Thursday, March 27, 2014

John Judis On Truman And Partition: Book Review

President Truman and advisor Clark Clifford 
“The history of Palestine and of Israel’s founding cannot be changed,” John B. Judis writes at the end of Genesis, “and it is silly to play games of what-if. But it is not silly to draw lessons from the past that are relevant to the present and the future.” Judis is a keen political observer, and the many lessons offered in his new book deserve our attention. But he divines some of them, in spite of his better judgment, by asking “what if,” insinuating the possibility of a better presidential decision and exploring why it was not taken—much as Gar Alperovitz did in The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb.

At its best, Genesis is this kind of imaginative mulligan. And the decision Judis would want to do over is also Harry Truman’s, namely his determination to bury the Morrison-Grady plan during the summer of 1946, which led, Judis argues, to an unworkable partition, the premature recognition of Israel—and endless war.

You probably haven’t heard of the Morrison-Grady plan, but you may have read angry denunciations of Genesis in The Wall Street Journal, The Jerusalem Post or Commentary claiming that Judis questions the legitimacy of Israel. This is wrong and, given Judis’s obvious empathy for Israelis as well as Palestinians, also reckless. What Judis explores in the Truman administration’s serial decisions about Palestine is an illuminating analogue to the record of, most recently, the Obama administration’s approach to the peace process. What’s “relevant to the present and the future” is Judis’s supposition that any Israeli-Palestinian settlement will require American steadfastness, and that presidential fairness toward the Palestinians, as with Truman, may be foiled by the incessant agitations of the Israel lobby, promoting Zionist excesses.

The danger for any historian writing with these ambitions is that the more intentional the analogy, the more calculated the history. To tell a story for the sake of its moral is to tell it slanted. The latter part of Judis’s book constitutes a detailed, absorbing study of Truman’s attempts to deal with the interests of American Zionist organizations and their leaders, and the electoral politics and Cold War pressures of the late 1940s. Here and there I thought Judis rash in his criticism of American Zionist leaders or obstinate about the importance of the back-room pressures they exerted—but never mind. Had these chapters stood on their own, they would have formed a provocative, learned, even masterful book.

The first part is another matter. Judis wants to explain the prehistory of these pressures, so he describes the origins of revolutionary Zionism and the record of the British Mandate, up to the time a more vicarious American Zionism took root in the 1930s. Judis offers some fine portraits of early American Zionist leaders like Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis as well as a reasonable summary of the growing war between the Zionist colonists and the Arabs of Palestine, a conflict precipitated by contradictions in British policy. But on the whole, his version of Zionist ideas, congresses and settlement policies—the disruptive force in this history—serves his argument about Truman rather too

Ironically, Judis’s presentation of Zionism suffers from some of the same imaginative limitations he attributes to the American Zionists. He assumes that leading advocates for the Jewish “national home”—from Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organization, to David Ben-Gurion, the preeminent founding leader of Labor Zionism and Israel’s first prime minister—were intent all along on founding an exclusivist “Jewish state,” one that justified itself by claiming a world of intractable anti-Semitism and that required, almost by definition, the suppression or expulsion of Palestine’s Arabs.

By implication, Israel’s democratic deficiencies and post-1967 occupation were prefigured by the Zionist movement’s original intent: every Zionist leader of note had a little Sheldon Adelson inside struggling to get out. This part of Judis’s story, as Marx said of the Young Hegelians, supposes that men drown because they are possessed of the idea of gravity. It is a charge he can’t prove in an indictment that would have been stronger without it.

Read on at The Nation


Potter said...

Is it possible that the Arab expulsions were the result of something more than Zionist ideology finally freed from British constraint?

A result of the confusion war itself? Security; fear of a fifth column remaining? What you don’t indicate or I missed that.

[Influential artists and politicians]…..urged American help to get the Jewish state off the ground. Most Americans, reasonably enough, thought that Zionists were fighting for the greater part of justice—and their lives. This is a far cry from Bibi mobilizing his plutocrat friends, spinning Jewish pathos to deflect attention from the West Bank settlements.

Yes… this obvious spinning of Jewish pathos to the chorus has done a lot to help inure the rest to it. It’s almost embarrassing. The well being of Israel and Jews everywhere is diminished by this in my opinion.

Judis’s Genesis makes us rethink not only whether extending the Mandate, or a UN trusteeship, might have been possible and just, but also whether war ever does anything but confound the defensible revolutionary ends for which it is fought.

Knowing this detail of the history is important and thanks to Judis for it. Your conclusion is in the right place, and thank you!

Y. Ben-David said...

Just heard about the conviction for bribery of Dr Avishai's friend Ehud Olmert who is now facing a prison sentence. I am reminded of Olmert convincing Dr Avishai at the Van Leer Instiute's New Year's party some years ago how he (Olmert) was going to be the one to finally make peace with the Palestinians. Dr Avishai told us recently that Olmert ws going to make a political comeback because the citizens of Israel finally realize that he is still the only one who can make peace.
These predictions will be long remembered along with Dr Avishai's other predictions like the one that said that Obama is the strongest and most popular President of the US since Eisenhower and he would be in a position to repeat Ike's achievement of forcing Israel unilaterally out of the Sinai in 1957, but this time it would be the West Bank and Jerusalem (I don't know if it is appropriate to remind everyone that Ike said later it was a big mistake).
Then there is Dr Avishai's other prediction that said since everyone in the world admires globalized economy, the "young Palsetinian entrepeneurs would 'push aside' the armed militias in the Palestinian territories" and they would agree to a compromise peace with Israel. This is based on Dr Avishai's bedrock belief that preeminent motivation of everyone in the world is to make as much money as possible, and these armed militiamen will no doubt eventually realize this. Perhaps Dr Avishai can show us examples of armed militiamen being "pushed aside" by globalized entrepeneurs in places like Libya, Algeria, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

I wonder if Dr Avishai has any more predictions for us.

Anonymous said...

avishai is a joke. he goes to a party and meets olmert. big deal.
avishai should go back to the usa and write more antijew books.

shame but i guess he must keep plodding along. he would be best as a kindergarten teacher if they would have him.

Anonymous said...

“We must use terror, assassination, intimidation, land confiscation, and the cutting of all social services to rid the Galilee of its Arab population.”

This is a specific gravity that did carry weight, because ben Gurion was far from being alone in this thought, then and now.

So far the drowning has been almost strictly Palestinian, and that's certainly some heavy gravity. The inevitability of ben Gurion's and the others' specificity of intentions will someday lead to Israelis' drowning if the momentum and direction of the ill intent is not reversed, and soon.

Larry Piltz