What Truman Got Wrong About a Jewish State

Gershom Gorenberg

My review of John Judis’s “Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict” is now online at The American Prospect:

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. ….

Read the full article here.