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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.”

The British set a date of May 15, 1948 for their withdrawal from Palestine, and momentum toward a Jewish declaration of statehood grew throughout the spring. The White House was flooded with thousands of letters, telegrams, and petitions from Jewish and Christian supporters of Zionism, urging the administration to support a Jewish state. But Truman feared a declaration of statehood would lead to a war with the Arabs and pressure for the U.S. to get involved.

The administration decided to press Jewish leaders to indefinitely postpone the declaration of a Jewish state. The State Department’s number two man, Undersecretary Robert Lovett, summoned Zionist official Nahum Goldmann to his office on April 22 and warned him that declaring a state would cause “a general conflagration with terrible repercussions on the world scene.” Lovett threatening that if they did not postpone independence, “we will become very tough. We will wash our hands of the whole situation and will prevent any help being given to you.”

Lovett threatened to release a “White Paper” blasting the Zionists, which he said would “do great harm to the Jews in this country.” He told Goldmann the paper would have “grave repercussions” for Jews, since “anti-Semitism is mounting in an unprecedented way in groups and circles which are very influential and were never touched by anti-Semitism.”

Jewish leaders meeting in New York City the following week voted to support proclaiming a state and ignore the State Department’s threat. American Zionist leader Emanuel Neuman told colleagues that Lovett’s threat “did not have to be taken seriously” because “a presidential election [was] due in November” and Truman understood “the vast and bitter repercussions that [an anti-Zionist stance] would create in the American Jewish community.”

Truman was pulled in two directions at once: the State Department told him friendly relations with the Arab world were more important than relations with the Jewish community. The president’s political advisers, however, were focused on November. White House aide Clark Clifford urged Truman to support Zionism because the Jewish vote was “important” in New York, and New York’s 47 electoral votes “are naturally the first prize in any election.”

White House adviser Max Lowenthal warned Truman that if a Jewish state were proclaimed without U.S. recognition, Jews and Republicans would lead a chorus of protests. The administration would “pay a high political price [in Jewish votes] for it is especially important in a [presidential] election year…”

During the final hours before reaching his decision, Truman received crucial phone calls from Bronx Democratic leader Ed Flynn and former New York governor Herbert Lehman, warning about the electoral repercussions in New York if he abandoned the Jews.

When a friend asked Truman if he intended to recognize the Jewish state, the president responded, “Well, how many Arabs are there as registered voters in the United States?” The president answered his own question by recognizing the state of Israel just minutes after its proclamation.

For Bob Weintraub, Truman’s recognition of Israel was a bittersweet moment. “On the one hand, our goal was to use local politics to help pressure him to support the creation of Israel, so in that sense it was a moment of great satisfaction,” he explained. “On the other hand, the fact that the Truman administration clamped an arms embargo on Israel meant that the Jews were fighting with one hand tied behind their backs.”

Still, he can take pride in the fact that the Jewish activist campaigns of the 1940s helped plant the seeds for future American military and financial support of Israel.

And in a sense, the ghosts of New York’s 9th congressional district still haunt America’s Mideast policy.

Last September, the resignation of Congressman Anthony Weiner, who coincidentally also represented the 9th district, forced an election between heavily favored Democratic Assemblyman David Weprin and longshot Republican Bob Turner. Weprin was not only pro-Israel, but an observant Jew. The district had not elected a Republican in eighty years, and Democrats had a 3 to 1 edge among registered voters. Yet on election day, Turner beat Weprin by eight percentage points.

“Grassroots Jews sent the Obama administration a message from the 9th congressional district last year, just like the one they sent to Truman in the 1940s,” Weintraub told me.

“You see it again and again throughout American Jewish history,” Weintraub said. “Ordinary Jews have good instincts. They just need leadership. But too many Jewish leaders, like Rabbi Stephen Wise, head of the American Jewish Congress, preferred to trust empty promises from Roosevelt and Truman instead of campaigning forcefully for Jewish rights. Some Jewish leaders were unhappy about our activities in the Brooklyn elections.”

Documents I found in my research on this period seem to confirm Weintraub’s assertion. In one letter to a colleague in 1946, Rabbi Wise complained about “the creatures who dare to ask us to vote against every Administration candidate” because of Palestine. Wise felt it was urgent that the activists be “stopped now.”

Weintraub sees a certain parallel between Wise’s leadership and the behavior of some Jewish leaders in more recent times. In the early 1980s, as the Likud USA delegate to the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations, Weintraub approached leaders of the conference concerning The New York Times’s coverage of Israel.

“The Times was beating up on Israel almost every day,” Weintraub said. “In editorials, op-eds, even in news articles that were supposed to be objective reporting, they were calling Israel’s leaders ‘hardliners’ and ‘intransigent.’ I urged the Conference of Presidents to protest. But they wouldn’t do it. I had a similar meeting with the president of Hadassah. She said to me, ‘Some of our members don’t like [Israeli prime minister Menachem] Begin.’ I replied, ‘So are you willing to let Israel twist in the wind, just because some people disagree with this or that policy?’ ”

For Bob Weintraub, the cautious policies adopted by Rabbi Wise in the 1940s, and by some Jewish leaders in recent times, are inherently flawed. Throughout his many years as a lecturer, author of columns for The Jewish Press and the Jewish Week, co-host of the “Voice of Likud” radio show on WEVD-FM, and a leader of the American wing of Likud, Weintraub has devoted himself to the principle that, as he puts it, “Jewish policy should be decided on the basis of what’s best for the Jewish people and Israel, not fear of the Arabs or fear of causing anti-Semitism or fear of offending the powers that be.”

That, he maintains, “is as true in 2012 as it was in 1946.”

* * * * *

THE JEWISH VOTE, THE HOLOCAUST AND ISRAEL
A conference sponsored by the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies Fordham U. Law School
140 West 62 St. (between Columbus Ave. & Amsterdam Ave.)

Sunday, September 23 – 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
featuring Mayor Ed Koch, Prof. David Wyman and other prominent speakers
Info: 202-434-8994 or www.WymanInstitute.org

About the Author: Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, D.C., and author of 14 books about the Holocaust, Zionism, and American Jewish history. His latest book is 'FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith,' available from Amazon.


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