Magazine article The American Prospect

The Moment of Creation: Do America's Current Challenges in the Middle East Trace Back to Harry Truman's 1948 Missteps?

Magazine article The American Prospect

The Moment of Creation: Do America's Current Challenges in the Middle East Trace Back to Harry Truman's 1948 Missteps?

Article excerpt

On May 12,1948, President Harry Truman convened a tense Oval Office meeting. In less than three days, Britain would leave Palestine, where civil war already raged between Jews and Arabs. Clark Clifford, Truman's special counsel, argued the position of American Zionist organizations and Democratic politicians: The president should announce that he would recognize a Jewish state even before it was established. Secretary of State George Marshall was incensed. "I don't even know why Clifford is here," Marshall said. "He is a domestic advisor, and this is a foreign policy matter."

Marshall was asking for an impossible division. Foreign policy and domestic politics can't be kept apart in a democracy, nor should they be. But this incident, described in John Judis's Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, shows that the question of whether U.S. policy toward Israel is captive to a special-interest group has existed even longer than Israel has. The densely researched core of the book follows Truman's decisions at the moment of creation--of Israel and of U.S. involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Judis shows how American Zionist leaders and sympathetic officials swayed the president to support partition of Palestine and establishment of Israel, against his preference for a single political entity for Arabs and Jews.

The author thus proves his explicit thesis: The lobbying efforts of American Zionists tilted American policy, to the detriment of Palestine's Arabs. Yet the story also has additional, half-stated lessons about when a domestic pressure group can most influence foreign policy--when the president is indecisive; when none of the available policy options is attractive; when the best options require a greater investment than the president wants to make; and when the administration is distracted by challenges elsewhere. In this case, policy was further distorted by Truman's misunderstanding of Zionism, a misunderstanding that colors American discourse about Israel even today and tints this book as well.

IN THE SUMMER OF 1945, Palestine was one more crisis facing America's unready president. Britain had originally ruled Palestine based on the promise of the 1917 Balfour Declaration to turn it into a "national home for the Jewish people," ignoring the national aspirations of the land's Arab majority. In 1939, Britain switched direction, promising an independent Arab state and drastically limiting Jewish immigration just as European Jews were desperately seeking a refuge. At the war's end, most of Europe's Jews had been murdered. But tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors in DP (displaced persons) camps wanted to reach Palestine, and the Zionist movement demanded an independent Jewish state. By autumn, the British faced a full-scale Jewish rebellion.

Truman's contradictory impulses were both personal and political, Judis writes. Identifying with the "little man," the president sought to help Jewish DPs. But he opposed the idea of a state based on a religion, which is how he saw a Jewish state. Key White House officials were pro-Zionist, while the State Department measured Middle East policy in terms of oil and the Cold War. Wallace Murray, head of State's Office of Near East and African Affairs under President Franklin Roosevelt, had warned that endorsing "Zionist objectives may well result in throwing the entire Arab world into the hands of the Soviet Union." Loy Henderson, Murray's successor under Truman, shared that fear.

Meanwhile, each report on the Holocaust rallied more American Jews to Zionism. The central figure in American Zionism, Abba Hillel Silver, was a Cleveland-based Reform rabbi who'd become a supporter of Jewish statehood after the Nazis came to power in Germany. By 1945, he was the leader of both the American Zionist Emergency Council, created during the war, and the Zionist Organization of America. Besides organizing mass rallies and letter-writing campaigns, Silver skillfully played of f the political parties, gaining Republican backing for pro-Zionist positions, then pushing Democrats to exceed their rivals. …

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