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Israel's Moment: International Support for and Opposition to Establishing the Jewish State, 1945–1949

One might assume there is very little else that can be added to our understanding about the international support for and opposition to establishing the Jewish State. Historian Jeffrey Herf explains that although the Jews alone were responsible for creating the foundation of their state, “it was made possible by the contingent, short-lived, and unexpected agreement between an American president and the leaders of the Soviet bloc just as the international anti-Hitler coalition split apart into the reversed fronts of the Cold War.”

He provides new insight into this “unique and fleeting period,” from May 1947 to May 1949, when this “tenuous agreement” was reached. His fundamental conclusions are significant. Although the support of President Harry Truman was essential for the establishment of the state of Israel, the US government from 1945 to 1949 was significantly “less supportive of or important” for this outcome than were the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc states between May 1947 to early 1949, when the Israeli-Arab war ended.


Support of the Soviet Union and Soviet Bloc States

Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet Ambassador to the UN, explained on May 14, 1947, that the “aspirations of an important part of the Jewish people are bound up with the question of Palestine, and with the future structure of that country….” Arabs and Jews inhabited Palestine, but each has historical roots there. The “suffering and miseries of the Jewish people are beyond description… and it would be difficult to express by mere dry figures the losses and sacrifices of the Jewish people at the hands of the Fascist occupiers.”

The UN “cannot, and should not, remain indifferent to this situation.” he declared, because it would be “incompatible” with the “high principles” of the UN Charter… This is a time to give help, not in words, but in deeds.”

The fact that not one state in Western Europe could protect the Jews from the Nazis and their allies or “compensate them for the violence they have suffered…explains the aspiration of the Jews for the creation of a state of their own… And “it is impossible to justify a denial of this right of the Jewish people….”[e US government from 1945-1949 was significantly less supportive of the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine than were the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc states.”

Manipulative Use of the Holocaust

As historian Robert Wistrich noted elsewhere, Gromyko’s use of the Holocaust to tweak the West was a bold and risky move. Russian Jews murdered in the Soviet Union by the Nazis were counted as Soviet citizens and not as Jews. Except for Poland, more Jews were killed in the Soviet Union than anywhere else. Cooperation and, at times, active and indeed enthusiastic participation in the process of Jewish destruction by Latvians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and White Russians was so pervasive, that the Soviets were no better at protecting their Jews than the West was. This argument, had it been raised at the time, might have justified Jewish immigration to Palestine.

Role of the Ardent American Liberals

His second conclusion is that though some moderate conservatives in America and France backed the Zionist idea, the nucleus of ardent Zionist support in the US and Europe originated, aside from Jewish organizations and leaders, from American liberals expressed in The Nation and The New Post, by prominent Democrat senators and members of Congress, French socialists and between 1947 and 1949, communists in France and in the Soviet bloc, particularly in Czechoslovakia, who were passionate advocates. Historian Arnold Krammer pointed out that Eastern Europe, and especially Czechoslovakia were the key suppliers of military equipment to the nascent Jewish state.

Without Soviet approval, Krammer said, there would have been no gun and aircraft sales to the Israelis since the Czechs needed permission from Moscow for any of their significant economic enterprises. Czechoslovakia had a definite need for an infusion of foreign currency, but exporting weapons is a political, not simple, trade. Their motivation seems to have been the promise of closer ties to Israel by a “pro-Soviet socialist government.” Using Czechoslovakia to funnel weapons and material gave the Russians the ability to blame the Czechs for “ideological errors” if and when the relationship between the Soviet bloc and Israel soured.

Herf asserts that for two years (1947-1949) Josef Stalin regarded the Jewish state as a means to remove British and American “presence and power” in the Middle East. Powerful memories of the antifascism of WWII, and of the Holocaust as already mentioned, were also motivating considerations for his support for a Jewish state.

“Underexamined Depth and Intensity” of Opposition to the Jewish State

Herf notes much has been written about the resistance of the British Labour government and the Division of Near Eastern and African Affairs in the US State Department to the creation of Israel. What thus far had been “underexamined” is the “depth and intensity” of the opposition not only among the State Department’s Arabists, but among the “leading officials” in that department, the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency, who were concerned that a Jewish state would undermine American national security interests. He critically examines the debates at the UN, deliberations at the Pentagon and State Department and decisions made by France’s Ministry of Interior and it Ministry of Foreign Relations.

A Crucial Corrective

During the four decades of the Cold War, the degree of American opposition to a Jewish state, and the extent of support for creating one by left-of-center American politicians, the Western press, and the Soviets, receded from public memory. After the alliance with the Americans emerged decades later, this relationship was “projected backward onto a romanticized—or demonized—view of early American support, as if President Truman’s sympathies overcame the reservations of American diplomats and military leaders.” After “turning on” Israel in late 1949, the leaders of the Soviet Union viewed their brief period of support for Zionism as an “anathema.”

Herf offers a compelling and accurate description of the challenges the Zionists faced between 1945–1949, as they struggled to re-establish their state in their ancestral homeland. A very significant contribution to the field by placing it the context of the Holocaust and the Cold War.


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Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.