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book review

President Harry Truman’s original conception of a “federated Palestine” was thwarted by intense lobbying from American Zionists.FM/The Associated Press

Love is blind: the adage is somewhat musty when applied to our personal relationships, but it can help illuminate geopolitics. Who could miss the smouldering passion in Stephen Harper's eyes when he serenaded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a singularly inept rendition of Hey Jude? It's hard to imagine Harper warbling a tone-deaf tune to any other world leader, but something about Israel ignites our prime minister's lumbering soul. Zionism and love might seem like disparate topics but no true understanding of the contention surrounding Israel is possible without acknowledging the intense emotional investment generated by the Jewish state.

John B. Judis's authoritative and essential new history, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, is an account of the founding of Israel with a particular focus on the role played by the American Jewish community in pressuring President Harry Truman, a most reluctant Godfather, to give his blessing to the newborn state in 1948. Beneath the expertly narrated historical chronicle, there is a deeper story in the book, which is about how love can cause otherwise admirable people to become party to a grave injustice.

The strength of the Zionist project comes from the compelling moral claim it makes on all decent people. In their long stateless exile, the Jewish diaspora suffered persecution for centuries, culminating in the Holocaust. Even after the near-total extermination of the European Jews, the surviving refugees faced high barriers from many countries, including Canada and the United States. What could be more just than the redemption of the unwanted through the building of a permanent safe haven?

The complicating fact, known from the start, was that this proposed haven would be built on land that was already densely populated. As Vladimir Jabotinsky, a pioneering Zionist whose Revisionist Zionist Party was a precursor to the Likud Party, forthrightly asserted in 1923, "we are seeking to colonize a country against the wishes of its inhabitants, in other words, by force."

Jabotinsky was a right-wing extremist who admired Mussolini. The Zionist mainstream in Europe was socialist and, in America, left leaning and liberal. Yet as Judis documents, there was a troubling overlap between Jabotinsky's fundamental attitude toward the native Arabs of Palestine and that of many more respectable advocates for a Jewish state. All too many Zionists thought there was nothing wrong with building a state on a policy of "transfer" (in other words, expulsion).

Judis is a liberal Jewish American and most of the people he's writing about in this book were liberal Jewish Americans. When offering profiles of the various Zionist leaders, he pays close attention to father-son dynamics, so the book is on many levels a family history. But it's far from a pious celebration of ancestral glory. Rather, Judis's core concern is "how 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."

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis was a giant of American liberalism, a man who fought for civil rights, unions and women's suffrage. Yet as Judis notes, Brandeis and his followers didn't apply the ideals of equality and self-determination to the Middle East, but rather "saw Palestine's Arabs largely through the prism of Western colonialism and Jewish nationalism. They ignored them or assigned them to a lower rung of humanity than Palestine's Jews or America's multifold nationalities." These liberals were all too quick to dismiss Arabs as "savages" or view them as a "fungible" people (in Judis's apt words) who could be forcibly relocated without concern. The minority tradition within Zionism that was more respectful of Arabs, growing out of the writings of Ahad Ha'am, was swamped by this larger ethnocentric current.

The well-meaning, much-harassed and not always competent figure of Harry Truman is central to Judis's investigation of the tension between liberalism and Zionism. Some historians have celebrated Truman as a righteous champion of the Jewish State motivated by a Christian Zionism. As Judis amply demonstrates, this view is at odds with the facts. As a Jeffersonian Democrat, Truman had genuine compassion for survivors of the Holocaust and wanted to give them a home, but, in Judis's words, he had serious qualms about creating a nation "defined by a particular people or race or religion." His ideal solution was a "federated Palestine."

Truman tried to purpose a foreign policy that would equitably balance the competing claims of Jews and Arabs. But this attempt at even-handedness was thwarted by intense lobbying by American Zionists, creating a model of political dysfunction that continues to make the issue intractable to this day.

The Israel/Palestine question is a subject rich in polemicists and shallow in sober analysts. Judis is a happy exception to this dismal rule. Many who follow American politics have learned over the years to rely on Judis's judicious, well-researched essays and books. His biography of William F. Buckley is a classic, and this new book is likely to be equally lasting. At times, Genesis makes for dry reading, but that quality of dispassion is welcome in so emotionally wrought a subject.

Aside from examining the moral blindness of many Zionists, Judis is equally critical of the other major actors. He is unsparing in his account of the feckless dishonesty of British imperialists, the factionalism and intransigence of many of the Arab leaders and Truman's chaotic management style.

Beyond its intrinsic value, Genesis is a harbinger of an important change in American culture. Judis is a senior editor of the New Republic, a magazine that for the better part of a century has embodied the marriage of Zionism and liberalism. In 1948, one of Harry Truman's chief worries was that he would lose votes to New Republic editor Henry Wallace, running on the Progressive Party platform, who accused the president of being insufficiently supportive of Zionism.

Under the leadership of Marty Peretz, who served variously as publisher and editor-in-chief from 1974 to 2012, the New Republic was fiercely and sometimes crazily defensive of Israel. Writing in Vanity Fair, James Wolcott cheekily summed up Peretz's worldview by saying that for him Israel is a "lion of nations, loyal ally and democratic outpost, Gateway of Meccas … a land of religious resonance and geopolitical significance." Yet in recent years some writers and editors who first made their name in the New Republic, not just Judis but also Andrew Sullivan and Peter Beinart, have become formidable critics of the Jewish State. The love affair between liberalism and Zionism has definitely lost its bloom, and a divorce might be imminent. These days, it's right-wingers like Harper who are blindly besotted by Israel. Given the fact that Israel in the past relied on bipartisan support from both liberals and conservatives in America, this is a change pregnant with significance.

Jeet Heer has taught courses on American foreign policy at York University and the University of Regina.