Like many American intellectuals, John B. Judis has experienced decades of dashed hopes about the American role in the Arab/Israeli conflict. Arguably the 370 pages in Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict are too few to hash through all of them: what the role of universalist ethics was, or should have been, in the birthing of Zionism writ large and American Zionism in particular; what role American politics, and the very personal politics of Harry S. Truman, played in the creation of the state of Israel; whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could have been averted; and why the Obama administration’s efforts at peacemaking have fallen so short.


Genesis: Truman,
American Jews, and the
Origins of the
Arab/Israeli Conflict

by John B. Judis
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 448 pp.

The sheer breadth of material Judis covers, combined with his determination to call out Zionist and American leaders for moral failings, will bring this book in for plenty of criticism. Whatever your area of expertise, you will find some facet of this book that needs more depth or gets some nuance of policy ever so slightly wrong.

Regardless, Judis is a must-read for two bigger questions he raises: Could America, if it chose to, detach itself from the Zionist project? And can the American state do politics and policy coherently? The book is also necessary for two issues he does not explicitly raise: What should be the role of morality in government policy, Israeli or American? And what is the new center for American Jews who concern themselves with the fate of Israel, and find themselves ready to give up the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), but not Zionism?

Judis shows, thoroughly, that the contours and success of Zionist ideology cannot be separated—love it, hate it, or try to ignore it—from Americans’ core myths about ourselves. Who was one of the greatest purveyors of the idea that nineteenth-century Palestine was a desolate, barren place, populated only by a few benighted peasants? Mark Twain. Who wrote that “the situation reminds me of that in America, when the settlers who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony had to protect themselves against the Indians”? Louis Brandeis. Who invested personally in plans that would have given political agency to both Jews and Arabs in Palestine, but gave them up again and again for domestic political exigencies? Harry Truman.

Many readers will know that Truman’s prompt recognition of the state of Israel at its unilateral declaration in 1948 was the new state’s first, and that he was later lionized for it. Fewer will be aware that this was the controversial result of intense domestic lobbying and pressures, explicitly linked within the Truman administration to the upcoming elections. Judis takes the story several levels deeper, documenting Truman’s interest over the preceding two years in finding another outcome—one in which Jews and Arabs would have shared sovereignty, flowing from concern for the status of post-Holocaust Jewish refugees in Europe and his clear understanding that an outcome in which hundreds of thousands of inhabitants were denied political rights would be neither stable nor just. To explain how Truman both came to this conviction and let it be pushed aside, Judis traces similar patterns in the earlier evolution of European and American Zionism: early voices calling for a consensual, negotiated Jewish settlement are pushed aside by both moral arguments (first pogroms, then the Holocaust demand that Jews have a state of their own for safety) and the compelling logic of power. In the process, he describes the evolution of Zionist ideology and political activism in American life. Brandeis and other early figures connected Zionism to the self-image of the American establishment; their successors grew comfortable using those rhetorical tools to connect to large numbers of Jewish and Christian American voters and thus elected officials—and modern ethnic politics, based not on the economic muscle of the old ward bosses, but the ideological sway of a communal identity, were born.

The speed and breadth with which the ideologies became connected in American life—and the emergence of (only in America) mass ethno-cultural lobbying, which Judis documents in fascinating detail—together produced a certain inevitability in policy outcomes. It turns out that Zionism has enjoyed success in American political life not because it is so Jewish, but because it is so American. And while Zionism connects with core American tropes, the Middle East was not core to American national security interests during the early years of the debate. Truman, George Marshall, George Kennan, and all the other postwar diplomacy lions tried to stave off war in Palestine and wrestle with the problem of Jewish and then Palestinian refugees, at the same time they were launching the Marshall Plan and struggling to understand and come to terms with Moscow’s aims, which they perceived as a much higher priority. Truman, like nearly every president since, resisted being pulled into Middle East policy. And, like every president since, he found that American culture and politics forced the region on him anyway.

But what happens to foreign policy issues that are a secondary priority for an American administration? Judis’s look at how signals were missed, policy coherence was sacrificed, and misunderstandings got passed up and down the chain make painful reading for the student or practitioner of American diplomacy—and useful reading even for those who avoid Middle East issues. In the space of three months in 1948, Truman approved a speech by his United Nations ambassador calling for Palestine to stay in UN trusteeship; claimed to have been blindsided by it when it was given; assembled a meeting in which he agreed not to recognize Israel “prematurely”; and then became the first head of state to recognize it, within hours of the May 14, 1948, declaration of independence. Those who are nostalgic for the good old days when experts ran American foreign policy wisely and without political interference will find themselves disabused. Anyone who sets store by the American government being able to plan and carry out multiple international agendas—from any ideological perspective—should find the tale of deception, missed communication, and unwillingness to make hard choices in 1946 to the creation of Israel two years later disheartening. It is right down there, from the standpoint of pure government dysfunction, with George W. Bush’s Iraq debacle and considerably worse than Bill Clinton’s early Yugoslavia missteps (some of which I witnessed up close), or the current agonizing about Obama’s civil-military relations.

The book could stand as an introduction to a unique moment in American intellectual and diplomatic history. But Judis’s agenda is a broader, moral one, and he would have done better to make this clear up-front. His disappointment in the earliest Zionists bubbles beneath every page. By his lights, as he says again and again, they failed to live up to their core values. Brandeis’s concern for the dispossessed in America was not matched with concern for Arab peasants in Palestine. The American Zionists of the 1930s and ’40s were labor leaders, early civil rights activists, and fighters for equality, who simply did not see those values as relevant to the struggle between Jews and Arabs. Judis rescues from relative obscurity a pantheon of Zionist thinkers and leaders who favored a cultural, gradual, and/or politically shared return of Jews to Palestine, and who from the earliest days questioned the justice and wisdom of efforts to disenfranchise and even remove Arabs from Palestine. But the story is always the same, whether in the 1890s, 1920s, or 1940s: these thinkers formed a small minority. At least as important, as Judis himself notes repeatedly, their proposals for accommodation and compromise never came to grips with the political realities of either side—whether it was eastern Europeans imagining that Arab peasants would be eager to learn from newly arrived Jewish intellectuals, academics expecting men who had seized power with guns to yield it to British and UN bureaucrats, or Americans confident that if we could just get everyone into a room (sound familiar?) a reasonable solution could be reached. The Israeli writer Ari Shavit writes about the lure of peace in his new book My Promised Land: “It played a vital moral role in our lives, but it had no empirical basis. The promise of peace was benign, but it was bogged down by a systematic denial of the brutal reality we live in.”

Judis tracks the evolution of another swath of American and European leaders, both Jews and Christians, who began with concern for the rights of Jews and Arabs alike and, in the onslaught of the Holocaust or the messiness of reality, saw their concern for Palestinians dwindle and disappear. Rabbi Abba Silver, whom Judis identifies as the father of American Jewish political activism, moved from sympathizing with calls for joint legislative bodies in the 1920s to supporting forced relocation of Arabs by the 1940s. Beyond tracking this evolution, Judis critiques the moral wisdom of Zionist, British, and American decisionmakers several times a chapter—usually in asides or concluding sentences that, for this basically sympathetic reader, had the effect of putting into question the historical impartiality of whatever I had just read.

What Judis’s history and critique don’t offer the reader is any framework for what the role of morality in U.S. foreign policy—toward the conflict or writ large—might be. The American left, of which Judis is an eminent chronicler, has long been in crisis over this point. That crisis is concealed by the right’s much-louder schism over what U.S. foreign policy should be, full stop; but it is real, and paralyzing. A powerful chunk of the liberal establishment has begun to marry a progressive suspicion of U.S. motives with a realist’s skepticism of morality’s role in policymaking: massacres in Syria or the Central African Republic, worker abuse by our Asian trading partners, crackdowns on democracy activists by our Saudi and Bahraini allies? Not core U.S. interests, and what can struggling America do anyway? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict? So last century. As the Washington consensus seems to be, “We can’t want peace more than the parties themselves.”

This response grows from two generational shocks: first, the catastrophic failure of the Iraq intervention to improve measurably the economic, security, or human rights situation of the people and region as liberals, even war opponents like me, believed it could; second, the drift away from enthusiasm for the Zionist project among Millennials documented by Peter Beinart, and the profound disheartenment among their Boomer and Generation X parents. For every Millennial who shrugs and says, “Israel is a state like any other, and it doesn’t concern me,” there is a Gen-Xer who grew up learning in Hebrew school or its liberal Christian equivalent that Israel was a socialist paradise, a miracle of democracy, and an oasis of support for women’s and minority rights—and who was then stunned to learn that the reality was more complicated.

This reviewer struggles to teach her son to reconcile his brave Pilgrim ancestors with the wrongs done to the native Americans they found when they arrived. His dad is justly proud of his great-aunt who was an early president of Hadassah. But my son will also have to know what it meant to other children that this great-aunt visited Brooklyn in the 1940s and told her nieces, “Well, we will accept a partition, but we want all of Palestine.”

No wonder Judis rails about morality. The way he ties together the moral myths of American culture and those of Zionism is a potent indictment of easy moralism but also a profound warning against the idea that any area of public life can be a morality-free zone. Why were those myths so appealing? Why were they successful in driving policy? And why do we cling to them well after they’ve developed cracks? Because they promise a fairer universe where good triumphs over evil, and even the most harrowing catastrophe, like the Holocaust, can be redeemed in a rebirth.

The left will have to come to terms with some key ideas. First, that Americans, and Israelis, and Palestinians too, are like everybody else since the dawn of time: political actors who make choices for a stew of pragmatic, expedient, cynical, and profoundly ethical reasons, usually all at once. Second, that Americans, perhaps more than most, are subject to moral enthusiasms. And, finally, that we make our very worst decisions as a nation when we are certain of our moral virtue (see: Iraq) and our very best when we are uncertain, even a house divided, but explicitly engaged on moral terms and brave enough to bring our principles and our politics together.

Buy this book from Amazon and support Washington Monthly: Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Heather Hurlburt

Heather Hurlburt directs the New Models of Policy Change project at New America and has worked in foreign policy and communications roles at the White House and the State Department, and on Capitol Hill.