Alfred Lilienthal's book gives an eyewitness account to the domestic US politics at the time of the formation of the state of Israel. He examines both the broader US political arena and the politics within American Jewry between those with an Israeli centric viewpoint and those with a more universalist interpretation of Judaism.
It would be simplistic to define this as a struggle between zionist and anti-zionist factions within Judaism as Lilienthal's blow by blow description shows that there were few, if any, 'anti-zionists'. There were however non-zionists with different degrees of allegiance to Israel and different degrees of cooperation with the "zionist" project, which itself had shades of meaning between those seeking a kind of minimalist (token?) jewish homeland in the middle east, through to a multi-ethnic multi-religious Palestine with distinct Arab and Israeli cantons on to those seeking a homogeneous jewish state in the middle east more or less encompassing all the world's jewry.
Lilienthal's position is very much in favour of a universalistic interpretation of judaism and he sees the focus on a Israeli state as virtually a new stage in the development of judaism, indeed virtually a new religion. For his skepticism, as Paul Findley tells us in another book, Lilienthal was himself formally excommunicated in 1982 from Judaism by a group of New York rabbis. Lilienthal's response..."Only God can do that. I still feel very much a jew." Lilienthal's discussion leaves open whether his brand of assimilationist judaism or the new israelist judaism is the real heresy.
Lilienthal argues that American and Israeli interests do not always coincide and that forces within the American jewish community, along with Christian zionists, have made defending and aiding the state of Israel central to US policy in the Mid East in ways that are inimical to wider US interests. In this volume Lilienthal was writing in terms of the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union, and before the 1967 war, which saw a dramatic escalation of US sponsorship of Israel. Despite the end of the Cold War, the divergence may if anything, be greater now.
The book helps readers, admittedly from one skeptic's perspective, understand the roots of the US / Israeli alliance in the late 1940s, the domestic political considerations and the pressures all this imposed on the British then ruling Palestine whilst the British themselves were critically dependent on the US. No wonder they quit Palestine in a huff!
The book is well written in the fashion of good "Reader's Digest" style journalism. It was in Reader's Digest that Lilienthal first came to prominence with an article called "Israel's flag is not my flag". This article is available online at Alfred Lilienthal's web site. The book is not purely technical scholarship, and is undoubtedly polemical from Lilienthal's clearly stated position.
There is of course a lot of deja vu for those of us reading this book after 50 years have passed. Not much has really changed and nothing new seems to have emerged since Lilienthal first wrote this. The recent 'discovery', mainly invoked by leftist commentators, of Christian Zionist forces at work in the so called 'religious right' is really decades old news. One wonders how they could have slumbered through this development for so long. And there were forerunners to the notorious Pollard and AIPAC spy cases in the apparent leaking of classified Pentagon assessments to the Israel presumably from sources within the Truman White House.
Some of Lilienthal's side lights are quite interesting, although the evidence provided is better than anecdotal but less than scholarly. For example, Einstein's (at best) lukewarm support of an Israeli state, despite the efforts of Israeli nationalists to use his name for PR purposes. Einstein was a supporter of the Hebrew Univesity but was, if anything, skeptical of the value of the value of a 'jewish state'. This didn't stop his name being floated, and exploited for PR purposes, as a possible President of Israel. Then there are the efforts by some Israeli nationalists to exploit the postwar refugee issue, with some attempts to undermine resettlement efforts in the US and the west. Some enthusiasts indeed went so far as to run disinformation campaigns in European refugee camps of supposed anti-Jewish pogroms in America.
Harold Wilson back in the 1970s once declared "a week is a long time in politics". Not so in the middle east. Reading "What Price Israel?" shows just how little progress has been made in the broader issue of middle east peace, and in the conduct of middle east politics, in fifty years. Let's hope readers will not feel that way when the centenary of this book is reached.