Friday, January 17, 2014

Was Harry Truman a Zionist? By John B. Judis.

Seeds of Doubt: Was Harry Truman a Zionist? By John B. Judis. The New Republic, January 15, 2014.


Harry Truman’s concerns about Israel and Palestine were prescient—and forgotten.

As president, Truman initially opposed the creation of a Jewish state. Instead, he tried to promote an Arab-Jewish federation or binational state. He finally gave up in 1947 and endorsed the partition of Palestine into separate states, but he continued to express regret in private that he had not achieved his original objective, which he blamed most often on the “unwarranted interference” of American Zionists. After he had recognized the new state, he pressed the Israeli government to negotiate with the Arabs over borders and refugees; and expressed his disgust with “the manner in which the Jews are handling the refugee problem.”
Of course, there were good reasons why Truman failed to achieve a federated or binational Palestine, and I don’t intend by recounting Truman’s qualms to suggest that he was wrong to recognize Israel. But Truman’s misgivings about a Jewish state and later about the Israeli stance on borders and refugees were not baseless.  Truman was guided by moral precepts and political principles and concerns about America’s role in the Middle East that remain highly relevant today. Understanding his qualms is not just a matter of setting the historical record straight. It’s also about understanding why resolving the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians needs to be high on America’s diplomatic agenda.
Some of the same people who portray Truman as a dependable supporter of a Jewish state also describe him as having been a proto-Zionist or a Christian Zionist along the lines of Britain’s Arthur Balfour or David Lloyd George, who in 1917 got the British government to champion a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Truman biography Michael T. Benson says that Truman’s support for Israel was an “outgrowth of the president’s religious upbringing and his familiarity with the Bible.” But Truman’s love for the Bible was partly based on his flawed eyesight. The family Bible, with its extra large print, was one of the few books at home the young Truman could read. By his teens, Truman’s favorite author was the irreverent Mark Twain, and like Twain, he would come to have no patience with religious piety.
Truman was not a philo-Semite like Balfour or Lloyd George. He was skeptical of the idea that Jews were a chosen people. (“I never thought God picked any favorites,” he wrote in his diary in 1945.) He had the ethnic prejudices of a small town Protestant Midwesterner from Independence, Missouri. He referred to New York City as “kike town” and complained about Jews being “very very` selfish.” But Truman’s prejudice was not exclusive to Jews (he contrasted “wops” as well as “Jews” with “white people”) and did not infect his political views or his friendships with people like Eddie Jacobson, his original business partner in Kansas City. He was, his biographer Alonzo Hamby has written, “the American democrat, insistent on social equality, but suspicious of those who were unlike him.”
There were two aspects of Truman’s upbringing and early political outlook that shaped his view of a Jewish state. Truman grew up in a border state community that had been torn apart by the Civil War. That, undoubtedly, contributed to his skepticism about any arrangement that he thought could lead to civil war. And Truman, like his father, was an old-fashioned Democrat. His political heroes were Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, and he shared Jefferson’s insistence on the separation of church and state. He blamed Europe’s centuries of war on religious disputes, which, he said, “have caused more wars and feuds than money.” That, too, contributed to his skepticism about a Jewish state.
. . . .
Was Truman right that Morrison-Grady was the “best possible solution” all along? Certainly, as an American, one has to believe that the best possible solution is one where peoples of different religions and nationalities get along in one country. And it remains, perhaps, an ideal solution, but it was not going to happen in those years after World War II. Even if one sets aside the fierce political opposition in the United States to the proposal, there were ample reasons why the plan for a federated or bi-national Palestine was not feasible.
The Arabs and Jews in Palestine both rejected the plan. The Arabs, who, in Rashid Khalidi’s words, had been “envenomed” by their failed rebellion against Zionism and the British, saw the arrival of more Jewish immigrants as a harbinger to a Jewish-controlled Palestine, while the Jews saw any restriction on their sovereignty (or the size of their state within Palestine) as a threat to their survival in the wake of the Holocaust. Still, in the year before Britain gave up trying to mediate between the contending forces, there were hints of compromise from the Arabs and the Jews. What was finally lacking, however, was an outside power capable of imposing and then enforcing a compromise.
Britain was crippled by its war debts after World War II. It could no longer support an overseas military, and in February 1947 announced the withdrawal of its troops from Greece and Turkey. It threw the future of Palestine into the lap of the U.N. in the hope of being able to remove its troops from there, where it was in the midst of war with Zionist forces. The British believed they could only oversee Palestine if the United States contributed money and troops. They could have believed, with some justification, that they could intimidate the Arabs and that the Americans could intimidate the Jews into co-existing with each other. Truman, however, was willing to contribute money but not troops. The United States had undergone rapid demobilization after World War II, but the Cold War had begun. By 1947, Truman and the State Department were preoccupied with having enough troops to defend Europe against Soviet communism. As the final debate over partition was occurring in the United Nations, the U.S. was in the midst of the Berlin crisis with the Soviet Union. There was no support in the American government, or in the public, for sending troops to Palestine.
Truman rejected sending troops to enforce Morrison-Grady and later to enforce the original U.N. partition plan. Without American troops, the British and then the U.N. were powerless to prevent a civil war and to alter the final results, which left the Jews with almost 80 percent of Palestine, and the Palestinian Arabs stateless and dispersed as refugees throughout the region. Even with an American-led intervention force, the U.N. might still have been unable to prevent a civil war from breaking out or the subsequent war between Israel and the Arab states, but without such a force, there was simply no chance of realizing the Morrison-Grady plan or the original U.N. plan of November 1947. Truman’s nostalgia for the Morrison-Grady plan was based on a fantasy.

Proposed partition of Israel/Palestine in 1947

But the considerations that led Truman to favor a bi-national or federated Palestine were not fantastic, and remain relevant today. There was always a strong moral streak in Truman’s foreign policy. He thought of the world divided between underdogs and bullies and good and evil. He genuinely hated Nazis and sympathized with Jews as their victims. His support for the right of the refugees to emigrate to Palestine reflected his moral conviction rather than any concern about electoral support. And in Palestine, he wanted a solution that was fair to the Arabs as well as to the Jews.
Truman didn’t know all the details of the history of Palestine, but he knew that the Jews had come to Palestine a half century before to establish a Jewish state where another people had lived, and had made up the overwhelming majority for the prior 1,400 years. He was offended by the proposal, pressed by Silver and American Zionists, that a minority should be allowed to rule a majority. He wanted an arrangement that would respect the just claims of both Jews and the Arabs.
After he dropped his public opposition to a Jewish state, and supported some form of partition, Truman continued to be guided by moral considerations. In October 1947, he had endorsed a partition that would more accurately reflect the size of the existing populations. After Israel was established, and had defeated the Arabs, he supported a peace agreement that would allow some of the 700,000 Arab refugees from the war to return to their homes. (The Israeli ambassador to the United States complained that Truman was “sentimentally sympathetic” to the refugees.) In each case, however, Truman backed down under pressure from the Zionist lobby. In August 1949, Truman and the State Department finally gave up trying to influence the Israelis.
Today, of course, the Arab-Israeli conflict remains a moral issue. The Jews got their state in 1948, but the Palestinians did not. After the 1948 war, Jordan annexed the West Bank and Egypt Gaza, and the term “Palestine” was banned from Jordanian textbooks. After the Six Day War, Israel annexed East Jerusalem and took over the West Bank and Gaza. It evacuated its settlers from Gaza after 2006, but continues to control its outer access and air space. The Israeli government has allowed over 500,000 Jews to settle in Palestinian areas of Jerusalem and in the West Bank. The “underdogs,” as Truman once put it in a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, are now acting like the “top dogs.”
Truman and the State Department were also worried that the attempt to create a Jewish state in an Arab-dominated region would lead to war and continued strife. Many of their concerns have become outdated. They were worried originally that the Arabs would slaughter the Jews and that the United States would have to prevent a second Holocaust. They worried for decades that American support for Israel would drive the Arabs into the arms of the Soviet Union. But their underlying concern—that a Jewish state, established against the opposition of its neighbors, would prove destabilizing and a threat to America’s standing in the region—has been proven correct.
That’s been even more the case in the wake of Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, a Muslim holy site, and its occupation of the West Bank. Opposition to the Israeli occupation was central to the growth of Islamic nationalism in the Middle East in the 1970s and to the rise of international terrorist groups. Osama bin Laden’s 1996 Fatwa was directed at the “Zionist-Crusader alliance.” America’s continued support for Israel—measured in military aid and in its tilt to Israel in negotiations with the Palestinians—has fueled anti-Americanism. In his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2010, General David Petraeus, then in charge of operations in Afghanistan said publicly what many American officials privately believe:
The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR [Area of Operations]. Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support.
Resolving the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians would not necessarily calm the turbulent Middle East, but at a time when Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and even Lebanon are in chaos and could become havens for international terrorism, it would remove an important source of unrest and allow the United States to act as an honest broker rather than a partisan in the region.
Truman’s solution to the conflict was, of course, a federated or binational Palestine. If that was out of the question in 1946, it is even more so almost 70 years later. If there is a “one-state solution” in Israel/Palestine, it is likely to be an authoritarian Jewish state compromising all of British Palestine. What remains possible, although enormously difficult to achieve, is the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. That is what the last three American Presidents, sometimes facing opposition from Israel’s lobby in Washington as well as from the Israeli government and the Palestinian Hamas organization, have tried unsuccessfully to promote, and what Secretary of State John Kerry is currently trying to negotiate.
If Truman were still around, he would wish Kerry well. The same moral and strategic imperatives that led Truman to favor the Morrison-Grady plan for Palestine now argue in favor of creating a geographically and economically viable Palestinian state. And if it is going to happen, America, the leading outside power in the region, has to play a major role. It has to be “Cyrus”—not just for the Israelis, but for the Palestinians.