Jeffrey Herf, professor of modern European history at the University of Maryland, spoke to a May 23rd Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about his recent book, Israel's Moment: International Support for and Opposition to Establishing the Jewish State, 1945–1949, revealing new perspectives regarding the "origins of the State of Israel."
Based on archival research, Herf's behind-the-scenes look at the competing forces surrounding Israel's pivotal "moment" encompasses four themes: (1) For a "brief moment" in the Soviet Union's foreign policy, the "diplomatic and military support" from the Soviet bloc for the establishment of Israel was "more consequential" than President Harry Truman's support for the United Nation's partition resolution of 1947 recognizing a Jewish state of Israel; (2) U.S. State Department Arabists were not the only opponents to Israel's establishment; fierce and "unrelenting opposition" also came from the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the British Foreign Office; (3) Ardent American support for Israel's establishment came from the "left liberal side"; and (4) It was "broadly understood" after World War II and the Holocaust, particularly among the liberals and leftists sensitized to issues of racism, that Zionism was a form of "anti-racism ... and an anti-imperialism movement."
At that time, although the Soviet bloc supported Israel in part to further its aim of driving the British out of the Middle East, it was also motivated by persistent post-war anti-Nazi and anti-fascist sentiment among some Soviet bloc states. Herf said while Truman's support for Israel is well-known, historians have not "paid sufficient attention" to influential individuals who opposed "the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine." In the U.S. State Department, these included Secretary of State and former five-star general George C. Marshall; the author of the Long Telegram outlining the U.S. containment policy for the Soviet Union during the Cold War, George F. Kennan; and Under Secretary of State Robert Lovett.
The reasons for their opposition were twofold: (1) A Jewish state would "antagonize" the Arabs and threaten U.S. access to Arab oil, a particular concern to Marshall who was involved in the post-war "economic reconstruction" of Western Europe as the Cold War was heating up; and (2) Along with British Foreign Office under Foreign Minister Earnest Bevin, the State Department and the Pentagon viewed a Jewish state in Palestine as a "Trojan horse for Soviet and communist influence in the Middle East." Calculating that the more conservative Arab states would be less susceptible to Soviet interests, the consensus among these influential individuals was that European Jewish refugees would undermine America's Cold War containment policy and likely advance Soviet and communist interests.
The political support for the Jewish state in America came from some Republicans, but the strongest supporters were liberals, particularly journalists, liberal newspapers, and liberal magazine editors. Another influential voice was the distinguished historian and Zionist, Benzion Netanyahu, whose son was to become Israel's prime minister.
Left and liberal circles viewed the Zionist movement as part of the "anti-colonial revolt of the post-World War II era" during which the end of empires birthed many "new independent states," of which Israel was to be one. Zionism was also seen as "anti-racism," as the issue of racism was a concern for the American left and liberals in the mid-1940's. This is why, Herf said, a speech given in London and New York in 1947 by Jamal Husseini, representative of the Arab Higher Committee of the Palestine Arabs of the United Nations, and brother of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, is significant.
Husseini claimed the Arab world's "territorial continuity" served as a "natural bulwark for peace, homogeneity, and race" that a Jewish state in the region would destroy. Herf stressed that we should "recall the racism" and Jew-hatred that can be traced back to the "founding texts" of Palestinian Arab nationalism. This reminder is pertinent given the current Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) campaign against Israel, which has its roots in the successful propaganda campaign run by the "Soviet bloc and the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization]" from the 1960s to the end of the Cold War that portrays "Zionism as a form of racism" and Palestinian nationalism as a form of "anti-racism."
Herf's archival research delved into U.N. documents which reveal the "remarkable" contributions of Soviet bloc diplomats in support of the partition plan. They opposed the Bernadotte plan, which would have "deprived Israel of the Negev desert," and which the U.S. and Britain supported. Soviet support for the Jewish state only reinforced State Department suspicions that there was "a connection between Zionism and communism." As for the Soviet's "brief moment" of support for Israel, after Stalin saw that the new Israeli government formed under Ben-Gurion was not going to "be in his camp ... he reverted to his own more natural antisemitism," as reflected in his purges of Soviet Jews in 1949.
Herf pointed out that Truman, a practicing Christian who believed his faith "was deeply indebted to Judaism," was opposed by "prestigious and famous leaders of the American national security establishment." He was limited in what he "was able or willing to do," and with the Cold War looming, Truman could not fire the very same people he counted on for that fight. Herf noted that for Truman, "launching the Cold War was more important than providing arms for the Jews," and that when the Jews needed weapons, the U.S. refused to provide them. From the 1950s until 1967, France was Israel's "most important ally" and primary supplier of weapons.
The turning point at which Truman thwarted Marshall and Kennan's opposition to the Jewish state came in 1948 after Warren Austin, the American ambassador to the UN, gave a speech arguing that the U.S. should replace the 1947 partition plan with a "trusteeship" over Palestine by the U.S., Britain, and France that "would preclude the establishment of a Jewish state." Truman, "furious" that his wishes were being undermined, "pulled policy back into the White House," where he was able to be "both a cold warrior and a Zionist."
In researching the notes of James McDonald, the first American ambassador to Israel, whom the State Department despised for being pro-Zionist, Herf found that McDonald wrote that after the declaration of Israel's statehood, the November 29, 1947, resolution approving the partition plan was "never carried out by the UN, the U.S., or the Middle East States." Instead, McDonald wrote that America's decision to enforce an arms embargo after the Arab countries declared war on Israel encouraged the Arab aggressors to destroy the newborn state. McDonald wrote that "had the Jews in Palestine, or the Israelis, waited on the United States or the United Nations, they would have been exterminated."
McDonald's notes about his conversation with Israel's prime minister David Ben-Gurion revealed that even after the establishment of Israel's statehood, the State Department insisted Israel re-admit the Palestinian Arab refugees. Given that the Arab countries were at war with Israel, the prime minister resisted, insisting that the Jewish state's defeated enemies be pressured to sign a meaningful peace agreement, which they refused to do. Herf's aim in writing his book, he said, was to change "the way many people think about the origins of the State of Israel." "Whatever virtues or faults the State of Israel has, it was not the project of American imperialism," Herf said, adding "that alone is something that I think needs to be much more widely understood."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.