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With a Mighty Hand

With a Mighty Hand

Historian Jeffrey Herf chronicles the near miracle of Israel’s founding.

Gabriel Schoenfeld
Israel's Moment: International Support for and Opposition to Establishing the Jewish State, 1945–1949
by Jeffrey Herf (Cambridge University Press, 450 pp., $39.99)

“With a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” did God bring forth Israel; thus it is written in the Psalms. Indeed, the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 seems like nothing short of a miracle. Out of the ashes of the Holocaust there emerged a homeland for the Jewish people, a place of refuge and a thriving democratic state. But if the mighty hand of God was at work, He wielded it through human agency—the Zionists who conceived of and fought for a Jewish state, the Jews who settled in it and defended it, and the gentiles who favored or at least accepted it. Arrayed against them were other human beings, formidable forces overwhelmingly made up of teeming millions in the Arab world and ranking officials in the high councils of the leading powers.

So, how did this miracle come to pass? The story is retold here by the historian Jeffrey Herf, Distinguished University Professor of Modern European History at the University of Maryland and author of highly regarded books including Divided Past: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys. The subtitle of Israel’s Moment, the present book—International Support for and Opposition to Establishing the Jewish State, 1945–1949—explains its subject matter.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Herf uses a wide lens. He covers topics like the state of the Zionist movement in the immediate aftermath of World War II; attitudes on the American left toward the Zionist project; the role of the French, British, and Russian governments in the critical periods; the politics of the post-World War II refugee crisis; and, of course, the complex inner workings of the U.S. government, in which President Harry Truman’s sympathetic view of the Jewish cause was fiercely contested by underlings in the Departments of State and Defense and the fledgling Central Intelligence Agency.

But despite the breadth of this picture, Herf zooms in closely. He has combed the relevant archives both in the United States and abroad and pieced together in vivid detail the operations of the most important institutions involved in the great internal battles surrounding Israel’s establishment.

His emerging story is full of ironies, and perhaps chief among them is today’s transposition of the political vocabulary in which Israel is discussed. As Herf notes in his preface, the international radical Left, after the Six-Day War of 1967, embraced anti-Zionism and came to view Israel as an imperialist outpost; but at the time of Israel’s birth, the “‘imperialism’ against which liberals fought was Britain’s attempt to preserve its influence in the Middle East,” while the “’anti-imperialism’ they championed was that of Zionists seeking to form a Jewish state in what was then Palestine under the British Mandate.” The same goes for the term “racism:” The “antiracists” of the founding era were the “Zionists who fought against antisemitism,” while the “racists” were the “leaders of the Arab Higher Committee who celebrated the supposed racial homogeneity of Arab societies.” In due course, Zionists would be reviled as racists.

There was a closely associated irony: On the international stage, it was the Soviet Union that for a window of time, brief but crucial, supported the establishment of the Jewish state, while the key bureaucracies of the United States—State, Defense, the CIA—stood opposed. It is discomfiting to read the ringing defense of the Jewish people’s right to a homeland issuing from the lips of then-Soviet United Nations Ambassador (later Foreign Minister) Andrei Gromyko, while America’s ambassador to the UN, Warren Austin, hemmed and hawed under instructions from the State Department.

In yet another reversal between that time and our current era, with some prominent exceptions it was primarily liberals and leftists—like journalists I.F. Stone and Freda Kirchwey—who, informed by the Holocaust, supported the establishment of the Jewish state. In contrast, those in opposition tended to be key architects of the Cold War, including major players like George F. Kennan and George Marshall, along with any number of forgotten figures from the bowels of the bureaucracy whom Herf unearths and subjects to our scrutiny. What united these players was their belief that a Jewish state in Palestine would advantage the Soviet Union, undermining the American project of containing communism and risking U.S. access to Arab oil. Herf’s careful dissection of the documents produced by these “realists” is one of the many areas in which the book excels.

One forgotten figure in all of this is Marshall Vance, the American consul general in Berlin, who was responsible for screening immigrant visas for displaced persons. One of Vance’s memoranda, provides the flavor of the coldhearted fears of the era. In the aftermath of the war, countless Jews languished in squalid “displaced persons” camps. According to Vance (as summarized by Herf),

they were being coached to lie to American officials. Their tale of suffering due to Nazi persecution were in fact clever ruses used by leftist political operatives and opportunists. The effort of Jewish organizations and of the Mossad Le’Aliyah Bet to move refugees to Palestine was being used by the Soviet Union to infiltrate communist agents into Palestine.

Herf is no Cold War revisionist, but the evidence moves him to this judgment:

American anticommunism in the early Cold War years was not inherently a form of antisemitism, but too often the U.S. officials working on Palestine issues showed scant understanding of how the association of Zionism with communism evoked a grim tradition of the recent past.

Another one of these forgotten “realists” was William Eddy, president of Dartmouth College from 1936 to 1942. He was appointed by George Marshall as special assistant to the secretary of state and furiously opposed the establishment of a Jewish state. Eddy maintained that such a move would be an “endorsement of a theocratic sovereign state characteristic of the Dark Ages.” Observes Herf, “Eddy may have been the first Western diplomat to equate Zionism with racism, though from a perspective radically different from that of the leftist advocates of the ‘Zionism is Racism’ resolution in the United States in 1975.”

For America to support the Zionist project, went Eddy’s argument, would entail “jeopardizing the good will of 30,000,000 Arabs and 220,000,000 Muslims” and bringing about the “strategic loss of access to air and naval bases throughout the entire Muslim world.” Eddy was convinced—indeed, he was “certain”—that if a Jewish state were declared, the Jews would “ultimately . . . lose their foothold in Palestine.”

Though history has decisively refuted Eddy’s forecast, his grim appraisal formed an important part of the basis of influential Cold War memos produced by Kennan in January of 1948. Kennan argued, along with his strategic rationale, that implementing the plan for partition of Palestine to include a Jewish state would not only intensify antisemitism in the United States but

provoke anti-Jewish agitation in other parts of the world. The process of assimilation or integration of the individual Jew in the life of the country of which he is a citizen, which has been strongly avocated by World Jewry in the past, would be made more difficult and he would be singled out for attack as an alien political factor. In the U.S., the position of Jews would be gravely undermined as it becomes evident to the public that in supporting a Jewish state in Palestine, we were in fact supporting the extreme objectives of political Zionism, to the detriment of overall U.S. security interests.

Herf sees that Kennan was repeating “cliches that in the past had accompanied antisemitic skepticism about the Jews’ loyalty to their native lands.” Kennan’s memo reads “less as an expression of empathy than a suggestion that such accusations might have some basis,” and “more as a patrician’s fear of popular hatreds than a determination to fight against them.”

President Truman persevered against such sentiments in supporting a Jewish homeland. That story has been well told by Allis and Ronald Radosh in A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel. Herf builds on their pioneering work, putting it into an international context. Among Truman’s advisors, Clark Clifford emerges in Herf’s pages as one of the heroes, urging prompt recognition of the Jewish state before the USSR did so.

Though Clifford prevailed in this recommendation, Herf notes that Truman’s recognition of Israel did not amount to a decisive break with the policies supported by the State Department and the Pentagon. As Israel’s neighbors waged a war of annihilation against the fledgling Jewish state, the United States imposed an embargo on supplies of both men and materiel to Israel. It was communist Czechoslovakia, pursuant to Soviet policy, that stepped into the breach with the clandestine Operation Balak, providing the arms that enabled Israel to survive.

As Herf makes plain, that survival was a close thing. If not a literal miracle, it required at least an extraordinary weaving together of numerous threads, all of which Herf traces to their ends in his complex and fascinating book. Israel’s Moment was the well-deserved winner of this year’s Bernard Lewis Prize, awarded by the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa. Though Israel still faces existential threats, its position in the Middle East is far more secure than at its inception. But echoes of the arguments for and against its establishment resound across the decades, making Herf’s book an invaluable point of reference for anyone seeking to understand the controversies that swirl around Israel today.

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.

Image: Jerusalem, Israel. (Unsplash: Levi Meir Clancy)

Book ReviewsMiddle EastU.S. Foreign Policy