The Moment of Creation

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On May 12, 1948, President Harry Truman convened a tense Oval Office meeting. In less than three days, Britain would leave Palestine, where civil war already raged between Jews and Arabs. Clark Clifford, Truman’s special counsel, argued the position of American Zionist organizations and Democratic politicians: The president should announce that he would recognize a Jewish state even before it was established. Secretary of State George Marshall was incensed. “I don’t even know why Clifford is here,” Marshall said. “He is a domestic advisor, and this is a foreign policy matter.”

Marshall was asking for an impossible division. Foreign policy and domestic politics can’t be kept apart in a democracy, nor should they be. But this incident, described in John Judis’s Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, shows that the question of whether U.S. policy toward Israel is captive to a special-interest group has existed even longer than Israel has. The densely researched core of the book follows Truman’s decisions at the moment of creation—of Israel and of U.S. involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Judis shows how American Zionist leaders and sympathetic officials swayed the president to support partition of Palestine and establishment of Israel, against his preference for a single political entity for Arabs and Jews.

The author thus proves his explicit thesis: The lobbying efforts of American Zionists tilted American policy, to the detriment of Palestine’s Arabs. Yet the story also has additional, half-stated lessons about when a domestic pressure group can most influence foreign policy—when the president is indecisive; when none of the available policy options is attractive; when the best options require a greater investment than the president wants to make; and when the administration is distracted by challenges elsewhere. In this case, policy was further distorted by Truman’s misunderstanding of Zionism, a misunderstanding that colors American discourse about Israel even today and tints this book as well.


In the summer of 1945, Palestine was one more crisis facing America’s unready president. Britain had originally ruled Palestine based on the promise of the 1917 Balfour Declaration to turn it into a “national home for the Jewish people,” ignoring the national aspirations of the land’s Arab majority. In 1939, Britain switched direction, promising an independent Arab state and drastically limiting Jewish immigration just as European Jews were desperately seeking a refuge. At the war’s end, most of Europe’s Jews had been murdered. But tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors in DP (displaced persons) camps wanted to reach Palestine, and the Zionist movement demanded an independent Jewish state. By autumn, the British faced a full-scale Jewish rebellion.

Truman’s contradictory impulses were both personal and political, Judis writes. Identifying with the “little man,” the president sought to help Jewish DPs. But he opposed the idea of a state based on a religion, which is how he saw a Jewish state. Key White House officials were pro-Zionist, while the State Department measured Middle East policy in terms of oil and the Cold War. Wallace Murray, head of State’s Office of Near East and African Affairs under President Franklin Roosevelt, had warned that endorsing “Zionist objectives may well result in throwing the entire Arab world into the hands of the Soviet Union.” Loy Henderson, Murray’s successor under Truman, shared that fear.

Meanwhile, each report on the Holocaust rallied more American Jews to Zionism. The central figure in American Zionism, Abba Hillel Silver, was a Cleveland-based Reform rabbi who’d become a supporter of Jewish statehood after the Nazis came to power in Germany. By 1945, he was the leader of both the American Zionist Emergency Council, created during the war, and the Zionist Organization of America. Besides organizing mass rallies and letter-writing campaigns, Silver skillfully played off the political parties, gaining Republican backing for pro-Zionist positions, then pushing Democrats to exceed their rivals. Truman and the Democrats, with their political standing precarious, could not risk losing Jewish votes in key states.

So Truman oscillated. In the summer and fall of 1945—moved by the horrifying conditions in DP camps and by the upcoming New York mayoral race, seen by both political parties as nationally significant—he publicly called for letting “as many of the Jews into Palestine as possible.” At the same time, he told the press that he didn’t want to send “500,000 American soldiers … to make peace.” It wasn’t clear whether he thought that U.S. troops would be needed if a Jewish state were established or that even his own immigration proposal might be too explosive.

But Britain—bankrupt at home, reeling in Palestine—wanted U.S. involvement. British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin convinced Truman to set up a joint Anglo-American committee to investigate the DP problem.  The committee took testimony in Washington, London, Arab capitals, and Jerusalem and visited the camps in Europe. Its April 1946 report roughly fit Truman’s position: Allow the entry of 100,000 Jews and leave Palestine under British rule, recast as a U.N. trusteeship. Establishing an independent state in any form, the committee warned, “would result in civil strife” between Jews and Arabs “such as might threaten the peace of the world.”

That July, Truman’s emissary Henry Grady and British Deputy Prime Minister Herbert Morrison drafted recommendations for implementing the committee report. They introduced a major new element: The trusteeship would be a federal regime, with Palestine divided into autonomous provinces. One would be Jewish, one Arab. Jerusalem and the Negev would be separate provinces. The 100,000 DPs would enter the small Jewish district. But the central government—that is, the British—would have the last word on further immigration and would control defense and foreign affairs.

Silver labeled the proposed Jewish province a “ghetto” and the American Zionist Emergency Council launched a letter-writing campaign to the White House. Democratic politicians warned of electoral disasters. At a cabinet meeting, Truman looked at a four-inch stack of telegrams and complained, “Jesus Christ couldn’t please [the Jews] when he was here on earth, so how could anyone expect that I would have any luck?” He then abandoned the Morrison-Grady plan.

The pattern was set. In 1947, a U.N. committee recommended dividing Palestine between a Jewish and Arab state and assigned the majority of the land to the Jewish minority. Truman, still preferring the federal plan, submitted to American Zionist pressure and voted for partition in the General Assembly. He continued to zigzag up to and after his recognition of Israel. In public memory, he was a champion of Jewish statehood. In reality, Judis tells us, Truman let the pro-Zionist lobby shape a policy he disliked.

Yet there are clues in this story to circumstances that magnified the lobby’s influence. One was Truman’s character. In Judis’s depiction, the famous sign on Truman’s desk, “The Buck Stops Here,” described the president’s aspiration, not his behavior.

In Truman’s defense, his administration’s overwhelming foreign-policy challenge was the Cold War. There was little attention left for Palestine. All of Truman’s options were bad. No historian can say what would have happened if America had stuck to the Morrison-Grady plan. Prima facie, though, none of the proposals for Palestine had a chance of being peacefully implemented without a large outside military force. America was demobilizing its wartime army. A critical concern was to avoid putting U.S. troops on the ground.

In theory, Truman could have separated his commitment to Holocaust survivors from the Palestine issue by opening America’s gates. Politically, that was impossible. Judis records a brief attempt to allow more refugees into the United States. The House of Representatives rewrote the bill to reduce drastically the number of Jews who qualified. Meanwhile, the number who needed refuge soared far beyond 100,000, as anti-Semitic violence met Eastern European Jews who tried returning to their former homes. As Tony Judt wrote in his epic Postwar, this was part of the much larger ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe after World War II: Hungary expelled Slovaks to Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria expelled Turks to Turkey, and so on. With explicit American acquiescence, Czechoslovakia expelled nearly three million Germans to Germany. The Jews were unusual only in that they had nowhere to go. Eventually, Judt records, 332,000 settled in Israel; just half that were admitted to Western countries. In this sense, Palestinian Arabs did suffer for the West’s sins, including American nativism.

Truman continued to lament that Zionist pressure prevented implementation of the Anglo-American and Morrison-Grady proposals. This appears true—but also sounds like someone who chose one bad alternative, idealized the equally poor path he rejected, and passed the buck for the decision. Morrison and Grady designed a colonial protectorate on the eve of colonialism’s collapse. The first reason that the Anglo-American Committee gave for overruling Arab and Jewish demands for self-determination was “the great interest of the Christian World in Palestine.” This sounds suspiciously like imperialism for religious purposes.

There’s an irony here. As Judis regularly reminds us, Truman didn’t want religion mixed in politics and so opposed a Jewish state just as he would oppose a “Protestant or Catholic state.” If Truman had any objection to the ethnonational states established in Europe after World War I, such as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia (originally the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes), we do not learn about it here. In their day, Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points had called clearly for creating such states. For Zionists, a Jewish state would be a nation-state.

But Truman saw Jews as constituting a religion. In America, the word “Jew” belongs to the same category as “Catholic” or “Protestant.” This is a historically recent narrowing of the word’s meaning, as political scientist Charles Liebman explained in his essential 1973 work The Ambivalent American Jew. Before the 19th century, Liebman wrote, Jewishness melded what we would call “ethnicity, nationality, culture, and religion.” As Jews entered general society in Western Europe and America, they defined themselves as a religion, since it was still an acceptable way to sustain a separate identity. They squeezed themselves into the hegemonic categories of the majority society. Judis describes one particularly sharp example of this constriction of Jewish self-definition, the case of American Reform Judaism in the 19th century. The Reform movement’s 1885 declaration of principles, known as the Pittsburgh Platform, stated, “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community.” Take note of the words “no longer”: The Reform rabbis who wrote the platform knew that they were shedding what had previously been a basic element of Jewish self-definition.

Curiously, though, Judis describes the Jews throughout their previous history as constituting only a religion. From the first millennium CE, he writes, Palestine was known to Jews, like Christians, as the “holy land.” Their connection to it, in his depiction, was both purely religious and attenuated—“most Jews accepted the Diaspora as an enduring condition”—and if they expected to return, it was only by a “Messianic act of God.” When Judis does describe how Jews in late-19th-century Eastern Europe began to define themselves as a nation, he still portrays their assertion of a right of return to Palestine as only a religious claim.

This is a picture of the Jewish past squeezed into contemporary American concepts. Historically, Jews understood themselves not just as a religious community but also as a people. The Hebrew word poorly translated into English as “conversion” denoted adoption into a “kinship,” a family with a faith, as scholars Avi Sagi and Zvi Zohar explain in their study of the subject, Transforming Identity. “Holy land” was a medieval addition to Hebrew, infrequently used, almost certainly an import from Christian tongues. The common Hebrew term was “Land of Israel.” Since “Israel” was a synonym for Jews and Jewish, it meant Land of the Jews. The common term for where Jews actually lived was “Exile.” Yiddish used the same names. The sense of being a nation, disempowered and displaced from its physical home, was fundamental to Jewish culture. Exile was not an “enduring condition” but a condition to be endured. Jews indeed awaited God’s intervention to return to their homeland, because effecting such a radical change appeared beyond human ability.

Zionism began as another constriction of Jewishness to fit hegemonic categories—in this case, the accepted division of people into nationalities within Eastern Europe’s multinational empires. In contrast to Western Jews who declared that Jewish nationhood was obsolete, most of Zionism’s founders and leaders saw religion as the archaic element that must be discarded. Whatever the cost of downsizing Jewishness and pensioning off God, it did encourage Jews to get about the business of repatriation to their homeland on their own. In the bracing spirit of modern revolutions, people could rise up and change their condition.

Fundamentally, then, the Jewish-Palestinian conflict is a classic dispute between two national communities. Understanding the nature of the conflict does not mean excusing brutal actions that both sides have taken. It does not, for example, provide a moral basis for Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank. It does explain why a two-state arrangement is the best bad plan yet suggested for a resolution.

Denial of the other’s identity is basic to the dispute. At its start, Zionism ignored the existence of Palestinian Arabs. Long afterward, the standard Israeli narrative denied that Palestinians were a nation. The classic Palestinian narrative insists that Jews are only a religious community, not a national one. Genesis provides historical background that largely follows the Palestinian narrative, sometimes with an anger that detracts from analysis. Judis concludes with a plea “to redress [the] moral balance” in American policy toward the conflict. This is certainly a pressing need. Neither balance nor justice and peace will be served by replacing one incomplete narrative with an equally incomplete narrative.


That said, Judis builds a compelling account, based in large part on documents from the time, of Truman’s tortured and tortuous policy decisions and of the pressure successfully exerted by American Zionists. The story, Judis argues, is significant not only in itself but for what it foreshadowed. From the time Truman dropped the Morrison-Grady plan, he had no solution of his own, but was buffeted between competing plans from the Zionist movement and his own State Department. In the end Truman would accede to Zionist pressure. … A pattern had been established that would prevail for the rest of the century.

Indeed, Genesis asserts, that pattern continued at least through the first term of Barack Obama, as he abandoned Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and blocked the bid for U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state. Just as Silver rejected compromises endorsed by more pragmatic Zionist leaders in Palestine, latter-day “pro-Israel” lobbyists have at times been discomfited by Israeli leaders who pursued peace agreements. With Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister, though, the vicarious hawks in Washington have faced no such dissonance.

The book’s afterword predicts that Obama’s second term will continue to follow the pattern and that the president is unlikely to exert American power to achieve an Israeli--Palestinian peace agreement. But the central story of Genesis is about how domestic politics changed foreign policy. The lesson should be to organize rather than to despair. When Obama, his secretary of state, and other advisers meet to discuss whether to press on with American peace efforts, a flood of e-mails demanding that the president do so would be valuable.

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