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Revisiting Zionism

February 25, 2014 Topics: SocietyHistory Regions: Israel

Revisiting Zionism

Mini Teaser: John B. Judis' new book on Israel is right, but for the wrong reasons.

by Author(s): Bernard Wasserstein

John B. Judis, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), 448 pp., $30.00.

THE SECURITY outside my neighborhood temple in Hyde Park, Chicago, like that around many Jewish institutions throughout the world these days, is conspicuous, though not as rigorous as at comparable buildings in Germany, France or Sweden. But in this case there is a special reason: Temple KAM Isaiah Israel stands just across the road from the residence of the Obama family. The house is rarely occupied now, but when the Obamas lived there full-time they used to “pal around” (to use Sarah Palin’s felicitous expression) with the congregation’s notoriously radical rabbi, the late Arnold Wolf.

In Genesis, John B. Judis credits Wolf with providing the future president with “his view of Israel.” The rabbi, he says, described himself as a “religious radical” and a “liberal activist.” As Judis writes, he “supported Israel’s existence, but he wanted the Israelis to pursue policies that fully recognized the rights of the Palestinians.” Wolf’s view of Israel represented “a return to the universalism of nineteenth-century Reform Judaism.” In a confessional passage at the outset of his book, Judis, a senior editor at the New Republic and the author of several well-regarded books on domestic and foreign policy, declares his own attraction to Wolf’s teaching “that the 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.”

Reform Judaism, as Judis notes, was historically opposed to Zionism. Yet several of the early leaders of American Zionism, notably Stephen Wise and Abba Hillel Silver, were Reform Jewish clerics. Judis traces the awkward relationship between the universalist values of Reform Judaism and the nationalist cause that these men espoused. He sees a profound contradiction between their liberal political outlooks and their general failure to recognize the political rights of the Palestinian Arabs. He admits of only rare exceptions such as Judah L. Magnes, an American Reform rabbi who became the first head of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In some ways this is an old-fashioned book that might have been written by a member of the American Council for Judaism, an association of Reform Jews, formed in 1942, that propagandized vigorously against Zionism in the early years of the Jewish state (it still exists, albeit in diminished form). The “main lesson” of the book, Judis writes, is that “the Zionists who came to Palestine to establish a state trampled on the rights of the Arabs who already lived there.”

Of course, one does not need Reform Judaism, historical or current, as one’s guide in order to arrive at this conclusion. Others have reached the same destination by different routes. Perhaps the most effective presentation of this point of view was written a generation ago from a Marxist standpoint by the great French Jewish orientalist Maxime Rodinson in his Israel: Fait Colonial? (published in English as Israel: A Colonial-Settler State?). Even those who disagreed with its basic contention (among them the pro-Israeli Jean-Paul Sartre, who commissioned the essay in May 1967 for a special issue of his journal Les Temps Modernes) had to recognize the power of Rodinson’s argument, which derived from a scrupulous welding of theoretical framework and historical data and from an aversion to unexamined moralizing. The same cannot be said for Judis’s enterprise.

THIS BOOK is divided into three parts. The first and weakest presents a history of the Zionist enterprise in Palestine up to 1939. “The moral contours of that early history,” he writes, “are remarkably clear. From the 1890s . . . until the early 1930s, the responsibility for the conflict lay primarily with the Zionists.” Judis here develops the proposition that British imperialism and the Zionists, using the vehicle of the mandate for Palestine granted by the League of Nations, “conspired to screw the Arabs out of a country that by the prevailing standards of self-determination would have been theirs.” (The crude wording is not indicative of what is the generally elegant prose style of this book.)

The League of Nations was itself the supreme contemporary arbiter, in international law and in general public legitimacy, of international standards of conduct. Judis is fully entitled to disagree, albeit retrospectively, with those standards. But he cannot simultaneously invoke and condemn them. Yet that is, in essence, what he does in this section of his book.

Judis’s historical knowledge is sometimes shaky: the Jews of Palestine, he maintains, “suffered religious persecution” under Ottoman Turkish rule. He cites no examples; indeed, it would be hard for him to do so since this persecution is a figment of his imagination. Until the mid-nineteenth century, it is true, Jews in the empire labored under a number of irksome restrictions. But they also enjoyed some privileges, including freedom from conscription for military service and protection by the millet system, which accorded them communal autonomy in several important spheres of life. In the mid-nineteenth century, Jews, like Christians, were accorded full legal equality with Muslims. Admittedly, this did not bring immediate social equality. But to describe their condition in late Ottoman Palestine as one of “religious persecution” is quite misleading.

A number of other errors pepper Judis’s text. Earl Curzon would have been surprised to learn that he was the House of Lords representative in the war cabinet. One might as well say that President Clinton was the saxophonists’ representative in the White House. Vladimir Jabotinsky’s political movement was not the National but the New Zionist Organization. There are other bloopers: Saudi Arabia makes a premature appearance in 1915; Jordan, formed in 1946, steps on to the stage in 1919; and Guyana, born in 1966, pops up in 1937. But these are all trivial mistakes.

Of more substantial importance is Judis’s claim that the British attempted “to stoke sectarian division” in Palestine. Such an allegation is often made against the British in relation to Jews and Arabs. It is erroneous. But we need not pursue that hare further here because what Judis has in mind are relations between Muslims and Christians, which he believes the British deliberately sought to impair in pursuit of a divide-and-rule policy. The sole proof that he offers for this contention is the fact that the British sponsored the creation in 1921 of a “Supreme Moslem Council.” But there is no credible evidence in the archives of the British or Palestine governments, neither of which Judis has consulted, nor anywhere else, that would substantiate such a characterization of the motives of the British in establishing this body. In reality, as all concerned recognized, some such body was urgently required at the start of the mandate for straightforward practical and legal reasons in order to administer Muslim religious endowments and institutions in the wake of the demise of the Ottoman state.

SUCH ERRORS undermine the reader’s confidence in Judis’s historical understanding and judgment, but they do not fundamentally shake his argument. The real problem is that Judis’s thesis is based on unexamined principles. He lays great stress on the doctrine of national self-determination, which, he reminds us, was given memorable expression in President Wilson’s Fourteen Points address of January 1918—though, by the way, the precise term does not appear there. Judis asserts that early American Zionists, who were mainly liberals, had a blind spot when it came to the political rights of Palestinian Arabs. He points out that men like Justice Louis Brandeis, champions of the rights of laboring men and black people at home, tended to dismiss Arab rights in Palestine as of no great account. As a matter of historical description, he is quite right. But what he draws from this is more questionable.

In the first place, his argument rests on the assumption that the doctrine of self-determination offered a mechanical solution to all nationality problems. Here he is in good company, since many of the peacemakers at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 also thought that this concept was a supreme guiding light. But what they failed, for the most part, to reckon with was the hotchpotch intermingling of ethnic groups in many of the areas in which they were engaged in drawing borders. Just two decades later such certitude dissolved in the crises over the Sudetenland, the Polish Corridor and Danzig. The murder of six million Jews during the Second World War and the expulsion thereafter of twelve million Germans from areas of Eastern Europe where their ancestors had, for the most part, lived for many generations, put paid to the idea that national self-determination, tempered by international protection of minorities, was any kind of panacea. If any confirmation of that lesson were required, it was furnished by the events that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

The trouble with self-determination on a territorial basis was that the outcome inevitably depended on the precise area to which it was to be applied. Irish nationalists demanded freedom from British rule over all of Ireland—ignoring the political rights of the Unionist majority in the northern part of the island. One could point to similar problems in almost every region of the world, particularly in territories formerly under imperial control, among them Palestine, that achieved independence after the Second World War.

Pullquote: The pro-Israel lobby, of which Judis is highly critical, is unquestionably powerful, but it is not and has never been omnipotent.Image: Essay Types: Book Review