Jewish Journal

John B. Judis and the ‘Genesis’ of the Arab/Israeli conflict

by Jonathan Kirsch

Posted on Feb. 12, 2014 at 6:27 pm

The struggle for Israel’s survival is a far more complex and nuanced matter than the readers of Tom Friedman’s short takes in the New York Times might suspect.  By contrast, John B. Judis, a senior editor at The New Republic, digs deeply into history, politics and diplomacy to explain the backstory of today’s headlines in “Genesis: Truman, American Jews and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict” (Farrar Straus and Giroux, $30.00). But the argument he makes is not going to endear him to the friends of Israel.

At the heart of his provocative book is a proposition that will shock some readers. President Truman, he argues at the outset, advocated a bi-national state in Palestine, and when the U.N. voted for partition, he “favored a division of Palestine that would give the Arabs, who still made up two-thirds of the population, a proportionate majority of the lands.”  But, writes Judis, “Truman was beaten back in each instance by a powerful American Zionist movement working in tandem with the Jewish Agency in Palestine and later the Israeli government.”  As a result, “the new Jewish state took up almost 80 percent of Palestine, and Palestine’s Arabs were dispersed and deprived of a state of their own.” Over the next half-century, “Truman’s successors have, as a rule, suffered the same fate as he did.”

The same theme is sustained throughout “Genesis.” “Truman was a genuine liberal who had moral qualms about Zionism,” Judis writes. “He was also the last president to express them.”  Even Obama, he asserts, backed down on early demands to suspend the construction of new settlements. “The actors have changed,” he writes, “but the underlying problem remains the same: whether an American president and the American people can forthrightly address the conflict of Jew and Arab in the Middle East, or whether they must bow to the demands of a powerful pro-Israel lobby and an increasingly rightward-leaning Israeli government.”

Judis describes himself as someone who “is Jewish, but has no religious allegiance to Judaism,” a phrase that could be fairly applied to the majority of the Zionist movement during its pioneering years and to the founders of the State of Israel.  Still, he expresses solidarity with the tradition of social activism that he discovered in the 19th century Reform movement: “[T]he 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.” 

“I don’t claim to be fulfilling the role of ethical prophet,” Judis writes, “but what I took from this Reform tradition was the idea that an American Jew should be as concerned about the rights of a Palestinian Arab as he is about the rights of an Israeli Jew.”

Judis deserves credit for reprising in detail an often-overlooked period of history in which modern Zionism emerged in Europe and set its eyes on Palestine.  He is correct in arguing that the Arabs who dwelled there were “virtually invisible” to many (but not all) of those who dared to imagine a Jewish homeland in the Holy Land. And he usefully points out the diversity of motivations and aspirations among the many strands of Zionism, an authentically Jewish phenomenon that characterizes Israel even today.

“Genesis” usefully reminds us that the Arabs, like the Jews, are stirred by visions of sovereignty in Palestine.  The comforting platitude that Palestine might serve as “a land without a people for a people without a land” was false from the beginning. As early as 1905, for example, one Arab writer penned “The Awakening of the Arab Nation,” a book in which he warned of the inevitable conflict between rival nationalisms in what was then a backwater of the Ottoman Empire: “These two movements are destined to clash continuously until one conquers the other.” 

Above all, Judis makes the case that the “two-state solution” is deeply rooted in the history of Zionism, whose leaders were compelled to make ad hoc decisions in the cracks between the competing and warring great powers.  The Balfour Declaration, after all, promised a “National Home,” whatever that meant, and not a Jewish state in all of Palestine.  The policy of the Zionist movement in Palestine, famously summarized as “creating facts on the ground,” was highly pragmatic: “One more acre, one more goat.” When the Peel Commission proposed the partition of Palestine in 1937, both Weizmann and Ben-Gurion endorsed it: “The Jews would be fools not to accept it even if [a state] were the size of a tablecloth,” Weizmann said.

That was then, of course, and this is now.  The escalation of Jewish ambition — and the expansion of the Jewish state — can be explained in part by the toughening-up that resulted from both the enmity of the Arab world and the horrors of the Holocaust, which meant that Jews were no longer quite so powerless. Indeed, the false assumption on which so much criticism of Israel is based is that the Jewish state is a super-power — an idea that Judis embraces. “Israelis and their supporters spent decades trying to explain away the dark side of their conquest of Palestine,” he insists. “But the Palestinian people have not gone away and have grown in number, and they are a living reminder that what was a triumph for Zionism in 1948 has been an enduring catastrophe for them.”

One can be both an ardent Zionist and an advocate for making peace with the Palestinian Arabs. But the flaw in Judis’s book, I fear, is the disconnect between ethical idealism and the real world. Jewish values of social justice, which Judis ardently embraces, arguably helped to preserve our survival over two millennia of powerlessness in the Diaspora, but they were not enough to spare us from the Nazis and their collaborators, and it is an open question how they will figure in the future of the embattled Middle East.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book, “The Short Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris,” was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in biography and was selected as a book of the year by the Washington Post.

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