Monday, June 02, 2014

Who got screwed ...

In nearly thirty years of encountering articles by the liberal political pundit John Judis in various venues, I've been less than a fan. No doubt the guy is smart and often knows his stuff. But too often he seemed patronizing toward people who leaped into the fray on behalf of liberal policies and practical efforts. Maybe he did know more than they, but those who engaged, however noisily and messily, created the space for his greater wisdom. Olympian visions don't change the world; sometimes people do. Maybe I'm just saying that for many of those years Judis wrote mostly for the New Republic which has run to this attitude.

I began to have more respect for Judis when he opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003; that took some chops, especially since he wrote for the New Republic where a generation of younger "liberal" pundits were proving their manhood by backing George W. Bush's excellent adventure. (Notably, the best of these guys, Andrew Sullivan and Peter Beinart, apparently learned a lesson from that one, big time.)

In Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, I was surprised to find that Judis had written a book whose animating premise is moral outrage at what Zionism has wrought.

Jesus, the first Christian, and the last in a line of Hebrew prophets, was reported to have asked, "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul." Israel's Jews had gained a world of their own, but at the expense of another people. History, of course, often works that way. And if the people who are vanquished disappear, or are relatively weak and few in number, the victors can eventually lay aside the memory of what they have done. Few Georgians today remember or regret having driven the peaceful Cherokee Indians off their lands.

Israelis and their supporters spent decades trying to explain away the dark side of their conquest of Palestine. They claimed they were victims and the Palestinian Arabs aggressors. They linked the mufti and his successors to Hitler and the Nazis. They insisted that there was no such thing as Palestinians -- a claim that Jordan's rulers were eager to reaffirm. But the Palestinian people have not gone away and have grown in number, and are a living reminder that what was a triumph for Zionism in 1948 has been an enduring catastrophe for them.

The Zionists who emigrated to Palestine treated the Arab inhabitants very much like America's Indians, but Palestine's Arabs are unlikely to suffer the ignominious fate of many Indian tribes. ... when all the perverse circumstances of history, including the twisted leadership of the Palestinian Arabs, were taken into account, and even when the horrors of the Holocaust were fully acknowledged -- Palestine's Arabs had still gotten screwed, and screwed by people who over the centuries had suffered even worse indignities, yet who had always claimed to stand for better.

As for Judis' storyline in this volume, I was more interested in his account of the intrigues of European Zionists before World War I and of the contested creation of the Zionist lobby in the United States than in his ostensible subject -- why President Harry Truman accepted the partition of Palestine despite his instinctive abhorrence toward creating a state that mixed religion and secular legitimacy.

Truman disdained religious sectarianism. He believed in the separation of church and state. "In my opinion, people's religious beliefs are their own affair, and when I don't agree with them, I just don't discuss religion. It has caused more wars and feuds than money." he wrote his wife in 1939. Given this view of religion, he was as put off by the idea of a Jewish state as he was by that of a Protestant or Catholic state.

That Truman backed off this instinct seems just a normal instance of interest group advocacy influencing policy in the U.S. political system.

More striking to me was Judis' account of how U.S. Jewish leaders had to be led and even coerced by their foreign Zionist brethren into adopting the European notion of Jews as a "nation" (and so in need of a homeland territory) instead of what their situation in the U.S. had taught them: that Jews are members of a religion and possibly a culture (and even, among Reform Jews, something like a "denomination.") These are very different self-understandings, pointing to different politics. Judis dates the triumph among U.S. Zionists of the political and national idea to shortly after World War II, under the spur of the horror of the Nazi Holocaust.

In his opinion, subsequent Zionist leadership barreled off on a wrong track.

... in the long run the subordination of the American movement to the leaders in Palestine and later Israel would lead to the creation of a Zionist and pro-Israel lobby in the United States that lacked a mind of its own, except on such purely tactical matters as how to best lobby Congress or the White House.

This still seems to be the case among those who claim to the be only spokespersons for U.S. Jews and who seek to silence any other points of view. And Judis points out that Democratic officeholders, perhaps even more than Republicans, remain subject to the pressure of political cash.

Since Truman's win in 1948. the Democrats had become dependent on Jewish campaign money. The veteran Jewish Telegraphic Agency reporter Ron Kampeas wrote of estimates that Jews had contributed between a third and two-thirds of the party's money. Two-thirds seems way too high, but it could be between one-fourth and one-third. Some of that money has reflected Jewish support for liberal domestic policies, but much of it has had to do with support for Israel. One former campaign official said of these latter donors, "If you have money, you have a platform."

In Judis' view, President Obama came into office thinking he could break the pattern -- and learned that he could not.

Not surprisingly, many of Judis' former comrades from the New Republic (Leon Wieseltier, former owner Marty Peretz) and the right (Wall Street Journal opinion writers) have denounced him for writing uncomfortable truths of U.S. Zionist history. For me, the book is a welcome enlargement of what can be spoken from a powerful source.

1 comment:

Hattie said...

Thanks for this. I will read the book.
I too am interested in the history of Zionism.

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