence Darrow collection

I’ve finally finished John Judis’s new book, Genesis: Truman, American Jews and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, and can say that it is a landmark in anti-Zionism: it states that Harry Truman was opposed to establishing a religious state in Palestine out of the fear that it would lead to endless conflict, and possibly World War III. But he was overwhelmed by a Zionist lobby that corrupted the policy-making process. The binational state that Truman always endorsed was impossible to achieve, Judis says, but we got the endless conflict. Palestinians were “screwed” out of their own country and have never gotten a fair break in more than a century of Zionist domination.

As his subtitle suggests, Judis is concerned with the American Jewish role in creating the conflict. The core of his investigation is surely the moment in mid-1948 when Truman wanted Israel to stop taking more land by military force beyond the UN’s Partition lines and was “disgusted” by the Israeli refugee policy, saying that Jews had turned their own narrative on its head by denying Palestinians the right to return. But Truman folded on these impulses, Judis says, in part because he needed $100,000 from political donors Abe Feinberg and Ed Kaufmann – a huge sum in 1948–for a whistlestop campaign trip through the midwest when his campaign was broke and Thomas Dewey was threatening to make him a one-termer. Those Zionist donors got “unmatched access to the White House.”

The pattern never changes. In 2011 Obama’s need for the endorsement of Haim Saban and other “major Jewish donors” caused him to give in on Israel’s latest landgrab, its colonies in the West Bank, Judis writes.

“In Obama’s first term, he replicated almost exactly what happened to Truman in his first term. Like Truman, he began with the understanding that in the clash between Jews and Palestinian Arabs …. [t]he Arabs as well as the Jews had a strong claim upon the American sense of justice and fair play…. Obama, like Truman, backed down… and betrayed his own moral understanding. The players were different in 1947 than in 2011, but the script was the same.”

Notice the word “moral.” The author, who states in his introduction that he subscribes to the liberal Reform Jewish belief that Judaism is a religion and not a nation, has a journalistic plainness. He speaks flatly of dual loyalty. His telling of the story of 1948 is concise and horrifying in relating the repeated dispossession of Palestinians by force and Israel’s contempt for the refugees.

Racism is a theme of this book. Otherwise-liberal, Eleanor Roosevelt, Stephen Wise, and Felix Frankfurter are shown to be bigoted, for they describe Palestinians as less worthy of rights than Jews. Frankfurter calls Palestinians “simple folk.” Wise says Palestinians are “in the depths of primitive life.”

Wise and Frankfurter help make up what Judis calls the “center of Zionist influence in the U.S.” Judis, as New Republic writer, takes pleasure in showing the Nation magazine’s role in cranking Zionist pressure, but the fulcrum are Jews who come and go in the White House and, aware of the State Department’s opposition to the establishment of a Jewish state, dig in whenever it is necessary. Many of Truman’s meetings on the issue are dominated by political considerations. Judis says it is impossible to imagine such a thing happening in meetings over the Berlin crisis.

Max Lowenthal, from the University of Minnesota collections
Max Lowenthal, from the University of Minnesota collections

Some of these advisers are White House officials, some are members of the Jewish agency, some occupy a “gray area” in between, it hardly matters. Ben Cohen was both advising the Jewish Agency and serving as an American representative to the UN; Robert Nathan was an economist in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations and also working for Chaim Weizmann in Palestine; Max Lowenthal was “a proverbial backroom operator… a fixture at the White House, even though he had no formal position and did not have an office.” Part of Louis Brandeis’s circle of Zionists, Lowenthal drafted memos that went directly to Truman. One said that opposing partition would put the United States “in the ridiculous role of trembling before the threats of a few nomadic tribes.”

Judis makes light of the famous Buck Stops Here placard on Truman’s desk: The buck never stopped with Truman, it stopped with the lobby. For Truman repeatedly states privately that his preferred plan was the Morrison-Grady plan of 1946 that called for a binational state. But he caved again and again, even as he wrote letters saying that was the solution.

It has been objected that Truman’s anti-Semitism is not fully treated in Judis’s book. While I wish his presidential portrait had a little more flesh and blood, what comes through is that Truman was a man of his era with conventional social stereotypes about many groups. He saw Jews as too “emotional,” “selfish” and “fanatical.” But he was moved by the plight of eastern European Jewry and revered Chaim Weizmann and had a sincere friendship with his former business partner Eddie Jacobson. Truman’s prejudice against Jews as selfish was obviously exacerbated by the pressure of the lobby. Still, it was prejudice: it was surely unfair to call a group selfish who had just seen 2/3 of its European population annihilated.

The question is, Did Truman’s opposition to a Jewish state grow out of his prejudice? Judis is convincing on this score: Truman believed in the separation of church and state. His objection to a religious state was principled and hardheaded. My favorite line in the book was Truman’s comment to his wife Bess Truman in 1939 about why he always avoided arguments about religion:

“It has caused more wars and feuds than money.”

Franklin Roosevelt expressed a similar secular pragmatism. In 1944, he chided the two leading Zionist lobbyists, Rabbis Wise and Abba Silver, that they were pushing a course that could lead to war. Roosevelt reflected angrily: “”To think of it, two men, two holy men, coming here to ask me to let millions of people be killed in a jihad.”

FDR surely feared a world war. So did Truman. So did the Arab Higher Committee, which warned that “any attempt to impose a solution contrary to the Arabs’ birthright will lead to trouble, bloodshed, and probably a third world war.”

It is very hard not to see these warnings as prophetic. In resolving the great Jewish problem in Europe, the U.S. achieved what the State Department said it would achieve: it created endless unrest in the Middle East. As Stephen Walt emphasized to Haaretz last weekend, 9/11 was prompted in part by the Palestinian issue.

When Walt and John Mearsheimer published their paper on the Israel lobby in 2006, I predicted they would unleash a pack of investigative journalists to document its damages. I was wrong. The journalists stayed away for a lot of reasons, including that Jeffrey Goldberg and Alan Dershowitz salted the fields. But Judis surely felt the issue was too important for him to ignore it. His book forces one to consider how much violence stems from the west’s decision to establish a religious state: from the Nakba to the many wars between Israel and its neighbors, to 9/11 to the Iraq war to the attack on the Liberty and the murders of Rachel Corrie and Robert Kennedy, to the destabilization of Lebanon by Palestinian refugees and the resulting civil war, and further out to the destabilization of Pakistan and Afghanistan. There might then be a conversation about whether a sacred American principle, separation of church and state, should be upheld in Israel so long as we are footing the bill. There would follow questions about why many Jewish liberals in the U.S. endorse secular law for Americans and religious rule for a place they don’t have to live.

Judis wants to have that conversation so as to end a tragic political pattern, in which we repeat the same corrupt political activities for 70 years running because we can’t talk about them openly. We can’t talk about them because Jews are simply too important to the functioning of western society and because the media feel that discussing a theory of Jewish influence will only lead to trouble. For Judis is advancing an argument about Jewish influence– conservative Jewish nationalist influence, but Jewish just the same.

Judis is somewhat more timorous when it comes to justice in the Middle East. Asserting that Palestinians have never had the right of self-determination and have been screwed by Zionists again and again raises a profound justice issue. That imbalance must be redressed, Judis writes. He is for two states. Binationalism was unworkable, and probably still is, he seems to say; and it would be “equitable” for the world to impose partition now–on drastically unequal geographical terms. Judis seems to be arguing stare decisis, the die is cast: having set up a nuclear armed religious state, the only way to get out of the conflict without a third world war is to keep it around. I am not sure how persuasive this will be to the next generation of Palestinians that seeks political rights on more than a fragment of the land.

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Your review is so thorough, I am glad that I read the book and finished it weeks ago. Even so, it is a brilliant review. And you’re right about Judis’ timidity about the Palestinians in the present time. For all the demonization that he has endured, by Wieseltier and others, Judis is still culturally bound. The book is more useful as a document of history, rather than a guide to the future. But even so,… Read more »

Fortunately, no-one fears a WWIII now. Therefore, let the Palestinians go to * * * Halhoul? Human rights for a few is unimportant, it seems, and the Palestinians (oddly) are counted as such “a few”, whereas the approximately equally not-very-numerous Jews are counted as “not such a few” (but very many, yessir!) and therefore their human rights transcend. Animal Farm. some few are more equal than others. In America the 0.01% are more important than… Read more »

Judis’ book confirms what Zionism Unsettled, the new Presbyterian booklet, has laid out regarding Mainline Protestant support for the Zionist enterprise – from Judis’ intro: “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… These liberals and progressives supported labor rights, civil rights, and the first amendment…. Many of them had also backed Wilson’s call for the self-determination of colonial… Read more »

Great piece. Emanuel Cellar of New York told Truman, in the White House, that his rich Jewish pals in New York would put Dewey into the White House if Truman did not ignore the recommendation of all of his foreign policy and defence advisers, and recognise Israel before its borders were defined.

One of the great blunders of Obama’s presidency was his failure to stop Israel’s growth of the illegal colonies of Jews in the West Bank.