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The problem with John Judis’s book about Harry Truman and the Jews

Judis is clear about his agenda in writing ‘Genesis’

Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict
By John Judis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
448 pages

There is something about John Judis that brings out a “plague-on-both-your-houses” response. John B. Judis, a senior editor at “The New Republic,” set out to write a history of the Truman administration and the founding of the State of Israel; what emerged was not history, but polemic. The tarorom that surrounded the publication of “Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict” again unleashed the passions that are part and parcel of the contemporary debate over Israel, the Palestinians, Jewish organizations, and just plain American Jews.

The struggle in the American government and within the American Jewish community surrounding the creation of the State of Israel is a complex and nuanced matter. But John Judis is clear about his agenda in writing “Genesis.” He wants to counteract what he views as myths that have pervaded American Jewish thinking — and, as a result, Jewish communal policy — about America’s role in Israel’s founding. That’s the “Whereas” of “Genesis.” The “Therefore”: American Jews, including Jews who are liberal on a broad range of public-affairs matters, have downplayed the plight of, and ignore the rights of, Palestinians. The essence is less Truman and more the book’s subtitle: “The Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict.”

John Judis does deserve credit for reprising in well-written detail a difficult period of history. But the “Truman-and-the-Jews” story was admirably told some years ago by Allis Radosh and Ronald Radosh in “A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel,” an impeccably-researched book that—to the eyes of this aficionado of crime thrillers—reads like a suspense novel. The point of “Genesis,” in stark contrast to the Radoshs’ careful history, is that Truman’s recognition of Israel was not triumph but tragedy, tragedy because Truman yielded to Zionist pressure in not following the lead of his State Department establishment who urged a pro-Arab policy. The first half of “Genesis” is a discussion of the varied strands of Zionism, especially Political Zionism, Herzl’s response to pervasive European antisemitism; and a history of American Zionism. The core of the book, “Truman and Israel,” details how Truman (aided and abetted by his counsel Clark Clifford) established “the pattern of surrender to Israel and its supporters.” English translation: America folded to the pro-Israel lobby.

Does it trouble me that John Judis characterizes Zionism as “settler-colonialist,” a locution that denies legitimacy to Zionism and to the State of Israel? Sure it does; attacking the legitimacy of Zionism challenges the legitimacy of Jewish peoplehood. Such a challenge is tautologically anti-semitism.

But that’s not what bothers me about “Genesis.” The problem is the pattern of factual error, or misrepresentation, or confusion, in the book. A case in point: Judis lays the rise of Palestinian anti-semitism at the feet of economics: as increasing numbers of Jews in the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine) refused to hire Arab labor, virulent anti-Judaism emerged, anti-Judaism informed by anti-semitic conspiracy theories imported from Europe.

While this explanation may be accurate, at least in part, it’s problematic. Historians who have written about the Arab riots of 1920 and 1929, and the 1936-’39 Arab Revolt, will find Judis’s assertion to be a bit of a head-scratcher. Long-standing ethnic and religious resentments, some fueled by the Koran itself, inflamed by irresponsible leaders, were a reality in Palestine.

And, whatever else was going on with the Arabs in Palestine, the tugs and tensions, loyalties and rivalries, were purely tribal — then, and indeed yet today. This is a verity forgotten by most writers, including John Judis. Strange as well is the assertion in “Genesis” that by the 1930s the entire Zionist leadership shared the Revisionist objective of a “greater Israel” that could accommodate refugees from Europe. This minor matter illumines a larger flaw. Judis misses the central point about the Yishuv: it was all about ideology and ideological struggle, a dialectic in large measure inherited from Europe by the early builders of the Yishuv. And when Judis declares that David Ben-Gurion in his origins “does not seem to have been a Marxist,” he forgets that the hallmark of Ben-Gurion’s leadership, mamlachtiyut, (“statism”)—the idea that everything is subsumed to the needs of the state—derived as much from B.-G.’s socialist-collectivist ideology as it did from his Zionist ideology. And lumping Zionist leader Yitzhak Tabenkin together with Labor Zionism does not do. Tabenkin was an architect of an ideology that married far-left Marxism with territorial maximalism—a far cry from traditional Labor Zionism.

Another problem: While “Genesis” appears to be well-researched (34 pages of notes and citations), John Judis has a “tin ear” when it comes, not only to the Truman years, but generally, on the history and sociology of the Yishuv and on the history of the Zionist movement in the United States, and on Jewish organizations. This last is crucial to any understanding of the Truman and Zionism, and—as is the case with any and all issues in American Jewish life — is rooted in organizational structures. Judis is a tad confused on these, and confusing in his discussion. For example, his narrative of the American Jewish Conference misses a historical point. The focus of American Zionists in the 1940s — a period in which non- and anti-Zionism were the regnant positions — was to create a climate of opinion that would move non-Zionists to support of a Jewish state in Palestine. An umbrella group of American Zionist organizations, the American Zionist Emergency Council (AZEC), coordinated the effort. AZEC’s vehicle in its ambitious enterprise was a conference consisting of democratically-elected delegates from American Jewish groups across the ideological spectrum. This “American Jewish Conference” convened in 1943, was successful in making the case that the majority of organized American Jewry was behind the effort to bring about a Jewish state in Palestine. The American Jewish Conference represented nothing less than a turning point in American Zionist history. One would not know this from the discussion in “Genesis.”

The bottom-line question, of course, is that of the Jews — or, more precisely, of the “Jewish lobby.” Was it “the Jews” that moved Truman, canny politician that he was, to recognize the State of Israel, indeed to buck his State Department, his Defense Department, the various mandarins surrounding his throne — all of whom counseled against supporting the Zionist enterprise? Judis is shrewd in his reporting on the hairpin turns Truman took in making an effort to placate the Jews, our British allies, and his own State Department, anti-Zionist to the core. But ultimately, it was not the Jews who elected Harry Truman in 1948 — even though Truman did need Jewish money for his presidential campaign.

One can be an ardent Zionist and be a passionate defender of Palestinian rights and an advocate of peace between Israelis and Palestinians. But not, it seems, to John Judis, as it appears from even a cursory reading of “Genesis”: Zionism was a mistake then; the State of Israel is yet a mistake—and it was Truman who was buffaloed into supporting the Zionist enterprise. This — the disconnect between the idealism of Jewish values of social justice and the real world of Jewish history — is the basic flaw of “Genesis “ Israel has problems, serious problems, some of them existential problems. But Israel was established, has thrived and has had numerous achievements and accomplishments. Israel was not some kind of historical mistake.

Jerome A. Chanes, a Forward contributing editor and a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author or editor of four books on American Jewish history and public affairs.

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