H-Diplo Article Review 1144, Fallas on Walther, “Dorothy Thompson and American Zionism.”

christopher ball's picture

H-Diplo Article Review 1144

13 October 2022

Karine Walther, “Dorothy Thompson and American Zionism.” Diplomatic History 46:2 (April 2022): 263-291 https://doi.org/10.1093/dh/dhab107

https://hdiplo.org/to/AR1144
Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Thomas Maddux | Production Editor: Christopher Ball

Review by Amy Fallas, University of California, Santa Barbara

Karine Walther has written a powerful and compelling analysis of an overlooked yet deeply influential U.S. Protestant writer’s shifting perspectives on Israel, Palestine, and American Zionism during World War II and the early Cold War period. Dorothy Thompson was a pathbreaking journalist and political commentator who covered political issues in Europe, including the Jewish refugee crisis in Europe amid the horrors of German Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s genocidal policies during World War II. Thompson was an early and influential advocate of Zionism as a project and solution that could offer Europe’s Jews a modern nation-state to protect them from further discrimination and violence. Walther traces the fascinating transformation of Thompson’s views on Zionism wherein, after 1946, she became an outspoken critic of the creation of an Israeli state, accusing the Zionist movement and ideology of the very same ethnonationalism that created forms of Jewish exclusion in Europe.

Thompson’s trajectory in public life was largely shaped by many of the same influences on other prominent Protestant thinkers of the time. She was raised by a Methodist preacher who espoused many ideals of the Social Gospel Movement, and was mentored intellectually by her undergraduate professor Walter Rauschenbusch, a key scholar of the intersections between Christianity and social justice.[1] Her meteoric rise in journalism came from her reportage and commentary on political events in Europe during the interwar period and, in particular, her focus on the rise of fascism and ethnic nationalism. She wrote hundreds of articles, gave dozens of public talks, and was a frequent commentator on public radio on these issues. She was not only one of the first successful female journalists of her time but she was one of the foremost public intellectuals in the United States regarding the social and political developments in Europe during this critical period.

It was during this peak of her journalistic success and her coverage of the Jewish refugee crisis in Europe when she became imbricated with the Zionism movement in the United States. Initially, she was a supporter of the goals of the Evian Conference of 1938, a summit called by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to find a multilateral resolution to accept more Jewish refugees abroad, including the United States, in light of mass displacement caused by Hitler’s increasingly xenophobic policies that left millions of Europe’s Jewry stateless. Yet many Zionists in the United States and beyond felt that the effort to resettle Jewish refugees anywhere but Palestine would divert momentum away from their political aims. The future Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion himself claimed that “nothing takes priority over saving the Hebrew nation in its land” (269).

Thompson’s influential Zionist colleagues motivated her to initially embrace the ideals of the movement based on the idea of “self-determination in theory, while continuing to support empire in practice” (274). Central to the founding mythologies of this persuasion was the Biltmore Declaration of 1942 which contended that the lands in which Jews were to be resettled in Palestine were both ‘unoccupied’ and ‘uncultivated’ – two aspects that contradicted how in practice Jewish settlement had disrupted Palestinian livelihoods during the interwar period into the 1940s.

Despite these inconvenient truths, Thompson lent her political capital toward the cause of establishing a Zionist state in Palestine– a position she expressed in her 1946 book Let the Promise be Fulfilled which argued that a Western-styled Jewish nation-state would not only solve the ‘Jewish Question’ but also bring civilization uplift to Arab populations in the region.[2] She was joined by other influential Protestants in public life such as Frank Buxton, editor of the Boston Globe, who argued that supporting a Jewish state in Palestine was a civilizational task akin to the phenomenon of ‘manifest destiny’ in the United States (275).  

Walter argues that Thompson’s early support for Israel was motivated by her own conviction in the supremacy of the US political model against the forces of fascism and communism. Echoing other American political figures of the time, Thompson believed that “the entire future of man on this planet depends on our will… to become the liberators of the world” (270). She embraced Israel’s foundational myths as potential for spreading US political ideals in the Middle East even as it contradicted core values of liberal democracy. For instance, ‘self-determination’ was only legible for Thompson within a white ‘Western’ civilizational paradigm granted to Jews while simultaneously denied to Palestinians: “As she argued in her 1946 book…Jewish settlers should be allowed to ‘peaceably colonize and cultivate their soil in justice: let the United Nations, and especially Great Britain and the United States, extend to the Arab population some of the immense benefits of western civilization which the Jews have extended to themselves’” (274).

Despite her initial support, Thompson began to feel increasingly skeptical about Zionism after visiting Palestine in 1945. Her visit coincided with an increase in terrorist activities by the Zionist paramilitary group, the Irgun, across Jewish settlements that initiated Palestinian flight due to Zionist violence. Largely in response to an open letter signed by notable Jewish-Americans against Irgun’s leader Menachem Begin, Thompson also lent her pen to writing critique of the violence which received swift and hostile responses from Zionist organizations and colleagues (277). In response to hate mail, newspaper editors felt pressured into publicly disavowing her articles and the New York Post even dropped her column (278). Arthur Hays Sulzberger, a Jewish-American critic of Zionism and publisher of the New York Times, supported Thompson and viewed the attacks as an effort to censor her freedom of speech into the late 1940s.

Following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Thompson became a more outspoken critic of Zionism but was shocked at the unabated character attacks and accusations of anti-Semitism that threatened to upend her career in journalism. In response, she continued to foster more collaborative and diplomatic efforts which led her in 1952 to become one of the founding members of the American Friends of the Middle East (AFME), a group whose aim was to repair diplomatic relations with the region amid the fallout due to the US government’s support of Israel. She was joined by other prominent Protestant and Christian members such as Professor William Ernest Hocking, Professor Bayard Dodge, Professor Philip Hitti, and Pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick.

Yet their discourse and funding sources started to reflect the diplomatic, security, and geostrategic struggles of the US against an atheist Soviet Union during the early Cold War period. Thompson, among others, argued that the American model offered the best promise for the world because US political ideals were “based on equality of right for every individual citizen and religious group, with neither inherent rights nor inherent prejudices for or against any national groups— which are simply not recognized” (286).  Walther accurately observes that this position was reinforced by a pro-Americanism that neglected or intentionally obscured the prevalent issues around racism, national status, and class in the United States at a time when the Japanese were interned and there was great resistance to the Civil Rights Movement. Further, the organization clandestinely received funds from the CIA.

Yet Thompson’s adamant commitment to critiquing the Zionist and later Israeli national project put her at the center of controversy that contributed to the end of her journalism. The weight and continued personal attacks led her to recognize that this shift in her position on Zionism lost her “thousands [of] scores of personal friends. It has closed platforms to me which once eagerly sought me as a speaker. It has mobilized against me one of the most powerfully organized and zealous groups in American public life . . . And it has often filled my heart with tears” (290).  Just as critiques of Israel today are demonized, Thompson’s early example of this kind of outspokenness in the press continues to reverberate in today’s public and academic sphere.

Walther’s intervention contributes to a growing body of scholarship interested in unpacking the religious ideas and mobilization of US political interests in Israel and Palestine.[3] She attends specifically to the burgeoning early Cold War context of the US political debates on Zionism, providing an indispensable contribution to scholarship which mostly focuses on Zionism and American political thought after the 1967 War. Given Thompson’s prominence and prolific work spanning hundreds of articles, dozens of books, and a popular radio show, Walther’s article rightly asserts the prominence of her role and influence within this literature.  

Walther’s essay demonstrates an impressive range of historiographic connections– from the fields of US diplomatic history to modern Middle East studies. In particular, the work of historians on Middle East history is a notable highlight and includes the work of scholars such as Joel Beinin, Ilan Pappe, Tom Segev, and Nur Masalha, as well as the New Israeli Historian school which brought to bear critical views of the founding of Israel amid the declassification of the sources of the period in Israeli archives during the 90s and 2000s.[4] Walther cites work published in flagship journals of the Middle East Studies field such as the Journal of Palestine Studies and the Middle East Studies Journal. She engages these fields with a rigorous interrogation not only of Dorothy Thompson’s published works but of her network of colleagues, affiliates, and interlocutors between the 1930s-1950s and covers the views of Americans who were based in the region during this critical period of the early Cold War on Israel and Palestine

Walther finds that although Thompson was able to change her thinking on Zionism, her personal beliefs continued to reflect a belief in the superiority of US liberal values and political interests. She analyzes these important contradictions of Thompson’s views while also providing an empathetic and critical intervention at a time when academics and journalists face similar threats of censure for providing criticism of a violent project of settler colonialism in our contemporary moment.

 

Amy Fallas is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at UC Santa Barbara. She is currently a Research Fellow at the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) for 2021-2022 and the Coptic Studies Fellow for 2022-2023 at the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University to work on her dissertation "Their Own Poor: Communal Identity, Charitable Societies, and the Making of Sectarianism in Modern Egypt 1879-1939." Her research examines religious difference, communal institutions, sectarianism, and historical memory in modern Egypt as well as transnationally between El Salvador and Palestine during the twentieth century.

 

 

[1] Walter Rauschenbusch. A Theology for the Social Gospel. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1961).

[2] Dorothy Thompson. Let the Promise Be Fulfilled: A Christian View of Palestine. (New York: American Christian Palestine Committee, 1946).

[3] Daniel G. Hummel, Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, and U.S.-Israeli Relations (Philadelphia, PA, 2019); Amy Kaplan, Our American Israel: The Story of an Entangled Alliance (Cambridge, MA, 2018); Samuel Goldman, God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America (Philadelphia, PA, 2018); Rashid Khalidi, Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East (Boston, MA, 2014).

[4] Joel Beinin, et al. The Struggle for Peace: Israelis and Palestinians (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021); Pappe, Ilan. The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (London: One World, 2015; Tom Segev and Haim Watzman. The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2005); Nur Masalha. Imperial Israel and the Palestinians The Politics of Expansion. (Sterling: Pluto Press, 2000); Avi Shlaim, "The Debate About 1948," International Journal of Middle East Studies. 27:3 (1995): 287-304.