Mackinder Forum #61: Jeffrey Herf, “Israel’s Moment: The Geopolitics of the Formation of the Jewish State.”

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Professor Jeffrey Herf addressed the Mackinder Forum on Sunday, July 10, 2022. His topic was “Israel’s Moment: The Geopolitics of the Formation of the Jewish State.”

Abstract: “The state of Israel was established at a moment in time when the passions of World War II anti-Nazism in the United States, Europe–including the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc–overlapped with and clashed with the at times reversed geopolitical arguments of the Cold War in 1945 to 1949, and especially during Israel’s war for independence in 1947-1948. This talk draws on interpretations and evidence from my recently published book Israel’s Moment: International Support for and Opposition to Establishing the Jewish State, 1945-1949 (Cambridge University Press, 2022). The predominant geo-political arguments of the United States State Department of Secretary of State George Marshall, Deputy Secretary Robert Lovett, and Director of the Policy Planning Staff, George Kennan were emphatically opposed to the Zionist project, and thus opposed to the United Nations Partition Resolution of November 1947, to delivering arms to the Jews, and to allowing the new Jewish state to hold on to the Negev desert. This anti-Zionist consensus was shared by the leadership of the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency. President Harry Truman’s support for the Zionists was crucial but also limited to parameters established by his own national security establishment which made common cause, on the whole, with the anti-Zionist stance of the British Foreign Office, led by Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin. In their collective view, a Jewish state in former British Mandate Palestine would benefit Soviet and Communist expansion in the Middle East, and undermine Western access to Arab oil.

Conversely, from May 1947 to May 1949, the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc countries of Eastern Europe (especially Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Ukrainian SSR) offered consistent and emphatic support to the Zionists by facilitating Jewish emigration from Europe to Palestine, supporting the Jewish Agency and then Israel in the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council, and in delivering arms from Czechoslovakia in violation of a United Nations embargo on such deliveries to the Middle East. Soviet bloc support emerged from a combination of conventional power politics and thus an effort to drive Britain out of the Middle East but also from the very recent, very raw, and still powerful memories and emotions of anti-Nazism during World War II and the Holocaust. In American politics, though support for the Zionist project extended across the political spectrum, it was strongest among American liberals and leftists. In France, such support came most importantly from Socialist members of the coaliton of the Fourth Republic government, but also from Communists, and some Gaullists veterans of the French Resistance.

The result of the interpretation in Israel’s Moment is to recall both the power political realities of the first months of the Cold War, as well as the emotions and passions associated with the “united nations” during World War II and the Holocaust. The American alliance with Israel did not begin in power political terms until several years after the Six Day War of 1967 and should not be projected back into the late 1940s. With the beginning of the “anti-cosmopolitan,” actually antisemitic purges in the Soviet bloc from fall 1949 to Stalin’s death in 1956, the Soviet Union did all it could to suppress the truth about its consequential support for the establishment of the Jewish state. It then spread the consequential falsehood that the state of Israel was a product of “U.S. imperialism” and repressed the then well known realities of Nazi collaboration of leaders of the Arab Higher Commiteee, the founding organization of Palestinian nationalism. One of the very important geopolitical developments of 1945-1949 was the refusal of the United States, Britain and France to put Haj Amin el-Husseini, the former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, on trial for war crimes. Israel’s Moment documents the role of the French Foreign Ministry in giving priority to French colonial and power political interests in North Africa and the Middle East over brining “the Mufti” to trial in Nuremberg for propaganda activities which had been the basis for indictments of Nazi officials. Just as the anti-communist arguments cut against support for the Zionist project in the U.S. State Department, so the early months of the Cold War fostered a certain leniency in judicial reckoning for former Nazi collaborators such as Husseini who presented their anticommunism as an asset to the policy of containment in the early Cold War. “

Biography: Professor Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor, Department of History, University of Maryland. He was awarded his PhD in sociology from Brandeis University in 1981.

His publications include: Israel’s Moment: International Support and Opposition for Establishing the Jewish State, 1945-1949 (Cambridge University Press, 2022); Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left, 1967-1989 (Cambridge University Press, 2019); Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (Yale University Press, 2009); The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda During World War II and the Holocaust (Harvard University Press, 2006); Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys (Harvard University Press, 1997); War by Other Means: Soviet Power, West German Resistance and the Battle of the Euromissiles (The Free Press, 1991); and Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich (Cambridge University Press, 1984).

Reading: Jeffrey Herf, “The U.S. State Department’s Opposition to Zionist Aspirations during the Early Cold War: George F. Kennan and George C. Marshall in 1947–1948. Journal of Cold War Studies 2021; 23 (4): 153–180: