The events surrounding the establishment of the state of Israel are among the most contentious in history. Sometimes the debate takes an anti-Semitic form with accusations of a powerful Jewish conspiracy manipulating the situation to ensure the creation of a Jewish state.

For those reasons I was particularly interested to participate in the webinar on "Myths and Realities about Israel's Establishment: Their Relevance for Discussions of Contemporary Antisemitism". The online event was part of a series organised by Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University. (At the time of writing the YouTube recording was not available but it should be uploaded here).

It featured Jeffrey Herf, a professor of history at the University of Maryland, who focused on his recently published book on Israel’s Moment (Cambridge University Press). It looks at the battle between those for and against the creation of the Jewish state from 1945-1949.

The book’s goal is essentially to dispel what he sees as two key myths around Israel’s establishment. First, the Jewish state was imposed on the region by imperialist powers, in particular America and Britain. Second, that the Zionist project was racist at its core.

Herf uses his considerable skill as an old-fashioned historian to counter these arguments. Here I mean “old-fashioned” in a positive way. He has painstakingly worked through the archives to come up with an alternative to the main critical narrative. His command of foreign languages – certainly German and I think French too – also allow him to develop a broader view than someone who just relies on English language sources ( Ideally it would be good to be able to read Arabic, Hebrew and Russian sources too but there are of course limits to what any one individual can do).

These are his key conclusions:

*Support from US President Harry Truman was important for the creation of the Jewish state but Soviet support was even more crucial. It is often forgotten that for a brief but key period the Soviet Union was an important backer of the Jewish state. For example, in May 1948 the Soviet Union became the first country to legally recognise Israel. Herf also argues it should be recognised that the Palestinian Jewish population itself played an important role in the creation of the Jewish state. It was not just a passive recipient of outside backing.

*Historians have paid insufficient attention to the mainstream western opponents of the Zionist project. Herf argues there was an anti-Zionist consensus at the top of the American establishment – Truman was a key figure but he was an exception. Opponents of Israel included the US Central Intelligence Agency and State Department. These include key figures such as General George C Marshall (the architect of the Marshall plan to rebuild Europe after the ravages of the second world war) and George F Kennan ( a key advocate of the policy of containment of the Soviet Union during the Cold War). Such figures often associated Zionism with communism ( a plausible view at the time given the links between Israel and the Soviet Union mentioned above). Herf contends that America’s close relationship with Israel only began after the 1967 Six Day War. France was Israel’s main backer from the late 1940s until 1967.

*Support for the establishment of Israel encompassed both Democrat and Republican parties. Prominent leftist and liberal politicians and journalists were strongly pro-Israel. They saw the establishment of Israel as part of a global movement towards anti-colonialism.

*Zionism was not a form of racism but, on the contrary, it developed in opposition to racism. Herf's counter is that the Palestinian leadership at the time enjoyed close links with the Nazis. It looks like this is a theme he focused on in his book on Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (Yale 2010). This  substantial essay by him on Nazism and Islamism for The Tablet (the American publication rather than the British Catholic one of the same name) seems to cover the same topic.

Although Herf made a strong case on Israel’s establishment its relationship to contemporary anti-Semitism – as referred to in the talk’s sub-title – was not really covered. When he was pressed on the subject he said nothing of interest. But that should not really matter because the substance of his book was clearly outlined.

It would be interesting to do a close comparison between Herf’s work and the book by Walter Russell Mead I reviewed recently on spiked. Both argue, I think rightly, that Soviet support for Israel was crucial in the late 1940s. But Mead seems to have a broader view of the factors influencing American policy towards Israel – although I have not yet read the Israel’s Moment so I should avoid making a definitive judgement. There is of course a huge literature on this subject.

Herf’s specialist area is modern European history and particularly Germany. He has written several pieces for Fathom, a quarterly online journal published by the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre.

PS - 27 April 2023. Jeffrey Herf as written a summary of his book for the latest issue of the Sapir Journal.