Edward “Eddie” Jacobson was a U.S. Army associate and business partner of President Harry Truman, but his most important role was using his close friendship with the president at a crucial point in Jewish history to advocate on behalf of the nascent Jewish state and for American recognition of Israel.
Born on New York’s Lower East Side to impoverished Orthodox immigrants from Lithuania, Jacobson (1891 – 1955) lost substantive interest in Judaism until after his family moved to Kansas City in 1905; he later became active in his wife’s Reform temple there, B’nai Jehudah.
Jacobson first met Truman, who served as a “Shabbos Goy” for Jewish neighbors, in 1905 when both worked in downtown Kansas City, Eddie as a stock boy at a shirt store and Harry as a bookkeeper at a nearby bank. Their friendship grew when both reported for basic training in 1917. Truman was made regimental canteen officer and, having no business experience, selected Jacobson, who had been a traveling salesman before the war, to be his manager. After serving together in France, they opened a men’s haberdashery, Truman and Jacobson’s Gents Furnishings, which was quite successful for a while until a severe recession forced them out of business in 1921.
In one of my favorite stories from this period, Truman, who was then serving as a county judge, was invited to speak at a KKK meeting and Jacobson insisted on accompanying him. After Truman spoke his mind and concluded his unpopular speech to the Klan, he turned to the crowd and, without missing a beat, added: “Now you fellows standing out there in those pajamas: I don’t know where you bought those pajamas under your sheets, but if you didn’t buy them at Truman and Jacobson’s, you paid too much.”
In the May 22, 1951 correspondence on his White House letterhead exhibited here, President Truman writes to C.R. Palmer regarding his failed haberdashery with Jacobson:
There have been articles written about my personal affairs and my career before I became United States Senator, Vice President and President of the United States. In order to keep the record straight I have asked Mr. Eben Ayers [Truman’s White House Press Secretary] to discuss with you the affairs of the store on 12th Street which Eddie Jacobson and I had when you were the Midwest Manager for Cluett, Peabody and Company [a men’s shirt maker]. I’ll appreciate it if you will be very frank with Mr. Ayers and tell him the facts as you remember them. I hope everything is going well with you and I also hope the first time you are in Washington you will call me up and come around and see me.
In 1948, when the “Palestine issue” had come to a head, President Truman issued instructions to his staff that he would no longer meet with any Zionist leaders. Increasingly agitated by Zionist “badgering,” he was particularly enraged about a meeting with an American Zionist delegation where Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, unhappy with the president’s response to their demand for immediate action on behalf of homeless Holocaust victims seeking refuge in a Jewish state, literally pounded on the president’s desk. An outraged Truman quickly ushered them out of the Oval Office and told his staff:
No one, but no one, comes into the office of the president of the United States and shouts at him, or pounds on his desk…. They will eventually prejudice everyone trying to help them. They came in here and shouted at me, and made threats concerning the future political support of American Jews…. I’ve had it with those hotheads; don’t ever admit them again, and what’s more, I also never want to hear the word Palestine mentioned again…
Accordingly, Truman canceled a scheduled meeting with Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organization, to discuss the president’s apparent approval of plan for American abandonment of the Palestine Partition Plan in favor of a trusteeship solution. Jewish leaders, who knew well that Jacobson had essentially open access to the Oval Office, sought to enlist him to attempt to sway the president to meet with Weizmann, but when Jacobson – who was not a Zionist and never thought about Eretz Yisrael as a Jewish homeland – heard about the conduct of the Zionist delegation, he initially refused to get involved. He told the Jewish leaders that in his 37-year old friendship with the president he had never tried to leverage his friendship and that he wasn’t about to jeopardize that friendship now.
Nonetheless, Jewish leaders convinced Jacobson that the fate of thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors was at risk, so he went to see Truman on March 13, 1948. A livid Truman screamed at him for violating his specific instruction never to even mention the word “Palestine.” However, using a deft touch and drawing skillfully on his knowledge of the president, Jacobson argued:
Your hero is Andrew Jackson. I have a hero too. A man I’ve never met, but a real gentleman and a great statesman. He’s the greatest Jew alive. I’m talking about Chaim Weizmann. He’s an old man and very sick, and he has traveled thousands of miles just to see you and to plead the cause of his people. Now you refuse to see him because you were insulted by some impudent American Zionists, even though you know that Weizmann had absolutely nothing to do with them. This isn’t like you, Harry. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t know that you would see him so you can be properly and accurately informed about the situation as it exists in Palestine.
Jacobson ultimately persuaded Truman to see Weizmann and, at their White House meeting on March 18, 1948, the president, deeply impressed by the Zionist leader, promised to recognize the Jewish state whether or not it was declared under United Nations auspices. Briefed in advance by Weizmann, Jacobson later returned to advise Truman that a Jewish state would be declared immediately after the British exited Eretz Yisrael and to urge him to recognize the new state.
When the British Mandate expired on May 14, 1948, the United States extended de facto diplomatic recognition of Israel within minutes of its birth and Truman gave Jacobson the pen he used to sign the recognition document. (That document is in the files at the National Archives.).
In a statement of real historical significance exhibited here, a letter written on the 20th anniversary of his recognition of Israel, Truman writes:
One of the proudest moments of my life occurred at 6:12 p.m. on Friday, May 14, 1948 when I was able to announce recognition of the new State of Israel by the government of the United States. I remain particularly gratified by the role I was fortunate to play in the birth of Israel as, in the immortal words of the Balfour Declaration, “a national home for the Jewish people.”
Perhaps the best statement regarding Truman’s role in Jewish history was made by Israel’s chief rabbi during a 1949 visit to Washington. Truman cried when Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog told him that “God put you in your mother’s womb so that you could be the instrument to bring about the rebirth of Israel after 2,000 years.”
But none of it would have happened without Eddie Jacobson’s intervention.
For a few months after Israel’s birth, Jacobson, who had become a passionate Zionist, served as de facto American Ambassador to Israel, and the Israeli government essentially ran all its communications with the White House through him. One over-exuberant Kansas City rabbi told reporters that Jacobson would become president of Israel, and Truman wrote to Jacobson that while Israel “couldn’t nominate a better man, I sincerely hope you won’t take it.” Jacobson rejected any such suggestion, saying it was just “a silly dream of a very emotional rabbi” and that he was “too proud of my American citizenship to trade it for any office in the world.”
Truman left office in January 1953. Although he had hoped to escort the former president on a visit to Israel, Jacobson died of a heart attack before he had the opportunity to do so. Years later, Truman planned to make his first visit to Israel to attend the May 22, 1965 dedication of a Jacobson memorial auditorium in Tel Aviv, but his doctors refused to clear him for travel.
In a letter read at the dedication, Truman characterized Jacobson’s contribution as “of decisive importance” and wrote that “he deserves all the recognition that he is receiving and his name should be enshrined in the history of the Jewish people.”
Yehi zichrono baruch.