In this op-ed, Dov Waxman, author of The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: What Everyone Needs to Know, responds to a commonly held assumption about the creation of Israel.
Michigan Democratic Representative Rashida Tlaib (the first Palestinian-American woman elected to Congress) recently sparked another partisan controversy over Israel with her comments about the Palestinians’ role in Israel’s creation in the wake of the Holocaust of European Jewry. Republicans have accused her of antisemitism, while her fellow Democrats have rushed to her defense, but what has gone largely unchallenged amid the partisan rancor has been her insinuation that Israel was created because of the Holocaust. In my new book, The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: What Everyone Needs to Know, I debunk this widely-held assumption.
The chronological proximity of the Holocaust and Israel’s establishment has led many people to assume that the two events are causally connected and that Israel was created because of the Holocaust. Contrary to this popular belief, however, a Jewish state would probably have emerged in Palestine, sooner or later, with or without the Holocaust.
Political Zionists like Theodore Herzl made the case for Jewish statehood decades before the mass murder of European Jewry took place, and the Zionist movement had spent many years actively building in Palestine the political and economic infrastructure for an eventual Jewish state. Zionists, in Palestine and elsewhere, did not need the Holocaust to convince them of the Jews’ existential need for statehood, although it did make them even more determined, and less patient, to achieve this long-held objective.
Most Jews in the diaspora, who had previously been opposed to Zionism or largely indifferent toward it, were convinced of the need for Jewish statehood upon learning about the near-annihilation of European Jewry and the desperate plight of those who managed to survive. In the wake of the Holocaust, Zionism became the dominant ideology across the Jewish world. The Holocaust seemed to vindicate the Zionist argument that Jews needed a state of their own to protect, rescue, and shelter them from their enemies. This led many Diaspora Jews, especially those in the United States, to become vocal and energetic advocates for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. American Jews also provided much-needed money and arms to Jews in Palestine to help them develop and defend such a state.
The mass mobilization of American Jewry in support of Jewish statehood after World War II undoubtedly played a role in persuading the U.S. government to support the partition of Palestine in the pivotal UN vote in November 1947, and then to immediately recognize the State of Israel after it was declared. Historians continue to debate just how much this support was a factor in the Truman administration’s decision-making at the time. President Harry Truman was concerned about winning the influential Jewish vote in the presidential election of November 1948, and he was subjected to intense lobbying by American Jewish Zionists. But it is by no means clear that these were the main reasons why Truman supported the partition of Palestine and recognized the State of Israel, going against the advice of his own State Department.
American public opinion was deeply affected by the Holocaust, and consequently the United States became more supportive of Jewish statehood in its aftermath. This certainly influenced U.S. foreign policy, as did President Truman’s genuine sympathy for Jewish suffering in the Holocaust and for the plight of Jewish Holocaust survivors (shortly after he became president at the end of World War II, for instance, Truman asked the British government, unsuccessfully, to admit 100,000 Holocaust survivors into Palestine).
None of these factors, however, outweighed the influence of pragmatic considerations in determining U.S. foreign policy regarding the future of Palestine. Above all, it was driven by the pressing need to resettle up to 250,000 Jewish refugees and displaced persons in Europe (many of whom were unwilling to return to their countries of origin), and by an equally important desire to avoid a war in Palestine that might destabilize the Middle East and be exploited by the Soviet Union.
Some American policymakers, including Truman himself, also expected a Jewish state to be democratic and pro-Western, thereby helping to contain the spread of Soviet influence in the region. In the context of the emerging Cold War with the Soviets, U.S. strategic interests shaped American foreign policy more than humanitarian concerns for Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. A belief that Jews should be compensated for their suffering in the Holocaust and morally deserved to have their own state was, at most, a secondary factor.
Other states, particularly Great Britain and the Soviet Union, were even more motivated by realpolitik than by sympathy for the Holocaust in their stances toward the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. The British opposed Jewish statehood largely out of a desire to maintain good relations with Arab states (whose plentiful oil supplies they needed). The Soviets, on the other hand, supported Jewish statehood because they wanted to get the British out of Palestine and hoped that a Jewish state, led by the socialist-oriented Mapai Party, would have good relations with the USSR.
Although there was certainly widespread international sympathy for the victims and survivors of the Holocaust, this sympathy was transient, and it did not automatically translate into popular support for the creation of a Jewish state. Nor was the public support that did exist the main reason why the UN General Assembly voted to divide Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The vote primarily reflected the wishes of Washington and Moscow — which, for once, happened to be aligned — and the perceived national interests of the UN member states (some were heavily pressured to vote for partition).
The Holocaust, therefore, was not nearly as much of a factor in Israel’s creation as many people, including Rep. Tlaib, think. Though it has generated popular support for Israel’s existence, particularly in some Western countries, it was not the cause of Israel’s establishment.
Dov Waxman is Professor of Political Science, International Affairs, and Israel Studies, and the Stotsky Professor of Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies at Northeastern University. He is also the director of Northeastern University’s Middle East Studies program. An expert on Israel, his research focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israeli foreign policy, U.S.-Israel relations, and American Jewry’s relationship with Israel. He has been published and quoted in The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic Monthly, Salon, Foreign Policy, The Forward, and numerous others.