Israel’s Moment: International Support for and Opposition to Establishing the Jewish State, 1945–1949.
By Jeffrey Herf. (Cambridge University Press 2022). 500 pp.
NAZIS AND COMMUNISTS AFTER 1945
The author of this highly informative book, Jeffrey Herf, is a distinguished researcher of prewar Nazi Germany and, through his numerous publications, the ties between nationalists and Islamists in the Arab world and Hitler’s regime. The title of Jeffrey Herf’s latest book Israel’s Moment actually refers to the window of opportunity that arose just after World War II when the anti-Nazi alliance was gradually dissolving into the Cold War. After all, less than two months after hostilities ended in Europe, the US Secretary of State James F. Byrnes approved the emigration of the rocket scientist Werner Von Braun. By September 1945 he and his colleagues were hard at work at Fort Strong on Long Island.
Playing down the scientists’ past deceived the American public, ignoring those who had welcomed slave labor at Peenemünde and Mittelwerk to instead believe those who claimed to be blissfully unaware of the deaths from exhaustion and malnutrition. Operation Paperclip was approved by President Truman in September 1946, and it brought 1,600 German scientists and engineers to the United States throughout the 1950s. This gelled with employing former Nazis in the West German Foreign Office and intelligence services, the rehabilitation of Spain’s General Franco, and the curtailing of long sentences meted out to Nazi war criminals. All of this was predicated on the belief that democracy had to be defended from Stalinism, and Western Europe from the Red Army. A Cold War, it was argued, was better than a World War III. Many US officials held their collective nose, crossed moral red lines, and embraced former Nazis in the new struggle against the Kremlin in the Cold War. Yet, this plan also had other consequences. In the twilight zone of the disintegrating wartime alliance, the Zionists were able to remarkably secure their own state—a Hebrew republic in the Land of Israel. As Herf notes, this came about through the joint support of the superpowers, the US and the USSR—a period that can be counted in months rather than years.
The Soviet Union inherited the imperial Russian desire for a foothold in the Middle East—perhaps the use of a warm-water, deep-sea port such as Haifa. It also believed that it could prevent the replacement of the British by the Americans by cultivating a socialist Israel.
Herf points out that many leading Poles in particular identified with the Jews and their aspirations because they too had suffered until the heel of the Nazi oppressors. As early as April 1946, the non-Communist Polish prime minister, Edward Osóbka-Morawski, told the Communist-dominated National Council that “in view of the greatest tragedy which has befallen the Jewish people, help should be extended to those Jews who are trying to realise their national aspirations in Palestine” (138). The Polish representative to the United Nations General Assembly, Alfred Fiderkiewicz, had spent two years in Auschwitz and said in May 1947:
Our people were witnesses of this mass tragedy. We cannot forget it and we shall not forget it. With the memory of this mass tragedy of a people deeply engrained in the mind and soul of our nation, we cannot help being interested in the fate of those unfortunate displaced persons who lost their families and who find it psychologically impossible to return to the places which to them are cemeteries where they are haunted by the memories of their dear ones killed by the Nazi barbarians. . . . We understand their situation, their mentality and their aspirations. We understand their desire to begin a new life in a new land (138).
Fiderkiewicz had been a member of the Polish Communist party since 1925. Clearly, his wartime experience made him deeply sympathetic to the Jews despite official party policy.This differentiated at least some Polish Communists from the heavy hand of Stalinism in the Soviet Union. It also distinguished some Poles from several leading US politicians who had no experience of occupation and destruction. What mattered to many political figures, first and foremost, were national interests. After all, the Comintern, the bastion of internationalism, had been closed down in 1943. In both the democratic United States and the totalitarian USSR, actions by their citizens were not looked upon with favor. As Herf notes in great detail, there was considerable opposition to the very idea of the Jewish state in the upper echelons of government in the United States. The State Department and the Pentagon felt that the establishment of Israel was a bad idea and it did not serve American national interests. At times, Soviet support for the Zionist cause was more adamant and forthright compared to the American flip-flopping.
CONTROLLING LOCAL JEWS
The FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, was monitoring the activities of home-grown Jewish activists such as Hillel Kook (Peter Bergson) and the writer Ben Hecht. Hecht had written his well-known “Letter to the Terrorists” in Palestine in June 1947 and argued that
Each time you blow up a British arsenal, or wreck a British jail or send a British railroad train sky high or rob a British bank or let go with your guns and bombs at the British betrayers and invaders of your homeland, the Jews of America make a little holiday in their hearts. (Ben Hecht, PM, June 3, 1947)
Such scathing, unapologetic, direct language infuriated many—including numerous embarrassed Jewish leaders in the United States. The British Ambassador, Archibald Clark Kerr, regarded Hecht’s advertisement as a direct incitement to murder British officials in Palestine and told Secretary of State James Byrnes it was intolerable that the government of a friendly country should allow this. Despite a sympathetic understanding from the State Department and a promise to consider preventive action in the future, the advertisement was protected by freedom of the press.
This was but one instance of the British desire to exert pressure in the United States. In May 1947 the British attempted to persuade the US Treasury to query the tax-free status of Zionist organisations as they were “engaged in a type of political advocacy.” In June 1947 the British informed the United States that the vessel the Colony Trader had been detained in Gibraltar because it was “implicated in the illegal immigration traffic to Palestine.” The ship flew the Costa Rican flag but it was owned by a New York company. The British asked the State Department to ban the sale of World War II surplus landing craft to Zionist organizations (157).
There was undoubtedly a shared desire between the British Foreign Office and the US State Department to prevent Zionist endeavors locally and to limit Jewish immigration to Palestine in a global sense. Ernest Bevin, the right-wing Trade Union leader, now British Foreign Secretary, shared an antipathy to the Zionist project with US Secretary of State, George C. Marshall, and with many of the latter’s underlings as well as the Pentagon and the US intelligence services.
Even after the establishment of Israel in May 1948, the US State Department strove vigorously to ensure that there was no breaking of the embargo of arms to Israel. This meant surveillance of US citizens who were attempting to do so. The US Ambassador to Italy reported to Secretary of State Marshall that a Panamanian aircraft, leaving Czechoslovakia, had been forced down in Italy. The arms shipment on board was supervised by the five crew members—all American passport holders.
While Jews in both countries hoped for the establishment of Israel, in the Soviet Union they were arrested for wishing to emigrate or to fight for the fledgling state. Externally, Stalin promoted support by the Warsaw bloc; internally, he sent those who took him at his word for a long sojourn in the Gulag. There was therefore a profound difference between the internal crackdown and the external welcome for Israel.
The Kremlin had been unnerved by the reception given to Golda Meir, Israel’s newly arrived ambassador to the USSR, when she attended synagogue in Moscow on Shabbat in September 1948. Huge crowds thronged the streets shouting goodwill messages to her. This was the first unauthorized demonstration since those of the Bolshevik opposition to Stalin in the mid-1920s. In the USSR, many Soviet Jews wished to fight for Israel in the War of Independence. The Israeli Embassy in Moscow received numerous requests from Soviet Jews. M. wrote to the Israeli military attaché from Kiev at the end of September 1948:
Is it possible for a Jew who has spent four years fighting the fascists to go to the land of our birth, to our dear country, in order to be together with the remnant of our people, which demands the freedom of the oldest of nations? All praise to the head of the Army, Ben-Gurion. With honor and blessings to Zion. (Mordechai Namir, Shlichut B’Moskva [Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1971], 336).
On hearing the proclamation of the Jewish State on Moscow Radio late at night in the far reaches of Northern Russia, one Jewish prisoner recorded: “All the non-Jews who were there with me became silent with astonishment.” Then they rose from their bunks and spontaneously shook the hands of the Jews and congratulated them.
In honour of the festive occasion, each of us produced the little food in his possession and we camp Jews held a feast together. We could not sleep all night. In our hearts and thoughts we were at the front with our brothers and sisters who had begun a bitter war, rifle in hand against the invading Arabs. (Die Yiddishe Zeitung, July 12, 1954, in Benjamin West, Struggles of a Generation: The Jews under Soviet Rule [Tel Aviv: Massadah, 1959], 43)
The coming of the State produced new demands for the teaching of Hebrew, which had been banned for decades. The writer and poet David Hofshteyn began openly to advocate the teaching of Hebrew in the USSR. A group of Hebrew writers, calling themselves MARAK—M’dabrim rak Ivrit (We speak only Hebrew), revealed their existence. In a letter to Stalin, the Hebrew writers, Zvi Praegerson, Meir Baazov, Zvi Plotkin, and Aron Krikheli, asked for permission to leave for Israel. (See also Colin Shindler, “How Russia’s Jews Welcomed Israel,” Jewish Chronicle, April 27, 1979.)
The realization that the Zionist ideal was alive and well in the USSR did not sit well with Stalin. During 1948, the NKGB began to arrest prominent Jews as well as local activists. Those Jews who had openly applied to leave or to fight in the war, or simply to be able to speak Hebrew, became new members of the zek (prisoner) fraternity in strict regime labor camps. They were dubbed “Golda’s prisoners.”
ZIONISM AND COMMUNISM IN THE AMERICAN MIRROR
One ingredient of this opposition in the United States was that Zionism was merely a fig leaf for Communism and that Palestine would become “a breeding ground for Communists.” This was fueled by an ignorance of Zionist ideology and history, a fondness for belief in the specter of Judeo-Bolshevism of the prewar years, and a marginalization of Jewish suffering during the Shoah. Herf relates a report of late 1945, entitled “Soviet Agents in Palestine,” which reached the State Department and in which British Colonel C. R. Tuff argued that the NKGB were sending agents into Palestine recruited from Polish Jews. They had passed through Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Italy and did not wish to return to Poland for fear of antisemitism. Tuff further stated that they would work together with Jewish Communists in Palestine and trumpet the belief that Soviet Russia supports “the Jewish cause.” In all likelihood, Tuff mistook a clandestine operation of Mossad L’Aliyah Bet for Soviet infiltration. He also draws attention to the belief of some American officials that there was an association between the flow of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe and Communist infiltration into Palestine and elsewhere.
Herf quotes from a long report by Marshall M. Vance, the US Consul-General in the office of the US Political Adviser for Germany in Berlin who complained about the limited screening of displaced Jews in DP camps and was critical of Jewish organizations. Herf summarizes the Vance Report as tantamount to an unnuanced, stereotypical mindset, which reflected the spirit of the Truman Doctrine of March 1947 in opposing the advance of Communism. Herf cogently states that it amounted to a belief that:
Thousands of Jews, aided by primarily Jewish liberal or left leaning aid organisations were being coached to lie to American officials. Their tales of suffering due to Nazi persecution were in fact clever ruses used by leftist political operatives and opportunists. The effort of Jewish organisations and of the Mossad L’Aliyah Bet to move refugees to Palestine was being used by the Soviet Union to infiltrate Communist agents into Palestine. As the refugees came from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, it was likely that they were bringing with them leftist or even communist politics (161).
In February 1948, the Czechoslovak communists staged a coup d’état and took power. Within a few weeks, American military intelligence was ringing the alarm bells that the new Czechoslovakia was now exporting arms to the Zionists and Jews to Palestine. Herf notes that an American military official reported that “400 to 500 young male Jews of military age with records of service in the Soviet Army” left Prague for Marseilles en route to Palestine—but with diplomatic assistance from the French consulate and American officials. As Herf remarks, these Shoah survivors were transformed into Soviet infiltrators in a growing belief in Washington that a state of the Jews in the Middle East was yet another attempt by Communism to achieve global domination.
As is well known, a few months later, in Operation Balak, Czechoslovakia broke the arms embargo to Israel and at the behest of the Kremlin delivered huge amounts of war materiel to the IDF. Communist parties strongly supported the rise of Israel—not simply on the orders of the Kremlin, but also essentially in the spirit of the wartime anti-Nazi alliance. In Italy, there were strikes and demonstrations. In France, the approach of the Communist party was typi- fied in a speech in the National Assembly by Florimond Bonté, a member of its central committee. He argued that the fight of the Jews in Palestine was on a par with other anti- imperialist liberation struggles. He said (381):
The Greek partisan, the soldier in the Chinese popular army, the Spanish combatant, the democrats in Vietnam, the Indonesian patriots, the Hindu resistant are all comrades of the battle waged by the soldiers of the Haganah. (Florimond Bonté, “Sur le territoire de la Palestine, carrefour stratégie du monde,” Cahiers du Communisme 9 [July 1948]).
The broad approach of Communists at that time was to advocate the common bond between Arabs and Jews in the struggle for peace and the desire to follow their own national destiny. Bonté blamed the British and the Americans for stirring up “racial hatred and nationalist passions.” He condemned the Arab League for making common cause with ‘reactionary organizations of all sorts: the Muslim Brotherhood, the Phalangists. American and British Consular officials in ports such as Constanza in Romania and Varna in Bulgaria reported on the ships, laden with Jewish refugees, leaving for Palestine—and “the high probability of placement of Soviet agents” in these groups—to their superiors. The New York Times ran a story in January 1948 about “a Red Fifth Column”of Jews en route to Palestine, which testified to the official confusion between Zionism and Communism. It stated that “they [the passengers] are mostly handpicked Communists or fellow-travellers with links to the Stern Gang” (New York Times, January 1, 1948). The Times story reflected a wider lack of understanding about Zionist ideology and Jewish history by both US and British officials. No differentiation was made between the Palestine Communist Party, the Marxist Zionist Mapam, and Ben-Gurion’s social-democratic Mapai.
Yet the Achilles heel of the pro-Israel advocates in the Truman administration was the approach of Mapam, since the party regarded itself in 1948 as the true representative of Communism in Palestine despite the Kremlin’s long-held anti-Zionism and its persecution of Zionists in the USSR. Mapam in 1948 was decidedly pro-Soviet—even publishing a selection of Stalin’s writings in Hebrew. However, the persecution of Jews in the USSR between 1948 and 1953 and the trial and imprisonment of the Mapam emissary, Mordechai Oren, in 1952 in Czechoslovakia, led to a schism in the party and in its kibbutzim. Oren featured in the Slánský trial in November 1952—as did Vladimir Clementis, the Czechoslovak Foreign Minister who facilitated the arms transfer to Israel. (See also Colin Shindler, “How the Israeli Left Got to See the True Face of Joseph Stalin,” Jewish Chronicle, January 7, 2022). Many left Mapam to join Mapai. There were others such as Moshe Sneh who went in the other direction and joined the Communist party in 1954. Such episodes certainly provided grist for the State Department’s anti-Communist mill that the new Israel was “a sanctuary for Stalin’s spies and pro-Kremlin sympathisers.”
Herf relates the clash in the Oval Office two days before Israel’s declaration of independence between the supporters of a state of the Jews in the White House and Congress and its opponents in the State Department and the Pentagon. The Undersecretary of State, Robert Lovett read extracts of an intelligence report “regarding Soviet activity in sending Jews and Communist agents from Black Sea areas to Palestine.” Secretary of State Marshall was determined to delay any declaration of independence and any subsequent American recognition of the new state. He even threatened to vote against Truman in the next election. Yet, as history records, Truman did come down on the side of Israel’s advocates and not on that of the State Department and the Pentagon.
THE MUFTI AFTER 1945
Herf writes in depth about the American and French reluctance to place the Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, on trial for his collaboration with the Nazi regime. The Mufti’s animus against Jews stretched far beyond his political and military enemies, the Jews of Palestine. Although the British were initially reticent to deal with al-Husseini’s activities in wartime Berlin, it was the French who looked the other way when the Mufti, originally held in a Paris suburb until the spring of 1946, was able to escape to Cairo under an alias on a TWA flight.
Under interrogation, al-Husseini resurrected Vichy France’s resentment at British intervention in Lebanon and Syria. The revolt in Iraq in 1941 was depicted as a blow against British imperialists who were under the influence of the Jews, while he disparaged the idea that he had been guilty of war crimes in Yugoslavia. Herf notes that he depicted the Farhud as the Jews’ own fault:
The Jews outraged the population by prominently offering flowers to the English troops as the Iraqi troops were retreating. They thus pushed the public and the Iraqi army to open fire on them and there were victims. (115).
Jews were thereby seen as global agents of British colonialism. After all, Arab nationalists did not protect their indigenous Jewish commu- nities after 1948 despite their fury at the rise of Israel. In 1950, Jews were forcibly expelled from Iraq regardless of their ideological views. This emigration included many anti-Zionist Jewish communists including the noted Israeli writer, Sami Michael.
The Mufti’s emphasis on a Franco-British rivalry in the Middle East paid dividends. While denazification proceeded apace in Western Europe in the immediate aftermath of war, there was silence about the Mufti. On his return to the Middle East, he was undoubtedly welcomed by many in the Arab world and consequently rehabilitated. The idea that there had been a growing association between Arab nationalism and German national interests before the war was downgraded. Yet, Baldur von Schirach, the head of the Hitler youth, visited Syria; and the only Arab state to declare war on Nazi Germany on the onset of World War II had been Transjordan. It is significant that the United States did not publish its abundant material on the Mufti’s collaboration with the Nazis. Through his research in both American and French archives, Jeffrey Herf has uncovered every twist and turn in the Mufti’s rehabilitation with the connivance of western powers—mainly France—in white-washing his activities between 1939 and 1945, all in the cause of national interests. The protests of many Diaspora Jewish figures were to no avail.
Herf ’s book is a valuable addition to the literature of this period with its emphasis on mainly American and French diplomatic meanderings. He admirably dissects the debate surrounding the struggle for a state of the Jews within the Truman administration in order to secure the president’s favor. However, it is seemingly lesser factors such as the telescoping of the Communist threat and Jewish immigration that are both more interesting and original. Herf ’s expertise shines through in his scrutiny of the allied collusion not to prosecute the Mufti.
While the research on American and French archives is meticulously presented, findings from Russian and Israeli sources are often absent. So, for example, the anti-cosmopolitan campaign of the Kremlin did not start in early 1949, but some considerable time before it. Solomon Mikhoels was murdered in early 1948 and the first arrests of the fifteen Soviet Jews—including poets and writers who stood trial in the summer of 1952—actually took place in the autumn of 1948. There is also the focus on the left’s stand in 1948 compared with its approach today. While there is an abundance of fascinating material on the French left, there is no mention of the British left’s strong support for Zionism. Aneurin Bevan, a venerated leader of the British left who established the National Health Service in the UK, threatened to resign from Attlee’s government because of British conduct in Palestine.
Despite these minor hiccups, Jeffrey Herf has produced a concise and detailed account of the American debate at the inception of the Cold War over whether or not to support the emergence of a Hebrew republic in the Land of Israel.
Journal of Contemporary Antisemitism vol.5 no.2 Fall 2022