Scholars and other commentators frequently discuss Israel’s role in American Jewish discourse, paying growing attention to debates over Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (e.g., Waxman 2016). Yet no study has ever investigated how American Jews engaged with Israel regarding the state’s treatment of its Palestinian-Arab citizens during the period of the military government (1948–1966). The military government refers to a form of martial law that applied to most Palestinian Arabs who remained in Israel after 1948, curtailing their rights even though they received Israeli citizenship. The military government, combined with related land confiscation legislation, meant that these citizens faced severe surveillance, restrictions on movement via curfews and permits, land expropriation, politcal manipulation, and patronage systems that benefited the ruling party, Mapai. Although Mapai maintained that security concerns justified the military government, other Israeli parties called for its dissolution, including ultimately even the right-wing Herut. Despite intermittent reforms, the military government persisted until 1966 (Degani 2015; Jiryis 1976).
This article examines how one organization, the American Jewish Committee (AJC), discussed, portrayed, and acted in relation to the status of Israel’s Palestinian-Arab citizens, who will be referred to using various terms such as Palestinian citizens of Israel, Israeli Arabs, and Israel’s Arab minority. The article focuses on two periods of particular interest, one surrounding a delegation’s visit to Israel in 1957 and the other involving the AJC’s Israel office in the 1960s. In June 1957, a delegation of AJC leaders visited Arab communities in Israel and heard about their grievances. Breaking with the AJC’s policy of non-interference in Israeli domestic affairs, AJC President Irving Engel asked Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to rethink Israel’s entire approach toward the Arab minority.1 One important AJC figure, James Marshall, later compiled a full report that he sent to Israeli officials. Yet even though Israel did not fully address AJC desires for a policy reappraisal, the AJC never publicly confronted the government. Instead, the organization faulted societal views for Israel’s illiberalism, Arab grievances, and discrimination and chose to collaborate with the government to try to solve these issues through education and other initiatives from its new office in Tel Aviv.
The AJC’s approach stems from what could be termed its ‘triple motive’ for addressing Israeli-Arab rights. One reason the AJC felt compelled to act was its reputation as a liberal champion of human rights. According to the AJC’s summary of the meeting between Engel and Ben-Gurion, the first reason for raising the issue was the AJC’s interest “in human rights for everyone and therefore also the human rights of Arab minorities in Israel.” Engel then noted a second reason—that “Arab propaganda is making a great point of the treatment of Arab minorities in Israel.”2 This comment connects to the AJC’s concern for Israel’s welfare. Yet the AJC’s anxieties about ‘Arab propaganda’ also related to its third motive and primary purpose—protecting American Jewry.
Finally, the article points out the limited manner in which the AJC actually deployed the term ‘human rights’ in this context. While the AJC’s summary of the Ben-Gurion meeting referred to the “human rights of Arab minorities in Israel,” Israeli minutes of the meeting do not show Engel using this formulation. Instead, they only indicate Engel referencing the AJC as a “human-rights organization [with] a certain concern with groups discriminated against.”3 Curiously, the phrase ‘human rights’ regarding the Arab minority does not appear in other significant AJC correspondence and meetings with Israeli officials.4
This article contends that while AJC officials raised the issue partly to be consistent on human rights questions, they tended not to frame it within their broader human rights agenda. Instead of comparing the Arab plight with that of persecuted Jews abroad, the AJC tended to view the situation through an American lens, utilizing the ‘human relations’ approach it had developed in the United States. This human relations or ‘intergroup relations’ approach focused on diminishing societal prejudice through education, media, and intercommunal dialogue, thus differing from a human rights approach emphasizing governmental reform and legal guarantees (Svonkin 1997). By the 1950s, the AJC had embraced the human relations idea so strongly that some within the organization discussed renaming the group the Institute for Human Relations, a name used for the AJC’s headquarters (Grossman 1998: 31). The human relations approach that the AJC utilized in the Israeli case contrasts with the human rights language that the AJC consistently invoked in North Africa and elsewhere, when it pushed foreign officials to commit to protecting the human rights of Jewish minorities (Kurz 2015).
Although the AJC deployed its human relations approach with the intention to aid non-Jewish minorities as well as Jews, it had originally developed these tactics in the context of addressing what they felt was the chief problem facing mid-twentieth-century American Jewry—societal prejudice (Svonkin 1997). AJC leaders accurately noted that Israel’s Palestinian minority faced prejudice that human relations tactics might help diminish. Yet unlike American Jews—but like African Americans, who the AJC also felt benefited from their human relations work—Israeli Arabs faced broader systemic challenges imposed by state policy. Human relations did not primarily aim to address these problem as human rights and civil rights did, yet the AJC did not engage in the latter types of advocacy in Israel as it did elsewhere (Cohen 1976; Kurz 2015; Loeffler 2013; Svonkin 1997).
However, a human rights push for greater legal protections for minorities in Israel would have required acknowledging that minorities needed protection from the Israeli state. Despite the Israeli government’s role in creating hardships for its Arab citizens, AJC officials treated Israeli leaders primarily as partners for change, sympathizing with the security concerns that Ben-Gurion claimed justified the restrictions. Israel’s gradual easing of military government restrictions throughout the 1950s and 1960s likely contributed to this attitude, but it does not change the reality of the state’s posture toward its Arab citizens. The AJC’s decision to avoid conflict speaks in part to its desire for a harmonious relationship with Israel devoid of interference in internal affairs, but also to the degree that AJC leaders felt inclined to trust the intentions of Israeli policymaker.
The American Jewish Committee: Civil Rights before Zionism
Despite its similarity to other American Jewish advocacy organizations, the AJC was historically distinct in terms of its constituency, goals, and relationship with Israel. It was founded in 1906 in New York City by prominent American Jews, largely of Reform background and Central European origins. Although created to aid beleaguered Jews in and from Eastern Europe, the AJC had a reputation for being elitist, overly ‘Americanized’, and out of touch with the large wave of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe (Cohen 1972). Unlike many Jewish groups, the AJC characterized itself as ‘non-Zionist’, due to concerns that Jewish nationalism was not compatible with Jews’ American identity (Ganin 2005). Yet in the 1940s, amidst the destruction of European Jewry and Israel’s establishment, the AJC decided to support Israel while formally retaining its non-Zionist label, a term it quietly ceased to use only after 1967 (Grossman 1998: 53). The AJC’s non-Zionism contributed to a dispute in 1950 between AJC President Jacob Blaustein and Ben-Gurion after Ben-Gurion’s Zionistic claims to speak for global Jewry raised AJC concerns about ‘dual loyalty’ accusations (Ganin 2005: 26–48).
The AJC was also distinctive for its embrace of human rights. Although the group had long advocated for Jewish minorities abroad and for civil rights at home, during the 1940s—amidst both America’s expanding global reach and the Holocaust—it became a vocal champion of human rights worldwide. The AJC’s embrace of human rights, Samuel Moyn (2010: 124) notes, emerged from its post-war conclusion “that the cause of Jewish rights was best pursued through the larger cause of human rights,” thus universalizing what might otherwise be dismissed as narrow Jewish concerns. AJC human rights advocacy often did not explicitly mention Jews. James Loeffler (2013) shows that, despite omissions of Jewishness, AJC human rights rhetoric was often deeply embedded in American Jewish internal politics. The AJC’s universalist human rights rhetoric meant supporting minorities everywhere—including, one might assume, Arabs in a Jewish state. Yet while the AJC felt compelled to raise Arab citizens’ rights to Israeli leaders, they did so in a manner shaded by the nuances of Israel-Diaspora relations, contributing to a discreet approach that drew from their American experiences more than from their broader human rights agenda utilized elsewhere.
Arabs in Israel: The AJC’s Increasing Awareness
The AJC’s monitoring of Arab affairs in Israel dates back to 1948. The group hired Helmuth Lowenberg of Tel Aviv to review Israeli media and write a monthly “Report from Israel,” which typically included a section on Arabs in Israel. Lowenberg, an Israeli judge, often offered relatively rosy depictions considering the ongoing military restrictions and land expropriations. For example, his December 1948 report noted that “treatment of the Arab minority of 70,000 has always been quite good.”5 AJC leaders apparently examined minority affairs only briefly in their first visit in the spring of 1949—a time when many issues remained unsettled in the new state.6 Over the next several years, the AJC supported American efforts to resolve the Israeli-Arab conflict, which aimed to settle Israel’s disputes with Arab states as well as the Palestinian refugee situation (Ganin 2005).
Only in 1956 did Israeli-Arab rights begin to become an issue of note. Early that year, the AJC hired Don Peretz as a Middle East consultant. Peretz had recently completed the first dissertation in America on the topic of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians and aimed to be objective on Israeli affairs. Peretz, who had volunteered to aid displaced Palestinians in Israel in 1949, wrote one of the earliest scholarly articles on Israel’s Arab minority, which appeared in the Middle East Journal in 1954.7 The very decision to hire Peretz represented the organization’s growing interest in Palestinians.
The first extended AJC report regarding the Arab minority, however, came not from Peretz but from Lowenberg. The reason for his December 1956 “Special Report,” titled “Israel and Her Arab Minority,” was news of the Kafr Kassem massacre, in which Israeli border guards shot 49 Arab citizens of Israel who unknowingly violated a curfew enacted at the start of the Suez War. It occurred on 29 October 1956, but only made headlines in December due to a government gag order (Robinson 2003). The report stated that “the first attempt to integrate the Arab minority into Israel has been a failure, and the situation cries out for … new solutions.” It described the forcible clearance of the village of Baram along with the Land Acquisition Law and the Abandoned Properties Law. Lastly, it detailed the “Kafr Kassem outrage,” how 49 “men, women, and children” were shot indiscriminately by border guards, noting that “this terrible carnage … evoked a wave of horror … Israelis should at once search for an answer to the problem of how to treat their minority.”8
Peretz spoke directly about the need for the AJC to address the Arab minority issue after Kafr Kassem. “Public silence,” he wrote to his employers, “seemed somewhat inconsistent with the stated objectives of the AJC to advance civil and religious rights for all people of all religions and races.” Peretz warned that others noticed the contrast between the AJC’s vocal stance on the plight of Egyptian Jewry and its silence on Kafr Kassem.9 Similarly, US State Department officials told the AJC in January 1957 that whenever America raised concern about the mistreatment of Jews in Arab countries, Arab diplomats brought up Israel’s inhumane treatment of its Arab minority and implicitly accused Americans of hypocrisy.10 Yet the AJC still opted not to criticize Israel openly, resolving instead to look into the treatment of minorities during its upcoming Israel trip. A memo regarding the trip stated that “one of the chief propaganda weapons against Israel is the treatment of its Arab minorities,” particularly regarding “security restrictions, military government, and movement limitations” in addition to “lack of equal opportunities in employment and confiscation of lands of Arab citizens.” It noted that “clarification of the status of the Arab minority would assist us in our attempts to be helpful to Israel.”11
The “Arab Propaganda Network” and American Jewry
Being ‘helpful to Israel’ only partially explains the AJC’s concerns. Even before the Kafr Kassem massacre, the AJC expressed the belief that “discrimination against the Arab minority could endanger our struggle against anti-Jewish discrimination.”12 AJC officials specifically feared that Israel’s treatment of the Arab minority would be used against American Jews amidst rising pro-Arab propaganda. A confidential AJC report titled “Arab Propaganda in the United States” outlined what it termed a transnational “Arab propaganda network” that included the Arab League, the Egyptian embassy, business interests, anti-Zionist Jews, white Christian anti-Semites, the American Friends of the Middle East (AFME), and various Arab states.13 The report claimed that the Arab League, the head of this network, aimed to foment anti-Semitism. It noted pamphlets issued by the Egyptian embassy containing statements that were anti-Semitic rather than simply anti-Zionist. Especially concerning for American Jews during that era, one such pamphlet equated Zionism with communism.14 The AJC report shows that the AJC did not view American Jews as collateral damage but as a deliberate target, asserting that “Arab propaganda strategy” dictated that “the best way to weaken Israel is by undermining the status of the Jewish community in America” due to “the obvious role that the Jews of America have played in bringing about the establishment of Israel … and its sustenance.”15
Similar AJC memos in 1956 further warned that the “Arab propaganda network” was “inciting anti-Semitism” by using the words ‘Jew’ and ‘Zionist’ interchangeably, framing legitimate Jewish participation in American democracy as “Zionist manipulation of government policy.”16 The AJC worried that allegations against Israel would be used against American Jews by American “bigots,” noting that right-wing Christian anti-Semites included Arab claims about Israel in their anti-Semitic periodicals. According to the AJC, even groups and individuals who were not anti-Semitic created danger for Jews when they highlighted questionable Israeli actions. Anti-Semites could use this material as evidence of Jewish moral deficiencies or of American Jews’ “divided loyalty.”17
Whatever its intentions, this ‘network’ did indeed exist. The Arab League opened its Arab Information Office in New York in 1955 (JTA 1955). It circulated various pamphlets and books criticizing Israel and Zionism, as did Arab embassies. The League and these embassies, along with the AFME, a CIA-backed non-profit led by anti-Zionist Christians, all supported the Organization of Arab Students, which welcomed Arab officials as speakers on American college campuses (Levin 2017). AJC concerns about ‘Arab propaganda’ stemmed not only from the existence of these groups, but also from very real concerns about anti-Semitism and ‘divided loyalty’ accusations in 1950s America.
Examples of this ‘propaganda’ that discussed Arabs in Israel include booklets by Fayez Sayegh of the Arab States Delegation Office in New York. Published by the Arab Information Center, Sayegh’s (1956a: 53) booklet titled The Arab-Israeli Conflict referred to the Arab minority as “stepchildren in their own homes … down-trodden, underprivileged,” asserting that “their sad status belies the boastful claim that there is ‘democracy’ in Israel” and that “Arabs in Israel live under martial law in segregated ghettos—a painful anomaly of history, where yesterday’s victims … impose that same abhorrent, degrading institution on [the Arabs] … martial law [that] … ruthlessly restricts their movement and travel … [and] empowers … authorities to confiscate their property.” Sayegh also referred to an article, “The Arab Plight in the Holy Land,” that he had written the previous year for The Moody Monthly, a magazine associated with a Christian educational institute in Chicago (see Sayegh 1955). The Arab Information Center also republished a pamphlet by Sayegh (1956b) titled Arab Property in Israeli-Controlled Territories, which focused on Israeli confiscation of Arab lands, including those of its Arab citizens.
The AJC began printing ‘fact sheets’ to counter Sayegh and others. Its intent was clearly related to domestic concerns, specifically American Christian opinions of Jews. In May 1956, the AJC published a fact sheet titled “The Middle East Ferment” as part of an effort to build a “community program for dealing with the domestic impact of the Middle East crisis.”18 In 1957, the AJC printed a 24-page fact sheet titled “Christian Communities in Israel” that commented on Israel’s Arabs while focusing on the rights of Christian communities, missionary activities, individual rights of Christians, the protection of holy places, and Christian property in Israel.19 Much of the pamphlet emphasized the religious freedom of Christians in Israel and state efforts to preserve Christian sites. It noted “some serious limitations of individual rights,” but stated that “for the most part, these result from restrictive measures solely because of their Arab ties, not their religion.” It noted that “security regulations … directly affect a majority of Israel’s Arab population—both Christian and Muslim—living under military rule because of hostilities between Israel and Arab states,” and that many “face lack of employment opportunities” and “must secure permits to travel.” The booklet concluded by contending that “within the bounds of military necessity … Israel has attempted to preserve … Christian institutions. The picture is not always a happy one, but progress has been made … only with peace in the Holy Land will Israel’s Christians enjoy the full measure of freedom … which is their due.”
The effort to stress Christian freedoms and contextualize shortcomings clearly reflected AJC concerns about alienating American Christians.20 “Israel’s impact on our lives as American Jews,” according to one AJC source, “affects the way we are regarded by our Christian fellow Americans.”21 If not addressed, the Jewish state’s mistreatment of Christians and other Arabs, the AJC feared, could harm Jewish-Christian relations in America—which its domestic human relations program had been specifically designed to improve (Svonkin 1997).
The AJC Goes to Nazareth
These concerns partially explain why the AJC choose to address the issue of Israeli-Arab rights during its 1957 Israel trip. The delegation traveled to Nazareth and Acre, among other places, meeting with local Arab leaders as well as Bishop Isidorus of the Greek Orthodox Church, the mayor of Nazareth, Acre’s deputy mayor, and a Muslim religious judge. All had relatively positive things to say, perhaps because the AJC’s Israeli government hosts had apparently arranged the AJC’s itinerary.22 The most critical voice on the trip was Archbishop George Hakim. Like the others, Hakim had no complaints about religious freedom. Instead, he discussed the many restrictions imposed on Arabs due to the military government, arguing that in most places, which were far from borderlands, security claims could not justify the restrictions. Rather, Hakim asserted, economic reasons served as a motive, as limits on movement meant that many Arabs would not be able to compete in the labor market with recent Jewish immigrants. He further complained about the Land Acquisition Law, which deprived many Arabs of their property and offered insufficient compensation.23
AJC leaders took these complaints seriously. During his meeting with Ben-Gurion on 24 June, Engel broached the matter gently. “We have been careful not to bring up any points concerning internal administration, only points that are used against you,” Engel said.24 This wording implied that propagandists’ use of the Arab minority issue transformed it into an external and thus legitimate matter for discussion, rather than an internal Israeli issue outside of the AJC’s purview. Lecturing Ben-Gurion on a purely internal matter would have undermined the spirit of the non-interference agreement that Engel’s predecessor, Blaustein, had procured and that Engel himself asked Ben-Gurion to reaffirm (Ganin 2005). Engel then listed all the positive things they had heard regarding Arab welfare in Israel before turning to the ‘bad things’—the military government and the Land Acquisition Law, which legitimated the confiscation of Arab property.
Immediately after voicing his critique, Engel hedged it by stating: “As an American, I have no right to point the finger at Israel.” Ben-Gurion replied: “As a Jew, you have the right!” Engel then noted that “when we were at war with Japan, we did worse things than you have done to the Arabs,” apparently attempting to soften his critique by alluding to America’s internment of American citizens of Japanese background. “I realize your security problem,” Engel said. “Not fully,” the prime minister interjected. “We have, however, the impression that if a good look were taken at the facts, it would be possible to change the whole situation [of the Arab minority] … and would decrease the ammunition of your enemies,” Engel stated, again referring to Arab spokesmen who were raising this issue in America.25
Ben-Gurion replied that he supported equality. He then claimed that Arab citizens had equal rights, but went on to explain why the security situation warranted military rule and restrictions on movement. Ben-Gurion justified the restrictions by noting that Israel’s Arab enemies wanted to destroy Israel and kill Jews, suggesting that perhaps it was the Palestinian Mufti who gave Hitler the idea to exterminate Jews. Ben-Gurion then assured Engel that “the regime would be liberalized so as not to impose unnecessary hardships, especially economic, on the Arab population.” The Israeli leader then shifted topics and began a long lecture on Zionism. Ben-Gurion emphasized that despite their differing views, he had listened to them because he saw AJC delegates primarily as Jews, not as Americans. “Morally,” Ben-Gurion declared, “we have nothing to learn from others,” referring to non-Jews broadly and non-Jewish American leaders specifically.26 Underlying the whole conversation on Arab minority rights was the question of whether non-Zionist American Jews had a right to speak on the matter. As a Zionist, Ben-Gurion felt certain of AJC leaders’ right to express their views on Israeli affairs since they were Jews. Meanwhile, the non-Zionist Engel felt a need to emphasize that Arab propaganda concerns made Arab rights an American issue, and this justified his right to speak as a non-Zionist American Jew.
In public, Engel praised Israel after the trip and expressed gratification about an announcement that Israel would ease security curbs and travel restrictions on Arabs soon after the visit (JTA 1957). AJC leaders attributed the reform to the meeting, but there appears to be “no documentary evidence to support their claim” (Aridan 2017: 166–167). Apparently, the July 1957 reform was only “a slight alleviation in the system of travel permits” (Jiryis 1976: 35), not a major change. In any case, it soon became clear that not everyone in the AJC felt satisfied with Ben-Gurion’s word and with that reform alone.
The Marshall Memorandum: An American Jewish Push for Israeli-Arab Equality
After returning from Israel, James Marshall, a future AJC vice-president and son of AJC co-founder Louis Marshall, wrote a lengthy memorandum on Israeli Arabs for the AJC. Throughout the delegation’s trip, Marshall appeared so committed to the Arab minority issue that his colleagues felt as though he was “kind of acting as an independent mission.”27 Marshall had a unique personal connection to Palestinian-Arab affairs. His uncle, Hebrew University President Judah Magnes, had co-founded the binationalist Ihud organization, which had pushed for Arab-Jewish rapprochement. Magnes had also helped co-found the AJC in 1906, and before his death had secured a commitment of $10,000 of AJC funding for Ihud—a commitment that the AJC never fulfilled, according to Marshall.28
In the mid-1940s, Marshall funded the first Arabic-Hebrew dictionary in hopes that it would increase mutual understanding.29 He had been close with Magnes personally and ideologically, and upon Magnes’s death in 1948, Marshall led the Judah L. Magnes Foundation, which funded scholarships for Arab students at Hebrew University and supported Ihud’s publication Ner.30 In this capacity Marshall received letters from Ihud leaders, who in 1952 told him that they considered “the struggle for a change in the position of the Arab minority as our most important activity.” This included “fight[ing] against the misdeeds of authorities” and “protest actions against the new Citizenship-Law with its discriminating sections against the non-Jewish, particularly the Arab population of the state of Israel.”31 As one of Ner’s few major donors, Marshall likely read Ner’s many English-language articles on the minority’s plight written by Elias Koussa, one of the few Palestinian lawyers who remained in Israel after 1948.32
Marshall’s 1957 memorandum not only detailed the many grievances that Israel’s Arab citizens had toward Israeli government policies; it also offered concrete and creative recommendations for mitigating or even resolving some of the issues. The introduction of the 27-page memorandum noted Marshall’s meetings with “more than thirty individual Arabs, including mayors, mukhtars, Arab civil servants, university students, professional men, refugees, a nurse, a politician, a teacher, farmers and keeper of a coffee house.”33 Marshall met with them “in six Arab towns and villages,” in Haifa, in Nazareth, in Acre, in “their city homes, in their village offices, in schools, in the homes of those who have lived continuously in their villages,” and in “homes of refugees in temporary housing.”
The report was detailed, nuanced, and sympathetic in its presentation of Palestinian-Arab affairs in Israel. Marshall wrote about how some Arabs felt like “virtual prisoners of the new state” and mentioned that one told him: “We are second-class citizens. We feel we are not wanted here.” He said their grievances were “sometimes justifiable,” noting the issues of land seizure, inadequate compensation for land seized, the difficulty of litigation over land disputes, and the military travel permit system, which was “above all” a “humiliation, and one of the principal sources of the Arabs’ feeling that they are not first-class citizens, and indeed in this respect they are not.” Marshall expressed empathy, giving practical, moral, and religious reasons why Israel should grant equal rights to Arabs, and cited a Jewish official who said that though many Israeli Arabs might sympathize with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, 95 percent of them pose no threat. Yet Marshall was careful not to blame Israel’s leaders, stating that Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett shared his concerns. Instead, he faulted other Israelis: “Curiously, it is not Begin and Herut … but rather many middle-class Jews and Jewish laborers/ farmers, who can now as conquerors project upon the Arab the attitudes which they experience in other lands by the majority people there.” Marshall recalled: “With American naiveté … I said that it seemed to me that the first important break in the situation … came when whites and blacks sat down to work out common problems, including the problem of Negro rights.” He asked Israeli Jews: “Why … could not groups be set up in Israel in which Arabs and Jews would discuss their common problems?” One Israeli replied: “In America … the improvement in the condition of Negros is the result of the work of Jews, who felt themselves to be a minority. Here we Jews are not a minority.” Marshall did not view that as a valid excuse.
Marshall’s reference to “whites and blacks” sitting down together is striking. The greater emphasis on intercommunal communication than on legislation characterized both the liberalism and the limits of the AJC’s human relations agenda. Marshall’s line should also be contrasted with Engel’s reference to the internment of Japanese Americans. Both chose American cases to compare to the Palestinians’ situation, notably not choosing to compare the Arab minority’s plight with the mistreatment of Jewish minorities, despite AJC’s active involvement with such matters. Engel’s choice related directly to security concerns, while Marshall alluded to deeper issues at play in Israel. Also telling, the term ‘human rights’ was absent from Marshall’s entire report, although phrases such as ‘equal rights’ and ‘discrimination’ did appear.
Marshall noted many other grievances plaguing Israel’s Arabs, including economic issues, development limitations, and the plight of internal refugees. Some problems seemed to bother Marshall more than others, as he attributed some complaints not to discrimination but to the Arabs’ own inabilities or the young state’s bureaucratic limitations. He discussed the negative effects of Israeli policy on Arabs who were not permitted to return to their homes, but noted that “it is not for us to pass judgment on the security phase of the case,” deferring to Israel’s military while still somewhat questioning the decision. Marshall also highlighted the positive aspects of Israel for its Arabs—the freedom of religion, economic development, the courts, and the universities.
Marshall then listed 11 recommendations on how to improve Arab status. These suggestions involved more contact between Arabs and Jews, more local autonomy, increased integration into the Histadrut (Israel’s national trade union), expanded Arabic study in Jewish schools, more local self-government, legalizing more political parties, liberalizing the permit system, and more. Marshall’s piece demonstrates a sense of optimism, a faith in creative solutions, and the belief that the Zionist project could be redeemed through moderate liberalization. It blended human relations and concrete policy proposals. Marshall accepted the reality of serious problems in Israeli-Arab life, even though he hesitated to attribute moral failings to Israel’s leaders. Ending on an uplifting note, Marshall stated that there was “one great advantage at this time—that is the leverage that exists in the prophetic tradition while the present generation is in place of power in Israel; but such forces have a tendency to lessen as the generation of revolution is succeeded by another.” It is “not safe to assume that time will cure the malady. Time is just as likely to harden positions and will probably lessen the moral drive,” he declared. “The time to make use of prophetic morality to solve the Arab question is therefore now.”34
The Next Step? The AJC in the Late 1950s
Juxtaposed with the urgent appeal at the end of Marshall’s memorandum were three words underlined and capitalized at the top of the document: “NOT FOR PUBLICATION.” The memorandum was circulated among AJC leaders, but the AJC did not want it distributed publicly. Although other AJC officials appeared sympathetic and interested, they suggested that Marshall send it to the Israeli government at his own initiative without official AJC endorsement. Due to an office mishap, AJC staff sent Marshall’s memorandum with a cover letter bearing AJC President Engel’s signature to Ben-Gurion, much to Engel’s chagrin, adding to the memorandum’s significance.35
In February 1958, Marshall finally received a response from Shmuel Divon, the prime minister’s adviser on Arab affairs. Divon thanked him but claimed that Marshall’s “relatively brief visits … did not allow for a more extensive research into the complexities of the problems involved.”36 Divon emphasized Arab economic development without noting the expropriation of land from Arab citizens or the economic opportunities they were deprived of due to the restrictions on their movement. Although Divon’s office replied to Marshall and made inquiries to other agencies, Divon showed little interest in altering state policy based on Marshall’s recommendations. An internal Israeli commentary on the memorandum began by stating that Marshall was not balanced in noting what Israel had done for its Arabs, but curtly conceded that he was right on some points.37
For whatever reason, neither Marshall nor the AJC appeared to have pushed Marshall’s agenda further after the memorandum was sent. Although Engel’s speech to the executive board in October 1957 mentioned that minorities in Israel were an “issue of deep concern to AJC,”38 at meetings from October 1957 to July 1958, the minority issue was barely mentioned.39 Perhaps some AJC leaders were satisfied enough with recent easing of restrictions. It may be that they simply became distracted by the many other issues under the AJC’s purview.
Minor changes did not, however, appease those whom the AJC viewed as ‘propagandists’. In 1959, the Arab Information Office’s Sami Hadawi published a new 40-page booklet, Israel and the Arab Minority. After detailing the restrictions on movement, the Land Acquisition Law, and the Kafr Kassem massacre, Hadawi (1959: 40) concluded that “Israel’s claim to be a democratic nation … is without foundation.” Although dealing with similar facts as Marshall, who believed that Israel could be improved, Hadawi contended that the Zionist project was unredeemable. In light of this, the AJC’s unwillingness to take a more public approach to dealing with minority rights should be unsurprising, as the group’s leaders had little interest in giving organizations like the Arab Information Office ammunition for their ‘propaganda weapon’ against Zionists. Uninterested in a public confrontation and faced with the reality that limited private lobbying did not yield significant results, the AJC does not appear to have taken further action on behalf of Palestinians in Israel until the 1960s.
The AJC’s Israel Office: A Light amidst the Nation (or a Committee on a Hill)
In 1960, the AJC announced that it would soon open an office in Israel with a mandate to further democratize the Jewish state. AJC Israel Committee Chairman Alan Stroock noted “that some Israeli actions embarrassed the AJC” and that countering “antidemocratic practices and attitudes” in Israel would make it easier for the AJC “to invoke principles of human rights and practices in our country and abroad” (Grossman 1998: 40). Stroock specifically stated that the office would work for the rights of Israel’s Arab minority. Israeli diplomats had mixed feelings about the AJC’s proposed office, with some weary of AJC meddling on Arab civil rights and other issues (Aridan 2017: 167). The AJC appointed its former Latin America director, Maximo Yagupsky, to head the new Tel Aviv office. In the very first page of his first report, Yagupsky noted that he had begun meeting with Israeli officials to discuss the Arab minority issue. He made plans to visit Arab areas of Israel and meet with community leaders to discuss their problems. One Israeli official introduced Yagupsky to Arab Knesset members and promised to introduce him to military officials in charge of Arab areas, after which Yagupsky could submit questions to the prime minister’s assistant.40
During his years heading the Tel Aviv office, Yagupsky became dedicated to Arab minority affairs. However, the AJC and Yagupsky conceived their target audience not as the Israeli government, but rather Israeli Jews more broadly, who needed to be educated about the meaning and importance of pluralism and civil rights. This fit with the office’s goals, which included “develop[ing] greater understanding in Israel of the pluralistic nature of American society … increas[ing] the knowledge of American and Western traditions of civic responsibility and civil liberties in order to foster development of democratic institutions … [and stimulating] application of the insights of the social sciences to intergroup tensions in Israel and to help encourage respect for diversity of cultural and religious expression.”41
These goals, the last in particular, show the AJC’s desire to apply the ideology and methods of human relations to Israel. The office aimed to survey the Arab population regarding their well-being and their attitudes about further integration, and to create a library to help educate Israelis on how liberal democracy should function.42 Various reports from Yagupsky mentioned the military government, and AJC leaders expressed to Ben-Gurion their opinion that military rule should be relaxed “in order to permit Arab citizens to participate more fully in the democratic life of the country.”43 When some restrictions were eased, the AJC told Israeli officials they were pleased, but that they would be even more so “when these restrictions are completely eliminated.”44 The Israel office did more to investigate and educate than it did to lobby, with Yagupsky sending reports back to New York, opening a library, contemplating offering intergroup discussion sessions, and publishing a Commentary-like Hebrew journal, Ammot, to promote liberal thought and Tfutsot Israel, a bulletin to inform Israelis about American Jewry and life in Western democracies.45
Yagupsky’s attitudes were reflected in a 1966 Trenton Times article, titled “American Jewish Group Teaches Israelis to be Tolerant of Minority,” which highlighted the fact that “young Israeli Jews, living in the only place on earth where they are a majority, are being taught by an American organization to be tolerant of their minority groups.” The article, which centered on an interview with Yagupsky, emphasized that a main objective of the AJC’s program in Israel consisted of strengthening the democratic character of Israel’s evolving society because he and other AJC leaders “don’t want the same errors of oppression that Jews have experienced among other majorities” (Trenton Times 1966). The only path to peaceful co-existence, Yagupsky stated, was through education, which the AJC was best suited to perform due to its experience in America: “The AJC is doing a wide educational job in cooperation with the government, which has neither the means nor the time” to deal with it (ibid.).
This emphasis on education underlined the fact that the AJC believed the primary problem facing the Arab minority in Israel was sociological rather than governmental. Specifically, Jews from Middle Eastern countries presented a problem for Arabs that the predominantly Ashkenazi AJC needed to solve. “The young Israeli is a different type of Jew who is not familiar with the problems of discrimination,” Yagupsky said. “We are studying their attitudes toward themselves and each other to see if they have to be oriented. About 53 percent of Israel’s population is made up of Oriental Jews. Teaching them to avoid problems of discrimination is an educational job” (Trenton Times 1966). It was up to the AJC and others to teach the ‘Oriental Jews’ and Israelis more broadly ‘how democracy works’ and to make Israel a liberal society where minorities felt included. Otherwise, in Yagupsky’s words, “the Arabs inside Israeli will be exposed to becoming a fifth column inside the country,” putting both Jews and Arabs at risk (ibid.).46
While the specifics of Yagupsky’s analysis of Israeli democracy, society, and minority relations may be his own, his activities were an extension of the AJC and its goals. Yagupsky corresponded regularly with AJC leaders: his office’s role was determined in New York, and his human relations approach was derived from the AJC’s broader approach in America. Yagupsky’s views on the root of the problem threatening the Arab minority—Israeli society rather than government actions—echoed certain sentiments voiced by James Marshall years earlier. Marshall had also mentioned integration programming among his list of proposed reforms. His greater emphasis on governmental reforms may have stemmed from the fact that the military government was more repressive in the 1950s than it was in the 1960s when Yagupsky worked in Tel Aviv, a city with a small Arab population that was not subject to military rule (Jiryis 1976).
Although both Yagupsky and the earlier AJC delegation viewed Israel as less than democratic due to its treatment of the Arab minority, they diagnosed the situation differently. Yagupsky lived in Israel for years and had an ongoing working relationship with Israeli officials. He internalized their understanding of the root of the ‘Arab problem’ as well as of the ‘Oriental-Jewish problem’. Government officials were partners in education for Yagupsky, not obstacles. The lack of investment in advancing Arab integration and educating the public stemmed from limitations of ability, not ill will.
For Yagupsky, Israelis simply did not understand what liberalism and democracy really meant. Young Israeli Jews had forgotten what it was like to be a minority, whereas American Jews lived as one. The common thread between these episodes is that AJC officials felt it was up to them, as liberal Americans who specialized in protecting minorities, to educate Israelis, whether officials or citizens, on the importance of liberalism. Only then could Israel become the democracy they wished it to be, devoid of the stain of discrimination—a sin the AJC did not take lightly considering its own raison d’être.
Just as the Arab minority issue was one of a few major concerns raised by Engel to Ben-Gurion in 1957, ‘liberalizing’ Israel through education—particularly in connection with its attitudes toward minorities—was a major preoccupation of the AJC’s Israel office in the 1960s. Rather than confront the Israeli government or publicize problems, the office focused on fostering intercommunal dialogue in hopes of eliminating discrimination against Arabs. The choice to emphasize human relations more than human rights represented a significant contrast with contemporaneous AJC efforts to protect Jewish minorities elsewhere by vigorously employing human rights laws, norms, and rhetoric (Kurz 2015). In particular, the subdued manner in which Irving Engel raised the Arab minority issue appeared driven by a desire to avoid both accusations of inconsistency on human rights and charges of interference in Israeli internal affairs. In contrast, the AJC seemed less hesitant to weigh in on the internal affairs and human rights in Morocco and Egypt, where Jews were the beleaguered minority. Only in the 1970s, as shown by Michael Galchinsky (2008), did the AJC more consistently speak of human rights in Israel, a development in line with Moyn’s (2010) argument that human rights proliferated in that decade.
Many factors influenced the AJC’s quiet efforts to address the Arab minority’s plight. ‘Propaganda’ about Israeli Arabs was among the AJC’s concerns, especially because it related to Israel’s treatment of Christians and thus threatened to harm Christian perceptions of Jews in America. Beginning in the 1940s, the AJC embraced human relations in America in order to improve Christians’ opinions of Jews (Svonkin 1997). Remarkably, when deploying human relations in the Israeli context years later, it was partially to address that same concern—Jewish-Christian relations in America. Lastly, despite these complex motives, genuine sympathy for another minority group no doubt also helps explain why some American Jews attempted to aid Arabs in the Jewish state.
For feedback on this article, I thank Hillel Cohen, Ronald Zweig, Fred Lazin, Hannah Greene, Dotan Greenvald, Yoni Solomon, and especially Nathan Kurz for sharing additional sources and discussing ideas. I appreciate the support of NYU’s Taub Center for Israel Studies, AICE, the American Jewish Archives, Temple University’s Feinstein Center for American Jewish History, the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, and the Israel Institute. Lastly, I thank the AIS Kimmerling Prize committee and the editors at Israel Studies Review for their work related to this piece.
Notes from the AJC Delegation’s Trip to Israel, 24 June 1957, AJC Archives Online (henceforth AJCAO).
Ibid.; Minutes of Second Meeting of Ben-Gurion with the Delegation of the AJC, 24 June 1957, MFA/151/8, Israel State Archives (henceforth ISA). I thank Nathan Kurz for calling my attention to the latter, more detailed account of the meeting. A third account—Marshall’s notes—corroborate the MFA minutes. “Notes by James Marshall on Second Conference with Ben-Gurion,” 24 June 1957, American Jewish Archives, 157-49-1 (henceforth AJA).
The term ‘human rights’ is absent from the memorandum Marshall sent to Israel and does not appear in the pre-1967 AJC Israel Office files I have seen.
“Report from Israel,” December 1948, AJCAO.
“Executive Committee Meeting Minutes,” 7–8 May 1949, AJCAO.
Don Peretz File, AJC Alphabetical Files RG 347.17.12, Box 129, Folder 7, YIVO Archives (henceforth YIVO); Peretz files, Bowie, Maryland.
“Special Report from Israel: Israel and Her Arab Minority,” 24 December 1956, AJCAO.
Don Peretz to John Slawson and Simon Segal, 24 December 1956. AJC FAD-2 RG 347.7.1, Box 52, File December–July 1956, YIVO.
Memo on January 1957 AJC Meeting with Raymond Hare, Donald Bergus, and Maurice Rice of US State Department, AJC Alphabetical Files RG 347.17.12, Box 43, File 3, YIVO.
Letter from Simon Segal to John Slawson, “Topics for Discussion in connection with the proposed AJC trip to Israel,” 1 May 1957, AJCAO.
“American Jews and Israel,” 17 December 1953, AJCAO.
“Arab Propaganda in the United States,” April 1955, AJCAO.
The Story of Zionist Espionage in Egypt, Egyptian Ministry of National Guidance, 1955.
“Arab Propaganda in the United States,” April 1955, AJCAO.
Memorandum from Dr. Morris N. Kertzer to Mr. Edwin J. Lukas, “Interreligious Activities on Israel,” 9 March 1956, 15–16, AJCAO; Memorandum II from S. Andhil Fineberg to Area Directors, “The Controversy Over Israel,” 16 March 1956, AJCAO.
“Arab Propaganda in the United States,” April 1955, AJCAO.
“Memorandum from S. Andhil Fineberg to CRC and Select Lists,” 21 June 1956, AJCAO.
“Christian Communities in Israel: A Fact Sheet,” May 1957, AJCAO.
Ibid.; “Arab Propaganda in the United States,” April 1955, AJCAO.
“American Jews and Israel Membership Information Program: AJC Workbook for Discussion Leaders,” September 1958, AJC FAD-2 RG 347.7.2, YIVO.
Notes from 20 June 1957 of the AJC Delegation’s Trip to Israel, AJCAO; Minutes of Second Meeting of Ben-Gurion with the Delegation of the American Jewish Committee, 24 June 1957, MFA/151/8, ISA.
Zachariah Shuster to James Marshall, 6 September 1956, AJA 157-6-5.
Letter from James Marshall to Irving Engel, 23 March 1949, AJA 389-1-2.
Letters to James Marshall, 1945–1947, AJA 157-6-5.
The Judah L. Magnes Foundation Papers, AJA 389-1-2.
Letter from Ernst Simon to James Marshall, 2 October 1952, AJA 389-1-2.
Letter from James Marshall to Rabbi Benjamin, 17 April 1957, AJA 389-1-2. Ner issues with Koussa’s writings include October 1952, November 1952, January 1953, and many others.
James Marshall, “Memorandum for the AJC with Reference to Israeli Arabs,” 18 September 1957, AJA 157-49-1.
Internal AJC Correspondence, AJC FAD-2 RG 347.17.12, Box 42, Folder 12, YIVO.
Letter from Shmuel Divon to James Marshall, GL17044/8, ISA.
Comments on Marshall Memorandum, GL17044/8, ISA.
Minutes from AJC Executive Board Meeting, 26–27 October 1957, AJCAO.
Review of Minutes from Administrative Board Meetings, AJC, October 1957–July 1958, AJCAO.
“Report by Maximo Yagupsky on Recent Activities of the Israel Office,” March 1962, AJC FAD-1 RG 347.7.1, Box 34, YIVO.
“AJC Office in Israel: Statement of Objectives, 1966,” AJC FAD-1 RG 347.7.1, Box 34, YIVO.
“Committee on Israel Meeting, 5 February 1962,” AJCAO.
“Committee on Israel Meeting, 4 May 1962,” AJCAO.
Letter from Maximo Yagupsky to Irving Engel, 3 December 1963, AJC FAD-1 347.7.1, Box 34, YIVO.
“In Vigilant Brotherhood: The American Jewish Committee’s Relationship to Palestine and Israel,” 1964, AJCAO.
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