On Political Books

March/ April/ May 2014 Broken Promised Land

Truman’s quick recognition of Israel was tragic, dysfunctional, and quintessentially American.

By Heather Hurlburt

Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict
by John B. Judis
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 448 pp.

Like many American intellectuals, John B. Judis has experienced decades of dashed hopes about the American role in the Arab/Israeli conflict. Arguably the 370 pages in Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict are too few to hash through all of them: what the role of universalist ethics was, or should have been, in the birthing of Zionism writ large and American Zionism in particular; what role American politics, and the very personal politics of Harry S. Truman, played in the creation of the state of Israel; whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could have been averted; and why the Obama administration’s efforts at peacemaking have fallen so short.

The sheer breadth of material Judis covers, combined with his determination to call out Zionist and American leaders for moral failings, will bring this book in for plenty of criticism. Whatever your area of expertise, you will find some facet of this book that needs more depth or gets some nuance of policy ever so slightly wrong.

Regardless, Judis is a must-read for two bigger questions he raises: Could America, if it chose to, detach itself from the Zionist project? And can the American state do politics and policy coherently? The book is also necessary for two issues he does not explicitly raise: What should be the role of morality in government policy, Israeli or American? And what is the new center for American Jews who concern themselves with the fate of Israel, and find themselves ready to give up the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), but not Zionism?

Judis shows, thoroughly, that the contours and success of Zionist ideology cannot be separated—love it, hate it, or try to ignore it—from Americans’ core myths about ourselves. Who was one of the greatest purveyors of the idea that nineteenth-century Palestine was a desolate, barren place, populated only by a few benighted peasants? Mark Twain. Who wrote that “the situation reminds me of that in America, when the settlers who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony had to protect themselves against the Indians”? Louis Brandeis. Who invested personally in plans that would have given political agency to both Jews and Arabs in Palestine, but gave them up again and again for domestic political exigencies? Harry Truman.

Many readers will know that Truman’s prompt recognition of the state of Israel at its unilateral declaration in 1948 was the new state’s first, and that he was later lionized for it. Fewer will be aware that this was the controversial result of intense domestic lobbying and pressures, explicitly linked within the Truman administration to the upcoming elections. Judis takes the story several levels deeper, documenting Truman’s interest over the preceding two years in finding another outcome—one in which Jews and Arabs would have shared sovereignty, flowing from concern for the status of post-Holocaust Jewish refugees in Europe and his clear understanding that an outcome in which hundreds of thousands of inhabitants were denied political rights would be neither stable nor just. To explain how Truman both came to this conviction and let it be pushed aside, Judis traces similar patterns in the earlier evolution of European and American Zionism: early voices calling for a consensual, negotiated Jewish settlement are pushed aside by both moral arguments (first pogroms, then the Holocaust demand that Jews have a state of their own for safety) and the compelling logic of power. In the process, he describes the evolution of Zionist ideology and political activism in American life. Brandeis and other early figures connected Zionism to the self-image of the American establishment; their successors grew comfortable using those rhetorical tools to connect to large numbers of Jewish and Christian American voters and thus elected officials—and modern ethnic politics, based not on the economic muscle of the old ward bosses, but the ideological sway of a communal identity, were born.

The speed and breadth with which the ideologies became connected in American life—and the emergence of (only in America) mass ethno-cultural lobbying, which Judis documents in fascinating detail—together produced a certain inevitability in policy outcomes. It turns out that Zionism has enjoyed success in American political life not because it is so Jewish, but because it is so American. And while Zionism connects with core American tropes, the Middle East was not core to American national security interests during the early years of the debate. Truman, George Marshall, George Kennan, and all the other postwar diplomacy lions tried to stave off war in Palestine and wrestle with the problem of Jewish and then Palestinian refugees, at the same time they were launching the Marshall Plan and struggling to understand and come to terms with Moscow’s aims, which they perceived as a much higher priority. Truman, like nearly every president since, resisted being pulled into Middle East policy. And, like every president since, he found that American culture and politics forced the region on him anyway.

But what happens to foreign policy issues that are a secondary priority for an American administration? Judis’s look at how signals were missed, policy coherence was sacrificed, and misunderstandings got passed up and down the chain make painful reading for the student or practitioner of American diplomacy—and useful reading even for those who avoid Middle East issues. In the space of three months in 1948, Truman approved a speech by his United Nations ambassador calling for Palestine to stay in UN trusteeship; claimed to have been blindsided by it when it was given; assembled a meeting in which he agreed not to recognize Israel “prematurely”; and then became the first head of state to recognize it, within hours of the May 14, 1948, declaration of independence. Those who are nostalgic for the good old days when experts ran American foreign policy wisely and without political interference will find themselves disabused. Anyone who sets store by the American government being able to plan and carry out multiple international agendas—from any ideological perspective—should find the tale of deception, missed communication, and unwillingness to make hard choices in 1946 to the creation of Israel two years later disheartening. It is right down there, from the standpoint of pure government dysfunction, with George W. Bush’s Iraq debacle and considerably worse than Bill Clinton’s early Yugoslavia missteps (some of which I witnessed up close), or the current agonizing about Obama’s civil-military relations.

Heather Hurlburt directs the New Models of Policy Change project at New America. Her two decades in national security policy include service on Capitol Hill, the State Department, and the Clinton White House.


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