Israel’s Moment: Inter­na­tion­al Sup­port for and Oppo­si­tion to Estab­lish­ing the Jew­ish State, 1945 – 1949

  • Review
By – February 20, 2023

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 291947?

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.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

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