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Righteous Among the Editors: When the Left Loved Israel

On the 60th anniversary of Israel’s founding, the argument that the Jewish state should cease to exist as a Jewish state may still be found in the pages of the flagship publication of the American left, The Nation. Last year, in a special issue devoted to Israel, the magazine’s editors noted that, although for many years the publication had supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a shift of “realities on the ground” mandated a shift in their thinking. If the age-old goal of a two-state solution fails—and the magazine’s editors suspect it might very well—then “the calls for inclusion on fully equal terms in one state will grow.” Americans thus have to “rethink our assumptions.”

The magazine had been engaged in just such a rethinking for years. Writing in The Nation in 2002, law scholar Richard Falk argued that the “state terrorism” engaged in by Israel is “greater” than the Palestinians’ use of terror. In any case, Falk interpreted suicide bombings as “reactive and understandable” responses to the U.S.-backed occupation of Palestine. Writing in July 2007, Falk went even further, identifying Israel’s “treatment of Palestinians with …[the] criminalized Nazi record of collective atrocity.” The problem, as Neve Gordon of Ben-Gurion University added in the same issue, was that “Most Jews consider themselves victims in this conflict, not aggressors.” Since Gordon and The Nation believed otherwise, Gordon on The Nation’s behalf called for major protests against Israel from abroad, “not unlike the sanctions imposed on South Africa.” Most recently, Henry Siegman, a former executive director of The American Jewish Congress, concluded that a once noble Jewish “national liberation struggle” has been transformed into “a colonial enterprise.”

In arguing their case, The Nation’s writers rely on an absurdly selective and tendentious reading of history. Nowhere has the airbrushing been more thorough than in their treatment of the antecedents of the present crisis, among them the role that the left itself played in Israel’s creation. When Israel had not yet been born, the idea of a Jewish state had the support of substantial numbers of Americans, drawing special enthusiasm from members of the left intelligentsia. This was especially true of The Nation magazine. In fact, no journal of opinion or media outlet campaigned more vigorously and vocally for Israel’s creation. For The Nation’s publisher and editor-in-chief, Freda Kirchwey, the struggle for a Jewish Palestine was nothing less than the sequel and parallel of the Spanish Civil War, the other struggle to which she had dedicated the opinion journal.



Freda Kirchwey’s credentials on the left were impeccable. Her father had been dean of Columbia University Law School, a well-known pacifist, and president of the American Peace Society (a sponsor of this journal). After graduating from Barnard College in 1915, she began a career in journalism, working for various New York newspapers. In 1918, she joined the staff of The Nation, eventually becoming its editor in 1933 and its publisher from 1937 to 1943. That same year she launched The Nation Associates, a mechanism to fund the poorly financed magazine and influence policy on the issues of the day.

A stalwart backer of the New Deal, Kirchwey used The Nation to champion the cause of the Spanish Republicans and broke with pacifists over America’s entry into World War II. The drama editor of The Nation, Joseph Wood Krutch, described her as a “natural-born Bohemian who would undoubtedly be talking to people over cocktails about the state of the world every day of her life, if she didn’t have The Nation as an outlet.” After her death, the New York Times editorialized that Kirchwey should be remembered for her “unique combination of personal charm and militant principle” and for being “a cheerful crusader.”

Her most important crusade was waged on behalf of the Jewish state. In 1944, Lillie Shultz, a former assistant to Zionist leader Rabbi Stephen Wise, was hired as The Nation Associates’ director and chief fundraiser. Kirchwey assembled a board of influential progressives, which included such luminaries as Philip Murray, president of the CIO; theologian Reinhold Niebhur; James G. Patton, president of the Farmers Educational and Cooperative Union; left-wing radio commentators Frank Kingdon and Raymond Graham Swing; playwrights Lillian Hellman and Eugene O’Neill; and writer Thomas Mann.

After the War, Kirchwey and her board decided the Associates should concentrate its efforts on the issue of Palestine. They believed that the plight of Holocaust survivors languishing in Europe’s displaced-persons camps “presented a problem which challenged the conscience of mankind and the ability of civilization to make some restitution.” The overwhelming majority of refugees wished to go to Palestine to rebuild their shattered lives. Thus, The Nation Associates saw the solution to the Jewish problem as “irrevocably linked with the future of Palestine.” To that end, the organization sponsored public policy conferences, created special issue committees, conducted radio broadcasts, and published twelve influential reports on the case for a Jewish state that were disseminated to senators and congressmen, to President Truman and members of his administration, and to the United Nation delegates who in 1947 were debating the future of Palestine.

Kirchwey’s pro-Zionist sentiments were cemented during a trip she made to Palestine as The Nation’s correspondent in the spring and summer of 1946. Her impressions of the Jews, the Arabs, and the British were not unique, but similar to those held by many of the members of the various international commissions dispatched to Palestine. Kirchwey was impressed with the achievements of the Jews in Palestine and their rehabilitation of the Holocaust’s survivors. She contrasted their accomplishments with the poverty and what she called the backwardness of the Arabs. She also reported disapprovingly on the role played by the 100,000 British troops stationed in Palestine.

In her diary, Kirchwey wrote about her visit to Hebrew University and the new Hadassah Hospital. She was especially impressed by the latter, where, despite an Arab boycott of the Jews, the “corridors (were) jammed with Arabs.” Kirchwey toured Beth Haarava, a Jewish settlement planted in the world’s toughest spot: “1400 ft. (plus) below sea level; desert; temperature about 100; earth 17% salt. But in four years the colony (a communal one) has produced marvelous crops on land washed until the salt content is just enough to encourage the biggest tomatoes in Palestine. Fish raised. Colony flourishing. I won’t see a more astonishing achievement anywhere, I’m sure.” She met with Goldie Myerson (Meir) and visited Chaim Weizmann for lunch at his house—“a most beautiful place in a fine setting—looking out over fields and orchards that were barren earth when he first went there.”

In a series of articles she wrote about her trip, Kirchwey noted how “overpowering” the British military presence had become and how biased against the Jews she found British officials to be. President Truman was calling on Britain to allow 100,000 Holocaust survivors entry into Palestine. London refused, convinced that Jewish immigration would stir Arab protests and violence. By their “painful reluctance to apply any clear-cut policy,” Kirchwey wrote, the British were inviting an Arab revolt and encouraging the Arabs to conclude that through blackmail the “Western powers can be frightened into sacrificing the Jews just as they have already abandoned the Christians in Lebanon.”

Nevertheless, she found the Jews “organized and prepared. They believe they are fighting, not just for their families and their homeland as in the thirties, but for the survival of their people. The horror of the past six years is alive in every Jew in Palestine whether he suffered it in his own person or through the bodies and minds of his fellow Jews in Europe.” What one Jewish leader said to her left a particularly vivid impression: “Under no circumstances will we give up. We will fight to open Palestine to all Jews who want to come. We will fight to maintain Jewish Palestine. We have no other choice. We cannot go on from here. This is the stopping place—the end of the road. We will stay here or die.”



Energized by such convictions, The Nation Associates became an important lobbying arm for the Zionist cause. Kirchwey believed they were especially effective because they were an independent and, more to the point, non-Jewish group. She counted among her friends both Eliahu Epstein, the Jewish Agency’s representative in America and later Israel’s first ambassador to the Unites States, and Weizmann, as well as most of the American Zionist leaders. She was willing to do anything necessary in the name of “a war in which we must enlist without hope of leave,” one with “no slackers and no conscientious objectors.” To carry out this war, Kirchwey and Shultz worked behind the scenes, coordinated activity with the Jewish Agency, and answered in programmatic detail every argument against the creation of a Jewish state offered by the State Department, the oil lobby, the British, and the Arabs.

The Nation’s involvement in the Palestine debate intensified in April 1947, after the British, having become caught in a bind of their own devising and unable to negotiate a satisfactory solution, referred the matter to the United Nations. On April 28th, a special session convened at the new UN Headquarters on Long Island, charged with establishing the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP). Kirchwey’s aim was to have the UN General Assembly vote for a resolution in favor of the establishment of a Jewish state. To accomplish this, The Nation immersed itself in the setting up of UNSCOP. There were difficult questions to be settled. Which countries would serve on the committee, and who would represent the Jews and the Arabs? A week before UNSCOP’s first meeting, a committee led by The Nation Associates, with “the co-sponsorship of leading progressive organizations,” submitted its first memorandum to United Nations Secretary General Trygve Lie.

The memorandum requested that only neutral nations, and not the Arab countries or the British, be allowed to sit on UNSCOP. It also asked that the Jewish Agency, established by the mandate as the legally recognized representative of the Jews in Palestine, represent them before the committee. The Nation submitted the memorandum to every delegation at the UN. Four thousand copies were distributed to members of the United States Congress, the State Department, the Supreme Court, to the press and radio, and to “leading American personalities,” along with a request that the recipients urge President Truman to “issue a directive to the American delegation in line” with the memorandum’s proposals.

On May 5th, The Nation Associates submitted its second memorandum, a 133-page report signed by Kirchwey, titled “The Palestine Problem and Proposals for its Solution.” Kirchwey claimed it served as the UN delegates’ “Handbook” and became the major media brief on behalf of the position of the Jewish Agency. Like all of the Associates’ reports, its release and contents were widely reported in the press, including the New York Times. The report reviewed the history of Hitler’s crimes against the Jews, the unwillingness of the Western powers to rescue them, and the British white paper of 1939 that slammed the doors of Palestine “shut in the face of the supplicants.”

At the war’s end, the report continued, “the common assumption was that the first victims of Hitlerism would be the first to be rescued by a sympathetic world.” That the doors of Palestine would be promptly opened to the Jews was taken for granted, especially after the British Labor Party won the 1945 elections. The party was on the record supporting the creation of a homeland for the Jews in Palestine and opposing the 1939 white paper, which severely limited Jewish immigration. It was not to be. By 1947, the number of Jewish refugees in the American sector of Germany and Austria had swelled to 250,000 desperate people, mostly arriving from Eastern Europe. The British Government was using every method of “exclusion and repression, to prevent them from going to Palestine.” This policy, Kirchwey believed, was meant to serve British imperial interests and the ruling elements among the Arabs, “even at the cost of defending a decadent, feudal, and hierarchical social system.”

The section called “Some Proposed Solutions” carefully surveyed possible alternatives for Palestine. Kirchwey, its principal author, flatly rejected calls for the creation of a bi-national state coming from liberal Jewish intellectuals such as Judah Magnes, Martin Buber, I. F. Stone, and Hannah Arendt. Acknowledging that the idea “has a strong democratic appeal,” she countered that it would not “satisfy the needs of the Jews to migrate to Palestine—particularly in view of the consistent opposition of the Arabs.” If such a state were created, Kirchwey predicted, “conflict would inevitably develop between two peoples whose cultural and industrial development is on such contrasting levels and whose approach to social and political problems is so different.” While the Jewish advocates of a bi-national state were “patient and reliable,” the Arab leaders would never permit it. The only workable solution was therefore partition.



Kirchwey also rejected the demand for an independent Arab state in Palestine. The Jewish population, she wrote, would be at the mercy of an Arab majority led by the anti-Semitic Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. The exposure of the role played by Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini in the affairs of Arab Palestine was probably The Nation’s most important revelation. Newly published histories, such as Matthias Küntzel’s Jihad and Jew-Hatred and Klaus Gensicke’s Der Mufti von Jerusalem und die Nationalsozialisten, have detailed the Mufti’s wartime relationship with Hitler, and his role in support of the Nazis while living in exile in Germany from 1941 to 1945. Kirchwey presented much the same evidence and material in 1947.

On May 10th, The Nation Associates submitted a memorandum on Axis affiliations with the exiled Grand Mufti and chairman of the Arab Higher Committee. The facts in the report, Kirchwey explained, were taken directly from captured files belonging to the Mufti and the German High Command, all discovered by American military authorities in Germany and now in the possession of the State Department.

“The Arab Higher Committee: Its Origins, Personnel and Purposes” contained documents and 35 photographs showing the Mufti and other Arab leaders in the company of Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Dino Alfieri, Benito Mussolini’s ambassador to Berlin. The report substantiated the charge that the Mufti controlled and directed the Arab Higher Committee, the self-appointed representative of the Palestinian Arabs, from his Egyptian exile and that he had worked with the Nazis. All 55 UN delegates received a copy of the 75-page report; 5,000 copies were printed and disseminated to Congress and the White House. The report identified Emil Ghouri, head of the Arab delegation to the UN, and delegates Wasef Kamal and Rasem Khalidi, as being “notorious for their long-time association with the Mufti and his Axis activities.” It also noted that one of the other delegates, Jamal Husseini, the Mufti’s cousin, had joined him in Iraq in 1939. There, he organized a fifth column that incited the anti-British rebellion of 1941. Kamal, it reported, subsequently fled Iraq and escaped to Turkey, where he became a “paid agent of the German secret service.”

As for the Mufti himself, captured German files revealed that he planned the Arab Palestinian riots of 1936, using funds supplied by the Nazis to fuel the violence. After escaping to Iraq, the report alleged that the Mufti bore responsibility for the deaths of 400 Jewish men, women, and children who were murdered on Baghdad’s streets. Escaping again, he made his way to Italy and then on to Nazi Germany.

In Berlin, the report stated, “The Nazis established a special office for him,” from which the Mufti engaged in activities including “propaganda, espionage, organization of Moslem military units in Axis-occupied countries and in North Africa and Russia, establishment of Arab legions in an Arab brigade and organization of fifth-column activities in the Middle East, including sabotage and parachutist expeditions.” He used Nazi radio to broadcast not only to the Middle East but also to Bari, Rome, Tokyo, and Athens, and eventually to India, Indonesia, and Java.

The report concluded that the Grand Mufti both supported and encouraged “the Nazi program of extermination of the Jews.” Captured records revealed that he had accompanied Adolf Eichmann to visit the gas chambers at Auschwitz and helped to put an end to negotiations being carried out by the Nazis to ransom Jews; the Mufti insisted they be liquidated. Writing to Himmler, the Mufti accused him and Joachim von Ribbentrop of being too lenient, since they had allowed some Jews to flee Germany. “If such practices continue,” the Mufti was quoted, “it would be “incomprehensible to Arabs and Moslems and provoke a feeling of disappointment.” Refusing comment, members of the Arab Higher Committee in New York responded simply that “the Axis issue should be forgotten.”
Kirchwey made sure that her reports reached the White House. Writing to Truman about The Nation Associates’ report on the Mufti and the Arab Higher Committee, White House aide David Niles explained the significance of the material:

You have received a copy of the Documentary Record submitted to the United Nations. This contains very confidential material that is in the files of the State Department. I think it is important to find out how it got out. It is very damaging evidence that the Arab representatives now at UNO were allies of Hitler. There is also included in this material the diary of the Grand Mufti, which Justice Jackson found at Nuremberg. Copies of this document have already gone to all the Members of Congress.

Clearly, Freda Kirchwey had obtained the classified information from a friendly source in the State Department. “Thanks, glad you sent it,” Truman replied. The president was already aware of its revelations. “I knew all about the purported facts mentioned and, of course, I don’t like it.” He wished that its contents “could have been used [by the U.S. government] for the welfare of the world.”



The Arab states and the Arab Higher Committee had proposed that the UN immediately declare itself in favor of an independent Palestine, which, under the terms they favored, would have meant an Arab state. In such a state, Kirchwey argued, a pledge of legal equality for Jews was not credible. There is nothing, she wrote, “to justify confidence in the attitude of the Arab states towards minorities in their population.” Their treatment of Jews, Lebanese, Christian Copts, and Armenians offered “striking refutation” of their assurances. Kirchwey later noted that her report on the connection between the Mufti, the Arab Higher Committee and Hitler gave the delegates pause; into whose hands might they be delivering the Jews? The Nation report, she wrote, had “a striking effect on the final decisions of the session” and persuaded various delegations not to vote for the Arab proposal.

On September 1st, UNSCOP submitted two reports to the General Assembly: the majority report called for the establishment of two independent states, Arab and Jewish; the minority report called for Palestine to become a federalized state. Kirchwey promptly dedicated herself and The Nation to the cause of the former. To move the administration in the direction of the partition plan, Kirchwey convened a special meeting of The Nation Associates with members of Congress, briefing them on the state of play at the UN and passing along data to use when marshalling their own arguments in favor of partition.

The State Department, in particular, opposed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, claiming, among other things, that American troops eventually would have to be dispatched to save the Jews and that access to the region’s oil was at stake. Pointing out that the Soviet Union had gone on record at the UN as being inclined toward partition, Kirchwey thought there was “no longer the excuse, adduced by the British and unfortunately carried out . . . by the American delegation, to appease the Arabs in the hope of weaning them away from possible Soviet orientation.” Yet there were rumors that Truman had surrendered his Palestine policy to the State Department. The president, she wrote, must reassert control over his own government. Doing so was a matter of “honor and decency” as well as a “practical political necessity.” Previewing arguments to come a half-century later, Kirchwey wrote that the Jewish community in Palestine was “the only democratic community in the feudal Middle East,” and hence could play a “leavening influence in spreading democracy” throughout the region.

Kirchwey also leaned on the New York State Democratic Committee, which duly relayed to the president the political consequences that would follow from a decision not to endorse the majority report. Moreover, to oppose partition would contravene “the declared policy of this country to which both political parties and successive administrations had been pledged since 1922.” Although Truman asserted that there had been no change in U.S. policy, Kirchwey was sure the State Department was preparing what she called a “double-cross” at the UN.

To prevent this “double-cross,” on October 13th The Nation hosted a forum on Palestine at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. On the invitation’s letterhead were listed the names of board members and the Dinner Committee Officers. Included as the dinner’s co-chairs were University of North Carolina President Frank Graham and Eleanor Roosevelt. The invitation was hardly subtle, warning that “there is a gigantic double-cross in the offing at the United Nations. Our own government seems scheduled to play a stellar role. President Truman is reported as capitulating to the Arabs. If it succeeds, there will be no hope for settling the Jews of Europe in Palestine.” Only a public demonstration, the letter went on to say, “can play a decisive role in making clear to the United States delegation that American public opinion will not accept the planned betrayal.” The former First Lady, whom Truman had installed as part of the U.S. delegation to the UN, promptly called the meeting “irresponsible” and quit her sponsorship.

On November 29, 1947, the majority report was finally put to a vote at the UN. It was adopted by a margin of 33 to 13, with 10 abstentions. Kirchwey and her associates had lobbied successfully to break an alliance between the Chinese and the Arabs, pressing China to abstain rather than vote against partition. She also helped to engineer the favorable votes of Yugoslavia, Haiti, and Liberia.

The double-cross that Kirchwey predicted came anyway. On March 19th, Senator Warren Austin, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, announced that in light of the continued fighting in Palestine, the United States was changing its position. Partition was to be postponed and Palestine placed in the care of the UN Trusteeship Council. For Kirchwey, “The careful plot of the State Department, acting in collusion with the British and the Arab States, had reached its climax.” Even though each opposed partition, scant evidence bolsters Kirchwey’s allegation of a conspiracy between the British, the Arab states, and the State Department. She was correct, however, in her conclusion that the State Department’s Division of Near Eastern and African Affairs (NEA) was bent on derailing partition.

The Nation quickly launched a public relations campaign in cooperation with the Jewish Agency’s leaders in the United States, especially Eliahu Epstein. There was much work to be done “to sell the idea of a Jewish State,” Epstein told Kirchwey. He knew that in this regard, Kirchwey and The Nation would operate as a megaphone for the Jewish cause. Epstein regularly conveyed his thoughts about the situation in Palestine, especially Arab violence, and suggested that “it might be useful to indicate some of these points in one of your editorials in THE NATION.”

On January 27, 1948, Kirchwey sent Truman a letter about British plans to subvert the creation of Jewish state, attaching yet another report, with yet another strident title: “Conspiracy Against Partition.” In addition to the president, Kirchwey sent copies to every member of Congress and all of the UN delegates. Senator Arthur Vandenberg (R-Michigan), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote back to say that he, too, believed the UN Security Council ought to “move promptly to implement the proposed Palestine partition.”

Like Kirchwey, Epstein thought there was a “big conspiracy brewing in Washington” to defeat partition—a plot hatched in the NEA division of the State Department, The Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO), and the Pentagon office of James Forrestal. To substantiate the claim, he passed confidential material to Kirchwey on James Duce, one of the vice presidents for operations at ARAMCO. In May, Kirchwey wrote the president a note detailing Duce’s and ARAMCO’s work on behalf of the Arab position. In particular, she noted Duce’s recent meeting in Cairo with Azzam Pasha, secretary general of the Arab League, where the two proposed transforming Tel Aviv into a Jewish domain with international status, similar to that of the Vatican. She warned the president of Duce’s campaign to persuade policymakers that the creation of a Jewish state ran counter to American interests. Duce had even gone so far as to argue that “good Jews” are leaving Palestine, and that those left behind harbored pro-Soviet sympathies. “It is generally recognized,” Kirchwey quoted Duce as saying, that “Jewish Palestine will be organized as a communistic state.”

The opponents of partition were caught by surprise when, on May 14th, 1948, Truman granted de facto recognition to the new state of Israel. Kirchwey claimed that The Nation had played no small part in bringing this about, especially the adoption of the November 29th UN resolution on Partition. She did not exaggerate. Immediately after the UN vote, Eliahu Epstein sent Kirchwey a telegram of congratulations and gratitude. He wrote to The Nations Associates’ director, Lillie Shultz, that there were “no words to express the feeling of gratitude for your work during the crucial months we have all just passed through.” There were few people, he wrote, who had “worked with such devotion and self-sacrifice as you,” and Epstein gave her credit for having had “a good and honorable share in our success.” Now he counted on The Nation “to keep public opinion at the proper level in our favor when we shall need so much American help in the making of a Jewish State.”

That The Nation would go on to do exactly the reverse was not a possibility that any of them could have imagined.



Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, responds to this essay in the Letters to the Editor section of our Web site.

Ronald Radosh, adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, and Allis Radosh, are co-authors of a forthcoming book about Harry S. Truman and the creation of Israel.

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