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February 27, 2014 12:53 PM The Battle Over Middle East Policy, and its Genesis

By Ed Kilgore

John Judis’ new book Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, is one of those books that is exhibiting the mixed blessings of arriving on a wave of controversy that will be absorbed and discussed by a lot of people who haven’t actually read it (myself included, though it’s on my short list). While Genesis has received considerable praise as an intense and non-polemical look at the decisions made by Americans (both Zionists and the various factions that contended for control of Middle East policy during the Truman administration) that haunt the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today, it’s also generated some exceptionally strong, even vituperative, criticism, typified by a review from Ronald Radosh in the Jewish Review of Books, who called it “profoundly anti-Zionist” and the work of an amateur.

The fight over Genesis is now reaching a new level after Judis’ colleague at The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier, sent a congratulatory email to Radosh trashing Judis and the book in Weiseltier’s familiar tone of elegant contempt, which was subsequently leaked (apparently with Wieseltier’s consent) and then published by the right-wing Washington Free Beacon. While TNR has long tolerated strong differences of opinion among its writers, I don’t know that they will be able to paper over this one, and it will be interesting to see if Wieseltier’s attack on the widely respected Judis (disclaimer: I consider John a friend, and had only very limited contact with Wieseltier during my days as a TNR “special correspondent”) will be accepted by the relatively new management there.

While this war of words will boost book sales, I hope it won’t obscure its value as a reminder to Americans of the real drama and “paths not taken” involved in Harry Truman’s decision to recognize Israel at the moment of its birth without clear recognition of Palestinian national rights. Before getting too saturated in the debate over Genesis, I urge everyone to read Heather Hurlburt’s review of the book, offered today in a sneak preview from the March/April issue of the Washington Monthly.

Hurlburt’s basic judgment is that this or that quibble over Judis’ account should not obscure the crucial questions it raises:

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?

But Hurlburt’s review (and Genesis itself) emphasizes the extent to which the battle in U.S. governing circles over Middle East policy, in Truman’s day and now, reflected and was eventually dominated by a projection of American ideas about nationalism and morality, more than the ethnic politics of the issue that are typically assigned center stage:

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.

Zionists themselves, Judis passionately contends in Hurlburt’s account of the book, made agonizing decisions about whether or not (mostly not) to recognize the rights and aspirations of Palestinians, that are worth revisiting by friends of Israel and of peace today. In that sense, all the controversy may well be fruitful. But as Hurlburt argues, this controversy should be of great interest to anyone concerned about the perpetual battle between moral and “realist” security concerns in the formulation of U.S. foreign policy. Her review, like Genesis itself, is a must-read.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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