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As we recognized and celebrate the remarkable establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, much of the political world lives with fictions about the that event. It is essential to recall the realities when famous words had meanings that differed profoundly from what became the conventional wisdom during the Cold War and since.
In the liberal mind of those years, “imperialism” referred to Britain’s attempts to preserve its influence in the Middle East while the “anti-imperialism” was that of Zionists who sought to form a Jewish state in what was then Palestine under the British Mandate. The “antiracists” were Zionists who fought against antisemitism and while the “racists” were leaders of the Palestine Arab Higher Committee who had celebrated the supposed racial homogeneity of Arab societies, whose leaders had collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War II and the Holocaust, and the Islamists who made no secret of their hatred of the Jews as Jews.
While American support for the new state President Harry Truman’s was important, the support of the Soviet Union, and the Soviet bloc was even more consequential. Soviet Zionism was evident in support for the Jewish Agency and then Israel in diplomatic battles at the United Nations, in support for Jewish emigration from Europe to pre-state Palestine, and in the decision of Communist Czechoslovakia to violate the American and British initiated UN arms embargo and to send weapons to the Jews they needed it most during the 1948 war.
Israel was not a product of “U.S. imperialism.” On the contrary, the Zionist project was vehemently opposed by leaders of the State Department including Secretary of State George Marshall, and leader of the Policy Planning Staff, George Kennan. They and the entire American national security leadership viewed Israel’s establishment as a threat to Western access to Arab oil, as a boost to Soviet and Communist expansion in the Middle East, and as a blow to the new, emerging policy of containment of communism in Europe. In the United States, liberal politicians and journalists, and in France, Socialists, Communists and Gaullist veterans of the French Resistance viewed the Zionist project as part of a broader, global revolt against both colonialism, and as a logical continuation of the anti-Nazi/antifascist passions following World War II and the Holocaust.
In those years, in liberals in the United States tried and failed to bring Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem to trial for his propaganda activities in support of the Nazi regime. At the time, the Grand Mufti’s Jew-hatred, and his collaboration with the Nazis were a matter of public record. From May1945 to June 1946, the government of France held him under house arrest near Paris. The lack of Jewish political power, and of the power of a sovereign state were made clear in the refusal of the victors of World War II to put “the Mufti” on trial despite the existence of extensive documentation of his collaboration with Nazi Germany. The French government held Husseini under house arrest from for a year beginning in May 1945. Seeking good will in the Arab states, France refused requests for extradition to Britain, and did not send him to face trial in Nuremberg. He was able to return to the Middle East, assume leadership of the Palestine Arabs without have to make any pretense of abandoning the Jew-hatred that he spewed forth on Nazi Germany’s radio transmitters during the Holocaust.
As the Zionist project found support among liberals and leftists in the West, and in the Soviet bloc, it aroused suspicion and opposition in the Anglo-American national security establishment. The association of the Jewish refugees with communist infiltration to the Middle East was a continuing theme of British, and American intelligence reporting. In the halls of power in London and Washington, anticommunist arguments reinforced opposition to the Zionist project as leaders there suspected that the new Jewish state would serve to enhance Soviet expansion in the Middle East. In September 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall assured British Foreign Minister Ernst Bevin that the “fundamental cornerstone of our [State Department] thinking is the maintenance of Britain’s position to the greatest possible extent” in the Middle East. The Zionists’ intention to end British presence in Palestine with an independent Jewish state threatened this very “cornerstone.”
Following the two-thirds majority in the UN in favor of the Partition Resolution of November 29, 1947, the State Department leadership sought to undermine or reverse it. In January 1948, George Kennan, author of famous diplomatic memos on the containment of communism, wrote that support for the UN Partition Plan to create an Arab, and a Jewish state would damage American interests in the region and constitute “a serious threat to the success of the Marshall Plan” due to threats to flow of oil to Europe. Furthermore, “the USSR stands to gain by the Partition Plan if it should be implemented by force because of the opportunity thus afforded to the Russians to assist in “maintaining order” in Palestine. If Soviet forces should be introduced into Palestine for the purpose of implementing partition, Communist agents would have an excellent base from which to extend their subversive activities, to disseminate propaganda, and to attempt to replace the present Arab governments by ‘democratic peoples’ governments.” He concluded that “our vital interests in those areas will continue to be adversely affected to the extent that we continue to support partition.” The intellectual architect of containment argued that the Zionist project would undermine the United States’ primary foreign policy goal.
Accordingly, in March 1948, Warren Austin, U.S. Ambassador to the UN the State Department urged the United Nations to replace the Partition Plan with a Trusteeship proposal, one that would preclude a Jewish state in Palestine. Truman, angered at what he saw as an effort to undermine his own policy, brought Palestine policy into the White House. Yet the resistance of his entire national security establishment continued to influence American policy in the crucial months of the war of 1948. Truman recognized the state of Israel just minutes after it was established but his support did not extend to lifting the U.S. and UN arms embargo, either before or after the Arab state invasion on May 15th. When the outcome of the war hung in the balance, the United States did not offer the new state of Israel any military assistance before or after the Arab state invasion of May 15, 1948.
Conversely, Soviet bloc support for the Zionists was evident in discussions in the UN Security Council in spring and summer 1948. UN Mediator Count Folke Bernadotte proposed a ban on entry of military age men, and of weapons into the region, and proposed that the Negev desert be part of an Arab state even though the UN partition plan had accorded most of it to Israel. Andrei Gromyko for the Soviet Union, and Vasyl Tarasenko for Ukrainian SSR (which then had a rotating seat on the Council) supported Israeli UN Ambassador Abba Eban and Foreign Minister Moshe Shertok (later Sharett) in opposition to Bernadotte’s proposals which were supported by the United States and United Kingdom opposed them. For leaders in the Pentagon, the State Department, and the British Foreign Office, the more that Soviet bloc positions in the UN Security Council aligned with Israel, and then when Communist Czechoslovakia delivered the military supplies to Israel needed, the more they suspected that Israel would enhance Soviet interests in the first months of the Cold War.
On May 29, 1949, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion spoke frankly with U.S. Ambassador James McDonald about American policy in the preceding two years. McDonald summarized Ben-Gurion’s objections as follows: “Prime Minister [Ben-Gurion] unable [to] recall any strong action by US or UN [to] enforce November 29 [Partition Resolution] or prevent aggression by Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq. Instead, [arms] embargo encouraged [Arab] aggressors against Israel whose very existence was in danger. Had Jews waited on US or UN they would have been exterminated.”
In late 1949, Stalin reversed course and inaugurated four decades of Soviet bloc anti-Zionism. The American alliance with Israel did not begin in earnest until after the Six Day War of 1967 when the United States concluded that Israel would be more an asset more than a liability for advancing American national interests. From 1948 to 1967, Israel’s alliance with France, not the United States, was Israel’s most important, indeed, its only ally willing and able to offer substantial military, not only verbal or diplomatic support.
During the Cold War and since, the above realities of Israel’s moment have faded from international memory. Too often their place has been taken by fictions of vast Jewish power and Western imperialist support, distortions that became standard themes of Soviet bloc, Palestinian, and Western leftist anti-Zionist propaganda. Instead the creation of the state of Israel was made possible by a group of secular, modern Jews who risked life and limb to seize the fleeting window of opportunity during the brief era of Soviet bloc Zionism, and the moral support of the President of the United States. The passions and interests in the emerging Cold War worked against, not for, the Zionist project. For the Jewish people, and for those imbued with the broad liberal spirit that emerged during and in the aftermath of the victory of Nazism and fascism, the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948 was a source of pride and celebration. In these days of turmoil in Israel, it is also important to recall the secularism, the modernity and commitment to democratic principles of the Zionist generation which fought and won Israel’s independence in 1948.