James G. McDonald (1866-1964), a fervent Zionist and one of Israel’s greatest early supporters, is today largely unknown and his important contributions essentially forgotten. He not only served as America’s first ambassador to Israel, but also advocated internationally for the new Jewish state; served as a “shtadlan” on Israel’s behalf with President Truman and in the corridors of American power; and helped forge what became the “special relationship” between the two nations.
Several weeks after recognizing the Jewish state, Truman – in a recess appointment, which was, not surprisingly, vehemently opposed by Secretary of State George Marshall – dispatched McDonald to Israel as his representative. A devout Christian, McDonald viewed the establishment of the Jewish state as the fulfillment of a biblical promise, and he proceeded to shepherd Israel through a very challenging diplomatic period.
His critical accomplishments include successfully watering down the “Bernadotte Plan,” pursuant to which Israel would have been required to cede the Negev to the Arabs, repatriate a host of Palestinian refugees, and accept Jerusalem as the capital of Trans-Jordan. (Unfortunately, his determined effort to get America to recognize Israel’s right to Jerusalem failed.) McDonald later wrote that “had Bernadotte known of the Jewish millennial prayers for their return to Jerusalem, he could not [have] put forward his proposal.”
Exhibited here is a postal cover signed by McDonald and canceled May 4, 1949, Israel’s first Independence Day. A week later, on May 11, 1949, his intense lobbying of the State Department in support of Israel’s admission to the United Nations came to fruition as the UN passed General Assembly Resolution 273 admitting Israel as a member state.
However, McDonald was much more than America’s first ambassador to Israel, and his service in strategic diplomatic posts gave him access to the highest levels of government in Europe and the United States during the Holocaust. He served as chairman of the Foreign Policy Association from 1919-33, in which capacity, having learned German from his mother and having become friendly with visiting German students at Harvard (many of whom went on to became prominent Nazis), he regularly visited Germany and gained access to many Nazi officials.
Charmed by his fluent German, they spoke openly with him about their plans for the Jews. Remarkably, in an April 1933 meeting with Hitler himself, the Fuhrer advised McDonald: “I will do the thing that the rest of the world would like to do…. It doesn’t know how to get rid of the Jews, but I will show them.”
In 1933, McDonald was assigned by the League of Nations to serve as High Commissioner for Refugees Coming from Germany and, concluding long before most German Jews did that Hitler was serious about annihilating European Jewry, he engaged in a broad crusade to rescue German Jews.
However, the League provided neither funding nor administrative support to McDonald; numerous appeals to various organizations, both public and private, were rebuffed; and pledges made – including specifically the promise of material funding from Congress, to which FDR had committed himself – went unfulfilled.
On December 30, 1935, McDonald, frustrated by the broad lack of support and empathy for his mission – he was particularly critical of British “procrastination” in not permitting Jewish refugees to enter Eretz Yisrael – resigned his commission. In a public statement evocative of Emile Zola’s “J’Accuse” in the Dreyfus Affair, he submitted a dramatic 3,000-word correspondence accusing Nazi Germany of planning a policy of racial extermination against the Jews and charging the democratic nations with silence and apathy. The printed caption on the verso reads:
James G. McDonald, High Commissioner for Refugees from Germany, whose resignation today was accompanied by a statement of sweeping condemnation of Nazi decrees and regulations against organized religion and non-Aryans. He asserted that little could be done for refugees while existing conditions in Germany prevailed.
The multi-faceted McDonald also served as a member of the New York Times Editorial Staff from 1936-38; as president of FDR’s Committee for Political Refugees; as a Member of the U.S. Delegation at the Evian Conference of 1938; as president of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences from 1938-42; and as an NBC news analyst from 1942-44.
After he retired as ambassador to Israel, he served as chairman of the Advisory Council of the Development Corporation for Israel from 1951-61, continued as a passionate Zionist, and helped sell Israel Bonds until his death. A road in Netanya named for him is home to a famous Orthodox synagogue known locally as – wait for it – “McDonald’s”!
Exhibited here is a September 10, 1946 correspondence written by McDonald to Rabbi Edgar Magnin (1890-1984) who, during his 69-year tenure as Rabbi of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, forged close ties to the motion picture and television industry and was considered “Rabbi to the Stars”:
The State Department has just sent me a few extra copies in booklet form of the Report of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine. If you would like to have your copy of this official text, I should be glad to mail one to you.
The more than four months since our Report was published have increased rather than diminished the widespread approval of most of our recommendations. hence, this document may have more than passing value.
McDonald served as a member of the post-WWII Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine that was tasked with examining the political, economic, and social conditions in Mandatory Palestine with respect to the problem of Jewish immigration and settlement there.
The Report referred to by McDonald, which was published in Lausanne on April 20, 1946, dealt with five subjects: immigration, land, form of government, development, and security. It recommended that Eretz Yisrael be neither a Jewish state nor an Arab state but, at McDonald’s urging, also unanimously recommended the admission of 100,000 displaced Jews and the annulment of the Land Transfer Regulations restricting Jewish purchasing of Arab land set forth by the despicable White Paper of 1939.
British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin attacked the Jews and rejected the Committee Report; the British government continued its hateful White Paper policy of 1939; the British assumed trusteeship over Eretz Yisrael, later referring the problem to the United Nations; and the rest, as they say, is history.
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Eliahu Elath (1903-90), a journalist who championed the Zionist cause, is best known for serving as Israel’s first ambassador to the United States. Shortly after Ben-Gurion declared the new State of Israel on May 16, 1948, Israel submitted Elath’s nomination to President Truman, who quickly approved it, providing an important boost to the new Jewish State’s international standing. Interestingly, it was Elath who accepted McDonald’s assignment to Israel on behalf of the Israeli government.
Born Eliahu Epstein to an engineer in Snovsk, Russia, Elath was educated in Hebrew schools in the Ukraine and at the University of Kiev, where he became a Zionist. After being jailed by the Soviet authorities for seven months for his Zionist activities, he immigrated to Eretz Yisrael in 1924 where he worked as a laborer in several settlements while undertaking special studies of Bedouin culture.
After spending a decade at the University of Beirut studying Middle East cultures, serving in Lebanon as a journalist for Reuters, and working as a correspondent for the Davar and Palestine Post dailies, he commenced work in the foreign relations section of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency (serving from 1934-45), which ultimately evolved into the government of Israel.
As the Agency’s representative in Washington, he formally received the U.S. government recognition of Israel and, with the de facto recognition of Israel, was appointed special representative of the Provisional Council of the Government of Israel, and then as Israel’s first ambassador to Washington from 1948-50.
The fascinating story about how the name “Israel” came to be written on the document signed by Truman recognizing the new Jewish state is broadly known, but few know that the handwriting on that historic document is Elath’s. Elath wanted the United States to be the first nation to recognize the new Jewish state, but no final determination had been made as to whether it would be called “Judea” or “Israel.” Accordingly, the document he sent to Truman asked the President to recognize “the Jewish state” but, shortly before the president signed it, Elath learned that its official name would be “Israel.” He quickly recalled the courier, crossed out “the Jewish state,” and wrote in “Israel.”
Reassigned by the Israeli government to serve as Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1950-59, Elath played a prominent role in the diplomatic moves by Britain, France, and Israel surrounding the 1956 Suez invasion before returning home to Israel to direct the Afro-Asian Institute for Labor Studies from 1959-62, established jointly in Tel Aviv by the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations and the Histadrut, Israel’s labor federation.
He served as president of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem from 1962-68, which awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1990 for his work in trying to improve Jewish-Arab relations.
In this December 31, 1962 correspondence on his Hebrew University letterhead, Elath writes to Lawrence Spivak:
I was glad to meet you at the Bazelons, and I am very sorry that my departure from the U.S. earlier than I planned prevented me from seeing you again.
I hope there will be another opportunity for us to meet each other again, either here or in your country. My wife joins me in conveying to you and Mrs. Spivak our kindest regards.
Spivak (1900-94) was an American publisher and journalist best known as the co-founder, producer, and host of the prestigious public affairs program “Meet the Press,” the longest-running continuous network series in television history. During his 28 years as a panelist on the show, he was known for his pointed questioning of policy makers.