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Truman’s Folly? | The Nation

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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.

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

The expulsions in Lydda and Ramla could be attributed as much to the fog of war as to any ideology. The more important question Judis raises (as I have myself in The Hebrew Republic) is not whether Palestinian Arabs fled or were pushed, but why they were not allowed to return. But is it enough to say that Zionism was simply having its way? Judis writes, in this context, about Silver authorizing a press campaign; one American Zionist flack “penned an op-ed in The Christian Science Monitor recommending Iraq as a good site for the Palestinian Arabs,” as if transfer was second nature to Zionist leaders. He writes about the immediate expropriations of Palestinian Arab property. But a few pages later, without appreciating the irony, Judis writes that a substantial number of Jews began entering Israel from Arab countries after 1948, owing to persecution; he might have added that, by the end of 1951, about 120,000 Jews were expelled from Iraq. These expulsions were undertaken, he writes, “in retaliation for what had been done to the Palestinians.” The Arabs of Lydda and Ramla were not expelled because of what had been done to the Jews; they were expelled because of “Zionism.”

* * *

I am not sure what Genesis gains, other than a kind of dramatic coherence, by depicting historical Zionism in just this way. Judis wants the occupation to end, the Obama administration to act and AIPAC’s rhetoric to be challenged—as he should. But “Zionism” does not explain what happened in postwar Palestine, nor does the Zionist lobbying of people like Silver explain why so many influential American politicians and artists—from Senator Taft to Pete Seeger—urged American help to get the Jewish state off the ground. Most Americans, reasonably enough, thought that Zionists were fighting for the greater part of justice—and their lives. This is a far cry from Bibi mobilizing his plutocrat friends, spinning Jewish pathos to deflect attention from the West Bank settlements.

Judis catches himself at the end of his book, insisting that, in telling the story the way he has, he does not mean to leave the impression that Truman could have easily forced a binational solution, or that Ben-Gurion could have been “more amenable to compromise,” or that the Palestinians should have turned from the Mufti. Judis insists that his key point is that the Palestinians were wronged in a way that can be righted now. Fair enough.

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But I’d argue that Judis, whose distaste for political violence is evident throughout, is making a bigger, better point about this conflict, though without quite acknowledging it. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, in his remarkable book The Culture of Defeat, gives cause to reconsider whether, for instance, the awful violence of the American Civil War precipitated such a torrent of suffering—not just the war deaths, but the 100 years of Jim Crow inflicted by a desolate, recalcitrant South—that the war to abolish slavery might have finally done more harm than good; whether slavery might well have been abolished anyway in a generation or two owing to Northern industrialization, and avoiding war might have been more visionary. Judis’s Genesis makes us rethink not only whether extending the Mandate, or a UN trusteeship, might have been possible and just, but also whether war ever does anything but confound the defensible revolutionary ends for which it is fought.

Yet the answer to that question is not obviously negative. Judis might have been clearer—not just in his book’s conclusion, but in its structure—about the baby being born when it had to be, and that the timing of its birth cannot be brought as evidence against its adult offenses. Understanding Israel’s founding in 1948 as a necessary event with tragic consequences, and not as a presidential mistake forced by political pressure, will not make Obama less wary of AIPAC or his relationship with Netanyahu less tortured. But it could make his tact more obviously noble.

Read Next: Nadia Hijab’s review of Max Blumenthal’s Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel

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