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The Truman No-Show

A new book assesses the president's role in the creation of Israel.

In 1949, a year after the state of Israel was created, its Chief Rabbi visited President Harry Truman in Washington. Isaac Halevi Herzog told Truman that his role in helping the Jewish state achieve its independence was not just a matter of politics and diplomacy; it was a divine mission. "When the President was still in his mother’s womb," Herzog said, "the Lord had bestowed upon him the mission of helping his Chosen People at a time of despair and aiding in the fulfillment of His promise of Return to the Holy Land." Truman was a 20th-century version of King Cyrus of Persia, who had permitted the Israelites to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem in the 6th century B.C.E.: "he had been given the task once fulfilled by the mighty king of Persia, and that he too, like Cyrus, would occupy a place of honor in the annals of the Jewish people."

To Truman--a former haberdasher turned machine politician, and an accidental president who came to office in the giant shadow of Franklin Roosevelt--this kind of praise was more than welcome. As a believing Baptist, who had read the Bible "at least a dozen times" by the age of fifteen, he appreciated how momentous a role he had played in the history of the Jewish people. Yet as Allis and Ronald Radosh make clear in their highly detailed and illuminating new history, A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel, the comparison with Cyrus--while an adept piece of flattery--doesn’t really hold up.

For one thing, unlike the Persian emperor, Truman did not have Palestine to give. Between 1918, when the British took the province from the Ottoman Empire, and 1948, when they precipitously abandoned it, Palestine was a British colony. Originally, with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the British promised to create a "national home for the Jewish people" in the ancient Jewish land. But it soon became clear that the British Empire, which ruled hundreds of millions of Muslims in the Middle East and India, would not defy the wishes of Arab leaders, who were totally opposed to any Jewish presence. With the White Paper of 1939, the British effectively closed Palestine to Jewish immigration just at the moment when the need for a refuge from Hitler was greatest. By the time the Second World War ended, the Jewish population of the Yishuv was deeply resentful of Britain, and an extreme faction--the Irgun and the Stern Gang--had turned to vicious acts of terrorism against the occupiers.

What really distinguished Truman from Cyrus, however, is that he was not an absolute monarch but a democratic politician; and A Safe Haven offers an expert case study of just how complicated, and unedifying, policy-making in a democracy can be. The Truman White House is the focus of the Radoshes' history, but they make clear that Truman was by no means master in that house. From 1945 to 1948, the president was the target of a non-stop barrage of advice, demands, reports, committees, and bare-knuckle political threats, all seeking to influence his policy on Palestine.

Moderate American Zionists like Stephen Wise, who hoped to use quiet influence with the President, fought with more aggressive ones like Abba Hillel Silver, who publicly criticized Truman’s heel-dragging. Pro-Zionist White House aides, such as Clark Clifford and FDR’s old confidant Samuel Rosenman, fought with the State Department’s Near East experts, such as Loy Henderson, who feared the consequences of antagonizing the Arab world. Lurking in the background, as always, were the cold calculations of electoral politics. Truman was a weak Democratic incumbent, and his challenger in 1948 was the Republican governor of New York, Thomas Dewey. Without the support of New York's Jewish voters, there was no way Truman could carry that important state.

Truman's own feelings towards the Zionist cause were basically positive. As a Senator, he had been a member of the American Palestine Committee, a Christian Zionist group, and even lent his name to the Committee for a Jewish Army, a Revisionist-inspired movement that called for arming the world's Jews against Hitler. The revelation of the Nazi concentration camps, and the plight of the Jewish survivors languishing in Displaced Persons camps, further fueled his commitment.

Nor, the Radoshes make clear, should the influence of his close friendship with Eddie Jacobson--his old army buddy and business partner in Kansas City--be discounted. Jacobson, who had free access to the White House, helped lobby Truman for the Zionist cause, even arranging a crucial meeting with Chaim Weizmann. Truman’s affection for Jacobson is moving: "Eddie was one of those men that you read about in the Torah," Truman said after his friend’s death. "If you read the articles in Genesis concerning two just men [Enoch and Noah] you’ll find those descriptions will fit Eddie Jacobson to the dot." Yet there is something archaic, and discomfiting, about the way Truman let his view of the Jews be influenced by his opinion of this one Jew. The days when the Jews had to use court figures to intervene with powerful rulers are, one would hope, behind us.

Truman’s pro-Zionist outlook, however, did not amount to a firm commitment; at best, it helped to drive the halting evolution of America's Palestine policy. In the summer of 1945, Truman commissioned the Harrison Report on the condition of Jewish refugees in Europe. It painted a dire picture, and urged that Britain immediately permit 100,000 Jews to immigrate to Palestine. Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign Secretary, refused to throw open the doors, suggesting instead that a joint Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry look into the Palestine problem.

This committee, contrary to expectations, endorsed the figure of 100,000 new immigrants, placing the British government in an unpleasant spot. Bevin did not win any friends among American Jews with a speech in which he suggested that the Americans supported sending Jews to Palestine because "they did not want too many Jews in New York." This was, of course, true--at no time during the whole debate did Truman suggest opening America’s borders to the Jewish refugees--but it was one of the truths it is impolite to speak aloud.

As Jewish terrorism in Palestine provoked a British crackdown, and Jewish-Arab tensions increased, the British punted the question over to the newly established United Nations, still meeting in temporary quarters on Long Island. Now a third commission took over--UNSCOP, the UN Special Commission on Palestine, which made its own investigation. As the Radoshes show, the Jews of Palestine worked hard to sway the committee, while the Arabs refused on principle to cooperate with it—one of many examples, down to the present day, of the folly of Arab rejectionism. The Jewish cause was helped by the notorious Exodus affair, when the British used violence to intercept a ship carrying Jewish refugees to Haifa. It so happened that the chairman of UNSCOP was in Haifa at the time, and was looking on as the desperate refugees were arrested. According to Aubrey (later Abba) Eban, the British Zionist, "I had a feeling that the British Mandate died that day."

The UNSCOP report endorsed the partition of Palestine into two states, Jewish and Arab. The debate over partition went down to the wire, with well-funded Arab groups fighting against it, and Zionist activists—including The Nation magazine and its editor, Freda Kirchwey—lobbying hard for it. Oddly, though Truman had endorsed partition, in a message cleverly timed for Yom Kippur 1946, the U.S. government was lackadaisical about lining up allies for the actual vote. Even when partition was accepted, in November 1947, the State Department worked hard to overturn it. On March 19, 1948, less than two months before the British Mandate was to expire, the American Ambassador to the U.N. delivered a speech proposing that partition be put off indefinitely, and Palestine returned to a trusteeship. The Radoshes show that Truman was blindsided by this speech, which he believed was a State Department attempt to torpedo his policy. The whole episode is a surprising lesson in the sharp limits to even a President’s actual power.

Truman got his own back, however, on May 14, 1948. At 6 o'clock in the evening, Washington time, David Ben-Gurion declared the State of Israel in Tel Aviv; 11 minutes later, President Truman officially recognized the new state, giving an immeasurable boost to its confidence and international standing. Truman took this step against the vocal opposition of his powerful Secretary of State, General George Marshall, and it was his single greatest contribution to the birth of Israel.

But it was, significantly, a response to a fait accompli. America did not create the Jewish state, or defend it in the war of independence that immediately followed its creation. At most, the Radoshes demonstrate, Truman’s sympathy was a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the creation of Israel. As Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader who became Israel's first president, said after the Balfour Declaration: "Even if all the governments of the world gave us a country it would be a gift of words, but if the Jewish people will go and build Palestine, the Jewish state will become a reality and a fact."

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic. This piece originally appeared in Tablet Magazine.

© 2009, Tablet Magazine