Speaking Difficult Words in Dark Times

Our Palestine Question: Israel and American Jewish Dissent 1948-1977

Yale University Press 2023, pp.320

In the early 1960s, Ben-Gurion implied that ideological Zionism, after the founding of the state, had lost its meaning. The imperative to emigrate and build up the Hebrew republic had been replaced by support for successive Israeli governments, bolstered by an unquestioning devotion to a broad Israelism. In this flawed but interesting book, the American academic, Geoffrey Levin, examines the range of fluctuating opinions towards Zionism in the United States between 1948 and the coming to power of the Likud in 1977. 

Levin describes forgotten figures such as the academic, Don Peretz and the journalist, William Zukerman who both wanted to explore the Arab refugee problem during the 1950s. The White House wanted a return of 250,000 Palestinian Arabs, Ben-Gurion’s government closed the borders because it regarded such a return as the first step in constituting a fifth column in Israel. Instead the embittered refugees floundered in limbo in camps and were ignored by their hosts, the Arab states. 

Amid the wonder and the euphoria of the existence of a Jewish state, the question of the destitute and homeless Palestinian Arabs was buried. Zuckerman lost his job as the JC’s New York correspondent. Peretz who had been a conscientious objector during World War II and admired the binational solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict of Judah Magnes and Martin Buber lost his posting with the American Jewish Committee. Zuckerman described his sacking as ‘a fine demonstration of Jewish McCarthyism’. 

Geoffrey Levin also examines the fiercely anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism which was an offshoot of a Reform Movement, strongly opposed to Jewish nationalism. However with the establishment of the state, anti- and non-Zionists were swept up in the reality of enthusiasm for Israel. 

The last chapter examines the emergence of a new generation of American Jews who had different ideas after the Six Day War,. The New Left of the 1960s embraced Palestinian nationalism with great ardour. This alienated many young American Jews but induced them to develop a different perspective and eventually to advocate a two state solution. The conquest of the West Bank in 1967 and the proliferation of Jewish settlements hardened a new generation to differ with the version of the Israel-Palestine conflict handed down to them by their elders. Even so, the same tactics were employed against them as had been used against dyed-in-the-wool anti-Zionists. They were labelled naive at best and self-hating Jews at worst. If rabbis were involved, their congregants were mobilised. If organisations were funded, their donors were spoken to. 

In the 1970s, numerous American Jews began to reflect the views of the burgeoning peace camp in Israel rather than its governments, both Labour and Likud. Some in the US quietly met PLO supporters — and according to the author, their names were given to the press ‘by Israeli officials’ and blackened. In this country incidentally, a group of British Jews quietly met PLO supporters for over a decade — they only came ‘out’ with the Oslo Accords of Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat.

This is an interesting book but its emphasis on the intricacies of American communal politics will appeal only to specialists. Moreover, the left wing Zionist party, Mapam, the Israeli politician Moshe Sneh and the dissenting American rabbi and academic, Arthur Hertzberg do not merit a mention. The complexity of the exodus of the 750,000 Palestinian Arabs — as the Israeli academic Benny Morris has documented — is dealt with only superficially. Even so, it is important to recall those who had the courage to utter difficult words in dark times.

Jewish Chronicle 26 April 2024

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