Revisiting Zionism

By Wasserstein, Bernard | The National Interest, March-April 2014 | Go to article overview

Revisiting Zionism

Wasserstein, Bernard, The National Interest

John B. Judis, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), 448 pp., $30.00.

The security outside my neighborhood temple in Hyde Park, Chicago, like that around many Jewish institutions throughout the world these days, is conspicuous, though not as rigorous as at comparable buildings in Germany, France or Sweden. But in this case there is a special reason: Temple KAM Isaiah Israel stands just across the road from the residence of the Obama family. The house is rarely occupied now, but when the Obamas lived there full-time they used to "pal around" (to use Sarah Palin's felicitous expression) with the congregation's notoriously radical rabbi, the late Arnold Wolf.

In Genesis, John B. Judis credits Wolf with providing the future president with "his view of Israel." The rabbi, he says, described himself as a "religious radical" and a "liberal activist." As Judis writes, he "supported Israel's existence, but he wanted the Israelis to pursue policies that fully recognized the rights of the Palestinians." Wolf's view of Israel represented "a return to the universalism of nineteenth-century Reform Judaism." In a confessional passage at the outset of his book, Judis, a senior editor at the New Republic and the author of several well-regarded books on domestic and foreign policy, declares his own attraction to Wolf's teaching "that the role of Jews was not to favor Jews at the expense of other people but to bring the light of ethical prophecy to bear upon the welfare of all peoples."

Reform Judaism, as Judis notes, was historically opposed to Zionism. Yet several of the early leaders of American Zionism, notably Stephen Wise and Abba Hillel Silver, were Reform Jewish clerics. Judis traces the awkward relationship between the universalist values of Reform Judaism and the nationalist cause that these men espoused. He sees a profound contradiction between their liberal political outlooks and their general failure to recognize the political rights of the Palestinian Arabs. He admits of only rare exceptions such as Judah L. Magnes, an American Reform rabbi who became the first head of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In some ways this is an old-fashioned book that might have been written by a member of the American Council for Judaism, an association of Reform Jews, formed in 1942, that propagandized vigorously against Zionism in the early years of the Jewish state (it still exists, albeit in diminished form). The "main lesson" of the book, Judis writes, is that "the Zionists who came to Palestine to establish a state trampled on the rights of the Arabs who already lived there."

Of course, one does not need Reform Judaism, historical or current, as one's guide in order to arrive at this conclusion. Others have reached the same destination by different routes. Perhaps the most effective presentation of this point of view was written a generation ago from a Marxist standpoint by the great French Jewish orientalist Maxime Rodinson in his Israel: Fait Colonial? (published in English as Israel." A Colonial-Settler State?). Even those who disagreed with its basic contention (among them the pro-Israeli Jean-Paul Sartre, who commissioned the essay in May 1967 for a special issue of his journal Les Temps Modernes) had to recognize the power of Rodinson's argument, which derived from a scrupulous welding of theoretical framework and historical data and from an aversion to unexamined moralizing. The same cannot be said for Judis's enterprise.

This book is divided into three parts. The first and weakest presents a history of the Zionist enterprise in Palestine up to 1939. "The moral contours of that early history," he writes, "are remarkably clear. From the 1890s ... until the early 1930s, the responsibility for the conflict lay primarily with the Zionists." Judis here develops the proposition that British imperialism and the Zionists, using the vehicle of the mandate for Palestine granted by the League of Nations, "conspired to screw the Arabs out of a country that by the prevailing standards of self-determination would have been theirs. …

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