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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 history of Palestine and of Israel’s founding cannot be changed,” John B. Judis writes at the end of Genesis, “and it is silly to play games of what-if. But it is not silly to draw lessons from the past that are relevant to the present and the future.” Judis is a keen political observer, and the many lessons offered in his new book deserve our attention. But he divines some of them, in spite of his better judgment, by asking “what if,” insinuating the possibility of a better presidential decision and exploring why it was not taken—much as Gar Alperovitz did in The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb. At its best, Genesis is this kind of imaginative mulligan. And the decision Judis would want to do over is also Harry Truman’s, namely his determination to bury the Morrison-Grady plan during the summer of 1946, which led, Judis argues, to an unworkable partition, the premature recognition of Israel—and endless war.

You probably haven’t heard of the Morrison-Grady plan, but you may have read angry denunciations of Genesis in The Wall Street Journal, The Jerusalem Post or Commentary claiming that Judis questions the legitimacy of Israel. This is wrong and, given Judis’s obvious empathy for Israelis as well as Palestinians, also reckless. What Judis explores in the Truman administration’s serial decisions about Palestine is an illuminating analogue to the record of, most recently, the Obama administration’s approach to the peace process. What’s “relevant to the present and the future” is Judis’s supposition that any Israeli-Palestinian settlement will require American steadfastness, and that presidential fairness toward the Palestinians, as with Truman, may be foiled by the incessant agitations of the Israel lobby, promoting Zionist excesses.

The danger for any historian writing with these ambitions is that the more intentional the analogy, the more calculated the history. To tell a story for the sake of its moral is to tell it slanted. The latter part of Judis’s book constitutes a detailed, absorbing study of Truman’s attempts to deal with the interests of American Zionist organizations and their leaders, and the electoral politics and Cold War pressures of the late 1940s. Here and there I thought Judis rash in his criticism of American Zionist leaders or obstinate about the importance of the back-room pressures they exerted—but never mind. Had these chapters stood on their own, they would have formed a provocative, learned, even masterful book.

The first part is another matter. Judis wants to explain the prehistory of these pressures, so he describes the origins of revolutionary Zionism and the record of the British Mandate, up to the time a more vicarious American Zionism took root in the 1930s. Judis offers some fine portraits of early American Zionist leaders like Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis as well as a reasonable summary of the growing war between the Zionist colonists and the Arabs of Palestine, a conflict precipitated by contradictions in British policy. But on the whole, his version of Zionist ideas, congresses and settlement policies—the disruptive force in this history—serves his argument about Truman rather too conveniently.

Ironically, Judis’s presentation of Zionism suffers from some of the same imaginative limitations he attributes to the American Zionists. He assumes that leading advocates for the Jewish “national home”—from Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organization, to David Ben-Gurion, the preeminent founding leader of Labor Zionism and Israel’s first prime minister—were intent all along on founding an exclusivist “Jewish state,” one that justified itself by claiming a world of intractable anti-Semitism and that required, almost by definition, the suppression or expulsion of Palestine’s Arabs.

By implication, Israel’s democratic deficiencies and post-1967 occupation were prefigured by the Zionist movement’s original intent: every Zionist leader of note had a little Sheldon Adelson inside struggling to get out. This part of Judis’s story, as Marx said of the Young Hegelians, supposes that men drown because they are possessed of the idea of gravity. It is a charge he can’t prove in an indictment that would have been stronger without it.

* * *

By the fall of 1945, the issue of Palestine remained explosive and unresolved. The Arab revolt, which had begun in 1936 and was crushed by British forces by 1939, had left the Palestinian leadership exhausted or expelled and many ordinary Arabs burning with hatred for the British occupation. To the Palestinians and the neighboring Arab countries shaped by European colonial rule since 1917, the Balfour Declaration’s promise to Zionism was a bone pushed down their throats. By 1937, the Arab world had organized in support of the Mufti; by 1946, the Mufti, though in exile after supporting Hitler, had regained control of a fractious Arab Higher Committee—by then, the default political voice of the Arabs of Mandate Palestine. The Palestinians supposed that those Arab states that had achieved a measure of independence could halt Zionist colonization, but only if the British finally departed. They were firmly opposed to the immigration even of the 100,000 Jews remaining in European displaced-persons camps.

 

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