Commentary on “The Devil You Know”
by David Zierler, Ph.D. student
Paul Kahan’s examination of the Zionist campaign for a Jewish homeland in the early postwar era seeks to revise traditional Cold War narratives that deprive non-aligned actors of agency. In Kahan’s analysis, the “selling” of Jewish nationalist ambitions to the “highest bidder” demonstrates that Cold War tensions were susceptible to exploitation from without. More implicitly, Kahan’s salesmanship metaphor underscores his argument that ideological flexibility accounts for the successful navigation through an emerging and quickly hardening bipolar alliance system (or tripolar, depending on one’s view of Anglo-American relations). In this view, Zionists recognized the superpowers’ shared belief in the strategic importance of the Middle East and consequent need for allies in the region. As Kahan shows, these Zionists were happy to traverse opposing Cold War ideologies as long as doing so would guarantee them a nation in the holy land.
Kahan captures well the complex story of Israel’s birth, and his focus on the key role of domestic policy is especially strong. Yet his analysis begs more questions than it answers – understandable given the limited length of this piece. My main quibble is with the lack of an introductory review of the extant literature. What works, specifically, have eschewed Zionist agency in the early Cold War and therefore necessitate Kahan’s revision? In addition, Kahan has neglected to root his work as part of a larger trend that seeks to correct the rather myopic, world-according-to-Washington view of the Cold War that is evident in earlier studies. Kahan is clearly influenced by the “new” Cold War history, and his argument would benefit from an explanation of his historiographical imperative to seek “agency” in out of the way places. That the postwar Zionists possessed it, there can be little doubt. To further develop this project, Kahan should explain why he has chosen to emphasize this point. In doing so, his findings will shed more light on our understanding of the early Cold War from the viewpoint of an emerging Israel and its globetrotting statesmen.