How many first-hand journalism books stand up over time? By nature perishable, most non-fiction written on the fly disintegrates upon reflection and rereading; at best, it usually serves as notes for the astute historian or essayist with access to archives and sources that were unavailable to the reporter working on deadline.
Among the handful of brilliant exceptions is John Reed's Ten Days that Shook the World , which chronicled the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 (and was written in 10 days). But in all my years of reading contemporaneous reporting, nothing has topped Underground to Palestine by the late I.F. Stone, probably the United States' greatest-ever dissident journalist, or simply its greatest journalist.
These days, Stone is unfairly pigeonholed as "left-wing," but when his newspaper series appeared in July, 1946, describing the illegal movement of Jewish refugees from Europe to the British mandate in Palestine, it caused a sensation that any mainstream reporter could have envied. Of course, scoops alone don't make for staying power; the book that resulted from the articles remains the best primer on why, more than 60 years on, Israel refuses to grant Palestinians authentically equal status. Read in tandem with D.D. Guttenplan's definitive new biography of Stone, American Radical , one realizes that Stone the great "reporter" was also Stone the accomplished historian and essayist.
Stone had always leaned radical; indeed, before his disillusionment with the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of 1939, he fit the description of "fellow traveller" - someone supportive of communist ideals, though not a member of the Communist Party.
Stone's unpopular support of a binational Palestine ruled equally by Jews and Arabs is one reason Underground to Palestine is out of print
But Izzy Stone was not an ordinary leftist, and neither was he blinded by ideology to the merits of a good story or the injustice of a government's policies. When in April, 1946, he got a call, in New York, inviting him to travel with the Jewish underground known as the Haganah, he leapt at the chance. At issue was the plight of about 100,000 Jewish refugees still languishing in camps all over Europe, Holocaust survivors known euphemistically as displaced persons (DPs).
Understandably, most of the DPs were reluctant to return to their former homes in countries where Jews were still widely and openly despised - such as Poland, Germany and Slovakia - or where the local establishment (Denmark being the only exception) had abandoned them to the German occupation authorities.
Stone, a decidedly secular Jew with no particular ties to the Holy Land or the Zionist movement, instinctively sympathized with his desperate "brothers": "I am an American and I am also and inescapably - the world being what it is - a Jew" who "might have gone to the gas chambers in Eastern Europe" if his Russian-born parents had not emigrated to the United States. So off to Europe he flew, "to provide a picture of their trials and their aspirations in the hope that good people, Jewish and non-Jewish, might be moved to help them."
I don't like to give away the ending to a suspenseful story, but readers might already imagine that a reporter as intrepid as Stone will find a way to get on a convoy, run the British blockade and land in Palestine. How he manages is a textbook case of good reporting tactics that ought to be taught in every journalism school. Along the way, Stone needed help from the Jewish underground, but his moxie (the book makes us regret the passing of Yiddish as a lingua franca ) carries the day again and again: Stone always knew when to bluff, when to lie outright and when to resort to an official, institutional voice to throw the authorities off the scent. Travelling with illegal refugees in search of a clandestine port of embarkation attracted the attention of policemen all over Europe, and he had to be ready for anything.
Stone's observations of the death camp survivors are unfailingly keen, but they shouldn't obscure the pleasure of reading his insights about other people he encountered in war-ravaged Europe. A good reporter provides detail and paradox, and Stone was a specialist. He interviews a far-sighted 17-year-old Lithuanian Jewish boy who "did not regard the Germans as a lost people but as one badly poisoned" and that "could be rehabilitated and fitted into the framework of a decent and progressive Europe."
Elsewhere in Germany, Stone meets 76-year-old Clara Lorsch, a survivor of Theresienstadt now known as "the miracle of Amberg" because she is the only remaining native German Jew in the area: "Her neighbour, whom she had called in to share the gingerbread she had made, was very ingratiating and obsequious to us. But every once in a while this thin, spinsterish German woman would steal a glance at the two dark Polish Jews with me, a look of fascinated horror as though she expected rape at any moment, as in the passage in Mein Kampf about the dark Jew lying in wait for the blond Aryan maiden."
Perhaps the greatest paradox appears on the Czech-Polish border, where Stone, no Soviet apologist, shows why obsessive right-wing efforts to make Stalin into Hitler's exact moral equivalent are false: "There was one striking difference between these Jews from Russia and those pouring into the underground from the European countries which were under Nazi domination or influence. Out of the Soviet Union alone came the miracle of whole Jewish families."
Stone's unpopular support of a binational Palestine ruled equally by Jews and Arabs is one reason Underground to Palestine is out of print. Such a resolution seems unimaginable today, but one wonders after reading the book whether he wasn't right, at least in 1946. The Pantheon edition of 1978 contains Stone's later "reflections" on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which includes a plea for a revival of the "Other Zionism," which is to say "a recognition that two peoples - not one - occupy the same land and have the same rights."
But full recognition by Israel of Palestinian national aspirations (or vice versa) is implausible precisely because of the reporting in Stone's book: "Is it so hard to understand?" he wrote of the DPs who chose to sneak onto the tiny swatch of land called Palestine when they could more easily have gone to the United States (over three years, about 80,000 made the illegal journey). "They have been kicked around as Jews and now they want to live as Jews. Over and over I heard it said: 'We want to build a Jewish country. ... We are tired of putting our sweat and blood into places where we are not welcome.' ... These Jews want the right to live as a people, to build as a people, to make their contribution to the world as a people. Are their national aspirations any less worthy of respect than those of any other oppressed people?"
John R. MacArthur is the publisher of Harper's magazine. His most recent book is You Can't Be President.