Vance on Herf, 'Israel's Moment: International Support for and Opposition to Establishing the Jewish State, 1945-1949'

Jeffrey Herf. Israel's Moment: International Support for and Opposition to Establishing the Jewish State, 1945-1949. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022. Illustrations. 450 pp. $39.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-316-51796-3.

Reviewed by Sharon Vance (Northern Kentucky University)
Published on H-Antisemitism (April, 2023)
Commissioned by Simon Gansinger (University of Warwick)

Printable Version:

In Israel’s Moment, Jeffrey Herf investigates the debates over the establishment of the State of Israel, particularly in the crucial years of 1947 and 1948. Contrary to popular belief, the two superpowers were on opposite sides of the issue. The US State Department and the defense establishment were hostile to the foundation of a Jewish state. Moreover, they were indifferent to the plight of Holocaust survivors barely two years after the end of World War II, as declassified documents from the archives reveal. In contrast, the Soviet Union, American public opinion, French socialists, and much of Europe supported Zionist aspirations, seeing in them a liberal cause or anti-imperialist project.

Israel’s Moment paints an intricate picture of this geopolitical setting, from the debates over the partition of Palestine at the United Nations to the armistice agreements that concluded the 1948 war in the context of the rapidly developing Cold War. Herf’s book should be of interest to readers concerned with international diplomacy, as it provides a case study of superpower relations in the transition from the anti-Nazi alliance during World War II to global conflict afterward. This shift had consequences for how Holocaust war criminals and their victims were treated. The refusal of the diplomatic corps and the Defense Department to deal with antisemitism among Nazi collaborators in the Arab world and Poland is discussed throughout the book. The question of whether there was antisemitism in these US government agencies is not considered until the conclusion.

In his introduction, Herf lays out the focus of his research and his most important findings, namely, that liberals and leftists in the West joined with the Soviet bloc in favor of a Jewish state while the American and French diplomatic and defense establishment supported British and Arab opposition. His introduction also lays out the broad array of sources he uses, which include secondary and primary American material, the archives of the French Ministries of the Interior and Foreign Affairs, public debates at the UN, and contemporaneous articles by liberal thinkers and public figures in France and the United States, revealing both vital assistance and immense obstacles along the path.

The second chapter is devoted to illustrating the wide support for the Zionist project among the American public and politicians from both political parties in the waning days of World War II and during the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal. In addition, this chapter discusses public campaigns to bring Nazi collaborators from the Arab world to justice, including al-Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the former mufti of Jerusalem; members of the Palestinian Arab Higher Committee; and coup plotters in Iraq. At the time, the State Department was receiving numerous reports from US embassies in Arab countries testifying to the continued popularity of Nazi collaborators. It resisted the campaign to bring them to justice despite having ample documentation.

The next two chapters provide more in-depth coverage of American liberal and leftist support for Zionist aspirations, the French government’s relations with the mufti, and his return to the Middle East. While in Cairo, he met an official in the French embassy and promised that if they gave the Arabs weapons, he would guarantee the Maghrib would be obedient to France.

Chapter 5 is devoted to the handover of the Palestine issue to the United Nations and the first General Assembly debates. It highlights the contrasting approaches of representatives from Eastern European countries and the Soviet Union who invoked fresh memories of the struggle against the Nazis and the Holocaust and proposed partition of Palestine. They also insisted on Jewish Agency representation at the UN in the face of American and British opposition.

Chapters 6 and 7 are devoted to the question of Jewish refugees. While US president Harry S. Truman supported the entrance of one hundred thousand Jewish Holocaust survivors into Palestine, the US State Department and the Department of Defense were adamantly opposed, supporting the British position, even claiming that these survivors were Soviet agents, completely disregarding the evidence provided during the Nuremberg trials and showing indifference to their ongoing trauma in displaced persons camps. The French government was also divided. The Ministries of Interior and Transport provided crucial support for Jewish immigration to Palestine while the Foreign Affairs Ministry was worried about its relations with Britain and wanted to maintain its blockade. In contrast to the US defense establishment and diplomatic corps, which equated Zionism with Communism, French socialists were able to pursue containment of the Soviet Union while supporting the Zionist project in Palestine.

The next three chapters continue to chronicle ongoing State Department, Defense Department, and even Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) attempts to stop immigration and cut off arms to the Yishuv as the armed conflict in Palestine heated up and as Arab states, whose armies were being supplied by Britain, were preparing to invade. As these policies became public knowledge, liberal writers such as I. F. Stone began protesting, establishing a theme that would be picked up in later decades, declaring that Washington was trading “Jewish Blood for Arabian Oil” (p. 301). Stone’s dispatches from Palestine discussed the range of political opinions in the Yishuv from a small pro-Soviet minority to a larger pro-Western public that was committed to democracy and multiparty rule. The Zionist movement continued to receive bipartisan support in Congress, including from Republicans, who were able to separate the Zionist project from the problem of Soviet expansion, despite the support that the Yishuv received from Eastern bloc countries. Herf also discusses the Truman Doctrine, the Cold War, and the dilemmas of a president caught between his humanitarian concern for Holocaust survivors and the need to support Britain in its stance against Soviet expansion. Supporting the British Empire was seen as a vital national interest, along with maintaining access to Arab oil.

Chapters 11 through 13 discuss international responses to the establishment of the State of Israel and the Arab Israeli War. These chapters detail the dual tracks of the American and French governments. The public track was represented by their domestic ministries, the White House and popular support for the Jewish state, and Holocaust survivors stuck in displaced persons camps. The other track consisted of their foreign affairs and defense departments, which pursued diametrically opposed policies. The liberal Left in Europe and the United States took note and denounced them. Israel’s cause was championed by the French Communist Party National Assembly deputy Florimond Bonté, who declared that the anti-imperialist freedom fighters in Vietnam and Indonesia were the comrades of the Haganah. In the UN, the Soviet and Eastern bloc countries denounced British and American proposals to reduce the territory of the State of Israel to a small enclave in the Galilee and to give the Negev to Transjordan and Britain as serving imperialist interests and American oil monopolies. In addition, Herf details the vital support provided by the Czech arms deal that broke the British and American embargo. The last two chapters discuss the final efforts of the American and British defense and diplomatic establishment to weaken Israel, Soviet countermoves, the end of the 1948 war, and Israel’s admittance into the UN.

The conclusion examines the Soviet about-face starting in 1949, when it blamed the West for establishing the State of Israel and began its antisemitic, “anti-cosmopolitan” purges, erasing the memory of its key support for the Jewish state and persecuting those who carried out its policy. In addition, the author raises the question of whether State Department and Department of Defense policies were fueled by antisemitism. Herf’s overall assessment is that they were not. Yet he concedes that some high-ranking officials suffered from “polite antisemitism” (p. 457). His quotations from their memos reveal a “poor choice of words” in a number of declassified documents (p. 277). In addition, he shows that, as these policies were being carried out at the UN and on the high seas in the form of embargos and blockading refugees, the leading writers in such publications as the Nation, New Republic, and New York Times were questioning the motivations behind them.

The book provides an important contribution to the study of antisemitic tendencies within these government institutions. Israel’s Moment will be of interest to researchers of antisemitism and the Holocaust, given that it deals with the plight of the survivors in the arena of international relations as the Cold War developed. For those interested in Cold War studies, it provides important documentation on the pivot from the anti-Nazi alliance to superpower rivalries at the dawn of this conflict.

Herf begins and ends Israel’s Moment with the 1949 Soviet policy reversal on Israel and its consequences for political discourse. In the following decades, the USSR spread propaganda that it was the capitalist, imperialist West that was responsible for Israel’s creation. This line was vigorously pursued within the context of the fading anti-fascist alliance and rapidly advancing Cold War. Herf’s book exposes the truth about this early Cold War alignment while also providing abundant evidence that, contrary to State Department and British claims, Israel had no intention of being a Soviet satellite state. It sought help where it could get it, and in these crucial years there was broad public support from the Left to the Republican Right. The Jewish state received this backing from those who were also committed to the containment of Soviet advances. As Herf shows, Israel’s Moment was one of the few instances where a broad spectrum of voices, ranging from anti-Communist Republicans to Soviet officials, supported it. It is perhaps inevitable that such a moment would not last.

Citation: Sharon Vance. Review of Herf, Jeffrey, Israel's Moment: International Support for and Opposition to Establishing the Jewish State, 1945-1949. H-Antisemitism, H-Net Reviews. April, 2023.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.