by Rafael Medoff
May 15, the day after the anniversary of Israel’s creation in 1948, is known in the Arab world as “Nakba Day,” or “the day of the catastrophe.” We can expect Arab militants to spend Tuesday hurling rocks and firebombs at Israeli passersby as an expression of mourning over Israel’s defeat of the invading Arab armies. Probably not many of the rioters realize that while Arab tanks and planes were unable to prevent the birth of the Jewish state, the U.S. State Department almost succeeded in doing so.
Documents 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) reveal the State Department went so far as to threaten to incite a wave of antisemitism in the United States if Zionist leaders did not cancel the planned proclamation of the State of Israel.
In the end, though, the State Department’s bullying campaign was stymied–by a dose of old-fashioned American democracy.
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The episode took place in early 1948. The Truman administration had supported the recent United Nations vote recommending the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. But the Palestinian Arabs rejected the plan and launched a war against the Jews. President Truman, afraid of the U.S. getting drawn into the conflict, began to back away from the idea of Jewish statehood.
“I have about come to the conclusion that the situation is not solvable as presently set up,” Truman wrote to a friend. The Jews wanted “a big stick approach” by the U.S. to implement the partition plan, but “we can’t do that.”
What Zionist leaders actually wanted was not American intervention, but a shipment of some U.S. “big sticks” so the Jews could defend themselves against the Arab onslaught. The State Department, however, persuaded Truman to impose a complete arms embargo on the Middle East. That move primarily affected the Jews, since the Arab states had little difficulty obtaining weapons from Great Britain and other countries.
Despite protests from Republicans and dissident Democrats (former New York governor Herbert Lehman, for one, said the policy was “giving aid and comfort to the Arabs”), Truman refused to budge. The administration rejected even a request for armored plates to shield Jewish civilian buses from Arab snipers.
State also convinced Truman to support “international trusteeship” over Palestine instead of Jewish statehood. When the American ambassador to the United Nations announced this new policy on March 19, 1948, an enormous public outcry erupted. Thousands of angry letters and telegrams poured into the White House. Congressman Arthur Klein (D-NY) called it “the most terrible sell-out of the common people since Munich.” Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion denounced Truman’s reversal as “a surrender to Arab terror.”
Surprised by the fierce reaction, Truman tried to distance himself from his ambassador’s statement, blaming the trusteeship idea on officials in “the third and fourth levels of the State Department.” In fact, according to the documents I found, during the weeks to follow, the Truman administration–including the first level of the State Department–continued to promote that policy, and went even further.
On April 22, State’s number two man, Undersecretary Robert Lovett, 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 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,” since “anti-Semitism is mounting in an unprecedented way in groups and circles which are very influential and were never touched by anti-Semitism.”
Several weeks later, Jewish leaders met in New York City to discuss the State Department’s threat. Among those in attendance was Moshe Shertok, who was about to become Israel’s foreign minister. American Zionist leader Emanuel Neuman persuaded the majority of the participants to support immediate statehood. Neuman argued 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.”
One might say it was the Jewish leaders’ faith in American democracy that triumphed. They were confident the president would realize that large numbers of American Jews (and some Christians, too) would be outraged by a U.S. abandonment of Zionism, and would register their feelings as citizens of democracies do–in the voting booth.
Shertok flew to Palestine to report the results of the New York vote. That helped convince David Ben-Gurion and his colleagues in the Zionist leadership to proceed with their plans to proclaim the State of Israel on May 14.
State Department diehards fought a last-minute battle to prevent Truman from recognizing the new state. Secretary of State Marshall insisted that a Jewish state would be Communist, and went so far as to threaten that he himself would not vote for Truman if he recognized a Jewish state. But the president’s political advisers offered a more persuasive argument: Truman would “pay a high political price” for a pro-Arab policy “for [the Jewish vote] is especially important in an election year,” as one aide put it. Minutes after Israel was established, the president extended U.S. recognition to the new state.
Today, as in the 1940s, more than a few senior State Department officials are not particularly sympathetic to Israel. The rioters marking “Nakba Day” today may derive some consolation from that fact. Yet today, as in those days, the vast majority of Americans view Israel as a friend and ally–and, no doubt to the rioters’ chagrin, they are free to vote accordingly.