American foreign policy Barack Obama Israel Israel lobby Israeli occupation Middle East peace process Zionism

Why Niebuhr, Obama’s favorite thinker, was a Zionist

After years of shamelessly pretending to know what Reinhold Niebuhr wrote and thought when his name came up in conversation, I have taken the trouble to start reading him for the first time. There are two reasons. One is that our President-elect has indicated that Niebuhr has had a profound effect on his thinking.

Andrew J. Bacevich noted in the Boston Globe, “Faced with difficult problems, conservative evangelicals ask: What would Jesus do? We are now entering an era in which the occupant of the Oval Office will consider a different question: What would Reinhold do?

“…Obama has written that he took from reading Niebuhr `the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world’ along with the conviction that evil’s persistence should not be `an excuse for cynicism and inaction.’ Yet Niebuhr also taught him that `we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things.’ As a point of departure for reformulating US foreign policy, we could do a lot worse.”

But there is another aspect of Niebuhr’s thought that has not gotten any attention of late. During World War II and afterwards, he was an unapologetic Zionist. That is the second reason why I have started to read him. We live in a time when the entire Zionist enterprise is being reduced by its detractors to a murderous, western colonialism whose main goal was to steal land, rather than to help a people survive. So it is instructive to remember that, during and soon after the Nazi reign of terror, at least some Christians of good conscience believed the Jews needed a homeland in Palestine.

Niebuhr was a man who constantly balanced a passion for justice with an understanding of the power and prevalence of original sin, which limited the ability of individuals and societies to right wrongs. In summing up his life and thought, he wrote “I might define this conviction (that a realist conception of human nature should be made the servant of an ethic of progressive justice] as the guiding principle throughout my mature life of the relation of religious responsibility to political affairs.”

Niebuhr’s essay, “Jews After the War,” (Feb. 21, 1941, in The Nation) was all about justice:

The problem of what is to become of the Jews in the postwar world ought to engage all of us, not only because a suffering people has a claim upon our compassion but because the very quality of our civilization is involved in a solution. It is a scandal that the Jews have had so little effective aid from the rest of us in a situation in which they are the chief victims. [DF here: This is 1941, remember, years before the enormity of the Nazis’ crimes was clear.] The Nazis intended to decimate the Poles and to reduce other people to the state of helots, but they are bent on the extermination of the Jews.

It is a complicated, nuanced essay and, like all of his work, can’t be summed up easily. Briefly, his solution was to make it possible for the Jews to have a homeland while ALSO insisting that the civil rights and liberties of Jews in other countries be protected. Was there a concern about the Arabs of Palestine? Yes, up to a point. He noted that the Zionists were “unrealistic in expecting that their demands entailed no `injustice’ to the Arab population… It is absurd to expect any people to regard the restriction of their sovereignty over a traditional possession as `just…’ What is required is a policy that offers a just solution to an intricate problem faced by a whole civilization.” He hoped that the aspirations and needs of Arabs after the war could be addressed in a confederation of new and existing Arab states.

So there was a typical lack of understanding of Palestinian nationalism and, I infer, probably too much faith in the moral grounding of Ben Gurion and the other Zionist leaders. But at a time when liberals (including liberal Protestants) and “progressives” refused to press for an opening of the gates so that Jewish refugees could be rescued, what Niebuhr wanted was the best solution possible in a morally corroded, sinful world.

I wish all of the people who are so quick to dismiss the Zionists as nothing but racist, ethnic cleansers, and to heap disdain on non-Jewish supporters of the Jewish state in the ’40s as blinkered Orientalists, would read that essay. You can find some it excerpted in Google Books as part of an anthology called Love and Justice (great title!).

In particular, I wish my friend and former classmate Philip Weiss, who brings an admirable moral fervor to his rage at the Israelis and their American Jewish supporters, and who has nothing good to say about Jewish nationalism of any kind, would read it. Among other things, it lambastes the “universalists” of Neibuhr’s time who refused to accept the value of any ethnic distinctions and believed, even in the midst of World War II, that the solution to the Jews’ problems was to fight discrimination against them and foster their assimilation (Last I heard, Phil was working on a book called The Assimilationist).

But now the question is, what would Reinhold have done about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2009, and what should his admirer in the White House do?

There are many Niebuhr scholars and admirers out there who are a thousand times more qualified than me to speculate. But I believe it is safe to say that he would have been appalled by the consequences of the Israeli occupation that commenced in 1967, at the treatment of Palestinians at checkpoints, at the refusal or inability of Israel’s political system to stand up to the settlers who have made most –although not all–of those checkpoints necessary. He also would have been appalled by Palestinian terrorism, the incitement against Jews in the Palestinian media, the election of Hamas and other mistakes made by Israel’s neighbors. But since it was a passion for justice that energized him, I believe his primary interest would have been to address the terrible problems of the Palestinian people, just as he was once interested in solving the terrible problems of a ravaged, dispersed Jewish people.

It is also true, as Basevich points out, that “Niebuhr specialized in precise distinctions. He supported US intervention in World War II – and condemned the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended that war. After 1945, Niebuhr believed it just and necessary to contain the Soviet Union. Yet he forcefully opposed US intervention in Vietnam.”

In other words, he was…a realistic dove. A passionate moderate. I choose to believe that he would have seen that the only rational, and moral way out of the Israeli-Palestinian nightmare was a two-state solution. And, just as he called for governmental activism on a host of issues –including the civil rights of black Americans–, surely Niebuhr would have called upon the Obama Administration to DO SOMETHING about the Israeli-Palestinian question, even though he might have been skeptical of its ability to succeed. The establishment of a Jewish state was a bold idea when he endorsed it. But there were times when he insisted upon boldness that was tempered with realism.

That’s what we need from Obama. The boldness needed to stand up to the conventional Israel lobby and press both sides, rather than just one side, to make difficult compromises. The realism needed to understand that scores of Middle East peace plans and proposals have been consigned to the graveyard for more than a hundred years. And the passion for justice that will persuade him to ignore all of those failures, and try his best.

13 thoughts on “Why Niebuhr, Obama’s favorite thinker, was a Zionist

  1. I, as an Orthodox Jew, based on what little I have heard about Niebuhr, find him to be a very impressive person and thinker. If Obama really views him as an inspiration, I find that encouraging. Niebuhr started out as a Socialist and pacifist, yet he was willing to change his mind as he saw events unfolding.
    I find it interesting that he supported World War II but he somehow was able to rationalize that it would have been better for a couple of million of Japanese to die of starvation or civil unrest had the A-bomb not been used and Japan having faced a tight blockade instead, not to mention the 100,000 Chinese and others who were dying every month in the occupied territories in East Asia during the Summer of 1945. You say, with some logic, that he wouldn’t have liked Israeli “occupation” of Judea/Samaria, yet how would he felt about the ongoing dehumanization of Jews and Israel by Arab propaganda, the suicide bombing campaign, etc.?
    Is there a collection of writings available on-line where he discusses these issues you raised?

  2. Y Ben David,

    Read what Dan wrote. He did say Niebuhr also would have been “appalled by Palestinian terrorism, the incitement against Jews in the Palestinian media…” My question is, what would he have thought of you and other apologists for the occupation and Israeli behavior? Hmmm…Not hard to guess.

  3. So, Obama should “stand up to the conventional Israel lobby and press both sides, rather than just one side, to make difficult compromises?”

    In other words, pressure Israel. Impose a solution on it. Why don’t you admit that’s what you want? I think that is the only solution but you are afraid to say what you think because you want to keep your credibility in the Jewish community…like all self-proclaimed “progressive Zionists.”

  4. Yes, I erred in not noting that Dan mentioned Palestinian terrorism as something Niebuhr would have protested.
    The big problem of the “progressive” camp is encapsulated in the following statement by Dan:
    And, just as he called for governmental activism on a host of issues –including the civil rights of black Americans–, surely Niebuhr would have called upon the Obama Administration to DO SOMETHING about the Israeli-Palestinian question, even though he might have been skeptical of its ability to succeed.

    As I understand it, physicians have a creed that if they don’t know what to do, at least DO NO HARM. The tragedy of the Arab/Israel conflict is that those who have been at the helm in Israel didn’t heed this sage advice. The Labor Party, when it came to power in 1992 said “the current situation (in which there was very little violence and Arabs were working in Israel and making money) has problems….let’s do something, ANYTHING, to change it”. So they looked around, saw Arafat, decided to ignore the fact that he was a mass murderer who ignited civil wars in two countries (Jordan and Lebanon), and decided to bring him to Israel and turned him loose. What was the result? The biggest wave of terrorism in Israel’s history and the destruction of Palestinian society and economy. They did do harm.
    Regarding what would Niebuhr say about the current situation? He would say that if the Palestinians stopped terrorism the roadblocks and the so-called “security fence” would be dismantled, and their lives would improve considerably. He would see Jewish settlement in Judea/Samaria as the continuation of something that had been going on in those same territories for 4000 years (he was, after all, a student of the Bible) and this is the moral base for Zionism, which he supported.

  5. Mr. Ben-David,

    Arafat was more of a serial killer than a “mass murderer”–a term that is normally reserved for those who commit genocide such as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, et al. The same on a smaller scale could be said of Yitzhak Shamir who later confessed to the murder of a Lehi colleague for reasons of internal security in 1942, was involved in the assassination of Lord Moyne in 1944 and of Count Bernadotte in 1948. Maybe it was serving as defense minister under Shamir that accustomed Rabin to dealing with terrorists?

    Rabin saw an opportunity for progress to be achieved because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the American defeat of Iraq, which together changed the power dynamics in the region. He had to worry in the long term about rising Islamic terrorism and the acquisition by Muslim states of nuclear weapons and other WMD. He first attempted to make peace without Arafat and the PLO in 1992-93. Eventually realizing that this was impossible he then attempted to make peace with Arafat. His job would have been made much easier without the continuing settlement effort by your colleagues, which served as a recruiting device for the Islamist terrorists. Arafat was eventually exposed as too opportunistic to make peace, incapable of making real strategic decisions. But Rabin paid for his sincere effort with his life, murdered by an Israeli fanatic who was encouraged by professional purveyors of hatred.

  6. Mr Mitchell,
    Just for the record, Yigal Amir’s closest colleague and influence was SHABAK agent Avishai Raviv. This is reported on at length by the official Shamgar Committee investigation of Rabin’s murder. If you want to claim that everyone who opposed Rabin’s policies is guilty of inciting his murder, then Barry Goldwater and Everett Dirksen were guilty of JFK’s murder since they also denounced his policies.

    Arafat’s FATAH was formed in 1959 and teh Palestine Liberation Movement in 1964. They began their terrorist attacks before the Six-Day War, so the “settlements” in Judea/Samaria are not the cause of Arab opposition to Israel. In any event, the territorial aspects of the agreement are settled as Barak in 2000 and Olmert recently reiterated…Israel has agreed to a withdrawal to the pre-67 lines, including Jerusalem. If the Arabs agree, the settlements will be plowed under just like Yamit and Gush Katif. Thus, the reasons for the absence of an agreement is NOT the settlements.
    In spite of Israel’s willingness to give up territories, including an actual implementation of this policy in Gaza with nothing demanded from the Arabs in return, the Arab/Muslim attempts at making WMD’s have accelerated, if anything. Apparently, it is the very EXISTENCE of Israel, and not any particular polcicies that troubles the Arab/Muslim world.

  7. Mr. Ben-David,

    Polls of Palestinians in the ’90s showed the majority supported the Oslo accords and, at times, (when prospects for success seemed favorable, as in late ’96 and ’97, when Fatah was cracking down on Hamas) the support was truly overwhelming. Were all of those people lying, when they told pollsters they wanted a deal in which they could live side by side with Israel, in peace? Or were all the pollsters liars?

    Clearly, among the reason for the Palestinians’ lack of faith in –as well as somewhat diminished support for–the negotiated two state solution is that Israel has demonstrated no willingness to stop housing expansion in territory that it occupies. And, although you have denied this, they understand that often the route of the wall and the placement of checkpoints are due to a commitment to protect the settlers and no one else. So they increasingly believe that a viable, contiguous Palestinian state is impossible, and that they don’t have a “partner for peace” (sound familiar?) That is the toll your settlements have taken. Do you deny this? You might believe that the land is yours by divine right, but do you also believe Israel can cling to all of the West Bank without wrecking the chances for a negotiated peace?

  8. Dan-
    There is no chance of a negotiated peace. You heard what Olmert said….he offered them a withdrawal to the pre-67 lines, yet he himself said they are not near an agreement. So did Yossi Alpher, one of the original Oslo people, who in an article on 4 October in the Jerusalem said that the conventional wisdom that “everyone knows what the final agreement will look like, it is just a matter of getting leaders with enough courage to sign it” is NOT true. He also said there has been no agreement on anything.

    In a sense, you a right, Dan, it is the settlements that are the problem. Settlements like Tel Aviv, Haifa, Beer-Sheva and the such. Itamar Marcus of Palestine Media Watch says that these Israeli cities are referred to as “illegal settlements” by official propaganda, school books, etc put out by the “moderate” Palestinian Authority. And this is TODAY, during the “Annapolis Process”.

    The thing that keeps the conflict going is hope, hope on the side of the Arabs. Their hope is go get rid of Israel, and ever since Oslo, or even going further back, to Sadat/Begin at Camp David, they see Israel folding up. This has strengthened the most radical, Islamist elements who say “you see, we are right, the dhimmi Jews will disappear, all we have to do is keep up the pressure-just like our religion teaches us”. Destroying Gush Katif was supposed to “improve the atmosphere-strengthen the moderates”. Did that happen, Dan? The opposite happened. Thus, the only way to get rid of the “hope” on the side of the Arabs is for Israel to STRENGTHEN the settlements in Judea/Samaria, say that THIS IS OUR LAND, we are not leaving it, any more than we are leaving Tel Aviv, it is in your interest to come to a modus vivendi, we want this, we want you to prosper, perhaps we can come to some sort of federation that will include the Israeli Arabs and Jordanians at the same time. BUT WE ARE NOT LEAVING OUR LAND.
    Then, eventually, the Arabs will realize this is the best deal they are going to get. But this will happen only after the current climate of extremism is shown to be a dead end.

    BTW-I wouldn’t put much credence in Palestinian polls (I would say the same for Israeli polls, particularly those that appear in the newspapers or official state-controlled media). They always seem to show a majority for whatever the official policy of the Palestinian Authority happens to be. In the mid-1990’s, they wanted relative quiet, so the polls reflected support for Oslo, at Camp David when Arafat rejected peace, the polls showed the opposite.

  9. I should add that peace will be easier to achieve once the current Leftist secular regime that has been in power in Israel since before the state arose is replaced by more traditionalist elements. If you read Bernard Avishai’s blog, he is pushing for Israel to be replace by a globalized, materialist, consumerist, de-Judaized “Hebrew Republic”. This pretty well reflects the views of the MERETZ-type Left in Israel. The Arabs FEAR these values. Arab/Muslim society is very traditional and religious. The values of the Judea/Samaria settlers and the Haredim are much closer to that of the Arabs than that of Avishai and the MERETZ-types. Their’s is a missionary “religion” which they hope will go and overturn Arab/Muslim society just as happened in the West, leading to things like marches by militant homosexuals in Jerusalem, pornography, disrespect for elders. THESE FRIGHTEN THE ARABS. Thus, when more traditionalist elements come to power in Israel (which is only a matter of time-but please note I am not advocating a government that imposes religious coercion, but rather simply making the public square more in line with Jewish tradition), the Arabs will find they have people they have more in common with to talk to and hopefullly, reach the modus vivendi I referred to above.

  10. Mr. Ben-David,

    Let’s be honest–Meretz is not perceived by the Arabs as a threat. They cannot even institute civil marriage in Israel. So how are they a threat to the religious rights or mores of Muslims? Arabs do see the settlers who continue to usurp their lands, detain them at road blocks maintained to protect the Jewish settlers, and rule over them as the real threat.

    Some Arabs still do want to destroy Israel. For thwarting them the IDF is a necessary deterrent/security force. But remember there was an entire two decades since the PLO said it was willing to accept Israel. It was to a large extent the settlers who prevented a peace from being reached by preventing a return to the 1967 borders. Now Israel has traded the PLO in for Hamas as an enemy. An enemy that is more popular, more competent militarily and more extreme. Thanks.

  11. Mr Mitchell-
    The most eloquent advocate of overturning Arab society by way of the Crusader-like missionary campaign of secularization and materialism is Dr Bernard Avishai. He calls his program “The Hebrew Republic”. To put it bluntly, he first wants to convert the Israeli Arabs into “Hebrews” by way of importing “globalization” values to Israel, then getting these newly secularized, consumerist Arabs to ally themselves with what he defines as “real Israelis”, i.e. the secular Left in Israel against what he calls “the Judeans”, the backwards, primitive religious, nationalist Jews in order to keep them out of power permanently. Once there is peace, then this Hebrew state would extend its influence throughout the Middle East, for the sake of peace, of course (other Hebrews, of course, would smell profits). I suggest you read his postings and comments about his book “The Hebrew Republic”. See

    If you look at the propaganda the Arabs put out in the period before Israel was created and for years afterwards (before 1967), these were the main arguments about why the Arabs should oppose peace with Israel, that it was a threat to the whole Arab world. After 1967, the propaganda shifted to the problems of “Palestinian self-determination” which no one cared about before that. However, the initial concerns are still there.

  12. Mr. Ben-David,

    Actually I’ve read the book. In regards to the Arabs his main proposal is to stop discriminating against them by privleging Jews under Israeli law. Its funny that Arabs who move to the United States don’t feel similarly threatened by the same arrangement.

  13. “We live in a time when the entire Zionist enterprise is being reduced by its detractors to a murderous, western colonialism whose main goal was to steal land, rather than to help a people survive.” This is a mischaracterization of the opposition to Zionism. The real problem with Zionism is that it considers Jews (members of a religious group) to be, by virtue of their religions, citizens of a country created for the purpose of artificially giving that religion a majority, in the mistaken belief that this would make them safe. This enterprise just does not hold water. Contrary to the thinking of its creators, it is dangerous for the Jews, as it concentrates them into a very small area in the midths of its own victims who have become its enemies. It won’t work. It is also against the Jewish religion, as the protests against Israel by Jewish groups shows: by what right do Zionists speak for all Jews? The opposition to Zionism is from within Judaism. This is the basis of the opposition, not land grabbing etc. The fact that it has proven to be impossible to make a reality out of the artificial country is simply proof that the underlying non-democratic ideology is not working and is unlikly to work. That Niebuhr may have been a “Zionist” back in 1941 simply means he had not really thought about it and was influenced by the horrors he was witnessing. If Niebuhr were alive today there is no doubt he would change his mind. The best solution for Israel would be to abandon the Zioonist ideology and make a democratic country out of Israel, instead of an artifical “democracy” for its Jewish residents.

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