Who Saved Israel in 1947?

Roundup
tags: Israel, Balfour Declaration



Martin Kramer teaches Middle Eastern history at Shalem College in Jerusalem and is the Koret visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. His most recent book is The War on Error (2016).

November 29 marks the 70th anniversary of UN General Assembly resolution 181, recommending the partition of Mandate Palestine into two separate Jewish and Arab states. On that day in 1947, millions of listeners sat glued to their radio sets to follow the voting. The outcome set off spontaneous celebrations among Zionists everywhere, for it constituted the first formal international endorsement of a Jewish state.

To celebrate the anniversary, Israel’s embassy to the United Nations is restoring the hall in Flushing Meadows, New York—today the main gallery of the Queens Museum, then the meeting place of the General Assembly—to its appearance in 1947. The announced plan is to reenact the vote, with the current ambassadors of member states that voted “yes” recasting their ballots.

The most conspicuous of the ballots cast will be that of the United States. Indeed, the vote and its sequel are set to be told as a largely American story. Israel’s UN ambassador, Danny Danon, has placed the celebration in this historical context:

From the moment President Truman became the first world leader to recognize the new Jewish state, Israel has had no better friend than the United States of America, and the U.S. has had no more steadfast ally than the state of Israel.

In keeping with this, the keynote speaker in New York will be U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence. Again and again, we are likely to hear how Harry Truman stood up to his State Department (and, perhaps less heroically, catered to Jewish voters) by saying “yes” in November 1947 and then by immediately recognizing Israel when David Ben-Gurion declared the state on May 14, 1948. And once again, we will be reminded of Eddie Jacobson, Truman’s Jewish business partner in a Kansas City haberdashery before the Depression, who famously traded on his old friendship to secure a critical meeting between Truman and the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann in March 1948.

The rest of the story has been carefully burnished over the years, including by Truman himself. In 1953, when Jacobson introduced the former president to a Jewish audience as “the man who helped create the state of Israel,” Truman upped the ante by comparing himself with the ancient Persian ruler who restored the Jews to Jerusalem from Babylonian exile: “What do you mean ‘helped to create’? I am Cyrus.”

Historians, it is true, still debate Truman’s motives. But they also agree on one thing: Israel’s creation owed more to Truman than to any other world leader. “Without Truman,” write Allis and Ronald Radosh in their book on Truman and Israel, “the new state of Israel might not have survived its first difficult years, and succeeded thereafter.” Michael J. Cohen, in his earlier book on Truman and Israel, states that in 1947 and 1948, “Truman arguably played the decisive diplomatic role in the birth of the new state of Israel.” Michael Oren, in Power, Faith, and Fantasy, his bestseller on America in the Middle East, asserts that Truman’s comparison of himself with the Persian ruler Cyrus “was not entirely bluster.”

The problem here is simple: everything said about the contribution of Truman could be said about that of Joseph Stalin....




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