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On July 26—the ninth day of the Israel Defense Forces' ground invasion of the Gaza Strip—Israelis stage an anti-war protest, lighting candles in memory of victims of the conflict. (Lior Mizrahi / Getty)

Why John Judis’ ‘Genesis’ Matters

Judis’ history of Zionism in America is directly relevant to the Obama administration’s relationship with Israel.

BY Jerome Slater

As was entirely predictable, even such a balanced and meticulously researched work has already brought forth a storm of bitter and even ad hominum criticism.

The argument

Earlier this year, John Judis, longtime writer for the New Republic and a founding editor of In These Times, published a major historical work whose title accurately describes the scope and central theme of the book: Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). Written with Judis’ characteristic flair, elegance and perceptiveness, Genesis will become an indispensable work not only for its discussion and argument about the early years of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, but also for its analytical history of Zionism in America, to which most of the chapters in the book are devoted. Moreover, Judis’ work is directly relevant to the overall story of the U.S. government’s relations with Israel in general, and of the Obama administration in particular.

Judis’ central argument is that Harry Truman, while sympathetic to the plight of the Jews after the Holocaust and their need to find a homeland and place of refuge in Palestine, also thought that for reasons both of moral justice and strategic concerns over U.S. national interests in the Middle East, it was necessary to reach a solution that would be fair to the Palestinians. The best solution, Truman thought—and this is clearly Judis’ own preference—would have been the establishment not of the Jewish state of Israel but of some kind of binational Jewish-Palestinian state or federation.

Such a solution in 1948 would have meant that the Jews would have been the minority in the new state, and for that reason it was bitterly opposed by the Zionist movements in Palestine and the United States. Faced with this difficult decision, Judis argues—persuasively supported by the highly detailed evidence he has assembled—Truman backed down from his own moral and strategic preferences. Facing the presidential national election of 1948, in which he was the underdog, Truman and his political advisers overrode the strong objections of the State and Defense Departments and reluctantly bowed to political realities—foreshadowing the entire history of the U.S.-Israeli relationship and the central role played by what has come to be known as “the Israel lobby.”

As summarized by Judis:

Truman’s successors have, as a rule, suffered the same fate has he did. They began with a moral and strategic conviction that something had to be done to right the situation of the Palestinians, but under relentless pressure from supporters of Israel (and after 1948 from the Israeli government itself), they gave up. That’s what happened to Barack Obama during his first term.

A second theme in Genesis focuses on what Judis argues is an inconsistency and moral blind spot in the American Zionist movement that, while led by strong liberals such as Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter and others, abandoned its principles by privileging statehood for the Jews in Palestine over democracy and self-determination for the Palestinians. If they had been true to their principles, Judis argues, they would have recognized their moral obligation to support the few leading Zionists in Palestine, such as Judah Magnes and Martin Buber, who argued for the creation of a democratic binational state:

The outward logic of Zionism was impeccable. … Jews wanted a genuine nation of their own where they could be secure from persecution and oppression. The trouble came when Zionists specified where that nation should be. Two thousand years earlier most Jews had lived in Palestine and a few thousand still did. But other peoples had also inhabited Palestine over the millennia, and Arabs had lived there for 1,400 years. 

Even so, Judis clearly does not favor the disestablishment of Israel today, for he goes on to argue that “the moral balance in Palestine and the case for a Jewish state” changed after that state became a fait accompli. As for how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be resolved today, Judis does not argue for the replacement of Israel by a single binational state, but supports the standard international consensus two-state solution, the only one that in his view (and mine) is morally justifiable and has any chance of being implemented.

The critics

As was entirely predictable, even such a balanced and meticulously researched work has already brought forth a storm of bitter and even ad hominum criticism—as in the already notorious and truly crazed attack by Leon Wieseltier, Judis’ “colleague” at the New Republic—from those who will not countenance any serious criticism of Zionism and Israel. Because this phenomenon is so widespread and pernicious, especially in the United States, I think it is important to examine it in some detail.

For that reason, I will begin my own assessment of Genesis by examining what is likely to be considered as the most important and definitive criticism of it: the long review in the prestigious and widely read magazine National Interest, by Bernard Wasserstein, an emeritus chaired professor of modern European Jewish history at the University of Chicago.

I want to focus on the Wasserstein review, and at some length, for two reasons. First, the prestige of the author as well as that of National Interest may afford it an influence that, in my view, is unwarranted. But beyond that, Wasserstein’s main criticisms of Genesis reflect a kind of intellectual and moral blind spot about Israel and Zionism that are characteristic of a number of otherwise learned and eminent intellectuals. 

Trivial errors?

Before I turn to examples of the blind spots in the Wasserstein review, however, I want to begin by taking note of a standard practice in negative reviews, which is to cite trivial errors in the text while seeking to meet the obvious objection by conceding that they are indeed trivial. It is an objectionable tactic on two counts. First, no work of history is likely to avoid a few slight errors that are of no relevance to the main arguments or overall historical accuracy of the book. Second, because this is so, the citation of such errors (if indeed they are errors) in an unfriendly review—no matter what the acknowledgement of their triviality—is clearly designed to discredit or at least call into question the credibility of the author and his work in its entirety.

For example, Wasserstein asserts that a number of errors “pepper” Judis’ book. He points to two that he considers to be of “substantial importance” and illustrative of Judis’ “sometimes shaky” historical knowledge. First, Wasserstein denies that the Jews of Palestine “suffered religious persecution” under 19th-century Ottoman rule, as is mentioned, in passing, in Genesis—according to Wasserstein this is “a figment of [Judis’] imagination.” It is an odd—but revealing—criticism: Not only does the issue have nothing whatever to do with Judis’ argument. If Wasserstein is right in denying that the Jews were persecuted, it somewhat undercuts his own implicit argument that persecution of the Jews legitimized the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.

Second, Wasserstein argues that Judis is wrong in his claim that the British deliberately sought to exacerbate the Jewish-Arab conflict in pre-1947 Palestine, in pursuit of a divide-and-rule policy. I don’t know who is correct, but what is unmistakable is that, like the Ottoman religious persecution issue, the matter is entirely irrelevant to the argument of Genesis.

Those are the alleged errors in Genesis that Wasserstein considers to be important indications of Judis’ “shaky historical knowledge.” Then there are alleged errors that Wasserstein acknowledges to be “trivial.” He cites the following: “Earl Curzon would have been surprised to learn that he was the House of Lords representative in the war cabinet;” “Vladimir Jabotinsky’s political movement was not the National but the New Zionist Organization;” and other “bloopers,” such as getting a few entirely irrelevant dates wrong: “Saudi Arabia makes a premature appearance in 1915. … Guyana, born in 1966, pops up in 1937.” But if they are trivial, then why mention them?

In another (and far nastier) attack, the right-wing historian Ronald Radosh asserts that “Judis doesn’t really possess the command of his subject that he pretends [emphasis mine] to have. … His narrative is full of the sort of errors and omissions that abound in polemics disguised as history.”

Like what? “Some of them are relatively minor,” Radosh concedes, such as Judis’ “drastic reduction” of the number of Jewish settlers in Palestine in 1994 from many hundreds to about twenty, and being off by two years on the date that Baron Rothschild began providing financial assistance to the settlers. More seriously, Radosh continues, is that while Judis notes that one Jewish terrorist organization, the Stern Gang, attacked British targets in Palestine during WWII, “he seems to be utterly unaware of” similar attacks by the Irgun. Even assuming that Radosh is right that these are errors—I’ll leave it to Judis to respond, if he so chooses—as in the case of Wasserstein’s similar criticisms, they have nothing to do with anything even remotely important in Judis’ history of the Truman administration and the Zionist movement.

Nothing new?

Wasserstein, Radosh and others assert that there is nothing new in Judis’ book, citing several others that deal with the same topic. No historical work, especially on a topic so important as that covered in Genesis, can be completely new and original—every historian builds on the work of others. As it happens, I know the scholarship on the Truman period pretty well, particularly what until now has been regarded as the definitive work, Michael J. Cohen’s 1990 work, Truman and Israel (which is copiously cited by Judis throughout Genesis). In fact, Judis has gone well beyond Cohen, among other ways in his ample use of the Papers of Max Lowenthal, who was a key participant in the debate over Israel in the Truman administration.

For these reasons, I learned a great deal from Judis’ detailed account of how Truman was persuaded to change his mind about Israel. Even more importantly, Judis provides persuasive evidence which at least calls into question Cohen’s main argument, that “no number of Jewish votes or sum of Jewish money could have persuaded Truman to adopt a policy that he believed ran counter to the national interest.” (Cohen, 279) That is hardly so clear in Judis’ account, especially when in 1946 Truman, under fierce pressure from the Zionist lobby, backed away from his initial support of a joint British-American plan (negotiated by Truman’s personal representative Henry Grady) that would have created a binational federation instead of a Jewish state.

Logical errors

Wasserstein objects to Judis’ argument about the influence of the American Zionists in persuading Truman to support Israel, as well as about the comparable political power of the Israel lobby ever since, particularly in the Obama administration. It is not the case that right-wing Zionists, past and present, represent the real views of the American Jewish community as a whole, Wasserstein argues, citing opinion polls that find that only 30 percent of them describe themselves as “very attached” to Israel and large majorities oppose the continued building of settlements. Moreover, Wasserstein continues, American Jewish diplomats, such as Dennis Ross, Aaron David Miller, Martin Indyk and Daniel Kurtzer, “have tried to nudge Israel toward more realistic policies.”

Leaving aside his questionable list of Jewish policymakers who have played a positive role—Ross and Indyk certainly don’t make my list—it is hard to follow Wasserstein’s logic. It would be one thing if Judis had argued that the Jewish community as a whole invariably supports all Israeli policies or that no Jews have played a positive role in the search for an Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But that is not Judis’ argument at all—nor anyone else’s that I am aware of. Rather, the argument is that the organized Zionist movement and, later, the Israel lobby, has had undue influence on U.S. government policy towards Israel.

In other words, Wasserstein misunderstands not only Judis’ argument, but that of other chroniclers of the power of the Israel lobby such as, of course, John Mearsheimer and Steve Walt. No one argues that the lobby speaks for American Jewry as a whole—on the contrary, one of the key arguments of the Israel lobby thesis is precisely that it doesn’t, and that therefore its undoubted power in Washington is especially pernicious.

In yet another example of murky writing and logic, Wasserstein asserts that the doctrine of self-determination offers only a “mechanical solution” to all nationality problems, and then points to some cases in which the self-determination principle founders over disagreement over “the precise area to which it was to be applied.” He elaborates:

According to the principle of national self-determination, as generally understood by its advocates, a significant criterion for the exercise of national political rights is place of birth. That is why Judis believes that a great political wrong was done to the Palestinians when they were denied by Zionism  the ability to determine their own destiny in their own land.

One expects that Wasserstein will challenge this, presumably arguing, somehow, that the alleged “difficulties contained within the concept of self-determination” will undermine Judis' argument that the Palestinians were wronged by the creation of Israel. That is not, however, what Wasserstein does—rather, he simply shifts the grounds to a quite different issue, for in his next sentence he asks: “But are such rights heritable?” Do “third- and fourth-generation” inhabitants of Lebanon, Jordan and Syria who still think of themselves as Palestinian refugees, he continues, have an inherent right of return to Palestine?

That’s a fair question and I will address it shortly, but in this context it is a non-sequitur, for it has nothing to do with the issue of whether the creation of Israel in 1948 cost the Palestinians their legitimate right to self-determination.

In any case, while Judis doesn’t explicitly address the Palestinian right of return issue, by clear implication he is not arguing for it, for he writes that “The history of Palestine and Israel’s founding cannot be changed,” and he favors a two-state settlement of the conflict rather than a bilateral Jewish-Palestinian one.

Moral errors

An elementary error in moral argumentation is to confuse what is (reality) with what ought to be (morally right), or to fail to distinguish between empirical and normative arguments. Yet, in his discussion of the right of return issue, in another not entirely clear passage Wasserstein seems to make this error when he concedes that “Israel’s Jews had gained a world of their own but at the expense of another people,” but then immediately adds:

History, of course, often works that way. And if the people who are vanquished disappear, or are relatively weak and few in number, the victors can eventually lay aside the memory of what they have done. Few Georgians today remember or regret having driven the peaceful Cherokee Indians off their lands.

But the Palestinians are not the Cherokee Indians: they have not disappeared, and while weak compared to the Israelis—a moral non-sequitur, unless one is arguing that Might Makes Right–they are hardly few in number. In any case, of what possible moral relevance is the fact—if it is a fact–that the Georgians—that is, the Israelis—may not remember or regret driving the Palestinians off their lands? Does that mean that no moral judgments should be made about the Georgians/Israelis? As I have said, while Wasserstein’s writing is murky here, that does seem to be his implication.

Continuing his criticism of what he wrongly believes to be Judis’ position on the right of return issue, Wasserstein writes: “How long do such rights inhere? The great majority of so-called Palestinian refugees were not, after all, themselves driven out of their homes in 1948. If Palestinians’ rights as refugees are heritable through the generations, is there some end point, or does that right endure, as Palestinian nationalists claim?”

A few sentences later, Wasserstein concludes:

Perhaps the Cherokees and the Palestinian refugees deserve to have inherited rights recognized. … But if so, does that not pull the rug out from under one of the chief complaints that is made against Zionism by its critics, including Judis—namely, that the Jewish claim to Palestine is based on an illegitimate appeal to inherited ancestral rights of residence and ownership? Does not Judis … want to have it both ways? 

Not at all, for surely the passage of time is crucial. The Jews are claiming permanent rights to Palestine because they were its primary inhabitants 2,000 years ago before they were driven out—itself an historically dubious claim, but leave that aside. By contrast, the parallel Palestinian claim, which is not historically questionable in the slightest and is based on events less than 70 years ago—indeed to a significant degree actually less than 50 years ago, for many Palestinians (some of them refugees from 1948 as well) were driven or fled from the West Bank when Israel conquered it in 1967.

How, then, should we think of the right of return? Since there is scarcely any place in the world that has not at one time been conquered and populated by a different people, a kind of common sense moral statute of limitations on land claims by right of previous inhabitance has evolved. Of course, there can be no precision in its application, and certainly there are hard cases. The Zionist claim, however, is not one of them.

A morally plausible range might look something like this:

*The passage of a few months or years is not enough to wipe out past rights.

Thus, no unbiased observer challenged the moral right of the Bosnians and the Kosovar Albanians to have reversed Serbian ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia in the 1990s—even though the use of force was sometimes necessary.

*Sixty or 70 years or so creates a complex problem, both in principle and in practice. Thus, the question of whether the Palestinians have the right to return to their homes and villages in what is now Israel is one of the most vexing issues in the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

* One hundred fifty years is too long. For example, while there is no doubt that in the 19th-century Americans drove the Native Americans off the land, it does not follow their descendants have the moral or legal right to reclaim those lands.

*And if that is persuasive, then 2,000 years is preposterously too long, especially when different peoples have populated the land during all that period. There are some good arguments for Zionism, but that is not one of them.

Thus, even though Judis is at least implicitly arguing that in 1948 the ancestral rights of the Palestinians outweighed those of the Jews, by criticizing the Zionist claim he is not “wanting to have it both ways,” but merely recognizing plain common sense distinctions.

All this said, I do have several disagreements with Judis’ arguments and judgments, some of them relatively minor but one very important one. Judis believes—as do I—that in principle the Jews had the right and the existential necessity to create a Jewish state, but the excruciating moral dilemma was that by 1947 there was no place to put it; as I have already quoted, Judis writes that  “The trouble came when Zionists specified where that nation should be.”

I share his view that the question of whether the establishment of a Jewish state, per se, was legitimate must be separated from the issue of where it could have been established. The key question, in my view, is whether there was any way to have a Jewish state in Palestine without the Zionist resorting to “ethnic cleansing” of the worst possible kind, namely the wholesale violence that forced some 750,000 Palestinians to flee the country because of their entirely justified fear that if they didn’t they might be driven out with just the clothes on their backs or even massacred—just as happened at Lydda, Deir Yassin and in a number of other Palestinian villages.

This issue can be illuminated by examining the issue of “transfer.” In July 1937 the Peel Commission, a high-level British committee tasked with examining what could be done about the increasingly violent conflict between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine, issued its report. Its main recommendation was that Palestine should be partitioned, but this could only be made feasible if there was a substantial exchange of populations, to ensure a large majority of Jews in the Jewish state and Palestinian Arabs in the Palestinian state. The Peel Commission put it this way: “If Partition is to be effective in promoting a final settlement it must mean more than drawing a frontier and establishing two States. Sooner or later there should be a transfer of land and, as far as possible, an exchange of population … voluntary or otherwise.” (Emphasis added.) The Commission supported its argument by citing previous precedents in which “compulsory exchanges of population” had succeeded in preventing civil or international conflict.

It is also instructive that Reinhold Niebuhr, perhaps America’s most eminent liberal thinker and theologian in the second half of the 20th century, also endorsed transfer, or “a large scheme of resettlement.” Judis discusses Niebuhr’s position, but considers it to be wrong and inconsistent with his liberal principles. There is another way to look at it, however, for reasons I will discuss below.

As is well known, the Zionist leadership seized upon the “transfer” solution and it became deeply embedded in Zionist ideology—and behavior—thereafter. Thus, the central moral issue is whether transfer could have been implemented in a nonviolent manner that still would have ensured a large Jewish majority in the new state of Israel. How might this have been done? One way would have been serious efforts to buy out the Palestinians with very generous offers, or if one prefers, “bribing” them to leave, as Roosevelt had briefly considered: Surely the international community as well as wealthy Jewish supporters of Israel would have been willing to provide the funds.

To be sure, it is likely that some Palestinians would have refused to voluntarily leave no matter how well they were compensated, so that compulsory relocation would still constitute an injustice to them. Even so, differences in degrees of injustice matter a great deal. First of all, numbers matter: Of the 220,000 Palestinians who would have to have been relocated if the Jews were to attain the 80 percent majority that Ben-Gurion considered essential to ensure Jewish rule, surely some significant number of them would have done so if they had been offered very generous compensation. Those who refused such an offer could have been informed that, in due course and with plenty of advance notice, they would be required to leave, could choose where they wanted to go, and would still get generous compensation for the loss of their homes and receive additional financial assistance in picking up their lives wherever they chose to go.

In short, in order to ensure that there would be a large Jewish majority in the new state of Israel, some relatively small number of Palestinians might have had to be expelled (“transferred”), unwillingly but essentially nonviolently, to areas just a few miles away, with essentially the same geography, climate, history, religion, language, and culture. Yes, that would still be an injustice, but radically less so than the violent ethnic cleansing of 750,000 people that actually took place.

In my judgment, then, it is necessary to make distinctions between degrees of injustice and to strike some kind of balance between conflicting moral claims. If I believed that there were no alternatives to what the Israelis actually did, had it genuinely been the case that the only way a Jewish state could have been established in Palestine was by massive and brutal ethnic cleansing, it would have been better to have done without a Jewish state. However, if the inevitable injustice to the Palestinians had been limited to a compulsory but generously recompensed relocation of far fewer people, in that case the existential need of the Jews for a state of their own, which in practice by 1947 could have been established in no other place but Palestine, would have outweighed the rights of those relatively few Palestinians whose involuntary relocation might have been necessary.

In sum, my differing views on one issue aside, in my view Genesis is a major work which not only will surely have a continuing impact on future scholarship about American policy in the early years of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but is also directly relevant to the contemporary debate over U.S. policy.

Reprinted with permission from JeromeSlater.com.

Jerome Slater, a political scientist specializing in U.S. policy and the Arab-Israeli conflict, is the author of a number of professional journal articles on those topics. He also writes for informed general audiences, and his work has been published in New Republic, Dissent, Tikkun, Huffington Post, and elsewhere. He also blogs at “On the U.S. and Israel”.

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