'Israel’s Moment': The birth of Israel wasn't preordained - review

There was nothing inevitable about the emergence of the Jewish state.

 FORMER US president Bill Clinton and British prime minister Tony Blair pass a portrait of US president Harry S. Truman in the White House, 1998. Truman was critical to the founding of Israel.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
FORMER US president Bill Clinton and British prime minister Tony Blair pass a portrait of US president Harry S. Truman in the White House, 1998. Truman was critical to the founding of Israel.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

The nation-state of the Jewish people was born in the wake of a devastating global conflict, and at the dawn of a new cold war. There was nothing preordained about “Israel’s moment,” observes University of Maryland Jeffrey Herf. Rather, the years 1947 to 1949 were a fraught period, marked by tense politics in the United States and on the global stage. Israel ultimately prevailed against all odds as a result of tenacious advocacy on the part of a select few figures, and a “tenuous agreement between the Soviet Union and the United States.”

Herf’s book does not exactly make for light reading; it’s 500 pages long. But it is a fascinating exploration of the unlikely players that helped to secure Israel’s place in the community of nations. Herf also identifies the actors (notably within the American bureaucracy) that labored to suffocate the Jewish state before it could be conceived, and even after its creation.

“Arab attack upon the Jewish people… is also an attack upon the authority of the United Nations and the prestige of the United States.”

Robert Wagner

Two legislators stand out in Herf’s book as Israel’s unwavering champions during this pivotal moment: senator Robert Wagner (D-NY) and congressman Emanuel Celler (D-NY). Wagner declared that the “Arab attack upon the Jewish people… is also an attack upon the authority of the United Nations and the prestige of the United States.” Celler decried the Arab “monopoly of argument on Palestine in the United Nations.” They were supported by other Democrats during that period, such as senators Estes Kefauver (TN) and Alexander Wiley (WI), to name a few.

Freda Kirchwey, editor of the liberal magazine The Nation also understood the importance of this moment, and was a tireless advocate for Israel’s creation. Herf documents the many positions taken by The Nation in support of Israel, including its call for “the immediate facilitation of immigration into the Jewish area of Palestine for the Jewish population now in the camps of Europe.”

Other unlikely supporters for Israel hailed from the Communist bloc, which included Poland and Czechoslovakia, led by Russia. It was Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet representative to the United Nations, who unabashedly declared that the “Jewish people have been closely linked with Palestine for a considerable period in history,” and noted how the creation of Israel was consistent with the “principle of self-determination of peoples.”

 A view of an entrance of the United Nations multi-agency compound near Herat November 5, 2009. (credit: REUTERS/MORTEZA NIKOUBAZL) A view of an entrance of the United Nations multi-agency compound near Herat November 5, 2009. (credit: REUTERS/MORTEZA NIKOUBAZL)

The irony here is thick.

Democrats today are increasingly ambivalent about Israel, with “The Squad” emerging as a vehemently anti-Israel chorus in Congress. The Nation is a mouthpiece for the “woke” mob that routinely excoriates Israel. And while Israel maintains a professional relationship with the Kremlin, particularly as it relates to Russia’s military presence in Syria, Russia would never be described as an ally of Israel. In fact, Russia today is moving to dismantle the operations of Israel’s Jewish Agency in the country, stoking new tensions.

Of course, the main protagonist in “Israel’s moment” was US president Harry S. Truman, who defied the “deep state” of his time. He overruled the strident opposition of his own State Department. Herf notes that secretary of state George Marshall had “deep reservations about the wisdom of a Jewish state in Palestine,” while George Kennan, the storied director of policy planning, “concluded that appeasement of Arab rejectionists rather that confrontation with antisemitism served American foreign policy.” The president defied the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which placed the crew of the Exodus under investigation after its famous voyage carrying Jews to Mandatory Palestine in defiance of British restrictions. He defied the Treasury Department, which investigated Jewish nonprofits that raised money for Zionist activities. And he overruled the Central Intelligence Agency, which issued a 17-page paper warning of the “Consequences of the Partition of Palestine.”

Against the backdrop of such positions across the US bureaucracy, Truman elected to recognize the new State of Israel and to give it the backing it needed to survive. No less remarkable was Truman’s decision to do so just as the Cold War was heating up. With the Soviet Union in support of Israel’s creation, it took remarkable courage and wisdom to not simply oppose Soviet policy. Indeed, this was a time when the burgeoning great power competition shaped nearly every facet of American foreign policy.

Herf specifically highlights the role of Clark Clifford, then a special assistant to the president, who challenged the conventional wisdom of the State Department and other agencies, urging the president to support the nascent Jewish state.

A gripping side plot in the book involved the efforts for and against a war crimes trial for Palestinian mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini. Husseini famously collaborated with Hitler and the Nazis, even recruiting Muslim fighters for the Nazi SS division in Bosnia. The mufti was captured by French troops in Germany in 1945, but ultimately escaped from custody in Paris in 1946 using a fake passport and traveling under an alias (likely aided by elements of the French government), ultimately finding his way to Cairo.

The role of France in this story is not cut and dry. On the one hand, French officials helped a Nazi collaborator. On the other hand, Herf notes that “support for Zionism in France encompassed a broad span of the political spectrum, including Communists, Socialists, Gaullists, radicals and various veterans of the French resistance.” In fact, the Jewish Agency and the Mossad LeAliyah Bet (which led the maritime challenge to the British policy of barring Jews from immigrating to Mandatory Palestine) were both based in Paris. The French Interior Ministry, Herf observes, was perhaps the greatest facilitator of efforts to bring Jewish refugees to Palestine.

Herf’s scholarship is always worth reading. But in this case, the entire episode is a useful reminder, at a particularly political moment in America, that politics can change. It is also an unfortunate reminder that some of the biases against Israel, in America and around the world, haven’t changed much at all. 

The writer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the US Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is author of the new book Gaza Conflict 2021: Hamas, Israel and Eleven Days for War. (FDD Press 2021).

Israel’s MomentBy Jeffrey HerfCambridge University Press500 pages; $39.76