Ron Radosh

A Poor Historian Tries to Make a Case for the US Breaking with Israel: Where He Goes Wrong

Writing at the Daily Beast, historian Thaddeus Russell tries to make the case for the United States breaking its special relationship with Israel, which until Barack Obama, has been maintained by all the American presidents since the days of Harry S. Truman and Israel’s creation. Under various administrations, differences over policy have occurred, and some administrations were more responsive to Israel’s needs than others. But no American president dared try to break completely with Israel and move U.S. policy into the orbit of the Arab states.

On the eve of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the White House, the Obama administration seems to be on the verge of casting Israel off to the hinterlands, or at least, upping the pressure upon it. As David Frum points out, Obama is about set to bail out on Israel.

By deciding to pressure Israel to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, while easing up pressure on Iran at the same time, the United States is making its new priorities quite clear. Over one year ago, the first rate correspondent Eli Lake wrote: “President Obama’s efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons threaten to expose and derail a 40-year-old secret U.S. agreement to shield Israel’s nuclear weapons from international scrutiny, former and current U.S. and Israeli officials and nuclear specialists say.”

Today, Lake reports that “the White House has declined to publicly affirm commitments made by President Bush to Israel in 2004 on the final borders of the Jewish state.” So that tomorrow, when PM Netanyahu finally gets to what was supposed to be a more cordial and productive meeting, he will face a president who is determined to do all he can to put the screws on Israel. The heart of the dispute is over land in Jerusalem. Lake explains: “The Arab League peace proposal says the border should be along the 1949 armistice lines and include the complete withdrawal of Israeli settlements in the territory that the Jewish state won in the 1967 war. The 2004 letter from Mr. Bush directly contradicts the Arab League position.” In that letter, President Bush assured Israel that “a final peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians should reflect ‘new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers,’ and that ‘it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.’”

It is in this atmosphere that Prof. Russell, who teaches at  Occidental College in California, has sought to explain why it was wrong for the Truman administration to recognize the Jewish State in the first place. First, Russell says no one ever asks what he says is the essential question: “Does the existence of Israel make Americans and Jews safer?”

Prof. Russell doesn’t do anyone a service by conflating so many different historical and contemporary issues. By “Jews” does he mean the Jews who live in Israel, or those who live in other countries?  He certainly isn’t addressing the safety of the Jews living through the Inquisition, pogroms, or the Holocaust.  He seems to be unaware of the desperate demand by the remnant of European Jewry in DP camps at the end of World War II to go to Palestine, because they knew they would not be safe in the countries of their homeland, like Poland. He might, for starters, read the op-ed that appeared a few weeks ago by Richard Cohen, who pointed out the following:

The mini-Holocaust that followed the Holocaust itself is not well-known anymore, but it played an outsize role in the establishment of the state of Israel. It was the plight of Jews consigned to Displaced Persons camps in Europe that both moved and outraged President Harry Truman, who supported Jewish immigration to Palestine and, when the time came, the new state itself. Something had to be done for the Jews of Europe. They were still being murdered…. For the surviving Jews of Eastern Europe, there was no going home — and no staying, either. Europe was hostile to them, not in the least appalled or sorry about what had just happened.

In our book, A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel, we cite in particular the moving testimony  of one survivor, a woman named Branda Kalk. Asked what she wanted for herself by one of the many investigating committees sent by the UN to survey the situation among the DP’s, Kalk told them: “I want to go to Palestine. I know the conditions there. But where in the world is it good for the Jew? Sooner or later he is made to suffer. In Palestine, at least, the Jews fight together for their life and their country.” She learned that lesson the hard way. The Germans had killed her husband in1942, and she escaped to Russia. Returning to Poland after the war, her entire family — eight children and eighteen grandchildren — were killed by Poles in a pogrom.

Russell’s second argument is that “it’s difficult to credibly sustain the argument that Arab terrorism is spawned by Islam’s alleged promotion of violence … or by a  ‘natural’ Arab anti-Semitism.” But historian Jeffrey Herf argues in a new interview that, beginning in 1928 with the creation of Islamism by Hassan al-Bana,  there was “created an interpretation of Islam that redefined it as an inherently anti-Semitic religious tradition. They took anti-Jewish stories and quotations from the Koran and Hadith that had been marginal in the past and made them central to their understanding of Islam.” It is the adoption of this ideology that led them to oppose partition in 1947 and a Jewish State in 1948, and to go to war against it. This was their attitude years before any U.S. action to give Israel arms to be used for defense.

The real story is documented in Efraim Karsh’s new book, Palestine Betrayed, which Russell obviously has not read — if indeed he has read anything about these issues at all. Karsh shows that at first, the Arab majority welcomed and had no objection to Jewish settlements. Emir Faisal ibn Hussein of Mecca, hero of the so-called Great Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, wrote: “We Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement … and we regard [their demands] as moderate and proper. We will do our best … to help them through: we will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home.”

That this did not turn out to be the case has to do with the Islamists and the decision of a minority of the authoritarian leaders of the Arab and Palestinian community in Palestine, what Karsh calls “a small fraction of Palestinian Arabs,” to provoke violence.  As Karsh points out, “Had the vast majority of Palestinian Arabs been left to their own devices, they would most probably have been content to get on with their lives and take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the growing Jewish presence in the country.” As we know, this was not to be.

Russell looks back favorably on what he calls “the anti-Israel faction in the White House,” whom he argues were ignored although they had “facts” on their side. He says that “very few Americans today are aware that the question of American and Jewish self-interest was first raised at the time of Israel’s founding by officials in the highest levels of the U.S. government,” and he favorably cites “several members of Harry Truman’s cabinet” whom he says “predicted that the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East would spur Arab violence against Jews and Americans, advising the president to shun Israel.”

He, and anyone interested, should carefully read A Safe Haven, since we discuss at length the State Department’s opposition, the arguments they raised, and the answers given at the time that persuaded Truman to stand up to them. The issue was what would the US do on May 14, 1948, when the British as promised ended the Mandate and left Palestine, if the Yishuv (the Jews in Palestine) declared their own State.

What the State Department and especially people like Secretary of State George Marshall,  George F. Kennan, and Loy Henderson argued was that Israel could not win against invading Arab armies, and that if America stood with the new state, American troops would have to be sent in or they would lose to the Arabs.

Then they also came up with other disingenuous arguments. U.S. prestige would be lost, the U.S. would lose vital military bases and access to Middle East oil, the Arabs would turn against the United States forever, reconstruction of Western Europe would be threatened, and in terms of the Cold War, the Soviets would gain entrée into the region as the new Jewish state would be pro-Soviet or even become an actual Soviet puppet. Finally, Henderson and Kennan  even claimed that one result would be new “anti-Jewish agitation” in America, as the public would blame the Jews for the problems and American Jews would be viewed as “an alien political force.”

In answer to this assault, Clark Clifford wrote to Truman that the U.S. could not go back on its support of partition taken in November of 1947. The State Department’s opposition, he told the president, was “completely fallacious.” The U.S. had to be held to is word, and would be seen as “drifting helplessly” had Truman gone back on his support for both a Jewish and Arab state in old Mandate Palestine.  Our oil supplies would not be affected, he assured the president. Those opposing a Jewish state were the same people who “never wanted partition to succeed and who have been determined to sabotage it.” If the United States were not firm, he argued, other nations like the Soviet Union would treat America with “contempt in light of our shilly-shallying appeasement of the Arabs.”

Russell even argues that Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan because the Palestinian murderer said he killed him in protest of JFK’s pro-Israel policies. According to his logic, the U.S. should not have supported Israel, and Sirhan Sirhan would not have become so angry that he killed the former attorney general.

The lack of logic is shocking. One might as well write that if it wasn’t for those nasty Poles, we wouldn’t have had to fight Hitler and lose 250,000 Americans, or if it weren’t for the black slaves we wouldn’t have lost 600,000 Americans in the Civil War, or if we had just let Saddam swallow Kuwait and Saudi Arabia there would be no fatwas against the “crusaders.”

Russell’s argument comes down to this: blame our problems on those who do not do what our enemies want.  He believes, as he makes clear when he cites the 1998 World Islamic Front statement, that all terrorism comes from U.S. support of what the WIF called “the Jews’ petty state.”  Well, it is not so petty, and turning against it will only strengthen our enemies.

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