The Magazine

Instant Recognition

Israel's debt to Harry S. Truman.

Jul 20, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 41 • By ALONZO L. HAMBY
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Perhaps because the authors take for granted the justice of the establishment of a Jewish state, they tell us little about the half-century of Zionism in the Middle East that preceded the Roosevelt-Ibn Saud encounter. Jewish settlers had begun to filter back to the land of ancient Israel in the late 19th century when it was still a backwater of the Ottoman Empire. During World War I, the British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour endorsed the concept of a Jewish homeland there. Awarding Palestine to Britain in 1922, the League of Nations authorized "the establishment of the Jewish national home." Jewish settlement increased sharply during the twenties. In response to the rise of Nazism and other varieties of European fascism, it exploded during the thirties. The Arab population, harboring its own national aspirations, responded with sporadic violence.

The young journalist Theodore H. White, himself the offspring of Zionist socialists, visited Palestine at the end of 1938. By then the Jewish population--450,000--was approximately half that of the Arabs. White found a gifted young violinist who had been a year ahead of him at Harvard working in a citrus kibbutz, striving "to make an Israel and .  .  . learning to use a gun," he wrote in his memoir. Jewish militiamen guarded the high ground around their settlements. A thin British force struggled to maintain order and saw the immigrants as a source of trouble. "You Jews are simply a bloody nuisance," one of their officers told White.

Moved by their own sense of nationalism and destiny, the Arabs resented both British imperialism and the Jewish incursions. By the late 1930s they were in a full-scale guerrilla revolt. In 1939 the British declared a limit of 75,000 on all future Jewish immigration, calming the Arabs somewhat, but setting the stage for a postwar crisis.

By 1945, little had changed. The Arabs were more determined on national independence than ever, the British hoped to preserve as much imperial influence as possible, and the Jews were an irritant to both. In Europe, squalid displaced persons camps were filled with survivors of the Holocaust determined to make their way to a Jewish national home.

The United States might have been an acceptable alternative, but Congress was unwilling to allow generous immigration quotas for any Europeans, Jew or Gentile. American Jewry, before the war largely indifferent to Zionism, had undergone a mass conversion. Heavily Democratic and an important source of campaign funds, its opinion could not be ignored by President Truman.

Truman, a Baptist, had long possessed numerous Jewish contacts; the most important was a cherished World War I comrade and former business partner, Eddie Jacobson. Jacobson would become the primary conduit of communication between the Zionist movement and the president, but numerous pro-Zionist presidential advisers--Clark Clifford, David K. Niles, and Samuel Rosenman among them--played critical roles in the struggle for the president's mind. State and Defense department officials, agreeing with the British that good relations with the emerging Arab oil states were vital, saw a prospective Jewish state in the Middle East as detrimental to American interests. They pushed back hard.

Larger Cold War goals, and Britain's need for U.S. financial support, kept the two countries aligned, but the going could be rough at times. In mid-1946 the British foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, a blunt and burly trade unionist, responded to an American demand for the admission of 100,000 Jewish refugees into Palestine: "I hope I will not be misunderstood in America if I say that this was proposed with the purest of motives. They did not want too many Jews in New York."

The matter proceeded from an Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry to the fledgling United Nations, which in those innocent days seemed capable of mandating a solution. In the meantime, what really mattered were facts being created on the ground. Increasing numbers of Jewish refugees found ways to get into Palestine, Jewish armed forces grew rapidly, and the British found themselves facing a small-scale war. The Soviet Union--although Josef Stalin considered Jews "profiteers and parasites"--threw its line into the troubled waters by sending arms to the Jewish forces. By then, the White House was enmeshed in a covert struggle with its national security bureaucracy.