The Anniversary of the Founding of the State of Israel

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | April 17, 2018

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Palestine, Truman Says, is a “Matter of Considerable Disturbance” to be Determined by U.N. Shapell Manuscript Collection.

Though Israel’s statehood was proclaimed on May 14, 1948 – which falls, this year, by the Hebrew calendar, on April 19th – its actual birth, as these things go, naturally took longer. Its imminence, however, was a foregone conclusion when the British, having controlled Palestine since 1920, announced their intention to withdraw from the Mandate on May 15, 1948. Noting, too, that “after 2,000 years of conflict, another twelve months will not be considered a long delay,” they tossed the country’s future to the United Nations to decide in the fall of 1947. This the U.N. did, voting on November 29, 1947- with the U.S. support of a Jewish state being decisive – to partition Palestine into sovereign Jewish and Arab states. Not surprisingly, the very next day, the Arabs in Palestine attacked the Jews. The Jews fought back, and with Arab states swearing to come to the aid of the Palestinian Arabs, a regional war seemed likely. Soon enough, the United States, for one, began to backtrack in its support of the Jewish state. Perhaps it would be possible to delay the birth of a Jewish state, after all…This letter tells that story.

Washington, Feb. 12 – President Truman said today that the Government of the United States was supporting the United Nations’ settlement of the Palestine issue. The President declined to elaborate his assertion when questioned at his press conference, declaring it was as far as he could go. Mr. Truman gave a slightly fuller exposition of his stand in a reply to a letter from Representative Frank Buchanan, Pennsylvania Democrat, which called attention to the conflict in the Holy Land and the deterioration of the partition situation and asked for the President’s views. The reply, made public today by Mr. Buchanan, stated: “Palestine has been a matter of considerable disturbance to me ever since the Japanese surrender and I’ve been endeavoring to get the matter worked out. It’s now in the hands of the United Nations and this Government is backing the United Nations in the settlement they have suggested….” – “Truman Says U.S. Backs Partition”, The New York Times, 13 February 1948, pg. 16

There was fighting in Safed, a car bomb in Jerusalem, and the Arab League was planning to attack the moment, it said, the British withdrew: this, the dreary news coming out of Palestine the first week of February 1948. In the United States, support for the nascent Jewish state was not faring much better. Truman, it seemed, was moving away from his original support for the United Nation’s partition plan; the State Department’s recent embargo of arms to the Jews, despite protests, was proving immovable; and Chaim Weizmann, newly arrived in New York to plead Zion’s cause, couldn’t even get an appointment to see the President.  All this was enough for Congressman Frank Buchanan, representing a Pennsylvania mill town with a noticeable Jewish contingent, to ask the President to clarify his government’s position. Truman’s response, none-too-empathetic, came five days later:

“Palestine has been a matter of considerable disturbance to me ever since the Japanese surrender and I’ve been endeavoring to get the matter worked out. It’s now in the hands of the United Nations and this Government is backing the United Nations in the settlement they have suggested.”

The U.N. Votes For Partition in 1947. Photo: United Nations.

The President would do, then, as little as possible, while his State Department would do all it could, to prevent the establishment of an independent Jewish nation. Not even the horrific Palestinian Arab terrorist attack on Ben Yehuda Street in downtown Jerusalem two weeks later, in which a series of bombings killed 54 people, made a difference in U.S. policy. That epic feat would fall to a Jewish Kansas City haberdasher, Eddie Jacobson, who, calling on a long-held friendship with Truman – they’d been partners in a failed Kansas City men’s apparel store years before — was able to convince the President to meet, finally, with Dr. Weizmann. In a secret March 18th White House meeting, Weizmann was able to convince Truman, finally, to countermand the State Department’s anti-Zionist bias. Yet even as late as May 12th, there was a furious row in the White House with Secretary of State George Marshall – revered as the architect of the famous Marshall Plan in Europe following World War II – over whether to recognize a sovereign Jewish state in Palestine. If Truman went ahead with his support of Israel, Marshall ominously told him, “in the next election, I would vote against you.” Pulled one way, pulled another, Truman wavered back and forth until, at last, with the Jewish state having been proclaimed in Tel Aviv the day before, he came to a decision: he would recognize Israel.

It wouldn’t be until 6:11 p.m. EST on May 14, 1948, though, that the United States’ support for the first Jewish state in nearly two thousand years was a sure thing; and even then, though the U.S. crucially recognized “the provisional government as the de facto authority of the State of Israel,” it did not lift the arms embargo, nor all that summer and fall, drop its advocacy of a policy of mediation and compromise in the United Nations.

So it happened that a Jewish state in the land of Israel, to be known as Israel was born May 14, 1948 in Tel Aviv. It had taken a long time – two millennia – to come into being: sparked at Basel, in 1897, when the Theodore Herzl-led First Zionist Congress swore a goal of a Jewish homeland in Palestine; nurtured, twenty years later, by the Balfour Declaration’s support of a national home for Jewish people in Palestine in 1917; and delivered, 30 years after that, by the United Nations in 1947, when Palestine was partitioned between Arabs and Jews, allowing at last, for the formation of the Jewish state of Israel.

In an eerie turn, the weekly Sabbath Torah portion that was read on November 29th, 1947, the day the U.N. partition plan was announced, echoed with remarkable similarity the major events of the day: in Vayishlach (Genesis 35:10), Jacob, as leader of the Jewish nation, and facing great trials and tribulations, is renamed “Israel.”

HARRY S. TRUMAN. 1884-1972.  The 33rd President of the United States.

Typed Letter Signed, as President, 1 page, quarto, The White House, Washington, February 9, 1948. To Congressman Frank Buchanan.

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