Golda Meir’s Answer to General Petraeus

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Does Jewish housing construction in Jerusalem endanger the lives of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Statements made recently by Vice President Joseph Biden and Gen. David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Army’s Central Command, appeared to suggest such a linkage, and their aides’ explanations and quasi-denials were less than convincing. As the website of the journal Foreign Policy concluded, “The message [from Biden and Petraeus to Israel] couldn’t be plainer: Israel’s intransigence could cost American lives.”

Israeli officials are scrambling to respond to the allegation. American Jewish organizations are busily issuing press releases. But the most effective rebuttal can be found in, of all places, the writings of the late Golda Meir.

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Golda Meir is relevant to this debate because the same arguments that are being raised today were raised by General Petraeus’s predecessors more than sixty years ago.

In late 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt sent a Beirut-born U.S. army officer, Lt. Col. Harold Hoskins, to the Middle East to canvass Arab opinion.

Hoskins’s final report to the president, the following spring, predicted that “world-wide [Zionist] propaganda” and “Arab fear of American support for political Zionism with its proposed Jewish State and Jewish Army” would cause Jewish-Arab violence in Palestine and an Arab uprising against Allied forces in the region. Hoskins urged the Allies to issue a statement declaring that all “public discussions and activities of a political nature relating to Palestine” were endangering “the war effort” and should “cease.”

One of Hoskins’s strongest supporters was Major-General George V. Strong, head of the War Department’s G-2 intelligence division. Strong claimed that any perceived U.S. support for Jewish statehood, for letting Jews enter Palestine, or even for temporarily housing European Jewish refugees in North Africa, would caused a Muslim “Holy War” that would “result in the death and destruction of several hundred thousand American soldiers.”

These arguments persuaded President Roosevelt, who jotted “OK – FDR” on the Hoskins proposal for an Allied decree banning public discussion of Palestine for the duration of the war. The British, too, embraced the Hoskins plan, and a date –July 27, 1943– was chosen for release of the joint Anglo-American declaration.

Jewish leaders were shocked and furious to learn of the impending decree. Even Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, a fervent Roosevelt loyalist, confided to a friend that FDR “seems to me to be completely and hopelessly under the domination of the English Foreign Office.” Several of the president’s top Jewish aides, although not at all sympathetic to Zionism, opposed the declaration because they feared Zionist activists would simply ignore the Anglo-American decree and thus stir up antisemitism by making Jews appear unpatriotic. Leaks to the media opened the door to criticism from Capitol Hill: U.S.Congressman Emanuel Celler charged on the floor of the House that “the joint statement will, with its ‘Silence, please’ drown the clamor of the tortured Nazi victims pleading for a haven of refuge.” In the face of this and other criticism, Roosevelt decided that plan was too much of a hot potato, and dropped it.

But the concept behind the plan –that Jews settling in the Holy Land would cause Arab attacks on GIs in the Mideast– remained fixed in the thinking of the Allied leadership. Throughout the Holocaust, the Churchill government, with the Roosevelt administration’s support, kept the doors to the Holy Land shut to all but a trickle of Jewish refugees.

Was there any basis to the arguments made by General Strong in the 1940s? Is there any basis to the argument apparently being made by General Petraeus today?

Golda Meir in effect answered that question in her 1975 autobiography, when she recalled the Zionist leadership’s pleas to the British to declare Palestine open to Jewish refugees and the Allies’ fears of a violent Arab reaction:

“What would have happened if the British had issued a declaration of this sort? A few Arab leaders might have made threatening speeches. Perhaps there would have been a protest march or two. Maybe there would even have been an additional act of pro-Nazi sabotage somewhere in the Middle East. And maybe it would have been to late to save most of the Jews of Europe anyway. But thousands more of the 6,000,000 might have survived. Thousands more of the ghetto fighters and Jewish partisans might have been armed. And the civilized world might then have been freed of the terrible accusation that not a finger was lifted to help the Jews in their torment.”

April 2010