Truman’s Folly? | The Nation


Truman’s Folly?

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Harry Truman sits with White House counsel Clark Clifford in Key West in 1949

Harry Truman, left, sits with White House counsel Clark Clifford in Key West in December 1949.

Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict.
By John B. Judis.
Buy This Book.

The month before Goldmann proposed partition, the Kielce pogrom, undertaken in part by soldiers and police officers, occurred in Poland. The only question that mattered to Zionists was how to win control of immigration, and the only plausible answer was independence from the Arab veto, backed by force of arms if necessary. In June, when the Haganah leadership—fearful that Britain would concentrate its regional military in Palestine—ordered elite Palmach units to cooperate with the Irgun and blow up most of the bridges connecting Palestine to neighboring Arab states, Britain conducted a sweep and arrested Palestine’s Jewish Agency leadership. Ben-Gurion escaped arrest only because he was abroad and had renounced armed struggle against the British. In July, however, the Irgun blew up the wing of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel that served as British headquarters; ninety-one people were killed and forty-six injured.

So by the time of Morrison-Grady, both sides—Jews and Arabs—were looking beyond British rule. And each side assumed the other was capable of atrocity. Judis laments the eclipse in this toxic context of various Palestinian moderates who had accommodated themselves to British rule, if not Zionism. Correspondingly, he recalls the moderation of liberal Zionists like Hebrew University president Judah Magnes, whose Ihud movement advanced the idea of a binational state. But the heroes of historians are not necessarily heroes of the rank and file. Advocating on behalf of Morrison-Grady was, indeed, not unlike trying to stall the last stages of childbirth. Again, the one Arab state that had accommodated itself to partition—which was also the one Arab state with a proper British-trained army—was Jordan; Abdullah wanted Old Jerusalem for himself.

* * *

The compression that Judis exerts on facts to mold them into a form fit for readers sick of AIPAC does not end here. Once you make “Zionist pressure” the rogue that foiled potential justice in 1946, it is not much of a stretch to make Zionist ideology a prior, immanent threat. In the end, over 700,000 Arabs were made refugees by the 1948 war. Is it possible that the Arab expulsions were the result of something more than Zionist ideology finally freed from British constraint?

Which brings us back to the first part of the book. Judis carefully teases out various Zionist streams, especially the two main ones, political Zionism and cultural Zionism. I won’t dwell on their rivalry here, as I have in these pages before [see “A Tale of Two Zionisms,” October 15, 2012]. Suffice it to say that Judis distinguishes between them in ways that make the Palestinian Nakba and American Zionism’s current defense of the occupation more fated than would seem warranted if cultural Zionism were more deeply understood.

The political Zionism of Herzl, Judis tells us, was determined to gain a Jewish state. Thus, he writes, political Zionism’s objective “meant ruling over or driving out the Arabs who already lived” in Palestine. Cultural Zionism, by contrast, saw modernity as a kind of solvent for Jewish religious forms and, as its founder Ahad Ha’am put it, sought to “secure refuge for Judaism and a cultural bond of unity for our nation.” Culturalists, moreover, recognized that the land was not empty. For Judis, then, the moral of the story is something like this: statists wanted a Jewish army, a Jewish majority and a sadly necessary ethnic cleansing; culturalists wanted co-existence and, say, a Hebrew University. To want a Jewish state was bad; to not want one, good.

But what culturalists really wanted was to lay the foundations of a Hebrew-speaking civil society; to transform “Jews” from a religious community into a distinct nation in which individuals would be the arbiters of their identity—as moderns must be—yet remain organically connected to Jewish civilization. The question of statehood, or of any political configuration (state, federation, “national home” in the context of the Mandate), was for culturalists of less interest than finding a sustainable form of colonial settlement that would inspire actual immigrants and incubate an inclusive Hebrew culture.

Culturalists were, from the start, open to a Jewish state in principle, but assumed that, if and when the new Jewish nation would be ready for it, the exclusion of Arabs, or any minority, would be no more necessary than, say, the exclusion of Mexicans from California. Ahad Ha’am’s disciples—not just Weizmann, but A.D. Gordon, Ben-Gurion and others who founded the Labor Zionist parties and collectives—worked from the bottom up, not the top down. As Britain backpedaled, they wanted to win control of immigration and land purchase, which is not the same thing as “ruling over or driving out the Arabs.” Judis rightly sees Ben-Gurion’s Labor Zionism, with its kibbutzim, unions and so forth, as the force that actually brought off the revolution on the ground of Palestine, yet identifies it as inherently just another form of exclusivist statism:

The Labor Zionists who came out of Gordon’s ethnocratic nationalism and Ben-Gurion’s nationalist socialism rejected Herzl’s strategy for creating a state…but they accepted his elementary commitment to establishing a Jewish state…. They also accepted Ahad Ha’am’s emphasis on gradually building a Zionist culture that could undergird a Zionist state, but they defined “state” and “nation” in such a way as to exclude Palestine’s Arabs.


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