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Conservative Critics Say My New Israel Book Is Anti-Semitic. They Must Not Have Read It Very Closely

David Silverman/Getty Images

The week my book, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, appeared, I got an email from David Horowitz (the Hollywood ultra-rightist, not the consumer advocate), jointly addressed to his comrades Ronald Radosh and Peter Collier, accusing me of having “become a supporter of the Nazis” by having written “a book defending them.” That was followed by condemnatory reviews by Radosh in the Jerusalem Post, Jordan Chandler Hirsch in the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and Rick Richman in Commentary. While these reviews didn’t accuse me of plagiarizing Mein Kampf, they claimed that my book was part of a “new worldwide effort to question the legitimacy of Israel” (Radosh) and the work of a “faux Elder of Zion” (Richman) who “deploys the bigotry of yesteryear” (Hirsch) and insists that Arab massacres against Jews are “justified” (Hirsch and Radosh). 

My usual policy on reviews is that any publicity is good publicity as long as the reviewers spell my name correctly. (A negative Village Voice review of my biography of William F. Buckley, Jr. was appropriately entitled “The Betrayal of Judis.”) But I have to admit that I found it disturbing that after reading one of these reviews, an old friend called to ask me whether in my book I really advocated the abolition of Israel. The fact is that I don’t believe in the abolition of Israel, nor in half the things that these reviewers have attributed to me.  Here is a brief survey of what they say I wrote and what I actually wrote and believe.

1. Do I think the massacre of Jews was justified? In 1929, Arabs massacred Jews in the villages of Hebron and Safed. Hirsch writes that I “play down or character as understandable responses to Jewish provocation” in this and other “heinous Arab actions.” Radosh writes that I treat it as “a justified Arab response to Jewish provocation.” (The similarity in phrasing is no accident. These reviews are usually pile ons.)  Here is what I wrote about the massacre:

In Jerusalem, seventeen Jews were killed by crowds, but the worst violence took place in neighboring Hebron and Safed, where for centuries orthodox Jews, many of them opposed to Zionism, had lived peacefully with Arabs. In Hebron, Arab mobs killed between 65 and 70 Jews and in Safed 18 Jews were killed. Overall, 123 Jews were killed and 116 Arabs–the latter primarily by British police.

I leave it to you: Does this seem like I am “playing down” or “justifying” the massacre?

2. Do I want to abolish or delegitimize the state of Israel? Radosh talks about delegitimization. Richman hints at darker designs. He accuses me of having “written a book that insists the source of the conflict was the Jewish desire for a state… Judis’s policy preference is entirely clear to those with eyes to see. Judis suggests he is bringing a moral vision to Americans who lack a historical perspective, but he lacks the courage to spell out his obvious conclusion.” Richman seems to think I support the replacement of Israel with an Arab-majority state, but that I was fearful of expressing this proposal in my book. 

What I was fearful of doing was making proposals that would look outdated within months of my book’s publication, so I avoided any statements about borders or refugees or East Jerusalem. But you’d not have to graduate from a fancy law school to understand that I thought Barack Obama’s initial proposals in September 2009 and John Kerry’s in 2013 for a two-state solution were attempts to resolve rather than exacerbate the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. If Kerry succeeds, I conclude, “the time for an end to the irrepressible conflict could finally come.” 

If Radosh or Richman had any doubts about my views, they could have consulted my articles that over the years supporting the attempt to achieve a two-state solution. Radosh quotes from my New Republic essay on Truman, but he seems to have missed this passage:

Truman’s solution to the conflict was, of course, a federated or binational Palestine. If that was out of the question in 1946, it is even more so almost 70 years later. If there is a “one-state solution” in Israel/Palestine, it is likely to be an authoritarian Jewish state compromising all of British Palestine. What remains possible, although enormously difficult to achieve, is the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. That is what the last three American Presidents, sometimes facing opposition from Israel’s lobby in Washington as well as from the Israeli government and the Palestinian Hamas organization, have tried unsuccessfully to promote, and what Secretary of State John Kerry is currently trying to negotiate. 

3. Am I a bigot? The Wall Street Journal’s Hirsch claims that I endorse an anti-Semitic view of Herbert Samuel, who was a member of the British cabinet during World War I and later the British High Commissioner in Palestine. Hirsch writes:

A running theme is that had these Jews been patriotic Britons, they wouldn't have lobbied for Zionism. Mr. Judis uncritically cites Prime Minister H. H. Asquith receiving a pro-Zionist memo from Herbert Samuel, a Jewish cabinet member, and noting in a private letter that “it is a curious illustration … that 'race is everything' to find this almost lyrical outburst proceeding from the well-ordered and methodical brain of [Samuel].” Mr. Judis thus deploys the bigotry of yesteryear to bolster his contemporary arguments.

Hirsch conveniently elides the author of the statement that “race is everything.” In my book, the full sentence reads “It is a curious illustration of Dizzy’s [Disraeli’s] favorite maxim that ‘race is everything’ ...” Disraeli was of Jewish ancestry. But let me say a few things about this. In writing history, one doesn’t necessarily comment on everything that a politician says. Asquith’s remark reveals his attitude, not my attitude, toward Samuel and his proposal.  My attitude toward Samuel is entirely different from Asquith’s. I portray Samuel as a patriotic Briton and a Zionist: “Samuel’s view of Palestine was also shaped by the fact that he was a British official—whose first loyalty was to his government at home—and a prominent member of the left-leaning Liberal Party.” I actually consider Samuel a heroic figure: “He was a creature of his time, but for the most part he refused to treat Palestine’s Arabs as inferior beings with lesser rights.” 

I could find numerous other examples where these authors misrepresent my views, but I don’t want to bore you. I would like to conclude instead on one point that is prominent in Hirsch’s review and that is not entirely a misrepresentation and that may lie at the bottom of some, but not all, of these perfervid denunciations of my book. Hirsch charges that “in accusing Zionists of colonial aggression, a new history equates Europe’s mightiest powers with its greatest victims, the Jews.” This mischaracterizes my views, but not entirely. 

Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann and the British Zionists who helped draft the Balfour Declaration did not aspire to create an empire like that of the British or French, but to be junior partners of the Western imperialist powers. Herzl, who admired Cecil Rhodes, described the Jewish state as “a part of a wall of defense for Europe in Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism.” The Zionist movement established “colonies” and aspired to create a Jewish state in a territory where, at the beginning of the Zionist movement, Arabs made up 95 percent of the population. American Zionists compared the Zionists in Palestine with American colonial settlers. At the time, colonialism and imperialism were not dirty words they way they are now. So yes, I think much of the Zionist movement—with the exception of Ahad Ha’am and his followers—saw themselves engaged in a mission that could be described as settler colonialism.

I think the problem is that some enthusiastic supporters of Israel may believe that by acknowledging that history, they thereby confirm that Israel is “illegitimate.” But many states, including the United States, are products of settler colonialism and conquest. There is no going back in these cases. What Israel’s early history does suggest, though, is that Palestinian Arabs have a legitimate grievance against Israelis that has never been satisfactorily addressed. It won’t be addressed by abolishing Israel—that’s not going to happen—but it can be addressed by an equitable two-state solution that gives both peoples a state and that opens the way for Israel’s reconciliation with its neighbors. If there is a lesson to Genesis—and I happen to believe that history can tell us things about the present—that’s what it is.