President Truman, George Marshall, and Israel
Some in American Jewry are split over whether Donald Trump is the most pro-Israel or pro-Jewish president in the history of the US. Before Trump, some people would have said it was Harry Truman, who in 1947 supported the idea of partitioning the Palestine Mandate into Jewish and Arab territories. He then voted to recognize Israel, following its declaration of independence after the Arab states rejected compromise and declared all-out war. He did this against the overwhelming opposition of some advisers, the State Department, the WASP establishment, and the antisemitic lobbies.
I have just been reading George Marshall: Defender of the Republic by David L. Roll. Marshall was one of the most powerful and influential of American generals, diplomats, and political figures at that time. He was the man who organized and facilitated the invasion of Europe. He was the father of Marshall Plan that rebuilt Germany and Europe after the war, for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize. We might also mention how his directives rehabilitated millions of Nazis and how that was excused as necessary to stop the communists. He was also Secretary of State over the period of negotiating the future of the Jewish state.
When I got to the pages in this biography that related to the emergence of Israel, I could see how strongly he and many in the top echelons of the US were opposed to a Jewish state and did all they could to block it.
The British were eager after the Second World War to get out of the Mandate for Palestine. It had been created by the League of Nations and assigned to Britain in April 1920, as part of the carve up of the Ottoman Empire. The rise of Arab nationalism, the massacres by Arabs of Jews in Hebron in 1929, and the failure of the British army and police to deal with the conflict there was proving a burden too heavy to bear, especially for a country so weakened by war.
After the war, Truman asked the British to roll back their ban on Jewish immigration to Palestine and allow 100,000 Holocaust survivors in. But they refused.
Instead, in 1946, they agreed to an Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry. The committee recommended that Britain relent on immigration and recommended that both Jew and Arab should run their own communities, and eschew violence. But it advised against either a Jewish or an Arab State. Britain would not agree. The matter was handed to the United Nations to deal with.
In the summer of 1947, the United Nations Anglo-Palestine Committee recommended by seven to four that the area should be partitioned into two states, with Jerusalem divided. The Jewish Agency welcomed the proposal even if the land offered to them was far less than they had hoped for. Something was better than nothing.
George Marshall convened a meeting on the topic that included John Foster Dulles, UN ambassador Warren Austin, Eleanor Roosevelt, and others. Mrs. Roosevelt was one of the only people to speak in favor. Marshall was neutral, and reluctantly agreed to the president’s eventual decision to support partition.
George Kennan and the State Department tried to annul the idea of partition. They argued that Truman would be in danger of losing the upcoming 1948 presidential election because he would be seen as favoring the Jews. Truman tried to buy time. He promised Marshall and Dean Rusk that he would not support an independent Jewish state.
Into this stepped Eddie Jacobson, Truman’s army buddy, business partner, and friend from Kansas City. In early March, he turned up unofficially at the White House on a Saturday when most staffers were away. For two hours he sat with Truman and tried to persuade him to meet Chaim Weizmann to hear his point of view — something Truman hitherto had refused. Truman reacted negatively, but eventually agreed to a meeting. Weizmann came in secretly and convinced him to support partition and to vote to recognize a Jewish state if one was declared.
Meanwhile, Marshall’s office reportedly leaked news on March 19 that the US was backtracking on partition in favor of trusteeship. Truman was furious at being blindsided. Marshall and Lovett (who had succeeded Dean Acheson) heard that Truman had ordered his representative at the UN to recognize the Jewish state before the Soviet Union or any other nation did. Marshall was reportedly furious, and was said to have threatened to resign. Truman gave Marshall time to cool down and then approached him privately. Marshall finally agreed not to oppose him.
Was Marshall antisemitic? Clark Clifford and Richard Holbrooke in the book Counsel to the President in 1991 wrote that Marshall was indeed among the antisemites who opposed the establishment of Israel. Roll claims not. He argues that both Marshall and the State Department were concerned with strategic factors alone.
Who knows for sure? I am sure the State Department, like the UK Foreign Office in London, were not favorably disposed towards the Jews at best. Either way, Jews are treated much better in Washington now than they were then.
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.