Harry Truman opposed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine early during his presidency, believing a state should not belong to any one people and that a religious state violated the principle of church-state separation.
In the end, however, Truman, who was president from 1945-53, capitulated to the pressures of a burgeoning Zionist lobby that was just beginning to flex its muscle within the Democratic Party.
That is a rough summary of the thesis put forward in John Judis’ Genesis: Truman, American Jews and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict (Farrar Straus Giroux).
Genesis is much more than just a recounting of the period between 1946 and 1948, however. It’s an indictment of those who historically and today supported liberal and progressive causes but remained “oblivious to the rights of Palestine’s Arabs.”
Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic and a contributing editor at The American Prospect, both bastions of liberal opinion.
In the period leading up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Judis distinguished himself from most of his colleagues by upholding the international law principles of sovereignty and self-determination and adamantly opposing the liberal imperialist arguments for intervention in Iraq.
He brings the same insistence on the right of Palestinians to self-determination in this work. What he says “informs this history” is “the idea that an American Jew should be as concerned about the rights of a Palestinian Arab as he is about the rights of an Israeli Jew.”
Although the focus of the book is on the Truman administration’s policies, Judis lays the groundwork with a detailed history of both the European and American Zionist movements, distinguishing between the political Zionists who sought a Jewish state one the one hand, and the cultural or spiritual Zionists on the other.
The latter saw Palestine as a spiritual or cultural homeland for Jews but embraced the notion of a binational state with equal rights for both Arabs and Jews.
The cultural Zionists were a minority within the Zionist movement but eventually came to include such intellectual heavyweights as the educator Judah Magnes, the theologian Martin Buber, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt and the scientist and socialist Albert Einstein.
Judis makes clear that the essence of political Zionism was an “imperial mindset.” Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, “wanted the Jews to buy into the imperial system,” Judis writes. He notes that Herzl sought to create a private firm like the East India Company or the British South Africa Company, which advanced Britain’s imperial goals.
Herzl also used the typical rationalizations of European colonialism in telling his would-be imperial patrons that a Jewish state would be “an outpost of civilization against barbarism.”
Similar language emanated from US Zionists, including the Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, who viewed Palestinians as the equivalent of Native Americans and Jews as American pioneers.
Another Zionist proponent, Boston Herald editor Frank Buxton, said creating a Jewish state was based on the same principle that justified the US annexation of the Southwest from Mexico. Since the United States was the “original settler colony,” it was little wonder that the comparisons would be made, Judis notes. All it required was to overlook the rights of indigenous people.
Truman’s opposition to a Jewish state has been documented in earlier histories and analyses of US foreign policy. This fact, however, has lost prominence in recent years, particularly with David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning and best-selling biography Truman (1992), which is largely a hagiography that glosses over Truman’s initial opposition to the Zionist project.
In this sense Judis’ book is a badly-needed corrective. Judis notes that as late as early May 1948, just weeks before the United States recognized Israel, Truman met with the cultural Zionist Judah Magnes and expressed the hope that there could still be a federated state under a temporary United Nations trusteeship until an arrangement better than partition could be worked out.
Reveled in accolades
Truman also sought the return of Palestinian refugees. US pressure at the time forced Israel to allow 25,000 refugees to return, but Truman never applied the kind of clout needed to make Israel comply with UN Resolution 194, which declared the right of return for Palestine refugees. And in his later years he reveled in the accolades he received from Israeli leaders.
That Truman continually vacillated but nearly always in the end capitulated to the interests of the Zionist lobby is amply documented in Genesis. The lobby’s power and influence is undeniable and Judis makes it clear that its strength lay not in the votes of Jewish Americans but in the campaign donations the Zionist lobby could muster.
In the 1948 elections, Truman lost New York state, the only state where the Jewish vote was significant, but he won the election on the basis of his whistle-stop tour of the Midwest, which was made possible by a vital influx of cash from a Zionist supporter who thereafter enjoyed “unmatched access to the White House.”
Cold War calculations rejected
Judis, however, ultimately neglects Cold War calculations in accounting for US support for Israel after 1948. The State and War departments initially opposed partition and the creation of a Jewish state for fear that it would alienate Arab countries and potentially jeopardize US and European access to Middle Eastern oil, which was needed both for the Marshall Plan and in the event of war with the Soviet Union.
After Israel became a fait accompli, however, both the Pentagon and the state department earnestly embraced Israel. As early as 1949, the Joint Chiefs of Staff suggested that Israel should be viewed as a US strategic asset.
Despite this flaw, Genesis ends on a firm footing, describing Israel as “one of the world’s last colonial powers” and declaring that “the main lesson of this narrative is that whatever wrongs were done to the Jews of Europe and later to those of the Arab Middle East and North Africa — and there were great wrongs inflicted — the Zionists who came to Palestine to establish a state trampled on the rights of the Arabs who already lived there. That wrong has never been adequately addressed, or redressed, and for there to be peace of any kind between the Israelis and Arabs, it must be.”
Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He is active with Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace-Portland Chapter and the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign.
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