Historian takes deep look into friends, foes of Israel’s independence


BY ROBERT A. COHN , Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

The modern Jewish state of Israel marked its recent 74th anniversary of independence in a subdued and troubled mood.

Israel’s fragile-year-old coalition had lost its one-vote majority in the Knesset. Israeli nationalists encountered violent Palestinian protests in Jerusalem near the Western Wall of the Second Temple, located in the Old City, a site called the Noble Sanctuary by Muslims.

Considering all of the above challenges, Israel enters its 75th year with as many or more obstacles as faced Zionist founders David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann when the former read out Israel’s Proclamation of Independence on May 14, 1948. That is when the British Mandate over Palestine ended.

In his compelling new book, “Israel’s Moment,” Jeffrey Herf,  distinguished professor of modern European history at the University of Maryland, meticulously documents the countless obstacles Israel faced in the crucial period from 1945, when the Nazi death camps were liberated, and 1948, when the first independent Jewish entity was founded in biblical Israel in 2,000 years.


By 1945, the staggering reality that 6 million Jews had been murdered in the Holocaust could no longer be denied or minimized. The Soviet Union, whose army liberated Auschwitz and other death camps, supported the creation of Israel at the United Nations.

Herf gives great weight to speeches given by leading Soviet diplomat Andrei Gromyko that strongly supported statehood for Israel.

Herf also is clear-eyed that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was motivated not by the Holocaust but by his desire for the USSR to displace the United Kingdom as the dominant power in the Middle East, which did not happen.

Great Britain, whose wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill had been an outspoken supporter of Zionism, was turned out in 1945. He was replaced by the Labour Party’s Clement Attlee as prime minister. Attlee and vehemently anti-Israel Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin were more concerned with assuring Britain’s access to Arabian oil than with humanitarian or Big Power dominance of the Middle East.

Herf takes a deep dive into the background of the eventual support and recognition by the United States of the Jewish state in 1948. Both President Harry Truman and his 1948 Republican opponent, Thomas E. Dewey, supported Israel, as did major figures on the American left.

But the Arabist faction in Washington pulled out all the stops to kill support for the Zionist cause. Secretary of State George C. Marshall, a World War II hero and architect of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, feared that an independent Jewish state could quickly become a “Soviet base.” That fear proved to be unfounded as Stalin abruptly turned against not only Israel but against the large Soviet Jewish population.

Herf’s analysis proves the dictum that there are “no permanent friends” among nations but there are “permanent interests.”  Fortunately for the infant state of Israel, the United States, led by Truman who overcame Marshall’s opposition, and the USSR, which wrongly feared British dominance of the Middle East, saw it to be in their interests to support the modern miracle of Israel.

Herf’s book is both a good read about behind-the-scenes diplomacy and a valuable compendium of information about the birth of Israel.