The Friend of Eddie Jacobson
A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel
By Allis Radosh and Ronald Radosh
HarperCollins, 448 pages, $27.99
In the 61 years since it became a formally recognized sovereign nation, Israel has spent much of its harrowing existence under pressure from its friends, occasionally effective, to make life-threatening concessions to its enemies. Such difficulties did not begin with the state’s creation. Before the long battle for its life and health as an independent country, the aborning state was required to secure some kind of permission for its existence from a majority of the world’s already sovereign nations, gathered in formal conclave in New York City under the roof of a then-new organization called the United Nations—the late Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s dream of an international agency for keeping the world’s peace, difficult as such a thing might now be even to imagine.
Prominent among these early problems was the disposition of territory in the impending, albeit reluctant, decamping of a war-battered Britain from its former great empire—which included the land then known as Palestine. Perhaps even more difficult to imagine was the fact that a not-insignificant part of the world was feeling at least some measure of sympathy for what had recently happened to the Jews, around 250,000 of whom had survived Nazi slaughter but been forced by British policy to remain encamped in Europe under dreadful conditions not so different from those imposed by the Nazis while the Jewish community in Palestine was eager to welcome them and had been undertaking to bring them into the country illegally.
It was not officially acknowledged anywhere in United Nations policy, but was generally understood, that America’s wishes particularly with respect to the Palestine/Israel problem would carry extra weight. And in the White House there sat a President named Harry S. Truman, a longtime senator from the hardly internationally connected state of Missouri who had become the Vice Presidential candidate in 1944 after a somewhat unhappy set-to among the power brokers of the Democratic party, and had ascended to the Presidency under a cloud of seemingly inconsolable national mourning for his predecessor. To predict that he would some day enter history as one of the country’s great presidents would at the time have occasioned nothing but the firmest expressions of disbelief; such is the kind of joke that history sometimes likes to play. And it would be he who would become the hero of America’s formal diplomatic recognition of the new State of Israel, which was both the first such recognition and the most fateful.
How this recognition came about, who the various players were and what they said and did both in the United States and in Palestine—minute by minute, hour by hour, meeting by meeting, memo and letter by memo and letter—is the story Allis and Ronald Radosh provide in A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel. The Radoshes, previously the co-authors of a book about Communists in Hollywood and Ronald a historian of note on matters as various as the Spanish Civil War and the Rosenberg spy case, have journeyed carefully through what must have been a mountain of archives and have put together an easily digested and moving account.
Truman was certainly sympathetic to the idea of a Jewish refuge and home in the Holy Land, but he had his problems with it as well. Chief among these, it may come as no surprise, was the opposition to and sometimes open sabotage of this inclination by the State Department, an opposition most passionately held to by the then-Secretary of State, George C. Marshall, the great general of World War II and a universally acknowledged wise man. Nor can there be any surprise involved in learning the main source of this opposition: namely, concern about the great sea of oil that God for his own mysterious purposes planted under the sands of Araby.
While Truman, his staff, Democratic pooh-bahs concerned about the 1948 election,1 and, of course, various members of the staff of the State Department met and debated and exchanged memos and phone calls about what the United States should do—and what it should try to influence its international-camp followers to do—with respect to voting in the United Nations for the establishment of the Jewish state, both the American and Palestinian Zionist leaders were working their own contacts with Washington.
Some of them, like Rabbi Stephen Wise, wheedled and flattered. Some, like Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, stormed and demanded (Truman resented what he considered to be Silver’s hectoring demeanor and requested that he be kept from the White House). David Ben-Gurion, the leader of the Jews in Palestine, seems not to have been effective as a lobbyist, and Moshe Shertok (soon to be Moshe Sharett, Israel’s first foreign minister) came to think, at least for a while, that statehood should be put off for a more propitious time.
In the end, however, two Jews did seem to play a major, and as it would turn out, saving, part in Truman’s decision that the U.S. both should vote for, and be the first country in the world to recognize, the new Jewish state. The first was Chaim Weizmann, the longtime lion of the Zionist movement. An old man, not well, enjoying the status of a revered icon and longing to be back home at the scientific institute named for him in Rehoboth, Weizmann dragged himself to the United States for one final effort to influence American policy.
The other was Eddie Jacobson, an army buddy of Truman’s from the First World War who was also for a time his partner in a haberdashery business in Kansas City and would remain a close friend for life. Because Truman loved and trusted Jacobson, and because Jacobson had an uncommon degree of access to the White House, he became an important carrier of messages between the Zionists and the President, and immediately after the declaration of statehood he served for a time, until the new government got more smoothly organized, as an unofficial ambassador. Jacobson died in 1955, and it was said that Truman never ceased to mourn him.
This story must surely feel to any Israeli who was around at the time as if it had happened not a mere 61 years but at least two lifetimes ago: the river of events that followed from those covered in the book has flowed so far and so rapidly and has been so filled with blood and iron and demographic and cultural change.
As for the American government, it too has twisted and turned since the time covered in this book, supporting Israel at war—sometimes half-heartedly, sometimes whole-heartedly, sometimes not at all—and coming up time after time with bootless plots and plans for engineering peace. Moreover, since those days the United States, too, as undergone what sometimes feels like innumerable generations’ worth of history, attested to by the fact that Truman left office in 1952 with an approval rate that ranked with the lowest in the country’s history.
As for American Jews, the range of their feelings about the existence of the State of Israel at the time covered in this book is surprising to remember—from the outright ideological hostility of such a group as the American Council for Judaism to the kind of anxious disapproval expressed by the American Jewish Committee all the way to an almost inexpressible wonderment2 among the Zionists. After some time, of course, that welter of feelings gave way to something quieter and steadier—a mixture of worry and pride, whose relative proportions varied in response to the varying proportion of danger and need and the realization of Zionist purposes. The worry, of course, was occasioned by the actions of various Arab armies, and the pride not only by the immigration and settlement of the displaced Jews from Europe but also the 856,000 of them chased from their ancestral homes in the Arab lands of North Africa from 1948 until the early 70s (not to mention, of course, the 750,000 Soviet Jews who arrived in Israel some decades later—and might the Jews of France and Britain be next?). The role of Israel as a haven for Jews in desperate straits has been fulfilled to an extent unimaginable in 1948. And yet there remains what has come to feel like an interminable question about Jewish safety.
The American Council for Judaism is long gone; the American Jewish Committee now sings from a very different hymnal; and the United Nations has come to seem, at least to most Americans, like little more than a constant irritant, without the means to ease any but the pettiest of international problems. Still, for America’s Jews, while the existence of Israel is no longer an issue for debate, and while the country itself has moved on from its early days of touch and go to a time of economic as well as military near-self-sufficiency, the argument about Israel’s nature nevertheless goes on, in other, newer terms. It is now not about what constitutes justice and security for the Jews—new generations of American Jews have after all in their own lives known nothing but both—but rather about how best to provide these precious commodities to the people now known as Palestinians. Those for whom this position provides so comforting a sop to moral vanity will continue to find their most loyal allies in the State Department (and now very likely in the White House as well). The memos and letters and papers are collecting as I write, and perhaps Ronald and Allis Radosh will have a new and much longer story to tell.
Harry S. Truman, thou shouldst be living at this hour.
1Hard as it is to believe nowadays, New York was in those days considered critical to a presidential election, and the Jewish vote was held to be critical to New York. And ironically, though he would months before that election provide the cause for a great Jewish celebration, and though he would indeed go on to win the presidency, Truman would not in fact carry New York.
2As the authors describe, on the night after Israel’s declaration of statehood some ninety-five thousand people gathered to celebrate at Madison Square Garden. And elsewhere in New York City and other places there were Jews dancing in the streets.