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A New York Election That Sent A Message To Truman

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

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 Jewish Vote And The 1948 Election

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

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

* * * * *

Bob Weintraub chuckled appreciatively the first time he heard that Barack Obama described his job before he went into politics as “community organizer.”

Bob knows a thing or two about community organizing: during the late 1940s, he helped organize a series of remarkable grassroots election campaigns in New York City that sent a powerful warning to President Harry Truman about the Jewish community’s unhappiness over his administration’s waffling on Zionism.

The story of Jewish activists who used local elections to influence America’s Mideast policy in the 1940s resonates strongly this election season – especially after Jewish voters in New York played such a crucial role in the unprecedented election of a Republican to fill Congressman Anthony Weiner’s old seat last September.

Weintraub grew up in Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood and attended Thomas Jefferson High School during the politically tumultuous 1930s. “It was like a yeshiva in those days – 95 percent Jewish,” he told me in a recent interview. “But most of the Jewish kids had very little interest in Zionism or other Jewish concerns.”

As a result, a handful of students affiliated with the pro-Communist American Student Union and led by future historian Howard Zinn exercised disproportionate influence on campus. “Our teachers sometimes organized debates on issues of the day, such as disarmament, or the role of the federal government,” Weintraub recalled. “Usually Howard represented one side, and I represented the other.”

The events of the Hitler years convinced Weintraub that a Jewish state was the only solution for the Jews. “I was struck by photos in the newspapers of bearded, elderly Jews being forced to scrub the streets of Vienna, while crowds laughed and cheered,” he remembered. “I realized these kinds of outrages would never end unless the Jews had their own country.”

Most of his fellow students were “apathetic,” he said. “Even when news of the mass killings started reaching us, not many people seemed terribly concerned.”

“My parents were immigrants from Galicia,” he noted. “They corresponded regularly with their parents and siblings, who were still in Europe. As the years wore on, the letters from Europe told of things getting worse and worse for the Jews. And then at a certain point, the letters stopped coming.”

Eventually he learned that his father’s and his grandmother’s brothers and sisters, along with their spouses and children, were all murdered by the Germans and their Ukrainian collaborators.

Drafted in 1943, Weintraub was sent by the U.S. Army to Mississippi for infantry training before eventually being shipped out to Germany following the Battle of the Bulge.

* * * * *

When Weintraub returned home to East New York in the spring of 1946, he found a Jewish community engulfed in political turmoil.

The press was filled with stories about the plight of the hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors in European Displaced Persons camps, waiting for permission to go to Eretz Yisrael. U.S. envoy Earl Harrison had recently returned from a visit to the camps and reported that the DPs suffered from inadequate medical care, shelter, food, and clothing. Some had nothing to wear but German SS uniforms. Conditions were so poor, Harrison asserted, “we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them.”

The overwhelming majority of the DPs wanted to go to Israel, but the British White Paper of 1939 had shut the country’s gates to all but a handful of Jews, and London showed no signs of relenting.

American Jews, Weintraub found, were deeply shaken as they came to grips with the full extent of the Holocaust. “People watched the newsreel footage in the movie houses of Allied troops liberating the death camps,” he pointed out. “They saw the piles of dead bodies. They were in anguish over what they were seeing. And more than a few felt guilty – and rightly so – that they had voted 90% percent for Roosevelt in 1944 as if nothing had happened.”

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/front-page/the-jewish-vote-and-the-1948-election/2012/09/05/

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