Back in February the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York withdrew an invitation to John Judis to speak about his book on Truman and Israel and when the censorship went public the museum announced that it would hold an event after all. And so yesterday afternoon David G. Marwell, the historian who directs the museum, conducted a serious conversation with Judis about his central thesis: that the Zionist lobby twisted Truman’s arm to side with the Jews with the result that the Palestinians were screwed out of any sovereignty on their land. Marwell’s dialogue with Judis was excellent if unfriendly. He began by stating that he regretted the invitation because he feared the event would shed more heat than light, and he built his questions toward his central quarrel with Judis, over the power of the Zionist/Israel lobby.
Here’s some of the back and forth (with the proviso that I left my taperecorder on the hall floor, though I took good notes).
There have been a lot of criticisms of the book, did Judis regret anything he wrote?
“I expected to get a lot of grief for this book… I would write it the same way.”
Was Judis wrong to use the word “screwed”– the Palestinians got “screwed” out of their land — on page 251?
Oh so you know the page, Judis said, “that’s very nice.” And he flashed a big smile, one of many times he showed off his big white chompers to deflect attack.
No he didn’t regret the use of the word. He did so consciously to get attention. The Palestinians had seen their land taken away from them throughout the history of Zionist emigration and notwithstanding Wilson’s declaration of self-determination of peoples, they ended up with no sovereignty on the land they had lived on and were the overwhelming majority on. “The main thing is they were screwed at the end. That is what I believe.” You use “the vernacular” to make a point.
What is the intersection of the subject and the author’s biography? Why did you write the book, what ate at you?
It’s complete and utter mystery to me, Judis said. I’m not a professional Jew, I’ve written six books, I’m nearing the end of my career. It’s not Brazil to me. “There is some special moral bond between me and what happened in that little state that has concerned me and bothered me for 40 years.”
But, said Marwell, with a hint of gotcha, you wrote that “having to be associated with a publication [The New Republic] whose views on that subject I often disagree with led to a buildup of repressed indignation that fueled the years I spent on this book.” Implying that Judis was angry. Judis shrugged. Marty Peretz’s line was that whatever Israel did it had good reason to do. That worked for me during the Rabin years but not during Lebanon or the Second Intifada.
Marwell: Let me summarize the three main points of the book. You say that political Zionism is a “fundamentally unjust cause.”
Well not exactly, Judis interrupted. I say it has a dark side. Two events gave it moral weight. The Holocaust and the denial of Jewish emigration to the west in the 30s. But the dark side to Zionism is that they never acknowledged that this land belonged to others. That great liberal pillar of American political culture, Louis Brandeis, wrote in 1915 that it was perfectly American and multinational for a Jew to be for a Jewish state across the sea, but the contradiction at the heart of Brandeis’s essay was that he could not see a multinational society in Palestine. That’s a big problem.
The thesis of your book is that a Zionist lobby got Truman to do what he didn’t want to do and the pattern continues to this day.
Sure, Judis said.
But you also say that it’s hard to have imagined a different outcome, and if the 1946 Morrrison Grady plan (for a binational state) wasn’t going to work anyway, then in what sense did the lobby constrain policy?
But Truman thought it was going to work, Judis said, and he was overwhelmed.
But if you say it was unworkable then why do you blame the lobby? Marwell said.
It may have been wishful thinking, but that was Truman’s thinking. Truman didn’t think it was fair or moral to have a Jewish state. He failed to prevent it. And even if the outcome was inevitable, there were several “windows,” Judis went on, when things might have been different. He noted the US government’s inability to insist on the return of Palestinian refugees and Obama’s capitulation on settlements in 2011. After the Cairo speech in 2009 Obama told Abe Foxman that he was going to be “evenhanded” in the conflict, which is anathema to the lobby, and sure enough two years later Obama said that he wasn’t going to be evenhanded, he would be on Israel’s side.
Marwell: Why didn’t the lobby if it was so powerful overrule Truman on an “existential” issue, supplying arms to the new state of Israel to take on the invading Arab armies?
Because State insisted on that, Judis said. It was one point on which Truman sided with the State Department.
He hammered his theme: American Zionists were blind to the presence of Arabs in Palestine. If you read the Zionist literature in America over the first half of the century, some of it produced by great liberals, there’s a complete absence of Arabs in it. The leading Jewish Zionist paper, The Maccabean, simply lied about Palestinian numbers, made it seem that there was an overwhelming Jewish majority in the land.
I felt that Marwell demonstrated the blind spot. A historian who heads a museum about the Holocaust, he spoke at some length about the plight of Jewish Displaced Persons in camps between 1945 and 1948, a quarter million at one point. Their homes taken away from them, families murdered. Where could they go? I do not understand how such a concern can be expressed without an acknowledgement that Zionists created a refugee crisis for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and now their descendants, which has never been considered of any moral urgency in the west for 66 years; and many are still in camps.
But Marwell’s main concern was the lobby.
Isn’t lobbying an inevitable part of American politics?
For better or worse, yes.
But you say that the Jewish community was improper to lobby, as opposed to Aramco or the State Department
Well the oil companies didn’t get what they wanted, Judis said, and neither did the State Department. It wanted access to oil for the next war.
The lobby was the theme of the Q and A too: how preposterous it was to say that the Jewish community could have any influence over political decisions by the US government. Judah Gribetz, a trustee of the museum and former counsel to Democratic governors, challenged Judis in a mocking tone. If the lobby is so powerful, how did it compel the Palestinians to reject partition in ’47 and compel the Jordanians and Egyptians to do nothing to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza when they controlled those territories for 19 years? Another man asked, Why didn’t the lobby force the US government to prosecute the Grand Mufti for war crimes? That was a British decision, Judis said.
He was affable throughout. When Marwell advised the questioners to stay cool, Judis said, “They can yell at me, I don’t care.”
The questioners spoke of the lobby as a crazy conspiracy theory, and an anti-Semitic one. They represent a community that remembers well how Nazis battened onto ideas of Jewish power. I think Marwell feels the same way. It is why he stated twice at the start that he regretted bringing the discussion to this stage: because Judis is offering a critique of Jewish power. As Jeffrey Goldberg said about Walt and Mearsheimer, the Jewish community went into a defensive crouch instinctively. And we are still at a point where a sober mature Jewish thinker who is troubled by the exercise of Jewish political influence in the U.S. and wants to reform that community, alerting it to its racism, must be spanked publicly.
Happily Judis held his own, more than. He came out of the hall in a good mood and put on his Giants cap and checked the scores. The Giants beat the Cardinals, but the Rangers beat the Nationals. I wish more people could have heard him. But the museum was surely apprehensive about the platform it was giving him. The event was held late on a Sunday afternoon and the ticket price was $20; the result was that fewer than 50 people were in a big hall, a good number of them atherosclerotic. They do say they’re going to put a video of the conversation up on Youtube.
P.S. I got into an argument afterward with Judah Gribetz. I said, OK you’re right, the Palestinians opposed partition. But in 1988 they accepted it and in more than 25 years they’ve only watched more settlements on the 22 percent of their land that was left to them. He said, Land is fungible and they were offered land swaps by Ehud Barak in 2000. That upset me. Is land fungible? No it’s not. I wouldn’t trade my (yes, ethnically cleansed) acreage in Putnam County for an “equivalent” acreage in any other county in America. And Gribetz knows real estate law.
P.P.S. Judis will be speaking at the Palestine Center in D.C. on Thursday at 12:30 PM. Note, during the week. And it looks like it’s free.