Sunday, October 23, 2011

Michael J. Cohen's Truman and Israel

Michael J. Cohen wrote a study of Harry S. Truman's attitude toward Israel.  Professor Cohen is at Bar Ilan University.  The book is a critical study of how domestic politics drove Harry Truman to recognize the fledgling state of Israel.  Professor Cohen paints Truman with his Mid Western prejudices but captures his integrity as a humanist and uncovers the special relationship that Truman had with his WWI Battery D veteran comrades.  It's a story of his close relationship with Eddy Jacobson but more important it uncovers the talents of Max Lowenthal and shows that Truman's successful 'whistle stop tour' was largely financed by loyal fundraisers for the Democratic party like Abe Feinberg.  The professor uses the expression 'Zionist Lobby'  when discussing Zionists like Chaim Weizmann and David Ben Gurion attempts at influencing Truman through American rabbis like Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen S. Wise.  One never gets the impression that there was an organized lobby but rather disparate factions jockeying for position to influence Truman.
We are introduced to a prejudiced Harry Truman who was known to use pejorative terms about Jews.  His relationship with his Jewish friends was different; he was loyal, he played cards with them and visited at their homes.  Truman, however, never reciprocated because of the anti-Semitic attitudes of his wife's family.  The loyalty, nevertheless, that Truman showed his friends expressed itself in the fact that Eddie Jacobson and Abe Granoff could enter the White House at anytime!  All of the Jews close to Truman were not Zionists and were very sensitive to their patriotism being called into question. We are told that Truman disliked Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver (who was an outspoken opponent) and thought that Jacobson was being exploited. 

Politics were the driving force that influenced Truman to recognize Israel.  Understanding that over 90 % of the Jewish vote went to Roosevelt and that Truman carried only 75%, the State of New York became a focal point of the Truman campaign.  The fear of the Russians influencing the new State of Israel also played a role in Truman's recognition.  Knowing that he was well behind in the polls, Truman was confident if he could only get to the people he could win the election.  Abe Feinberg (who owned a chain of jewelry stores) stepped forward and raised the necessary funds to enable Truman's 'whistle stop' train tour.  Truman was forever grateful to Feinberg and acknowledged Feinberg as his friend.

Professor Cohen tells us that Ben Gurion was suspicious of Truman, however, Weizmann was always optimistic and positive about Truman.  Eddie Jacobson was so convinced of Truman's integrity that he told people that Harry Truman would do the right thing when it counted.  Professor Cohen tells us of the fateful meeting that was arranged by Jacobson between Truman and Weizmann and the presentation of the small Sefer Torah.  Truman was moved by the gesture and makes mention of it in one of his later letters to Weizmann.

We are told of the showdown between the State Department and the Administration about recognition.  What was interesting is the fact that Professor Cohen makes the case that Truman was never in favor of a Jewish National Home in Israel, but rather wanted a solution to the Displaced Persons problem that resulted from WWII.  Truman wanted the absorption of 100,000 Jews to what was known then as Palestine over the objections of the Foreign Ministry of British Empire.  For Truman, the Jewish problem was essentially a humanistic issue.  He did not believe in the Zionist dream. (In this regard, he is different then Winston Churchill who claimed a Zionist sympathy- see Martin Gilbert's Churchill and the Jews: a lifelong friendship)  Clark Clifford credits Max Lowenthal in preparing the arguments in favor of recognition of Israel against General Marshall's State Department position.

Professor Cohen seems convinced that had the founding of the State of Israel happen during a non election year the outcome would have been different because of Truman's true attitudes of antipathy toward Jews and Zionism.  The record of events played out differently and Harry Truman will forever be remembered as the first to recognize the State of Israel.

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