Thursday’s New Republic features a major article by John B. Judis, “Seeds of Doubt: Harry Truman’s concerns about Israel and Palestinians were prescient-and forgotten,” which pulls together material from his new book. My review of his book will appear in a forthcoming issue of The Jewish Review of Books, so I will only briefly comment on this article.
Both in this essay and in his book, Judis joins writers like Max Blumenthal and the BDS movement in attacking Israel and questioning its right to exist. Nevertheless, Judis makes assertions in the TNR excerpt that deserve attention, because they show how he uses history not to learn from the past, but for current political purposes. In this case, he uses history to bolster his belief that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East should tilt towards the Arabs rather than Israel, and that Israel itself was created “against the opposition of its neighbors” and hence plays a “destabilizing” role — and is “a threat to America’s standing in the region.”
Judis argues that Harry S. Truman, who recognized Israel upon its creation in May 1948, not only opposed the creation of a Jewish state, but even after he recognized it, privately expressed regret and blamed his actions on the Zionist lobby in the United States. Judis has disdain for the “Zionist lobby,” which he seems to equate with the vast majority of American Jews and non-Jewish Americans who overwhelmingly supported the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine at the end of World War II.
Judis dismisses evidence that Truman was a Christian Zionist influenced by his religious upbringing and study of the Bible. Not so, says Judis: Truman’s supposed love for the Bible was “based on his flawed eyesight. The family Bible, with its extra large print, was one of the few books at home the young Truman could read.”
Even if this was the case, large print or not, Truman read the Bible many times, studied it profusely, and knew much of it by heart. From it, he developed a sympathetic view of Palestine as the eternal homeland of the Jews, to which they would someday return. When he suddenly became president after FDR’s death, he assigned other areas of foreign policy to the State Department, but felt competent to handle the issue of Palestine from the White House. Visitors were amazed when he took out a well-worn map of the area and was familiar with its geography and history.
Judis, however, claims that Truman “had little knowledge of Palestine.”
Most importantly, Judis gives far too much importance to Truman’s supposed endorsement of the Morrison-Grady Plan. (I cover this in detail in my forthcoming review.) He attributes its defeat, once again, to the “Zionist lobby.” Judis barely acknowledges that the Arab League and its representatives were just as opposed to the plan as the Palestinian Jews in the Yishuv — and omits that its members refused to even sit down to discuss it in London if there were any Jews who would be participating.
Judis repeats the widely held charge that Truman eventually supported the creation of Israel because of the Democratic Party’s need to obtain Jewish votes. He ignores that public opinion polls at the time established that the American public overwhelmingly favored support for a Jewish state, including states in which no or hardly any Jews lived. British Ambassador to the U.S. Lord Inverchapel was amazed to hear a speech by Democratic Senator Edwin Johnson — the British supposed that support for the creation of a Jewish state was confined to areas of the U.S. where a lot of Jews lived, yet Johnson was from Colorado, which, as Inverchapel reported home to the prime minister, did not “contain any appreciable Jewish population.”
The role of public opinion in the United States was explained well by a member of the Anglo-American Committee, established to investigate a solution for Palestine. Richard Crossman, a British Laborite, was highly offended by the kind of cynical arguments about Truman’s motivation, which Judis repeats. Crossman said:
It was easy to make jibes about the votes in New York and to insult the President. … But if we had a million Jews in this country, our Cabinet might have been slightly more careful to keep their election pledges. Do not let us attack American politicians for what we ourselves would have done … anyone reckless enough to take the word of a State Department official who thought that he would wangle the White House into letting down the Jews cannot have had much experience and should not believe it.
Yet, contrary to Judis’ depiction of Truman as a hostage to the “Zionist lobby,” he did not hesitate to make decisions that he thought were in the national interest even though they might hurt Democrats with their Jewish constituents. When the Democratic candidate for governor of Connecticut, Chester Bowles, asked Truman to make a Yom Kippur announcement that he would grant de jure recognition to Israel, he rejected doing so. Bowles argued during the 1948 campaign that such a step was necessary, because it was rumored Dewey was about to come out favoring such recognition, and he told Truman that the issue was important in Connecticut and the Democrats could lose the state.
As for Judis’ preference for a federated Palestine or a bi-national Arab-Jewish state, this proposal of a small group of Jewish intellectuals like Judah Magnes and Martin Buber had hardly any support, and none whatsoever among Arabs.
That Judis believes it was a viable alternative is a fantasy. It was a concept that was dead upon arrival.
Truman supported partition not because of the Zionist lobby, but because he thought it was the best way to avoid war, to strengthen the U.S. vis-à-vis the Soviets, and because its implementation was his own position and that of the majority of his countrymen.
Finally, the most glaring omission in Judis’ article is the response of the Arab states to Israel’s creation, and why the Palestinians do not have a state of their own today.
In 1947, the United Nations voted that there should be a Jewish state and an Arab state created in Palestine. The Jews embraced building a state and accepted partition, while the Palestinian leadership rejected that task and joined with neighboring Arab states to destroy Israel.
Nor does Judis mention the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab lands, a greater number than the Arabs who fled Palestine at the time. These Jewish refugees were forced out of places they and their ancestors had lived in for centuries, and were subject to pogroms unless they left.
It is clear that John Judis believes Israel should not have been created and has no right to exist. His article and his forthcoming book must be viewed as part of the effort to isolate and to do away with Israel.
Readers interested in finding out what led Truman to recognize Israel should consult the book I co-authored with my wife Allis Radosh, A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel.