The discussion around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tends to be overheated and resistant to reasoned debate. For anyone interested in learning more about its roots, and particularly for American Jews hoping to better understand Israel’s early history, “Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict” is a standout book that will both teach and productively provoke.
“Genesis’’ is history, not polemic. And it’s clear that John B. Judis, a senior editor at The New Republic and a Jew who went to San Francisco’s Israeli consulate to volunteer for the 1967 war (he was told he was too late), is hoping to undo what he views as myths that have infected mainstream Jewish thinking about Israel’s founding and caused otherwise liberal Jews to downplay the plight and ignore the rights of Palestinians.
Two myths stand out. First is the notion that Jewish immigrants took over a land that was mostly uninhabited. This remains a common misconception and one that fueled the growth of Zionist immigration back when it was first gearing up. Zionists insisted then either that Palestine was mostly uninhabited, or, in colonialist terms, that an influx of Jews would improve the lots of the simple, primitive Palestinians.
GENESIS: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict
But impartial observers at the time reported that there existed on the land a large, well-established Palestinian community, one suspicious of large-scale Jewish migration.
Second, Judis rebuts the popular idea that Palestinian anti-Semitism stemmed (and stems) from religious or ideological convictions. Not so, he writes. Rather, as the number of Jews in Palestine increased, and as it became common for Jews to refuse to hire Arab labor, among other ostensibly hostile practices, only then did virulent anti-Semitism emerge.
When Palestinians did start sounding unhinged about Jewish influence, it was because they “had begun importing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories from Eastern Europe.” This implies that the widespread anti-Semitic conspiracy theorizing in the Muslim world originated not from the Koran or deep-seated ethnic hatred, but from Poland, Germany, and Lithuania and in response to secular, concrete frustrations.
It’s provocative, yes, but “Genesis” can certainly be read as simply a solid, successful work of history. It’s clearly written, packed with useful information, and Judis has a journalist’s eye for picking out colorful quotes and notes from historical archives.
He goes into particularly fine-grain detail when it comes to President Truman’s relationship with the burgeoning Zionist lobby. Truman exhibited a casual anti-Semitism that was certainly not out of place in his day, but also counted Jews among his close friends and advisers.
He felt put-upon by Zionist groups clamoring for his administration’s support and comes across as whiny — the “one constant in his reproaches were the ‘emotional Jews’ of the United States,’ ” writes Judis — but also aware of the political risks of taking sides.
On the one hand, to support Israel might be to involve the United States in a new world conflict after having just emerged from World War II. On the other, domestic political pressure mitigated strongly against remaining neutral. “I’m sorry, gentlemen,’’ the president said, “but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism; I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.”
To write about Zionist influence on the US government is to open oneself up to accusations of anti-Semitism. But when it comes to the founding of Israel and everything that’s happened since, there should be — and, as Judis shows, there is — a way to treat Zionists like any other constituency lobbying the government. In the run-up to Israel’s founding in 1948, American Zionists, like any effective interest group, were, as Judis writes, well-organized, visible, and loud.
The Palestinians didn’t enjoy a fraction of the political clout that the Zionists did. And throughout the book, the Zionists appear better negotiators, better organizers, and, when the bloodshed came, better fighters than the Palestinians.
Much of this was because of factors beyond the Palestinians’ control — infighting among would-be allies in surrounding Arab countries, for example — but there are examples of the Palestinians squandering opportunities to garner international support. In the end, they became a marginalized people, which they remain to this day.
Now, to say that Palestinians have, on the whole, been treated terribly since the rise of Zionism is not to say that Israel shouldn’t exist as a Jewish homeland. But Judis’s claim that “American liberals, in the wake of the Holocaust and the urgency it lent to the Zionist case, simply abandoned their principles when it came to Palestine’s Arabs” is an important one, and is well-defended in this excellent book.
Jesse Singal, a regular contributor to the Globe, can be reached at jesse.r.singal@ gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @jessesingal.