At first glance, the founding of the state of Israel appears inexplicable. Its hostile neighbors had far greater populations, were much richer in valuable natural resources, particularly oil, and boasted larger armies. What could have possibly compelled the United States, France, and the Soviet Union to support the founding of a Jewish state in Palestine — and what could have convinced Great Britain to abstain when the crucial vote took place on November 29, 1947?
A century earlier, when British foreign minister Henry John Temple (Lord Palmerston) was asked about the factors that determined British foreign policy, he responded with arguably the most famous words ever uttered by any foreign minister, British or otherwise: “It is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies,” he stressed. “Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.
Temple was correct that nations are primarily motivated by their interests rather than by sentimental and moral concerns. If so, Jeffrey Herf asks in his engrossing, deeply researched, and cogent book, then what did the leaders of the United States, France, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain perceive their interests to be in the Middle East in the late 1940s? Why risk offending the Arabs of the Middle East by supporting the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine? Israel’s Moment provides answers to these and other questions involving the creation of Israel.
That the Soviet Union supported Israel was no secret. Stalin, Herf explains, hoped Israel could be “a possible instrument to eliminate or certainly reduce British and American presence and power in the Middle East.” But why did President Harry Truman’s administration, against the stern advice of the Defense and State Departments, recognize the Jewish state almost immediately after it declared its independence in May, 1948? George Kennan, the director of State Department Policy Planning and a State Department heavyweight, declared at the time that Truman’s decision “threaten[ed] not only to place in jeopardy some of our most vital interests in the Middle East and the Mediterranean but also to disrupt the unity of the Western world and to undermine our entire policy toward the Soviet Union.
In response to this question, advocates of Palestine insist that Truman and his successors were swayed by the money and votes of hyphenated American Jews who were more committed to the welfare of Israel than to the security of the United States. But, of course, the story is more complicated. The most important word for understanding the past is “context” — the political, intellectual, economic, and cultural situation in which individuals operated and movements surfaced and receded. Israel’s Moment skillfully provides such a context. The period of the late 1940s, Herf notes, was a watershed during which the passions of the Cold War were replacing those of World War II and the Holocaust. One wonders whether there was ever a more propitious time to establish a Jewish state, and whether this could have ever occurred at another time.