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A New York Election That Sent A Message To Truman

President Harry Truman

President Harry Truman

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.

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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