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A New York Election That Sent A Message To Truman

President Harry Truman

President Harry Truman

By the summer of 1947, British Mandatory Palestine was in flames. Jewish underground fighters waged guerrilla warfare against the British administration. Refugee ships, such as the S.S. Exodus, challenged London’s refusal to let Holocaust survivors enter the Holy Land. A United Nations committee visited the region and returned with a plan to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states.

Under an avalanche of pressure from American Jews, Christian Zionists, and prominent Republicans, the Truman administration endorsed the UN plan. But as soon as President Truman saw that Arab rejection of the plan was intractable, he began to back off. By early 1948, Truman and his State Department advisers were preparing to announce that U.S. preferred “international trusteeship” over Palestine – meaning no Jewish state.

That’s when an unexpected development in the Bronx sent shock waves through the White House.

A special election was called in February to fill a vacant congressional seat in the Bronx. The Democratic nominee, Karl Propper, was fully backed by the local party machine, headed by Truman confidante Ed Flynn. The district was so overwhelmingly Democratic that the Republicans did not even mount an active campaign. Instead, Propper’s main challenger was the almost-unknown nominee of the left-wing American Labor Party, Leo Isacson.

It was just at that time that former vice president Henry Wallace was making serious plans to run as a third-party candidate in the 1948 presidential election. Wallace hoped his Progressive Party would win the support of followers of the American Labor Party. Wallace and Isacson decided to turn the Bronx race into a test of Jewish anger over Truman’s Palestine policy – and perhaps an indication as to whether Jews might choose Wallace over Truman in November.

The Democrats decided to bring out their big gun–the beloved former first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt spoke at a Propper election rally on February 13, and wrote a syndicated column blasting Isacson. “A candidate must be 100 percent for the Communist program to receive support from the [ALP],” she declared. Mrs. Roosevelt claimed that “the Communists have been concentrating their workers in this [part of the Bronx].” She predicted that Isacson, if elected, would cast votes that would “help to create chaos in Europe, [which] is one of the prerequisites to the acceptance of Communism.”

But Mrs. Roosevelt’s Red-baiting support of Propper was less successful than Wallace’s support of Isacson. He repeatedly visited the Bronx district to campaign for Isacson, hammering away on the Palestine issue. Truman “talks Jewish but acts Arab,” Wallace charged, urging Jewish voters to reject Propper as a way of sending the administration a message about its Palestine policy.

They did.

Isacson swamped Propper, 55 percent to 31 percent. Jewish voters had fired a loud warning shot at the administration.

Taking a page from Leo Isacson’s playbook, Brooklyn Jewish activist Bob Weintraub decided he would try to send a similar message to the White House from his East New York neighborhood. In the spring of 1948, the hardworking Jewish community organizer and his friends reconvened the network of grassroots activists who had produced the stunning Republican triumph in the 22nd New York State Assembly race in 1946. (See last week’s Jewish Press front-page essay, “The Jewish Vote and the 1948 Election.”)

Their target: Democratic incumbent Eugene Keogh, representing the 9th congressional district. Keogh, who was serving his sixth consecutive term in congress, was not accustomed to serious opposition. “The local Democratic Party leaders were more than a little angry,” Weintraub recalled, when he and his friends persuaded a dynamic young attorney, George Sassower, to challenge Keogh in the Democratic primary.

Weintraub and his fellow activists knocked on doors, gave speeches on street corner soapboxes, and handed out campaign literature. “We were all volunteers. I think our whole budget for the campaign was about $30.” Hour after hour, day after day, they canvassed the streets for Sassower, on just one issue: a Jewish state in Palestine.

“The Brooklyn county party leaders called us in,” Weintraub recounted. “They were afraid our message was resonating with Jewish voters. They desperately wanted to get us out of the race. They threatened to find ‘something’ that would give them grounds to haul Sassower before the American Bar Association’s character committee. At the same time, they promised they would communicate to the White House and the national Democratic leadership the level of anger among Jewish voters in Brooklyn. That, in the end, was all we really wanted. So Sassower dropped out. But our mission was accomplished.”

About the Author: Dr. Rafael Medoff is the founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and coeditor of the Online Encyclopedia of America's Response to the Holocaust.

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