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Truman and Israel

by HARRY CLARK

The Truman Administration’s policy on Palestine challenges at its start the “strategic asset” view of the US-Israel relationship, and reinforces the “Israel lobby” view, as argued in the recent article by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. Truman’s support for the creation of a Jewish state was due entirely to the US Jewish community, without whose influence Zionist achievements in Palestine would have been for nought. Long before any strategic argument was made, indeed, while a Jewish state was considered a strategic liability, long before Israel’s fundamentalist Christian supporters of today were on the map, the nascent Israel lobby deployed its manifold resources with consummate skill and ruthlessness.

Rabbi Abba Silver, a Cleveland Zionist with Republican contacts, and Zionist official Emmanuel Neumann, initiated “Democratic and Republican competition for the Jewish vote.” In 1944 they “wrung support from the conventions of both parties for the Taft-Wagner [Senate] resolution” supporting abrogation of the Palestine immigration limits in the 1939 British white paper, and the establishment of Palestine as a Jewish commonwealth. Ensuring the traditional loyalty of Jewish voters was a paramount concern of Democratic politicians, up to the president himself, in the New York mayoral election of 1945, the 1946 congressional elections, and the 1948 presidential election.

Gentile opinion was also courted in non-electoral ways, through the American Palestine Committee of notables, constituted in 1941 by Emmanuel Neumann of the American Zionist Emergency Committee. By 1946 it included “sixty-eight senators, two hundred congressmen and several state governors” with “seventy-five local chapters.” It became “‘the preeminent symbol of pro-Zionist sentiment among the non-Jewish American public.'” It was entirely a Zionist front.

Zionist control was discreet but tight. The Committee’s correspondence was drafted in the AZEC headquarters and sent to [chairman New York Senator Robert] Wagner for his signature. Mail addressed to Wagner as head of the American Palestine Committee, even if it came from the White House or the State Department, was opened and kept in Zionist headquarters; Wagner received a copy. The AZEC placed ads in the press under the committee’s name without bothering to consult or advise it in advance, until one of its members meekly requested advance notice.

Dewey Stone, a Zionist businessman, had financed Truman’s vice-presidential campaign in 1944, and businessman Abraham Feinberg, with jewelry magnate Edmund Kauffman, led fundraising for the otherwise penniless 1948 presidential campaign. “If not for my friend Abe, I couldn’t have made the [whistle-stop train] trip and I wouldn’t have been elected,” Truman stated. “Feinberg’s activities began a process that made the Jews into ‘the most conspicuous fundraisers and contributors to the Democratic Party.'”

Key White House advisors ensured the domination of Zionist viewpoints in the highest circles of the Truman Administration. Jewish aides David Niles, administrative assistant to Truman, and Max Lowenthal, special assistant on Palestine to Clark Clifford, himself “Truman’s key advisor on Palestine at the White House,” were especially crucial. Niles was one of two presidential aides retained from the Roosevelt Administration, the other being Samuel Rosenman. Niles was Truman’s chief political liaison with the Jewish community. Lowenthal was the Harvard-trained former counsel to the Senate Interstate Commerce Committee on which Truman had served, who specialized in drafting Zionist memoranda. In 1952 Truman stated in a letter to Lowenthal, “I don’t know who has done more for Israel than you have.” Clifford, an ambitious Missouri lawyer, like so many non-Jewish Democrats saw the manifest political advantages of Zionism; Truman’s 1948 victory launched Clifford’s career as consummate Washington insider. The “White House through its busy and assorted ‘aides’ never wanted for advice on the Palestine question. All together the quantity of well-argued advice coming in through various unofficial channels was enormous and would provide an efficient counter to that coming from the president’s official foreign policy-making body, the State Department.”

This formidable apparatus was deployed at every twist and turn on the sinous path of events that culminated in Israel’s creation. In 1945 the Zionist lobby linked concern for the Jewish displaced persons languishing in European camps to the Palestine question, and pressured Truman to endorse a Jewish Agency proposal for the British to admit 100,000 Jewish immigrants to Palestine. In April, 1946, a joint Anglo-American commission, with US Zionist members, duly endorsed the immigration proposal, among others, and talks about a comprehensive political settlement continued, resulting in the Morrison-Grady plan for a federal state with autonomy for Arab and Jewish provinces. Truman thought this then and later “the best of all solutions proposed for Palestine.” The plan fell short of Zionist aspirations toward partition, and under intense pressure, with the fall elections looming, Truman reluctantly declined to endorse it.

The Jewish Agency Executive, the governing body of the Zionist settlement in Palestine, proposed partition in early August. On October 4, 1946, the eve of Yom Kippur, Truman delivered his famous statement noting the Morrison-Grady plan, and the Jewish Agency partition proposal, calling the latter a solution which “would command the support of public opinion in the United States.” Despite Truman’s further observations that “the gap between the proposals” could be bridged, and that the US government could support such a compromise, the statement was intepreted as support for partition and a Jewish state, as Niles predicted to the author, the Jewish Agency representative in Washington, whose original draft had been modified by the State Department.

The Yom Kippur statement marked a watershed in the political and diplomatic struggle for the Jewish state. The British saw in the statement a demonstration of Jewish political power and gave up their quest for an Anglo-American consensus on Palestine. [British Foreign Secretary] Bevin began issuing threats that the British would evacuate Palestine, and in February 1947 they did indeed refer the question with no recommendation to the United Nations.

The United Nations Special Commission on Palestine was formed after the British announcement. Truman, “undoubtedly embarrassed by accusationsthat he had exploited the Palestine question for domestic political gain” with his Yom Kippur statement, thereafter remained silent. Before the UNSCOP decision, Truman still retained hope for the 1946 Morrison-Grady plan. When on August 31, 1947, UNSCOP announced its majority decision recommending partition, the administration came under overwhelming pressure to endorse it.

The State Department, like the War Department and most of the government, and elite opinion generally, viewed good relations with the Arab states and people as the basis of US interests in the region’s oil, in trade and investment, military basing rights, and excluding the rising bogey of Soviet influence. But the Zionist machine was at full throttle, Democratic politicians from Congress to the Cabinet protested vehemently to Truman about the political consequences, and a statement endorsing partition was made at the UN on October 11. Truman did fear that if partition became a US plan, it would require US military forces to implement. Neither the US nor the USSR, which endorsed partiton two days after the US, lobbied for votes among member states, and on Wednesday, November 26, the General Assembly approved the final draft partition resolution by one vote less than the required two-thirds majority. The partition forces postponed the final vote, and over the Thanksgiving holiday the president, his aides and US diplomats went to work. That Saturday, November 29, partition passed by 33 to 13, with ten abstentions. Truman took personal credit for changing several votes.

The Zionists had been waging war against the British to drive them out of Palestine, and after the UN partition vote, civil war broke out with the Palestinian Arabs, who rejected partition. In February the State Department prepared plans for a UN trusteeship, with White House knowledge and approval. On March 18, a UN commission to monitor events in Palestine, which had predicted further chaos and bloodshed after the British withdrawal on May 14, reported its failure to arrange any agreement between Jews and Arabs. The following day the US ambassador to the UN announced the trusteeship proposal, which brought a political firestorm down on Truman, and on March 25, at a press conference he explained that trusteeship was only a means of eventually implementing the UN resolution for partition. The Arabs rejected it, as did the Zionists.

Yet Truman’s political fortunes continued to plummet; the Democratic Party revolted against his presidential candidacy. As Zionist forces achieved partition (and more) in battle, pressure built for recognition of the Jewish state, expected to be proclaimed on the final day of British withdrawal, May 14. The State Department was opposed; Secretary Marshall feared Jewish military successes would be temporary, that the Zionists would partition Palestine with King Abdullah of Transjordan without reaching a settlement with the Palestinian Arabs (which did happen), and that recognition would prejudice efforts to arrange a truce under UN auspices after May 14. Zionist pressure was ferocious; the White House “aides” were very busy; Clifford essentially commissioned the request for recognition from the Jewish Agency representative in Washington, which was duly delivered to the White House, and at 6:11 PM on May 14 Truman announced de facto recognition of the State of Israel, flummoxing the US delegation at the UN, and US allies. Marshall stated that, during a May 17 discussion, Truman “treated it somewhat as a joke as I had done but I think we both thought privately it was a hell of a mess,” and felt that the US “had hit its all-time low before the U.N.”

US diplomacy in the ensuing Arab-Israeli war was conducted along similar lines. For all his accommodation of Zionism, Truman received only 75% of the Jewish vote, compared to Roosevelt’s typical 90%. Truman lost New York, Dewey’s home state, where there was also a large vote for Wallace. Truman did narrowly win Ohio, Illinois and California, helped by Jewish voters. After describing this tour de force of domestic power politics, Michael Cohen, whose work is mainly quoted here, argues that Israel’s military prowess changed the views of the British and US diplomatic and military establishments. “[T]he White House and State Department, if only ephemerally, came to a consensus on Israel’s vital importance to the West as a ‘strategic asset.”‘ The qualification “ephemerally” acknowledges the Eisenhower presidency, during which Israel was largely not regarded as a strategic asset.

Cohen attributes Truman’s susceptibility to Zionist influence to a “unique set of circumstances that converged to determine the fate of Palestine,” including Jewish friends, White House advisors, key Jewish Democratic Party fundraisers, and Zionist military prowess, which “should not be expected ever to repeat themselves.” The circumstances were not at all unique, but have been practically a recipe for quasi-sovereign Jewish influence on foreign policy in Democratic administrations. By institutionalization throughout the political culture, this influence extends to Republican administrations as well; Eisenhower was an exception. Such influence is not sinister or conspiratorial, but the overt working of US-style capitalist democracy, albeit on behalf of racism, war and genocide, and with a paralyzing effect, in this case, on the liberal circles which usually oppose such matters.

The chauvinism of US organized Jewry is a distinctive feature of US society and history, comparable in importance to classic US singularities like slavery, and the absence of a socialist left, and their crippling legacies. Jewish influence in the Democratic Party, and its impact on foreign policy, notably on the inability of Democrats to mount a critique of the Iraq war and Middle East policy, is comparable to the influence of the Dixiecrats, the segregationist Southern Democrats, on civil rights, labor law and other issues. The moral antipode to organized Jewish power is not an orthodoxy which misattributes Jewish influence to “strategic interest,” but anti-Zionism. Left internationalism, in which Jews were prominent, and classical Reform Judaism, once the dominant Jewish creed, emphatically rejected Zionism as a reactionary ideology, rejected modern Jewish nationality, and affirmed the Jewish place as a minority in liberal or revolutionary society. Anti-Zionism need not mean, immediately, a secular democratic state in Palestine, but the moral and intellectual framework which rejects Zionist claims on Jewish identity and gentile conscience, and asserts liberal and revolutionary values against radical nationalism.

HARRY CLARK grew up in the Illinois congressional district represented for twenty-two years by Paul Findley, a centrist Republican. Findley’s support for the Palestinians aroused the ire of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, which eventually drove him from office. Studying Zionism is an avocation.

A pdf of this article with footnotes can be found on Clark’s website.

© 2006 by HARRY CLARK

 

 

 

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Harry Clark can be reached at his web site, http://questionofpalestine.net

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