The education of a ‘wise man’ (JERUSALEM POST OP-ED) By ALLAN ARKUSH 04/30/12)
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This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily and is used
with their permission.
Eddie Jacobson was once a folk hero among American Jews, and even
today he is far from forgotten. In their authoritative book A Safe
Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel, Allis and Ronald
Radosh tell how Truman’s old business partner from Missouri did his
part to bring the State of Israel into existence.
Jacobson made his greatest contribution in March 1948, when the US
government was considering whether to withdraw its support for the
United Nations’ recently adopted plan for the partition of Palestine.
American Zionists, frustrated by president Truman’s refusal to hear
their arguments, struggled to get Chaim Weizmann, their most
irresistible statesman, through the White House door. Only thanks to
Jacobson’s intervention did they finally succeed.
“You win, you baldheaded son of a bitch,” Truman muttered to his pal
before agreeing to see the man whom Jacobson identified – falsely –
as his personal hero. During the subsequent hush-hush White House
meeting, the president assured Weizmann that the US would continue to
In doing so, Truman cast aside the anti-Zionist policy designed by a
much greater celebrity than Eddie Jacobson: George F. Kennan.
As the first head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff and
one of the most important of the “Wise Men,” the architects of
America’s Cold War strategy, Kennan was generally preoccupied in the
late 1940s with Europe and the Far East. But in January and February
of 1948 he produced position papers that called for abandoning the
plan to create two new states in Palestine and for establishing a UN
trusteeship over the country instead.
As John Lewis Gaddis explains in in his recent, justly acclaimed,
Pulitzer Prize-winning George F Kennan: An American Life, Kennan’s
opposition to the creation of Israel stemmed from his overall
conception of American interests in the Middle East in the early Cold
Kennan feared that, one way or another, establishing a Jewish state
would play into the hands of the Soviets and, worse, might require
the deployment of American troops to enforce partition, an act that
would be “violently resented by the whole Arab world.” Kennan,
according to Gaddis, “failed to consider the humanitarian
implications of withdrawing American support for a Jewish state only
three years after the world had learned of the Holocaust.” But one
should not leap to the conclusion that Kennan, like other State
Department officials of his day, was some kind of anti- Semite. He
may have uttered some unsavory things about Jews here and there; but
he also went out of his way, at his diplomatic posts in
Czechoslovakia and Germany in the late 1930s, to help Jewish friends
and acquaintances escape from Hitler’s Europe. Nor was Kennan one of
the State Department’s notorious Arabists, although he might have
become one if his appointment in 1937 to the US consulate in
Jerusalem had not been canceled at the last minute. Abruptly
reassigned to duties in Washington, he gave up his study of – Yiddish.
WHAT GADDIS fails to note is another concern of Kennan’s in 1948:
that the establishment of a Jewish state would disserve the best
interests not only of the United States but of the survivors of the
Holocaust themselves. As Kennan and Loy Henderson declared at the
time, it was “improbable that the Jewish state could survive over any
considerable period of time in the face of the combined assistance...
for the Arabs of Palestine from the Arab states.” In the years
following his unsuccessful effort to prevent its birth, Kennan does
not seem to have paid much attention to the Jewish state. The 400
pages that Gaddis devotes to his subject’s subsequent career as a
diplomat, scholar and public intellectual include virtually no
mention of the country. But this in itself is noteworthy.
Kennan, a State Department veteran who brooded frequently and
publicly about the detrimental impact of ethnic minorities on the
formation of US foreign policy – he was, in the end, an isolationist –
is just the sort of person from whom one might have expected
complaints, toward the end of the 20th century, about the “Jewish
lobby.” Yet on those few occasions when he did speak about Israel,
his remarks were essentially quite favorable.
In his 1977 book The Cloud of Danger, for instance, Kennan affirms
that “when we lent our support, nearly thirty years ago,” to Israel’s
establishment, “we accepted a certain share of the responsibility for
the success of the undertaking.” If this affirmation sounds somewhat
rueful, the same cannot be said of what follows: “I am fully aware
of, and indeed personally share in, the deep concern of a great part
of American opinion for the survival and the prospering of this new
state. I interpret this concern as a commitment of sorts – a
commitment not to the Israelis but to ourselves – a commitment to do
all in our power, short of the actual dispatch and employment of
combat forces, to assure that Israel continues to exist – that its
people are not destroyed, enslaved, or driven into the sea by hostile
neighbors.” There were limits, Kennan thought, to what the US should
be prepared to do for Israel; but there were also limits to what it
should try to make Israel do.
Explicitly taking issue with George Ball, another State Department
veteran and no friend of Israel, Kennan argued that the terms of any
Arab-Israeli agreement should be “left for direct negotiation between
Israel and her Arab neighbors.” For it was “they, after all, not we,
who would have to live with any settlement that might be achieved.”
For example, it might be good for Israel to give up the Golan
Heights; “but how can we be sure? What would our responsibility be if
we urged this upon them and it turned out to be disastrous?” These
observations constitute only a very small part of George Kennan’s
1977 tour d’horizon. But anyone who recalls his opposition to the
creation of the State of Israel in 1948 should be aware of them.
There are occasions when it is useful to be reminded that a wise man
has learned something from experience.
The writer is a professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton
University, and the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review
of Books. This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily and
is used with their permission. (© 1995-2011, The Jerusalem Post
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