WASHINGTON — Full disclosure: John Judis and I belong to the same tennis club and his wife is my dentist. I like to think we’re more than passing acquaintances. So you can imagine my surprise when, while reading the introduction of his new 373-page book on Harry Truman and the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I learned something about him I didn’t know: he’s Jewish.
Judis’ personal history isn’t something he’s written a lot about during his long career with The New Republic and in numerous books, including “The Emerging Democratic Majority” and “The Folly of Empire.” To be sure, Judis isn’t shy about his personal opinions: he’s a political historian on the liberal side of American politics. But he keeps his relationship to Judaism much quieter: he describes it as “ethnic, not religious.”
‘Truman was a genuine liberal who had moral qualms about Zionism’
Although Judis has written about US-Israel-Palestinian relations many times over the past four decades, the subject has never been the centerpiece of his journalistic career. That will likely change on February 4 with the release of his new book, “Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict.”
This book represents Judis’ deepest dive into the topic of the Jewish state. Critics will view “Genesis” as the latest attack on Israel and America’s pro-Israel lobby. In fact, it goes further than Peter Beinart’s “The Crisis of Zionism” insofar as Judis doesn’t just share his former New Republic colleague’s claim that the major American Jewish organizations are a current obstacle to peace; rather, he argues that it has always been thus, at least since Truman first recognized the fledgling Jewish state in 1948.
Truman was a genuine liberal who had moral qualms about Zionism. He was also the last president to express them. But almost every American president since Truman has tried to find a way to improve the lot of Palestinian Arabs – through trying to get Israel to allow refugees to return and later by trying to persuade the Israelis to leave the occupied West Bank and permit the Palestinian Arabs a state of their own. They began with a moral and strategic conviction that something had to be done to right the situation of the Palestinians, but under relentless pressure from supporters of Israel (and after 1948 from the Israeli government itself), they gave up.
Judis says this dynamic explains why, during his first term, President Obama backed down from his demands for Israel to stop settlement activities:
This pattern of surrender to Israel and its supporters began in the Truman years…The underlying problem remains the same: whether an American president and the American people can forthrightly address the conflict of Jew and Arab in the Middle East, or whether they must bow to the demands of a powerful pro-Israel lobby and an increasingly rightward-leaning Israeli government.
To discuss the new book and get a sense of what it aims to achieve, I met Judis in a suburb of Washington, DC. Unlike many (most?) influential reporters in the Beltway, Judis doesn’t give off the vibe of someone desperate for speaking invitations on cable TV or the think tank circuit. He’s grizzly in the way you’d expect a veteran reporter to be, but friendly and enjoys talking about ideas, even those that challenge his left-of-center worldview.
Let’s start with that last quote. It sounds a lot like you’re accusing the Jewish lobby of controlling American foreign policy. That’s a classic anti-Semitic trope.
No, I don’t think the lobby controls American foreign policy. That is nonsense. But I think it has enormous influence over US Israel policy. Has it prevented a two-state solution? Well, I’d say the main impediment has been the decision of Israeli governments after 1967 to occupy and settle the West Bank and Gaza. The inexperience of the Palestinians at self-government has also played a role in making some negotiations difficult. It’s a different point, but I also never bought the idea that the lobby had much to do with the Iraq war, although some Jewish neo-conservatives were influential (along with some gentile ones).
Much of the book is critical of US and Israeli policy. I’m not seeing the same type of analysis with respect to the Palestinians. Do you deny them agency? Aren’t they actors in this drama with responsibilities?
I don’t deny the Palestinians any agency, but what I say in the book is that they are now due some moral consideration from Americans and also from Jews who are not simply blind nationalists and that we should do what we can to make a two-state solution work for them. We should bend over backwards for them rather than for the Israelis. And that’s a view that comes out of starting history in 1880 rather than 1980.
What do you mean?
In the book, I argue that the American Zionist movement from the late 1890s through 1948, including the most liberal such as Wise and Brandeis, were oblivious to what Zionism was doing to the Arab population that already lived in Palestine before the Jews began emigrating with a view toward establishing a Jewish state. There is a paradox there, something worth thinking about.
‘We should bend over backwards for [the Palestinians] rather than for the Israelis’
Are these “moral qualms” that you say Truman had about Zionism at odds with those who have described him as “the best friend of Israel?”
I don’t really address misconceptions that Jews have had about Truman in the book, but there are two kinds of misconceptions that historians have had. On the one hand, thinking that Truman was a Christian Zionist who didn’t have grave misgivings about a Jewish state, and, on the other hand, thinking that his views of Israel were entirely dictated by political pressure from the Zionist movement.
So I am trying to take a position different from those two extremes and say that he did have a Jeffersonian view of religious states, was very uncomfortable with the idea of a Jewish state, wanted some kind of binational arrangement, but gave up around the fall of 1946 and from that time on was buffeted by pressures on him.
This seems relevant to what’s going on today with Iran. As you know, the pro-Israel lobby is currently challenging the Obama administration’s refusal to press for sanctions on Iran during the negotiations over their nuclear program. What’s your take?
I consider the Iran negotiations a potential breakthrough in our foreign relations that will remove a real source of instability and acrimony in the Middle East and prevent a nuclear arms race from occurring. I don’t look kindly on AIPAC’s role in trying to screw up the negotiations by pushing their sanctions bill.
I agree with things Beinart has written about that in Haaretz. I don’t try to think of what exactly is or isn’t in Israel’s interest — that’s their business — but I believe in this case that a negotiated US et al. agreement with Iran, even one that includes some enrichment, would be of great benefit to Israel as well. That is, as long as Israel also turns away from the occupation and attempts to come to terms with the Palestinians.
‘I don’t look kindly on AIPAC’s role in trying to screw up the negotiations by pushing their sanctions bill’
One thing I am leery of – and you didn’t ask me this, but I’ll say it anyway – is the idea that a two-state solution is desirable because it will create a permanent barrier between Israel and the Palestinians – as in the separation wall. I don’t favor that kind of two-state solution. I think the hope for both peoples, as Bernard Avishai has argued, is political independence, but economic interdependence and security cooperation – and I say “cooperation,” not domination.
I was surprised to learn that you’re Jewish. You always write about policy and that’s what we discuss at the water cooler.
Well, most people who know me know I’m Jewish. My name is short for Juditsky. My paternal grandfather thought he was Americanizing his name by shortening to “Judis.” Naturally, the name Judis (i.e. Judas Iscariot) caused me no end of grief, and fights, when I was growing up.
My parents were secular Jews who did not believe in God or adhere to religious customs, except unconsciously (my father believed that pork gave him indigestion, but he ate his share of hotdogs). I did not receive any Jewish religious education and I went to an Episcopalian boarding school. I only fully learned I was Jewish – or what it meant to be Jewish – when I encountered violent anti-Semitism in junior high. Warding off anti-Semites was a big reason I become a wrestler. I remain suspicious of people who are paid to preach – whether Christian or Jewish.
My main link to Judaism is ethnic not religious and, I suppose, through a kind of quasi-Jewish intellectual tradition that ran through Marx, Freud and Wittgenstein.
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