Why the State Department Threatened the Jews

by Rafael Medoff

Recently discovered documents reveal that the State Department threatened to incite a wave of anti-Semitism in the United States if Zionist leaders did not cancel the planned proclamation of the State of Israel in 1948. And in a surprising twist, one of the main reasons Jewish leaders didn’t back down was because of their support from–the Republicans.

The episode took place in early 1948. The Truman administration had supported the previous November’s United Nations vote to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. In the face of Arab hostility, however, Truman began backing away. By March, he concurred with the State Department’s suggestion to support “international trusteeship” over Palestine rather than partition–meaning no Jewish state.

A storm of protests erupted when the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Warren Austin, announced the new policy on March 19. Surprised by the reaction, Truman tried to distance himself from Austin’s statement, blaming the trusteeship idea on officials in “the third and fourth levels of the State Department.” But as I discovered in the research for my new book, ‘Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the “Jewish Vote” and Bipartisan Support for Israel’ (coauthored with Prof. Sonja Schoepf Wentling), during the weeks to follow, the administration–including the first level of the State Department–continued to promote that policy, and worse.

State’s number two man, Undersecretary Robert Lovett, was the primary mouthpiece. On April 22, he summoned Zionist official Nahum Goldmann to his office and read him the riot act. According to Goldmann’s account, Lovett said the declaration of a Jewish state would cause “a general conflagration with terrible repercussions on the world scene.” He demanded the Zionists indefinitely postpone the proclamation, threatening that if they did not agree, “we will become very tough. We will wash our hands of the whole situation and will prevent any help being given to you.”

And then Lovett unveiled an additional, and especially shocking, threat. If the Zionists did not back down, the State Department would release a “White Paper” critical of the Zionists, which he said would “do great harm to the Jews in this country.” He told Goldmann the paper would have “grave repercussions” for Jews, since “anti-Semitism is mounting in an unprecedented way in groups and circles which are very influential and were never touched by anti-Semitism.”

It was not the first time a senior U.S. official had tried to intimidate American Jews by claiming they were dragging America into a war. President Franklin Roosevelt privately told Jewish leaders in March 1944 that their support for a pro-Zionist congressional resolution would “start a Holy Jihad” and they would be “responsible for the death of a hundred thousand [Allied soldiers in the Mideast] through this.” The implication, of course, was that a wave of antisemitism would erupt if American Jews were to blame for causing GIs’ deaths.

Roosevelt’s pressure in 1944 worked. Lovett’s didn’t. Why?

In early 1944, most Republicans had not yet taken taken a serious, ongoing interest in Jewish concerns such as the future of Palestine and the fate of the Jews in Europe under Hitler. Thus American Jewish leaders did not believe they had an effective means of putting political pressure on FDR. It seemed they had nowhere to turn. Hence they did not respond forcefully when congress, at Roosevelt’s request, shelved that pro-Zionist resolution.

But in the weeks to follow, the political landscape began to shift. In response to the mass deportation of Hungary’s Jews to Auschwitz and the continuing British closure of Palestine to Jewish refugees, prominent Republicans in the spring of 1944 began assuming a high-profile role in Jewish protests. Senator Robert Taft (Ohio), Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce (Conn.), Governor Thomas Dewey (New York), and 1940 presidential nominee Wendell Willkie spoke at pro-Zionist rallies, signed petitions, and denounced Roosevelt’s policies on Capitol Hill. Former president Herbert Hoover helped persuade the GOP to adopt a plank in its 1944 platform calling for rescue of European Jewry and establishment of a Jewish state.

After the war, as the conflict over Palestine’s future heated up, Republican support for Jewish statehood intensified. “The Jews and crackpots seem to be ready to go for Dewey,” a worried Truman complained to his wife in September 1946. White House aide Clark Clifford urged Truman to support Zionism because the Jewish vote was “important” in New York, and New York’s 47 electoral votes “are naturally the first prize in any election.”

So by the time Jewish leaders met in New York City in early May 1948 to discuss the State Department’s threat, they finally had some political leverage. American Zionist leader Emanuel Neuman told his colleagues that Lovett’s threat “did not have to be taken seriously” because “a presidential election [was] due in November” and Truman understood “the vast and bitter repercussions that [an anti-Zionist stance] would create in the American Jewish community.”

In other words, Truman knew that if he sided with the Arabs, the Jews would vote for Dewey. So he didn’t. And in response, they didn’t. Truman recognized the new State of Israel within minutes of its proclamation. And Jewish voters overwhelmingly supported him in November.

The Obama administration’s own attempts to raise the dragging-us-into-war argument have likewise not gained much traction in the Jewish community.

In 2010, Vice President Joe Biden and Gen. David Petraeus suggested Jewish housing construction in Jerusalem could lead to American casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The message [from Biden and Petraeus to Israel] couldn’t be plainer,” the journal Foreign Policy concluded. “Israel’s intransigence could cost American lives.” President Obama himself sent a similar message when he said that year that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could end up “costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure.” The New York Times noted that Obama’s words “echoed” those of Gen. Petraeus.

In March of this year, the Times published leaked excerpts from a secret U.S. study claiming an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would cause “a wider regional war, which could draw in the United States and leave hundreds of Americans dead.” The Obama administration denied that it leaked the story. Gary Rosenblatt, editor of the largest American Jewish newspaper, the New York Jewish Week, asserted in a recent column that he doesn’t believe the denial.

American Jews today are not likely to back down from their support of Israel’s right to pre-empt Iran’s nukes, any more than their predecessors backed down from the State Department’s threat in 1948–and for the same reason. This November’s election, as in 1948, is likely to be close, and the Jewish vote in battleground states could be crucial. That political reality makes any serious Obama administration action against Israel highly unlikely–at least for the next six months.

April 2012