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

The book could stand as an introduction to a unique moment in American intellectual and diplomatic history. But Judis’s agenda is a broader, moral one, and he would have done better to make this clear up-front. His disappointment in the earliest Zionists bubbles beneath every page. By his lights, as he says again and again, they failed to live up to their core values. Brandeis’s concern for the dispossessed in America was not matched with concern for Arab peasants in Palestine. The American Zionists of the 1930s and ’40s were labor leaders, early civil rights activists, and fighters for equality, who simply did not see those values as relevant to the struggle between Jews and Arabs. Judis rescues from relative obscurity a pantheon of Zionist thinkers and leaders who favored a cultural, gradual, and/or politically shared return of Jews to Palestine, and who from the earliest days questioned the justice and wisdom of efforts to disenfranchise and even remove Arabs from Palestine. But the story is always the same, whether in the 1890s, 1920s, or 1940s: these thinkers formed a small minority. At least as important, as Judis himself notes repeatedly, their proposals for accommodation and compromise never came to grips with the political realities of either side—whether it was eastern Europeans imagining that Arab peasants would be eager to learn from newly arrived Jewish intellectuals, academics expecting men who had seized power with guns to yield it to British and UN bureaucrats, or Americans confident that if we could just get everyone into a room (sound familiar?) a reasonable solution could be reached. The Israeli writer Ari Shavit writes about the lure of peace in his new book My Promised Land: “It played a vital moral role in our lives, but it had no empirical basis. The promise of peace was benign, but it was bogged down by a systematic denial of the brutal reality we live in.”

Judis tracks the evolution of another swath of American and European leaders, both Jews and Christians, who began with concern for the rights of Jews and Arabs alike and, in the onslaught of the Holocaust or the messiness of reality, saw their concern for Palestinians dwindle and disappear. Rabbi Abba Silver, whom Judis identifies as the father of American Jewish political activism, moved from sympathizing with calls for joint legislative bodies in the 1920s to supporting forced relocation of Arabs by the 1940s. Beyond tracking this evolution, Judis critiques the moral wisdom of Zionist, British, and American decisionmakers several times a chapter—usually in asides or concluding sentences that, for this basically sympathetic reader, had the effect of putting into question the historical impartiality of whatever I had just read.

What Judis’s history and critique don’t offer the reader is any framework for what the role of morality in U.S. foreign policy—toward the conflict or writ large—might be. The American left, of which Judis is an eminent chronicler, has long been in crisis over this point. That crisis is concealed by the right’s much-louder schism over what U.S. foreign policy should be, full stop; but it is real, and paralyzing. A powerful chunk of the liberal establishment has begun to marry a progressive suspicion of U.S. motives with a realist’s skepticism of morality’s role in policymaking: massacres in Syria or the Central African Republic, worker abuse by our Asian trading partners, crackdowns on democracy activists by our Saudi and Bahraini allies? Not core U.S. interests, and what can struggling America do anyway? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict? So last century. As the Washington consensus seems to be, “We can’t want peace more than the parties themselves.”

This response grows from two generational shocks: first, the catastrophic failure of the Iraq intervention to improve measurably the economic, security, or human rights situation of the people and region as liberals, even war opponents like me, believed it could; second, the drift away from enthusiasm for the Zionist project among Millennials documented by Peter Beinart, and the profound disheartenment among their Boomer and Generation X parents. For every Millennial who shrugs and says, “Israel is a state like any other, and it doesn’t concern me,” there is a Gen-Xer who grew up learning in Hebrew school or its liberal Christian equivalent that Israel was a socialist paradise, a miracle of democracy, and an oasis of support for women’s and minority rights—and who was then stunned to learn that the reality was more complicated.

This reviewer struggles to teach her son to reconcile his brave Pilgrim ancestors with the wrongs done to the native Americans they found when they arrived. His dad is justly proud of his great-aunt who was an early president of Hadassah. But my son will also have to know what it meant to other children that this great-aunt visited Brooklyn in the 1940s and told her nieces, “Well, we will accept a partition, but we want all of Palestine.”

No wonder Judis rails about morality. The way he ties together the moral myths of American culture and those of Zionism is a potent indictment of easy moralism but also a profound warning against the idea that any area of public life can be a morality-free zone. Why were those myths so appealing? Why were they successful in driving policy? And why do we cling to them well after they’ve developed cracks? Because they promise a fairer universe where good triumphs over evil, and even the most harrowing catastrophe, like the Holocaust, can be redeemed in a rebirth.

The left will have to come to terms with some key ideas. First, that Americans, and Israelis, and Palestinians too, are like everybody else since the dawn of time: political actors who make choices for a stew of pragmatic, expedient, cynical, and profoundly ethical reasons, usually all at once. Second, that Americans, perhaps more than most, are subject to moral enthusiasms. And, finally, that we make our very worst decisions as a nation when we are certain of our moral virtue (see: Iraq) and our very best when we are uncertain, even a house divided, but explicitly engaged on moral terms and brave enough to bring our principles and our politics together.

Buy this book from Amazon and support Washington Monthly: Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict

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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