4. Harry Truman
History Belongs to the Victors
History, writes Israeli historian and Oxford University professor Avi Shlaim, is in a sense “the propaganda of the victors,” and because Israel so resoundingly won the 1948 war, which gave it independence and determined for decades thereafter the fate of the Arabs of Palestine, Israel was able to put forth its own version of the war. It was a version that came to constitute a conventional wisdom, its own frame of reference, until the 1980s, when a group of young Israeli historians, including Shlaim, used Israel’s own newly declassified archives to tell a somewhat less idealized story. The original history was written for the most part not by independent professional historians but by official state or military historians, participants in the war, politicians, soldiers, journalists and, Shlaim adds, hagiographers—few of whom, Israel’s new historians contend, even pretended to objectivity. Another of the young historians, Benny Morris, describes the essence of the “old” history: “that the Zionist movement, and the state it engendered, were incomparably just and moral; that the Zionist leaders were wise and humane (though also firm, when necessary); that Zionism throughout had sought an accommodation, based on ‘live and let live,’ give and take, with the native Arab population of Palestine and with the surrounding Arab states; but that the Arab leaders, feudal and obscurantist all, had foiled every effort at compromise, single-mindedly seeking the destruction of the burgeoning Zionist entity.”
Americans and, with them, most U.S. policymakers accepted this version of history because it was easy to do so. Israel as a new, small, and heavily besieged state fighting off the Arab Goliath and building a nation out of barren desert was an image that brought out Americans’ memories of their own heroic revolution and pioneer history. That this nation building was being accomplished by Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust’s horrors
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aroused Americans’ compassion as little else ever had. If this were not enough, the fact that the enemies of this courageous new Jewish nation were Arabs almost automatically put a distinguishing mark on the villains of the piece and, in the end, made it easy to forget what the 1948 war had meant to Palestinians.
By the time Harry Truman came to office after the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945 and certainly by the time he extended U.S. recognition to Israel three years later, Israel’s creation and survival were inevitable, and no amount of State Department opposition, British obstruction, or Arab military force could have prevented it. The Zionists were so determined and skilled, the Arabs so weak and disorganized, and the world community so sympathetic that the Zionists were unstoppable. Also probably inevitable—given an international and a domestic U.S. climate that was weary of war, convinced of the need to preserve the credibility of the United Nations as a guarantor of world peace, and inclined because of Cold War tensions to view individual nationalisms as threatening to the status quo—was the Palestinian Arabs’ disappearance from political calculations. Thus did the Palestinians’ displacement become, as Middle East scholar Malcolm Kerr termed it, a forgotten or an “unrecognizable episode.” To the victor in the first Arab-Israeli war belonged not only the actual spoils of war but, almost as important, the memory and the history of what went before it.
For half a century, Truman has been lionized by supporters of Israel as the man who made the birth of Israel possible, and Truman himself never shunned the accolades or denied their veracity. Tears ran down his cheeks when Israel’s chief rabbi told him during a visit to the White House that God had put Truman in “your mother’s womb so you would be the instrument to bring the rebirth of Israel after two thousand years.” Long after he had left the White House, he again responded with tears when Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion told him in a private meeting that his support for Israel had given him an immortal place in Jewish history.
Historians and biographers differ over how deserving Truman is of these accolades and over what primarily influenced him in his decisions on Palestine. One former Palestine desk officer at the State Department has said that he believed at the time that Truman was motivated primarily by humanitarian concerns for Jewish refugees in Europe after World War II but finally concluded, after a review of documentary evidence three decades later, that domestic political considerations had a much greater impact on Truman.
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At the other end of the spectrum, Truman’s chief White House adviser, Clark Clifford, a strong Zionist supporter, has firmly dismissed any notion that politics ever played a part in either his own views or Truman’s decisions, insisting that Truman acted only out of moral and ethical considerations and in U.S. strategic interests. Others have indicated disappointment that Truman was insufficiently piqued by the “romance” of Israel’s creation or have taken as a sign of an “unsavory prejudice” Truman’s occasional anger and frustration with the more outspoken and insistent of the Zionist activists who made their case to him during the Palestine debate.
Truman’s support for Israel was actually more ambivalent than the accolades he has received would indicate, and his role in its creation was much more complex than simplistic explanations of either a domestic political or a moral motivation would warrant. Truman the statesman remained uncertain throughout the Palestine debate about the impact on U.S. national interests of creating a Jewish state in Palestine and therefore did take heed of the overwhelmingly anti-Zionist advice of every agency and official in the government. But Truman the man was emotionally bound up from the day he took office in the struggle to secure a Jewish haven in Palestine, and Truman the politician, grappling in an election year with a popularity rating in the range of 35 percent, was acutely attuned to the importance of accommodating the powerful Jewish vote. None of these Trumans had much concern for the Arab side of the Palestine debate.
Truman was a true lover of the Bible and knew it intimately. He told one biographer that he had read it at least twice before he started school and, because biblical heroes were real people, much preferred its stories to fairy tales or Mother Goose stories. He felt, he said, that he knew some of the people in the Bible better than he knew many of his contemporaries. Palestine had thus always been particularly intriguing to him, and he had searched out other postbiblical histories of the area. He clearly considered himself something of an expert—not only on Jews and their history but on Arabs, who he said had shown a deplorable lack of enterprise about developing the area. As with his predecessors and so many of his contemporaries who were steeped in the Bible, a Jewish return to Palestine seemed to him to be historically appropriate.
Early in his administration, Truman was moved in his decisions on the Palestine issue primarily by the plight of Europe’s Jews. In June 1945, only two months after he took office, he sent Earl Harrison, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, as a personal emissary to investigate the situation in Europe’s displaced-persons camps and was deeply affected by Harrison’s descriptions of the Jews’misery. Harrison told Truman that most
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Jewish displaced persons wanted to go to Palestine, that in fact from a purely humanitarian standpoint Palestine was the only “decent solution” for them, and he recommended that one hundred thousand be admitted to Palestine. Believing that Jews had suffered “more and longer” than other European refugees, that they alone had no home to return to, and that the United States could not stand by while they were denied the opportunity to rebuild their lives, Truman inserted the United States into the Palestine imbroglio by passing Harrison’s recommendation to the British, who had by this time stopped all Jewish immigration to Palestine.
Truman apparently believed that in so doing he was not delving into political issues, but, despite his self-described expertise, he did not at this stage know the political intricacies of the Palestine situation. In particular, he does not seem to have understood that Jewish immigration was the crux of and inseparable from the political problem. However just the salvation of Jewish refugees was in absolute moral terms, admitting one hundred thousand or, as was often suggested, unlimited numbers to a country whose political fate depended directly on the demographic balance between Jews and Arabs would have prejudged the political outcome by tipping the balance overnight. It says nothing about the rights and wrongs of the Palestine situation to recognize this reality, but Truman was apparently so concentrated on the Jewish refugee situation that he did not see the broader implications.
Truman did not favor establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine in the first year or two of his administration. In these early years he made it clear that he did not like the idea of any state established on racial or religious lines, something he felt was at odds with U.S. pluralism and secularism. He also repeatedly said, in both public and private statements to Jews and non-Jews alike, that he was not willing to send “half a million American soldiers” to defend the Jews in Palestine, which he thought would be necessary if a state were established. But he apparently did not understand that his genuine desire to help the Jews could not possibly be reconciled with his determination to stay out of the politics of it all. Dean Acheson, who would later serve as Truman’s secretary of state but who at this point was undersecretary of state, says he found himself fielding requests from other nations for an explanation of the U.S. position and becoming entangled in “baffling and circular” discussions when he tried to explain. Truman focused exclusively on the immigration issue, others regarded immigration as something that necessarily had to follow rather than precede a decision on Palestine’s fate, and Truman in turn dismissed this ultimate decision as a separate issue.
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Truman was not unaware of the Arab position on Jewish immigration, but it apparently did not arouse his particular concern. Several Arab leaders interceded directly with Truman as soon as he took office and frankly explained the impossibility, from an Arab standpoint, of agreeing to a policy that would guarantee the Arabs of Palestine minority status in their own country. Egyptian Prime Minister Nuqrashi Pasha wrote Truman in mid-1945 asking why the one million Arabs of Palestine should have been forced over the previous quarter century to accept “immigrants of an alien race up to nearly 50 percent of their own number.” (According to British census estimates, the population of Palestine at the end of 1944 stood at 1,179,000 Arabs and 554,000 Jews.) Now, he went on, “the guests at the Arab’s table are declaring that in any case they are going to bring in large numbers of their kinsmen, take over all of his lands, and rule to suit themselves. It is this program of setting up a Jewish State in which the Arabs will be either reduced to the inferior status of a minority or else have to leave their homes that arouses their firm determination to resist at all costs.”
Truman quoted this letter in his own memoirs, written a decade later, but even then did not seem to understand the real Arab concern. Pasha’s letter was one of the first times that an Arab leader had brought before a top-level U.S. official the Arabs’ conviction that, from their standpoint, what was occurring in Palestine was an injustice—that to them nothing, not even the Jews’ suffering in the Holocaust, warranted making the Palestinian Arabs a minority in their own land or endangering their continued presence on the land. In part because the Arabs had not made their case well or cogently or often, but especially because by 1945 the horrific nature of what had happened to the Jews in Europe had captured the world’s compassion, Americans in general did not understand the depth or the true nature of the Arabs’ fear and sense of injustice. The widespread belief was, as it had long been, that the Arabs simply did not like Jews and were being unreasonable in trying to keep them out. Truman was acutely aware of the danger of a violent Arab reaction, but he seemed to share with most Americans an inability to grasp why the Arabs were reacting as they were. The reaction was for him a problem to be gotten around, not something to be addressed or accommodated in any way. In his memoirs, he brushed off Arab concerns with derision; commenting that the Arabs had announced following the United Nations November 1947 decision to partition Palestine that they would defend their rights, he put the word “rights” in quotation marks.
The partition decision, taken when Britain concluded that it could not resolve conflicting Arab and Jewish claims and appealed for UN help, proposed
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to divide Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Arabs of Palestine and most Arab countries regarded partition as unjust for several major reasons: it was imposed by fiat by an outside body without giving the Palestinian Arabs a significant voice in determining sovereignty in their own land; it designated 55 percent of the land area of Palestine for the Jewish state at a time when Jews owned 7 percent and made up one-third of the population; and the substantial Arab population left in the Jewish state would have become a minority population. Truman’s derision of the idea that Arabs had rights in Palestine is an indication that he fundamentally misunderstood the Arab concern. The Arabs were unable to break through his Zionist-centered mind-set. Acheson describes a 1946 meeting between Truman and the Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister, Prince Faysal bin Abdul Aziz, later to become King Faysal, in which it appeared that the two men’s minds “crossed but did not meet.” Neither, Acheson observed, “really grasped the depth of the other’s concern; indeed, each rather believed the other’s was exaggerated.” The meeting ended in platitudes, “which were seized upon as agreement.”
Truman’s frame of reference was so centered on the Zionists that he viewed the issue of self-determination only as a principle that would benefit the Jews—which, of course, put him at cross purposes with the Arabs, who based the logic and the justice of their case on this principle. Truman turned the principle around completely. Taking note in his memoirs of the Arabs’ opposition to Zionism, he said that he regarded the Balfour Declaration’s promise to Jews to “re-establish” a Jewish homeland as a fulfillment of “the noble policies of Woodrow Wilson, especially the principles of self-determination.” By referring to the “re-establishment” of a Jewish homeland from two millennia earlier, Truman was able to ignore or mentally submerge the Arabs’ place in Palestine and, because it was impossible to allow both Jews and Arabs real self-determination, to apply the principle only to Jews. Middle East scholar George Lenczowski has observed that self-determination had generally from Woodrow Wilson’s time been taken to signify the right of subjugated people to gain freedom and determine their own destiny, not the right of another people to rule over an unwilling conquered people. But Truman’s belief that Jews were simply restoring their past enabled him to justify their claim over that of the Arabs.
This is not to say that Truman believed the Palestine problem was a simple one. The domestic and foreign political intricacies and the problems on both sides of the issue bedeviled Truman throughout the entire three years before the Israeli state was created, and the choices were so difficult that, despite what some of his biographers have written and despite the fact
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that his sympathies lay with the Zionists from the beginning, he never took a definite stand on any aspect of the issue except when the outcome was already inevitable. His support for the 1947 UN partition resolution came only when partition clearly appeared to be the only viable solution. In May 1948, his decision to extend immediate diplomatic recognition when Israel announced its independence came only when Jewish statehood clearly was inevitable and would be declared no matter what the United States did.
The Palestine problem posed moral, political, and strategic dilemmas for Truman. The moral dilemma involved a clash between two just causes: the Jewish claim to a homeland and a refuge from persecution versus the Palestinian Arabs’ claim to continued majority status and real self-determination in their own land. Truman did not struggle with this dilemma because he had believed from the beginning that justice was on the side of the Jews. He was, however, torn by the political and strategic dilemmas. Politically, his choice was either to opt for Jewish statehood, and possibly provoke Arab military action, or to endanger his political future by not helping the Zionists; he was facing a critical election battle with low poll ratings and was opposing a Republican candidate who openly courted the Jewish vote by vowing to open Palestine to unlimited Jewish immigration. The Palestine problem posed a nearly insoluble strategic dilemma as well, involving multiple dangers: that U.S. support for partition could give the Soviet Union, newly emerging as the Cold War rival of the United States, an entree in the Middle East; that failure to oppose partition as the Arabs desired would put at risk U.S. commercial interests in the Middle East, U.S. and European access to Arab oil, and, without oil, the Marshall Plan for the postwar rehabilitation of Europe; or, conversely, that failure to support and follow through on the UN partition decision would undermine UN influence and credibility at a critical early stage in its existence.
The conflicting pressures on Truman and the stark reality that no option was without serious risks, either to the United States or to Truman himself, deeply frustrated him. His indecisiveness throughout much of the Palestine debate stemmed from the fact that he took most of the pressures on him to heart—the Zionists’ pleas and the pro-Zionist advice of his closest advisers, as well as the opposing concerns of the State Department and other government agencies and the Arabs’ threats of violence.
Because he had not been elected in his own right but had succeeded after Roosevelt’s death and also because he was conscious of coming from “the people” rather than from the moneyed patrician class like most of his predecessors, Truman had some political insecurities that also affected his decision making. He hated being told what to do, hated even more being
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lectured to, bristled at the thought that anyone was infringing on his prerogatives as president, and deeply feared not being taken seriously. This insecurity affected his relations with State Department bureaucrats as well as with Zionists.
Truman’s legendary battle with the State Department did not, as is commonly believed, arise primarily because State opposed establishment of a Jewish state but because diplomats, generally members of the patrician eastern establishment, tended to patronize the Missouri haberdasher Truman and, at least initially, to treat him like a country bumpkin. Truman himself derisively labeled them “striped pants boys” and years later still harbored deep resentment. In the 1960s he recounted for an oral historian what he told a U.S. Zionist leader with whom he met only days after he succeeded to office in 1945. When the Zionist expressed concern that the State Department would thwart Zionist plans, “I told him I knew all about experts,” Truman recalled. “I said that an expert was a fella who was afraid to learn anything new because then he wouldn’t be an expert anymore. And I said that some of the experts, the career fellas in the State Department, thought that they ought to make policy but that as long as I was president, I’d see to it that I made policy.” Truman did take the State Department’s concerns about creating a Jewish state seriously, particularly during the period when the highly respected World War II hero George Marshall, a strong opponent of Zionist plans, served as secretary of state from 1947 to 1949, but the condescending manner of Marshall’s sometimes imperious subordinates clearly rankled.
Truman had his limits on being pressed by Zionists too. Along with constant expressions of concern for the Jewish refugees in Europe, his correspondence is replete with irritated remarks, some bordering on the anti-Semitic, about Zionist pressures and the supposed arrogance of underdogs who achieve power. Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, the outspoken leader of the American Zionist Emergency Council, so enraged Truman because he had the temerity at a meeting in mid-1946 to shout at the president and pound on his desk that Truman banned him from the White House and for some time refused to see any other Zionist leader. But in the end Truman’s own pro-Jewish sympathies and, eventually, the inevitability of the Jewish state’s establishment combined to overcome his anger with the Zionist activists and to make him into at least a de facto Zionist.
Truman’s association with long-time business partner and friend Eddie Jacobson, a devout Jew with whom the president had run a haberdashery in Kansas City before entering politics, had a strong impact on him, as did, to a much more profound extent, his own closest White House aides, who were
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all strongly pro-Zionist. Throughout much of the Palestine debate, Jacobson, who was not a Zionist but did view Zionism as a vehicle to save Europe’s Jews, was reluctant to presume on his friendship and his ready access to the White House and played a low-key role. But at a critical time in early 1948, when Truman was telling everyone that the problem was “not solvable as presently set up,” Jacobson used his friendship to persuade Truman to end the embargo on visits by Zionists and receive Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann; during the meeting with Weizmann Truman committed himself to supporting partition and Jewish statehood. Truman himself credited Jacobson with making a contribution of “decisive importance.”
Truman’s advisers had an even stronger impact on his thinking and his decisions. Together, the three main advisers on this issue did more than any other group to shape Truman’s viewpoint on the Palestine issue and mold the frame of reference from which he approached the problem. These men were Clark Clifford, a Missouri lawyer who served as a key domestic adviser; David Niles, a holdover from the Roosevelt administration who was Truman’s adviser for minority affairs; and Max Lowenthal, who had played a major role in Truman’s selection as Roosevelt’s vice-presidential running mate in 1944 and who served during the Palestine debate as Clifford’s legal adviser on Palestine. These men were so supportive of Zionism that their advice enabled Truman to believe, as he did with utter sincerity, that in making the decisions he did on Palestine he was not bowing to electoral pressure but was doing the right thing. Although non-Jewish, Clifford was a strong proponent of Zionism, perhaps at the instigation and under the influence of Niles and Lowenthal, who were firm Zionists, so emotional about the cause that Truman once said he found it disconcerting that they burst into tears whenever he tried to talk to either of them about Palestine. All three of these men had easy access to Truman even during those periods when he had banned other Zionist spokesmen from the White House.
It is clear from many of the memoranda the trio of advisers sent Truman that they fed him a steady diet of material designed to influence his emotions and his personal perceptions of Arabs and Jews, thereby building a mind-set. In early March 1948, the United States was in the midst of an internal debate over whether to continue support for the partition of Palestine despite the risk of provoking violent conflict or, as the State Department was suggesting, to opt for a UN trusteeship, which would have postponed a hard decision on the fate of Palestine. Truman himself was genuinely undecided and torn by the strategic implications of the two options. Clifford sent him a lengthy memorandum recommending support for partition.
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The memo was written in detached tones until Clifford’s heated conclusion. In language that demeaned the Arabs and indirectly challenged Truman’s strength of purpose, he wrote that, by its uncertainty over partition, the United States “appears in the ridiculous role of trembling before threats of a few nomadic desert tribes. This has done us irreparable damage. Why should Russia or Yugoslavia, or any other nation treat us with anything but contempt in light of our shilly-shallying appeasement of the Arabs.”
Niles wrote Truman a memorandum shortly after he assumed office that attempted to plant the idea that there was strife between Christian Arabs and Muslim Arabs in Palestine—not generally true in fact—and that Christians would have nothing to fear from Jews. It was “obvious,” he said, that Christians, particularly Catholics, “have more to fear from the Moslems than from any other competitive religious groups,” whereas Jews had always gotten along well with all Middle Eastern Christians. The memos and correspondence of these aides are full of similar examples of attempts to shape Truman’s thinking by building on stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims as fanatical and backward or as not so dedicated to their beliefs that they could not be bought.
Niles and Lowenthal had extensive contacts in Zionist organizations and were conduits for information going both into and out of the White House. Their presence virtually guaranteed that the Arab viewpoint rarely found its way into the White House or that, if it did, it would be undermined or countered by Zionist arguments. Niles is believed to have passed on to the Zionists most of the memoranda the State Department sent to Truman opposing partition and was rated by his principal State Department opponent, Loy Henderson, director of the Office of Near Eastern and African Affairs, as “the most powerful and diligent advocate of the Zionist cause,” chiefly responsible for getting the partition vote through the UN. Niles was close enough to Truman that, during an early 1948 meeting in the Oval Office, he could without endangering his job threaten emotionally to resign unless Truman acted more emphatically in support of the Jewish cause, and he was bold enough to advise Truman against the pending appointment to the U.S. UN delegation of people he deemed “unsympathetic to the Jewish viewpoint” who might engender “much resentment.”
Niles also served as a principal entree to the White House for the Zionists. There is good evidence that the Jewish Agency considered him a friend in the White House whom they could use to urge Truman to make pro-Zionist public statements, and he was a key member of or contact for several self-appointed “brain trusts”—some specifically pro-Zionist, others
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that included Zionist members but were designed primarily to give advice on economic or social issues—that met regularly to advise the president and used a network of contacts to exert pressure on the White House. Composed of highly influential business leaders, government officials, and Democratic Party officials, these informal but powerful groups gave political advice and substantive recommendations on key issues. Niles was a member of some of the groups, coordinating strategy with them, and a frequent contact for others, with whom he exchanged documents.
One of these Zionist “brain trusts” grew out of a group that had been meeting informally, often with Niles, since 1942. During a February 1948 dinner at the home of a prominent Washington attorney, two leading officials of the Jewish Agency in Palestine met with the group to discuss how to penetrate the policymaking establishment and how best to neutralize opposition to the Zionist program coming from the State Department and elsewhere in the government. A two-track approach was decided on, to be pursued through a network of contacts and influential friends, who would in turn approach others, and so on until the word had spread through both Washington society and official Washington. On one track, aconcerted effort would be made to counter the opposition to Zionism by enlisting prominent individuals to press the line at high levels of the government that the Zionist cause was compatible with U.S. national interests. Another, blunter effort would be made to impress on both Democratic and Republican party leaders the electoral danger of not supporting the partition of Palestine. The likelihood that the Arab point of view could ever penetrate this thick screen of Zionist sympathizers was virtually nil.
Lowenthal served as Clifford’s legal adviser on Palestine in 1947 and 1948 but was not a formal White House adviser and did not have an office there. His role in both educating Clifford and shaping Truman’s views was no less critical for being anonymous. He regularly visited Zionist offices in Washington to obtain analysis and advice and, in addition to sending memoranda to the president, was able to press his views on Truman via numerous informal, off-the-record oral briefings. His carefully argued memos went directly to Truman in some cases, and he is also believed to have written all or many of the memos Clifford sent to the president. Truman was indebted to Lowenthal for several political favors and clearly respected him highly; their discussions would most likely have been friendly and informal and very political. Truman later credited Lowenthal with instructing him during the debate over recognizing Israel.
Whether Clifford learned his Zionism from Lowenthal and Niles or came to the White House already a convinced Zionist, he was a strong and unwavering
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advocate and exerted an influence on Truman of inestimable importance. He had a private, informal, and always off-the-record meeting with Truman at the end of every day and also communicated more formally by means of written memoranda. Like Niles and Lowenthal, he became so much involved in the Zionist struggle, particularly during the critical points before the UN voted for partition and before the United States recognized the new state of Israel, that often he acted as much like a Zionist political activist as like a presidential adviser. In November 1947, for instance, during the closing debate at the UN on partition, when the delegate of the Philippines indicated that his government would oppose partition, Clifford visited the Philippine ambassador in Washington, apparently without Truman’s knowledge, and told him that such a vote would endanger U.S. relations with the Philippines. Under this and other pressures from U.S. congressmen and various key U.S. Zionist leaders, the Philippines voted for partition.
Clifford himself recounts in his memoirs a revealing example of his deep involvement with the Zionists during the debate over whether to extend diplomatic recognition when Israel declared its establishment. This step was intensely debated within the government. The argument came to a head during a heated but indecisive meeting in Truman’s office in which Clifford strongly argued the case for recognition against Secretary of State Marshall, who was so deeply opposed that he threatened to Truman’s face not to vote for the president in the next election if he opted for recognition. Following the meeting, Clifford decided on his own to force the issue by asking the Jewish Agency representative in Washington, Eliahu Epstein, to send Truman a formal request for U.S. recognition of the new Jewish state a few hours before the anticipated announcement of its creation. Clifford unabashedly states in his memoirs that Epstein “did not realize that the President had still not decided how to respond to the request I had just solicited,” and when it turned out that no one at the Jewish Agency knew how to word the request, Clifford helped write it. When the request arrived at the White House, Clifford and Niles wrote the official U.S. reply, also before Truman had made a final decision. The uniqueness of the U.S.-Israeli relationship from this point forward is aptly captured in this unprecedented involvement of a high-ranking U.S. official on both sides of an exchange of diplomatic correspondence.
However angry President Truman may periodically have been over the pressures exerted by some Zionist activists during the Palestine debate,
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U.S. Zionist organizations undeniably played a critical and decisive part between 1945 and 1948 in creating a body of opinion in the United States, a frame of reference—among the public, in the press, in Congress, and at the White House—that assumed the rightness of the Zionist program in Palestine and ignored the reasons for Arab opposition. Effective though it had been at other points in the past, the pro-Zionist lobby truly “came into its own” during the Truman presidency. It “set a tone for public discussion,” as one historian has noted.
By 1948, membership in the various U.S. Zionist organizations had grown to just under one million—from about 150,000 in the middle of World War II. These members, making up about one-fifth of the entire Jewish population of the United States at the time, were not passive but were letter-writing, lobbying, money-contributing activists who blanketed the country. From revenues in 1941 of $14 million, the United Jewish Appeal increased its monies raised in 1947 and 1948 to an annual total of $150 million, virtually all contributed by U.S. Jews; this total was four times more than the entire nation contributed to the American Red Cross. In 1945, at Zionist urging, thirty-three state legislatures, representing 85 percent of the U.S. population, passed resolutions favoring establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Before Truman left for a meeting with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin in Potsdam in July 1945, thirty-seven governors sent him a cable, generated by the Zionists, urging that he demand that Britain lift the limits on Jewish immigration to Palestine. Over half the Congress also signed a message to this effect, which was given to Truman before he departed.
Activists from AZEC left few stones unturned in their effort to obtain support, approaching national and local politicians—down to mayors and town council members—as well as newspaper editors and radio broadcasters, business leaders, labor leaders, movie stars, and writers. In addition to the obvious targets, AZEC tried the innovative. In May 1947, it sponsored an “Action for Palestine” week in which its local chapters urged radio stations to run public-service announcements suggesting that the UN debate then beginning on Palestine would decide the fate of the Jewish people and that every American “with a sense of fair play” should “side with justice” and support partition by writing to President Truman. Radio stations in over forty cities ran the spots, as did newspapers in thirty-one other cities. Mass meetings were held in almost sixty cities. The mobilizing effort clearly paid off. During the second half of 1947, the White House received 135,000 telegrams, postcards, letters, and petitions on the Palestine issue.
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The Arabs could not hope to match the reach or the organizational skill of the Zionists’ grass-roots effort. The Arab American population was quite small—under half a million, against the Jews’ five million in the United States—and it tended to be not well educated and not economically well off. Coming from diverse areas of the Arab world, Arab Americans generally lacked a sense of community unity; they were notably apolitical and, in an effort to blend into U.S. society, had always been at pains to remain so. The impending partition of Palestine clearly did not galvanize the small Arab American community as the catastrophe of the Holocaust galvanized U.S. Jews.
The Zionists were most effective when they appealed to Americans’ humanitarian impulses. Americans had been horrified by revelations about the Holocaust. News of the atrocities suffered by the Jews had blanketed the United States in the aftermath of the war, and Americans, including the press, were “hooked on the story,” in the words of two Israeli journalists. General Dwight Eisenhower had urged that a film entitled Nazi Atrocities be shown in theaters throughout the nation. According to a scholar who researched the impact of World War II films on U.S. culture, audiences responded to the footage with “appalled solemnity.” Some “gasped, a few hissed obscenities at the Germans, but most sat in shocked silence.”
Perhaps the Zionists’ single most effective spokesman, Abba Eban, who came to the United States in 1947 as a member of the Zionist delegation to the UN and later served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States and Israeli foreign minister, recalls that one of his first official functions—as a member of the Jewish Agency Information Department in London in 1946—was to employ his charm with a number of influential Britons. “Zionism had its own rationality,” he observes, “but it was unlikely to be embraced by anyone who lacked a historic imagination and at least a modest ounce of romantic eccentricity.” It was precisely the Zionists’ recognition that passion and romance and an appeal to one’s better instincts played far better than angry threats that made their effort so successful. In 1947, Eban was reassigned to the United States to inject some of his rhetoric and passion into the debate here. The Jewish Agency had asked a group of lawyers to prepare a brief for the Zionist case. The result was “scholarly, precise, and authoritative,” Eban remembers, but it lacked any “tang,” dealing with Palestine as a “problem” rather than a physical reality and with Zionism as a learned argument rather than a human drama. So Eban was brought in to add zest to the staid legal brief.
Zionist propagandists also made skillful use of the fact of the Jews’ national homelessness. I. L. Kenen, later to become the first formal pro-Israeli
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lobbyist in the United States, has recounted how the Zionists played up the fact that they had no official status at the UN at the very time that body was debating the future of Palestine. At his suggestion, all Zionist representatives decided not to attend a special UN session on Palestine in 1947, so when the press gathered to photograph the expected arrival of several Jewish leaders, Kenen himself, an American, drove up alone in a limousine and drew wide international attention to the fact that the Zionists had been denied official status. “Every such episode,” Kenen believed, “bolstered our appeal for status.”
Zionists also scored a major propaganda success in 1947 when the Palestinian Jewish underground sailed to Palestine an old renamed cargo ship, the Exodus 1947, filled with forty-five hundred European Jewish refugees in order to dramatize Britain’s immigration restrictions in Palestine. The British captured the ship and returned it and its desperate cargo to Europe, thus focusing attention on Britain’s heartlessness and the Jews’ homelessness and creating powerful pressures for finding a resolution to the problem of Palestine. The UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), which had been established to examine the Palestine situation and recommend a solution after Britain turned the problem over to the UN, was in Palestine at the time the ship arrived in July 1947 and was able to meet with a correspondent aboard the ship. The incident apparently persuaded most committee members that resolving the fate of Europe’s Jews had to be given priority over resolving Palestine’s demographic realities. A majority of the committee, made up of representatives of eleven nations, eventually did recommend partition into sovereign Jewish and Arab states.
A prominent newspaper editor captured the essential romance of the Zionists’ story in a letter to a friend following the partition decision. Boston Herald editor Frank Buxton had served on the Anglo-American Committee, established by Britain and the United States in early 1946 to probe Jewish and Arab positions and investigate the situation in Palestine. (The committee ended by satisfying no one. After several months of hearings and visits to Palestine, it waffled on the area’s political disposition, concluding that neither an Arab nor a Jewish state should be established, and recommended that Britain immediately lift restrictions on Jewish immigration.) Writing in late 1947, Buxton waxed eloquent on the Zionist program. “How thrilling the Palestine or Israel news is!” he wrote. “Regardless of the relative merits of the Jewish and Arab claims, here’s something portentious [sic] and exhilarating—’ manifest destiny,’ ‘the in evitability of history,’ a conflict between the traditional East and the progressive West, a token of the possibilities of the United Nations.”
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Another, British member of the Anglo-American Committee had described the Zionist appeal to Americans in somewhat more cynical terms. Noting Zionism’s similarity to the pioneering spirit that developed the U.S. West, Richard Crossman, a Labor Member of Parliament who was pro-Zionist, predicted that Americans would “give the Jewish settler in Palestine the benefit of the doubt, and regard the Arab as the aboriginal who must go down before the march of progress.”
The sense of inevitability expressed in these two observations is key to an understanding of how easily a mind-set that excluded Arab concerns was shaped. The Zionist story was so romantic and so exciting that to most people it simply seemed right. The establishment of Zionism in Palestine fit with Western concepts of progress and modernity and the march of history and therefore should happen. “Regardless of the relative merits of the Jewish and Arab claims,” as Buxton said—regardless of any question of justice—the Arabs, symbol in the West of antimodernity and the retreat of history, would inevitably be eclipsed.
In the then-universal frame of reference, the Arabs had essentially lost control of their situation. By late 1947, probably no course but compromise—that is, agreement to the partition of Palestine—could have guaranteed the Arabs a means of safeguarding even a minimal presence in and control over Palestine. They did not help themselves by refusing to compromise their political position and failing to launch any public campaign to put their case forward to the U.S. public. Nonetheless, even with a conciliatory position and a skillful public-relations campaign, the most the Palestinians could have hoped to achieve was the half of Palestine allotted them by the partition decision. What was politically possible in the atmosphere prevailing at this point no longer had any relation to what the Arabs believed was just or logical.
The Arabs’ failure to recognize this reality helped seal their fate, assuring that they were completely closed out of the policymaking frame of reference. Even the State Department grew impatient with what was regarded as Arab intransigence. Arabs who gave testimony before the Anglo-American Committee, reiterating their absolute refusal to permit the immigration of any additional Jews to Palestine, including the elderly and infirm, were regarded by State Department diplomats as rigid and unimaginative in the face of what virtually all Americans saw as the Jews’ great humanitarian need.
Perhaps the Arabs’ most serious misstep came in 1947 when the special eleven-nation UN committee UNSCOP was constituted to look into the Palestine problem. The Arab Higher Committee, the organization led by
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the exiled Mufti of Jerusalem that functioned as the Palestinians’ government, boycotted UNSCOP in the conviction that neither the UN nor any outside body had the authority to decide the fate of their land. The Palestinian boycott worked to Zionist advantage by making the Zionists appear reasonable and willing to compromise, while the Arab demand for complete control over all of Palestine appeared, in the circumstances, unreasonable and inflexible. It was a no-win situation for the Arabs, whose only choices, since they did not in fact control the fate of their land, were either to cooperate in the division of their homeland or to refuse cooperation and appear intransigent.
The Jews, in the observation of one U.S. Zionist, were “not presenting a claim as much as they were exhibiting a conclusion,” for even in 1947 there was already, for all practical purposes, a Jewish state in Palestine—not legal or yet formally recognized but in existence. This further indication that the eventual creation of a Jewish state was assumed by all concerned and that its creation had become so much a part of the conventional wisdom that only the formalities of state creation remained made the Palestinian Arabs’ opposition appear simply as obstructionism and not as an effort to preserve their homeland intact. The UNSCOP members had not approached the problem with a strongly pro-Zionist mind-set, but their chief interest was in finding a workable, not an absolutely just, solution, and the contrasting Jewish and Arab presentations strikingly demonstrated which approach was more workable. When UNSCOP recommended partition, the Arabs rejected it and, again in the belief that the UN had no authority over Palestine, rejected as well the minority UNSCOP recommendation for establishment of a federated state with two autonomous regions. Four months later, in November 1947, the Arabs rejected the UN General Assembly’s vote to partition.
The decision to partition Palestine was a foregone conclusion long before it was formally voted for. It had already for so long been a part of the conventional wisdom that Jews should and would find a home in Palestine—a home it was believed they desperately needed in the wake of the Holocaust—that the question on all minds except the Palestinians’ was how—no longer whether—they could do so. The Arabs, for so long politically invisible, now became a nuisance, an obstacle standing in the way of everyone—of a British government frustrated by the Palestine problem and concerned primarily to guarantee an easy exit, of a world eager to resolve the humanitarian problem of the European Jewish refugees, of a newly formed UN concerned to demonstrate that it could save the world from future wars by resolving international disputes, and of a United States
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eager to keep looming Cold War tensions to a minimum, to demonstrate the credibility of the UN, and to accommodate the heartfelt wishes of a politically powerful segment of the population. In these circumstances, Arab objections were not only troublesome but self-defeating, for the all-or-nothing nature of their demands, far from demonstrating that they were the victims of an injustice, as they believed, gave the impression around the world that they were the victimizers.
The romance of the Zionists’ story would undoubtedly have captured the attention of the U.S. press without the impetus of a skilled Zionist information program. One analysis of the New York Times in the fifty days following the UN vote on November 29, 1947, to partition Palestine gives a striking indication of how central this story had become in U.S. thinking and would remain for the next year. The day after the UN vote, the Times ran eighteen separate stories on the issue. In the following seven weeks, a total of 360 articles appeared—a remarkably high average, over this fairly extended period, of more than seven articles every day.
Both the Zionists and the Truman administration, including the State Department to some extent, actively courted the press, particularly the New York Times, seeing it as a principal instrument for shaping public opinion on the Palestine question. But the street was two-way, for the Times management saw its role in guiding public opinion as giving it a part, to some degree, in policymaking, and it valued the access and the intimate contact Truman and high government officials permitted with top levels of the policymaking establishment. Truman was an inveterate newspaper reader and had particular regard for the New York Times, which he viewed as the best source for learning the public mood and the principal channel for getting his message out to “elite opinion.” Contact between the Times and the White House was quite close, and various Times executives have maintained that Truman and other high-level officials sought advice from them on some policy questions.
On the Palestine issue, the press was to a great extent the battleground on which competing factions in the administration fought their struggle. This was particularly true in March 1948, when the State Department was advocating that the United States abandon its backing for partition and support instead the imposition of a UN trusteeship over Palestine. State believed that the impending end of the British Mandate and the imposition of partition two months hence in May 1948 would lead to violent conflict between Arabs and Jews in Palestine, endangering U.S. commercial and oil interests
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in the Middle East and enhancing the Soviet Union’s role in the area. The trusteeship proposal was intended to postpone making a hard decision. Truman initially entertained the State Department proposal, but, under pressure from his aides and persuaded by Weizmann during a secret White House meeting, he rejected it and without informing the State Department promised the Zionist leader continued support for partition. This decision was made just as the State Department, without itself informing Truman, proceeded to announce U.S. support for trusteeship in a public speech to the UN. The ensuing confusion opened Truman to severe criticism. Press attacks on him for supporting trusteeship were fed by officials within his administration, and Truman aides Clifford, Niles, and others are reported to have encouraged press reports and a letter-writing campaign attacking the State Department.
Journalist Bruce Evensen, who has studied media treatment of the Palestine question in the 1947–48 period, believes that initially media editors and commentators did not strongly favor any particular course of action in the partition debate. Editors tended to regard Palestine as an arena of competition between the United States and the Soviet Union and, in the belief that partition would lead to instability and give the Soviets an advantage, were at least somewhat receptive to the State Department’s antipartition arguments. When the UN voted for partition, however, this step was regarded as an expression of world public opinion that should be supported because the survival of the UN was so vital.
The New York Times led the way in changing its viewpoint. Although it had always opposed the idea of establishing a state based on a religious faith, when in mid-1947 the credibility of a UN committee, UNSCOP, was coupled with a recommendation for partition, the Times announced that it was now ready to accept “any favorable UN decision” and even to “work for the success of it.” The Times viewed its task as an activist one, to build public opinion in favor of the UN’s decision, and its veteran Washington correspondent, Arthur Krock, concluded that “the world having conceded thesoundness” of establishing a Jewish homeland, “the good faith of Washington would be enlisted in making that homeland a reality.” This theme was taken up by other media. The liberal opinion weekly the New Republic considered that the UN’s decision placed an obligation on the United States and the media. A May 1948 editorial stated unequivocally that because the UN was “our one source of world law and our one hope for world peace,” its decision on partition had to be followed. “Whether it was wise or unwise, just or unjust, was from that moment on irrelevant,” the editorial said. “That decision is today a part of the world law that governs all of us.”
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Having become an advocate for partition, the press was harshly critical of Truman after the trusteeship debacle for seeming to lose control over U.S. policy. In fact, Truman appears to have misjudged the strength of public and media opinion in favor of partition, and from this point on until partition took effect with Israel’s creation in May 1948 he was more often the controlled than the controlling party in the interaction between press and policymakers. The press, not only reflecting public and Zionist opinion but also actively guiding public opinion, helped to focus public indignation on the president and created a political climate in which opposition to partition became all but impossible.
The interaction between the press and the Zionists, the press and policymakers, the press and the public in this period is in fact an interesting study in the interplay at work in the creation of a conventional wisdom. For instance, Evensen notes that the surge of public and press support for partition in March 1948 in the wake of the trusteeship debacle strengthened Zionist resolve to continue insisting on nothing less than partition, while the Zionists’ determination worked in turn to strengthen the media’s belief that a Jewish state would come into existence when the British Mandate ended, no matter what Truman or the State Department did. In fact, the State Department solicited the views of several Middle East correspondents after the trusteeship proposal backfired and discovered that all believed the Zionists could not be prevented from establishing a state. The power to define policy alternatives on any issue is obviously not confined to policymakers but is a process in which the media and the public also participate, and in the Palestine situation the media played a key role in shaping the new conventional wisdom by serving as the place in which “definitions of what was happening in Palestine”—definitions conjured up by Zionist groups, by pro-and anti-Zionists within the administration, by the public—were formulated and debated. Because it had the power to portray and interpret, to define what it saw, the media helped reshape the events it was covering.
From the moment partition was voted for at the UN, the press played a critical role in building a framework for thinking that would endure for decades. Beginning a trend of heavy coverage of Israel that was to continue into the 1990s, a total of twenty-four U.S., British, and Australian reporters converged on Palestine shortly before the scheduled end of the British Mandate on May 15, 1948, to cover the intercommunal strife that had been going on for months between Jews and Palestinian Arabs, as well as the anticipated attack on Palestine by neighboring Arab states when the British withdrew.
Virtually all reporting was from the Jewish perspective. The journals
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the Nation and the New Republic both showed what one scholar calls “an overt emotional partiality” toward the Jews. No item published in either journal was sympathetic to the Arabs, and no correspondent was stationed in Arab areas of Palestine, although some reporters lived with, and sometimes fought alongside, Jewish settlers. Most articles used value-laden words and phrases to describe Arabs and Jews—words like “feudal,” “violent,” “fanatics,” and “murderous” for the Arabs; words like “American-like,” “heroes,” “clean,” “courageous,” and “peaceloving” for the Israelis.
The press knew early in the fighting, well before the Mandate ended and the Arab states attacked, which side would be the winner, and this belief determined to a great extent the perspective from which the media reported. Kept abreast of the military situation by Zionist leaders, the press assumed before the fact that Jewish statehood was a fait accompli. The Zionists were confident of victory from the beginning and put the word about widely that they expected to win. As early as February, three months before the British Mandate was to end, the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem reported to Washington that Jewish officials were telling him they had no doubts about their ability to establish a state and adequately defend the coastal strip between Tel Aviv and Haifa. They expected more trouble securing other areas and were extremely worried about the fate of the Jewish population of Jerusalem, but, the consul noted, they believed that the fate of the future Jewish state was tied to the fate of the UN and that the world community would not let either one “go under.”
Despite later attempts to portray the Jewish forces as outnumbered and outgunned throughout the 1948 fighting and as having won by a nearmiraculous show of grit, in fact the Jewish/Israeli forces generally had the upper hand in the fighting from the time they secured key lines of communication in Palestine in early April. The Arab armies that invaded Palestine in May had an initial advantage in equipment, but that advantage did not last beyond the first week in June, and Jewish/Israeli forces outnumbered the combined Arab forces at every stage of the fighting. In May 1948, the Haganah had 35,780 troops mobilized—63,000 by July—while the combined strength of the regular Arab armies in Palestine was about 30,000 and never equaled the Israeli totals. Israel also demonstrated superior organization and command and control throughout.
The fact that the press generally knew from the start that Israeli forces would win, that the Palestinian Arabs had nothing but some small guerrilla units, and that the Arab armies were small and disorganized hastened the disappearance of the Arabs of Palestine from consideration as serious actors in the Palestine drama. Israel’s victory was the culminating point of a psychological
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process in which virtually all media reporting ignored the Palestinians while defining Israel as a gallant young state under constant siege from violent neighbors—a nation much like the United States in its pioneering history and its Western democratic spirit. It was in this period, during and just after Israel’s creation, that an Israel-centered mind-set became so embedded in U.S. thinking that Israel became for all intents and purposes a part of the “being” of the United States.
Public opinion polls had for some time reflected the Palestinians’ disappearance from consideration, even in the way poll questions were posed. In December 1944, for instance, one polling organization asked, “Do you think the Jews should be given a special chance to settle in Palestine after the war, or do you think all people should have the same chance to settle there?” No mention was made of the Arabs who already lived and constituted a majority in Palestine. Neutral questions generally elicited answers focused on the Zionists. In 1947, for instance, to the question “Can you tell me which groups of people have been having trouble in Palestine recently?” almost twice as many people (82 versus 45 percent) answered “Jews” or “Zionists” as answered “Arabs” or “Mohammedans.” In reports on public opinion polls covering the years of the Palestine debate, readers could find no references to “Palestine” or “Arabs in Palestine” in the index but were referred to “Jews: Colonization.” By the time of their exodus from Palestine, one scholar has noted, the Palestinians did “not register at all on the consciousness of Americans.”
After the 1948 war, newspapers led the way in articulating a picture of the new Palestine minus its Arabs. Leading papers featured long articles on Israel’s accomplishments in state building, touting its triumph over adversity and headlining its dreams. Under a headline noting “There Is No Present Tense in Israel,” for instance, one typical New York Times Magazine article in February 1949 described Israelis who were “in a hurry, … impatient of desert and its languor and determined to abolish them”; settlers who were “bold, self-conscious, high-spirited”; a “new and intense” kind of nationalism, “inspired not by love of, but lack of, nationhood”; Israelis fighting for survival “with our backs to the wall because for us there is no place of retreat.” Correspondent Anne O’Hare McCormick invited readers to be intrigued by pointing out that Israel “contains the seeds of a great experiment” and thus “stirs the imagination and emotion of the world far more than bigger issues.” Israel’s struggle, the article concluded, was the “desperate effort of a long-suffering people to create security in a hostile environment and to build a home in an inhospitable world.”
The McCormick article was part of an intensive effort by the New York
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Times to cover the young Israeli state. The Times ran at least two multipart series on Israel in 1949. The first included ten articles by McCormick, the second was a four-part series in the Times Magazine by correspondent Gertrude Samuels. This series was notable for creating a positive stereotype of the Israelis that U.S. novelists would pick up and perpetuate for years. In one article, Samuels described native-born Israelis, called sabras, as “bronzed, blue-eyed, tough and blond, who look for the most part like Scandinavian or ‘Aryan’ types.” In a second article, she referred to sabras as being, “for the most part, tall, handsome, husky and fearless young people, their blue eyes and blond or light brown hair conditioned perhaps by the climate of the sub-tropics.”
In one example of reporting from an Israeli perspective, the Times ran a two-page picture spread in its Magazine that showed a large panorama of Jerusalem. The caption noted that “the Old City, site of the Holy Places of three faiths and whose Jewish Quarter was destroyed in the 1948 fighting, is in Arab hands.” The “New City,” the caption pointed out, “is 95 per cent Jewish controlled.” The factual and apparently neutral wording omitted information that would have taken in the Palestinian perspective as well—primarily the fact that several Palestinian Arab neighborhoods in what became the Jewish-controlled New City were also destroyed in the 1948 fighting, as were Arab towns outside Jerusalem whose land Israel later incorporated into the city.
Added to press stories about the “unbelievable courage and persistence” of the Israelis, the “superhuman effort” going into building Israel, the Israeli “miracle” of turning a “once-derelict land into an oasis,” and the “romantic little state of Israel, created on the basis of determination and a dream,” several books were published in the first few years after Israel’s establishment that touted its accomplishments in glowing terms. One of these, written by the first U.S. ambassador to Israel, James McDonald, and published in 1951, is typical. Noting in the preface that so much about Israel’s first few years was already well known, McDonald promises to refrain from “retelling the stories of Israel’s heroic defense, its improvisation of Army, Navy, and Air Force, the miracles of transforming deserts into orchards, the spectacular change of the physical face of the land. … Only the highest literary artistry could advantageously weave new variations on these well-known themes.” McDonald’s certainty a bare three years after Israel’s establishment that these perceptions of the Jewish state’s accomplishments had already taken root in the imagination of Americans is an indication of how powerful a hold the image of Israel had on the United States even at the beginning.
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The Palestinians became all but lost in the headlong rush to focus attention on Israel. Another popular book at the time, Frank Manuel’s The Realities of American-Palestine Relations, a history of Zionist settlement in Palestine published only a year after the Jewish state was established, provides an illustration of how thorough the Palestinians’ exclusion had already become. The book is remarkable for the fact that the word Arab does not appear until page 185, and for a 361-page volume the index carries only twenty-six references to Arabs and only seven to Muslims. (The term Palestinian for the Arabs of Palestine was not then used by anyone except the Palestinians themselves.)
The McCormick article cited above did note that Israel’s accomplishments had been made possible at the “cruel price” of the exile of hundreds of thousands of Palestine’s Arab inhabitants, and McCormick had written in an earlier article that if Israel had become a fact that had to be recognized, “so is the burning sense of invasion and usurpation the Palestinian Arabs feel.” But for most correspondents the Palestinians and their fate were of little or no interest. The general attitude, among the public and in the press, was reflected in a commentary McCormick herself wrote on May 15, 1948, the day Israel announced its independence; Israel had become a fact, its existence “irrevocable,” she wrote, and it was now pointless to go back to the “old controversies” over the respective rights of Arabs and Jews. Although the press had provided vivid descriptions of the displaced persons in Europe in the aftermath of World War II, the fact that over seven hundred thousand Palestinians had been displaced by the 1948 war and were living in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Transjordan, and Egypt received only minimal coverage. The press carried little mention of Palestinian flight as it was occurring and little mention of the refugee camps. In March 1949, a State Department study concluded that because of limited press coverage the U.S. public was generally unaware of the refugee problem.
Much of the small amount of press commentary was wholly unsympathetic to the Palestinians. Presumably following the lead of the Israeli government, which maintained that the refugees had left Palestine of their own accord and denied Israeli responsibility for them, the New York Post vehemently opposed helping the refugees. The liberal opinion weeklies the Nation and the New Republic played the problem as one for which the Arab states, not Israel, had responsibility. In the Nation‘s only mention of the refugees in all of 1948, one article argued that Israel should not have to take responsibility for them and noted, moreover, that the exodus had serendipitously solved the problem for Israel of having too many Arabs in a
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Jewish state. Why should Israelis revive the problem by taking the refugees back, the article wondered, “when, above all, they need land and houses for their own immigration and freedom from the endless vexation” of a large and unassimilable minority. “They fled,” the magazine asserted. “Let them settle somewhere else.”
It was not long before a new and enduring mythology grew up. A major theme and probably the most important single element in the newly emerging frame of reference about which party had morality and justice on its side was the story of how the Palestinians had left Palestine. Soon after the exodus, word began to circulate that the Palestinians had been ordered by their leaders in radio broadcasts to leave their homes and land so that the way would be clear for Arab military forces to push the Jews out, after which the Palestinian inhabitants could return. The belief that the Palestinians had been ordered to leave became so widely believed that it was, and still is, part of the folklore. The point of this line of argument is to give the impression that total responsibility for the Palestinians’ displacement and dispossession lay with them and that Israel had no moral obligation to take the refugees back, compensate them for property left behind, or refrain from using Palestinian homes and land to build the Israeli state.
In actuality, Israeli historians, using declassified Israeli archival materials, have concluded that there were no broadcast orders by Arab leaders and no blanket orders disseminated by any means instructing the Palestinian population to leave their homes. Morris concluded in a landmark study of the origins of the refugee problem that a multitude of factors caused the exodus, including anticipation of attack by Jewish/Israeli forces, which accounted for much of the flight occurring in the first half of 1948; outright expulsion by the Israeli military, which occurred more often in the second half of the war, during Israeli offensives in July and October; and fear induced by the lack of Arab leadership and a resulting feeling of impotence and abandonment. In most cases, Morris believes, “the final and decisive precipitant to flight” was attack by Jewish/Israeli forces or the fear of such attack.
Because it so quickly and so thoroughly became a part of the conventional wisdom that the Palestinians had brought their plight on themselves, it became easy to ignore them or treat them with disdain. There is a certain disdain, for instance, in the remarks Israel’s new president, Chaim Weizmann, made about the refugees to U.S. Ambassador McDonald, who publicized the remarks in his 1951 book. Declaring that the Palestinian exodus amounted to a “miraculous simplification of Israel’s tasks,” Weizmann said
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that in any case he thought the murder of six million Jews in Europe was a far vaster tragedy, and he could not understand why, if the world had done nothing to prevent the genocide of the Jews, there was “such excitement” in the UN and in Western capitals about the Palestinian refugees.
Other references pointed to a widespread feeling of distaste for the Palestinians among Americans. Capturing the mind-set of significant numbers of Americans, Eleanor Roosevelt described in an autobiography a 1952 trip to refugee camps in Jordan, followed by a visit to Israel. She found that she was greatly disheartened by the sense of hopelessness she observed among the Palestinians but loved the enterprising spirit shown in Israel. The contrast struck her particularly and goes to the essence of the U.S. affinity for Israel. Crossing into the Jewish state from Arab East Jerusalem was, she declared, “like breathing the air of the United States again.” Americans felt at ease with Israel but were uncomfortable with the Arab world.
The simple fact of Israel’s existence, as well as the affinity Americans almost instantly felt for Israel and the vastly increased distance this affinity imposed between Americans and Palestinians, all combined as a powerful force in shaping both public and policymaker opinion. It was not long before even the State Department, which had so strenuously opposed the partition of Palestine, recognized and accepted the facts on the ground—explicitly accepting the new Israeli state as a reality, criticizing the Arabs for not doing the same, and abandoning any notion of supporting the formation of an independent Arab state in those portions of Palestine not allotted to or captured by Israel.
The State Department has long been vilified as anti-Zionist and even anti-Semitic because of its opposition to partition, but in a large sense it was simply caught in what has always been a strong tension between the politicians who lead government and the nonpolitical careerists who work in government. Harold Saunders, a State Department official who worked with two secretaries of state in negotiating several Arab-Israeli peace agreements in the 1970s, has observed that whereas presidents and their political advisers engage in political maneuver and influence wielding, diplomats and career officers are encouraged to think in analytical terms and are actively discouraged from involving themselves in politics.
At few times in the history of U.S. policymaking has the dichotomy between the politicians and the government careerists been clearer or
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the tension stronger or more bitter than in the years leading up to the establishment of Israel. It would be as simplistic to say that there was no anti-Semitism at the State Department in the period surrounding Israel’s creation as it has been to charge that State’s principal motivation was anti-Semitism. But concerns far broader than the ethnic prejudices of the bureaucrats and statesmen involved with the issue primarily influenced State Department thinking. Indeed, State was not alone in opposing partition; the Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Council staff, and the newly established Central Intelligence Agency were united with State in fearing that partition might lead to warfare in the Middle East, force the United States to intervene militarily, enhance the Soviet position in the area, and endanger U.S. interests in the Arab world. The principal concern of the military and the government careerists was not the politics of the situation but the effect on U.S. strategic interests. Even Eban has noted in retrospect that the State Department’s position was not based on “heat and passion” but was “dangerous precisely because [it] rested on a certain logic.”
The absence of heat and passion is abundantly evident in the alacrity with which the State Department and every other agency changed direction and supported Israel’s existence when it became clear that the new state was and would remain a reality and that it had the solid backing of the White House. By June 1948, the State Department was putting it about that because the United States had officially recognized Israel, State’s policy was “postulated upon the continuing existence of the State of Israel” and on the assumption that Israel’s sovereignty was a fact. State also assumed that the independent Palestinian Arab state called for by the partition resolution would never come into being; that the parts of Palestine not under Israel’s control, which were to have formed the Palestinian state, would be given to the neighboring Arab states (that is, to Transjordan, which was occupying the West Bank, and to Egypt, which controlled Gaza); and that populations would be exchanged where necessary to make the Jewish state and the Arab areas of Palestine each more homogeneous.
Clearly, the State Department early on not only accepted Israel as a fait accompli but showed itself to be more than ready to give away Palestinian Arab areas to the Arab states and forcibly move a few hundred thousand Arabs out of Jewish areas. By November 1948, it became the official U.S. position that “Arab Palestine standing alone could not constitute a viable independent state”—even though only half a year earlier the United States had been prepared to support an independent Palestinian state as
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part of the partition plan. The formulation that a Palestinian state would not be viable was to remain an official staple of U.S. policy—constantly repeated as if by rote, rarely questioned or investigated—at least through the Bush administration. The Palestinians had at this point ceased to be a part of the official policymaking frame of reference in the United States.
The Zionists and King Abdullah of Transjordan (which formally changed its name to Jordan in 1950) had for long been secretly discussing some kind of arrangement to split Palestine between them, and when Transjordan’s Arab Legion invaded Palestine on May 15, 1948, its principal intent was not to fight the establishment of Israel but to secure its hold on the areas designated for an Arab state. The British had also long entertained the idea of giving parts of Palestine to Transjordan, as when the Peel Commission in 1937 had proposed partitioning Palestine into a small Jewish state and an Arab state to be merged with Transjordan. So, for the United States, eager above all at this point to bring an end to the war and ensure a measure of stability in a volatile area, it seemed a heaven-sent solution to give the West Bank, most of what remained of Arab Palestine, to a friendly potentate who had ruled peacefully for almost three decades, who had served under the tutelage of the British until gaining independence in 1946, and whose military was still trained and officered by the British. The thought that anything like a true sense of nationalism existed among the Palestinian Arabs never occurred to U.S. policymakers, and in the aftermath of World War II, when huge numbers of people throughout the world were being displaced and when colonialism was only just coming to an end, the idea of shifting whole populations to suit Western needs was not at all outrageous.
Having settled on what it considered a satisfactory policy for the disposition of the Arab areas of Palestine, the State Department was unwilling to entertain any thought that these areas might come under Palestinian control. In October 1948, after the former Mufti of Jerusalem formed a provisional government in exile called the All Palestine Government, the State Department took the position that such a government was prejudicial to the best interests of the Arabs of Palestine because it had been established without prior consultation with the Palestinians. Coming at a time when the United States was actively pursuing the idea of giving the Arab portions of Palestine to Transjordan, with no thought of consulting the wishes of the Palestinians, this position showed considerable cynicism.
Contrary to the commonly held view, the State Department did not advocate the position of the Arabs of Palestine when it was opposing partition. Henderson did at least once remind his superiors that partitioning Palestine against the wishes of its Arab inhabitants ignored the principles of
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self-determination and majority rule, but there is little else in State Department correspondence that indicates sympathy for the Arabs.
When the State Department came around to accepting Israel, it quickly lost patience with the Arabs for not following suit. In a memorandum in early July 1948, one high-level State official, clearly no Arab sympathizer, observed that the Arabs had shown emotion and bad political judgment in going to war. He said he did not “care a dried camel’s hump” about the Arabs’ feelings but was concerned to ensure that “these fanatical and overwrought people” not damage U.S. strategic interests. At this same time, the U.S. UN representative sent Washington a long cable in which he criticized the Arabs for “immaturity” and for the “blindspot” they exhibited that prevented even the more moderate among them from recognizing Israel as a political fact. They had been accustomed for so long, he said, to regard Jews “as the root of all evil that it is difficult for them to see contributions for good that Jews might make politically, economically, and culturally to [the] welfare of Arabs.” The United States had by now become so eager to be done with the whole problem of Palestine that few realized the futility of asking Arabs who were at that moment being uprooted from their homes to recognize that they could benefit from Jewish contributions to their political life.
The United States did show concern for the approximately 725,000 Palestinians displaced by the 1948 war and worked for years to achieve some resolution of the refugee problem. Initially, the U.S. concern was to relieve the immediate problem, described by some experts in refugee relief as the worst they had ever seen. Before an international relief effort was established, hundreds of thousands of refugees were living in makeshift encampments in the surrounding Arab states and the areas of Palestine controlled by Transjordan and Egypt, without adequate food, sanitation, shelter, or medical care. They overwhelmed the resources and disrupted the demographic balance of most of their Arab hosts, particularly Transjordan, an economically strapped nation where the refugees added 20 percent to the existing population, and Lebanon, where the largely Muslim refugees threatened the delicate confessional balance in a nation controlled uneasily by Christian Arabs.
The United States and the UN unsuccessfully pressed Israel to take back a portion of the refugees. In December 1948, the United States supported UN General Assembly Resolution 194 calling for the return to their homes of all refugees willing to live in peace with Israel, but few serious steps were taken to pursue this resolution. Specific proposals for repatriating one to two hundred thousand people were explored but never agreed on, and
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Israel eventually permitted only about twenty-five thousand to return. The United States also conceived several resettlement schemes over the years involving incentive payments to Arab leaders and irrigation and land-reclamation projects designed to facilitate the economic integration of the refugees in their host countries by providing employment opportunities. None of these plans ever bore fruit. Although large numbers of the refugees eventually made their way out of the camps, hundreds of thousands remained in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Egyptian-controlled Gaza. Both in order to keep world attention on the Palestinian issue and because the refugees so taxed their own resources, most Arab states—except Jordan, the only Arab country to grant the Palestinians citizenship—made no efforts to resettle the refugees, and all Palestinians, refugees and nonrefugees alike, have lived in the Arab world under a variety of restrictions, usually without citizenship except in Jordan and with uncertain residency status and limited civil rights.
Most noteworthy for the formation of a frame of reference in which future U.S. policy was to be made is that the United States, having assumed early on that the Jewish state would survive as a sovereign nation and that the Palestinian Arab state would never exist, never treated the Palestinians as anything but refugees—as a problem, without any political content, that needed somehow to be gotten around. It did not view the Palestinians as having national or political rights or any political grievances that should be addressed, and, of course, it did not support a national solution involving the formation of a Palestinian state, the return of Arab areas captured by Israel during 1948, or the return of areas of Palestine controlled by Jordan to the Palestinians.
For U.S. policymakers, as for the public at large and the press, the conventional wisdom about why the Palestinians had become refugees seemed enticingly simple: the Palestinians, viscerally opposed to having Jews in their midst and therefore deeply opposed to sharing Palestine with a Jewish state, had simply left Palestine rather than live under Jewish rule or had been ordered by their leaders to leave. This story was so simple and seemingly logical that no one challenged it or thought to look further for the evidence that Palestinians left unwillingly, in fear and panic or under expulsion orders from Jewish and Israeli forces. Whether knowing the story of the exodus from a Palestinian perspective would have changed U.S. policy is a moot point; it probably would not have, but some deeper understanding of Palestinian thinking and grievances might have prevented the Palestinians’ total exclusion from the frame of reference that was to guide policymaking for the next several decades. The failure to know anything
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about the Palestinians except their plight as a mass of refugees made them an abstract concept, difficult to put a human face on.
Although not one of the primary actors in the drama of 1948, John Foster Dulles, who was then a member of the U.S. delegation to the UN and would become Eisenhower’s secretary of state, summed up official American sentiment on the Palestine issue aptly. Speaking to two Lebanese officials at the UN in December 1948, Dulles observed:
The American people and the Government were … convinced that the establishment of the State of Israel under livable conditions was a historical necessity and the United States was determined to go through with it. We realized that doing so involved certain injustices to the Arab States. The situation was not one where there was any solution that was totally just to all concerned. … Nevertheless, there had to be a solution and, we believed, a peaceful solution. … Therefore, our present action could be looked upon not as inaugurating a continuing policy of supporting a Jewish State as against the Arabs, but rather as completing one phase of a historical development which, when completed, would permit of better relations than ever before with the Arab States.
The statement is notable for its assumption that Israel’s creation was a historical inevitability, for its acceptance that the Arabs would have to live with some injustices, and particularly for the fact that, even before the fighting had totally ceased in Palestine, the Palestinians had been forgotten as a factor in the equation, even as the object of the acknowledged injustices, which Dulles believed had been done to the Arab states, not to the Palestinians.
Despite the adulation Truman has received over the years for helping to midwife the creation of Israel, a close look at the record indicates that Truman was an uncertain midwife, so unsure about the wisdom of partitioning Palestine and later of recognizing Israel and so concerned about the possible consequences of these actions that he was undecided in each instance until the last minute. In the end, in fact, policymakers did not make policy on the Palestine issue; they laid out options, they argued, they listened, and in the end they merely reacted. They reacted to their compassionate impulse to rescue the Jews, to heavy pressures by Zionist activists inside and outside the government, to a strong public information campaign on behalf of Zionist goals in Palestine, to the public support for Zionism that this campaign generated, to the Palestinians’ refusal to cooperate with the forced partitioning of their land, to a mind-set that painted Arabs in dark colors.
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There was a considerable element of bowing to the inevitable in everything the United States did throughout the Palestine debate. Although Truman did not want to become involved politically in the issue at all, he essentially had no choice, for both domestic political and international strategic reasons. He also basically had no choice about partition; some sort of arrangement to split Palestine or to permit enough Jewish immigration to create the Jewish majority that would have given the Zionists control of Palestine was in the cards no matter whether the United States gave its imprimatur or not. Finally, Israel’s establishment as an independent state and its survival even in the face of Arab military attack were also already inevitable by the time Israel announced its independence on May 15; the Jewish state would have come into existence even if Truman had not rushed to extend diplomatic recognition.
Particularly striking is the ease and speed with which the United States, at all levels of the policymaking community, accepted the inevitable. By early 1949, a bare eight months after Israel’s establishment, even the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which had earlier opposed partition for strategic reasons, began to look at Israel as a strategic asset. Viewing the new nation as a military power second in the Middle East only to Turkey, the Joint Chiefs suggested that support for Israel was a means of gaining strategic advantage in the area. The State Department’s full acceptance of Israel was even faster and, in light of the vehemence of its opposition to partition, more striking.
In a real sense, Palestinians disappeared from the scene simply because Israel came out of the Palestine debate as a sovereign state, while the Palestinians came up scattered and lacking any of the attributes of a nation. With no status in the family of nations, they were no longer a political factor, not part of anyone’s strategic considerations or of the policymaking milieu. If policymakers in this era quickly forgot them as a political factor, most policymakers for decades into the future, from the White House down to middle echelons of the bureaucracy, did not know them to have been a political factor and thus did not think to learn their story, the reason for their grievances, or their perspective on the issue.
The entire Palestinian-Israeli issue, in fact, became something of a zerosum equation in which support for Israel precluded support for any aspect of the Palestinian position. In part, this reality arose because of the uncompromising position the Palestinians took on partition. With their demand that all of Palestine become an Arab state, they offered the United States no choice that it felt it could accept, and this fact hastened their exclusion from U.S. thinking. It was human nature that, once the United States had decided
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to participate in the imposition of partition on Palestine, the party that opposed partition came to be seen as uncooperative and unreasonable, whereas the party that cooperated was automatically seen as reasonable. The fact that the Arabs refused to go along with a national dismemberment that no people has ever willingly agreed to or that the Zionists cooperated because they were realizing immense gains did not matter. As far as U.S. policymakers were concerned, Palestinians were trying to thwart the United States in the pursuit of an objective and Jews were not.
A strong moral corollary to this line of thinking also put the Palestinians at a severe disadvantage. All discussion of the 1948 war started, and often still starts, from the premise that the Palestinians were immoral to have opposed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine at all—immoral to have opposed Jewish immigration, even though unlimited immigration would have meant becoming a minority in their own land; immoral to have been unwilling to share their land with a needy people, to have begun the civil war after the UN voted for partition in November 1947, to have been associated with the invasion by Arab armies, and ultimately even to have fled Palestine.
Eban, whose eloquence did so much to mold Israel’s image in the world as a beacon of moral rectitude, now observes that morally the situation was not unambiguous—that Palestine posed a deep moral dilemma and that justice and morality were not all on one side.
To assert that thousands of years of Jewish connection totally eliminated thirteen centuries of later Arab-Muslim history would be to apply a discriminatory standard to historic experience. … The Palestine Arabs, were it not for the Balfour Declaration and the League of Nations Mandate, could have counted on eventual independence either as a separate state or in an Arab context acceptable for them. … It was impossible for us to avoid struggling for Jewish statehood and equally impossible for them to grant us what we asked. If they had submitted to Zionism with docility they would have been the first people in history to have voluntarily renounced their majority status.
But such acknowledgments were not common in 1948 or for many decades afterward—not from Eban or other Israelis and not from those in the United States who made policy on Israel and the Palestinians. Coming as it did on top of the widespread sense that Palestinians were somehow interlopers in the Jewish-Christian Holy Land and were primitive and violent in the bargain, the moral opprobrium that attached to them in the decades after 1948 was more than enough to eliminate them from political consideration.
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An Israeli official who participated in an international conference that attempted in 1948 and 1949 to find some resolution to the Palestinian refugee problem noted when the conference ended inconclusively that the refugees had become “the scapegoats, so no one takes any notice of them. No one listens to their demands, explanations, and suggestions.” The Palestinians had become an indistinct mass of refugees—not a nation, not a political entity, only a problem, and not a major one at that.