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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.