Before us lie the hallowed remains of our brothers who fought for and were killed in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. The bodies of the forty-eight who fought with their last breath to defend Jerusalem were laid to rest in a collective grave in the Jewish Quarter. But the earth which covered their bones did not inter their spirit. The indomitable faith of the nation, its hope, its fighting spirit, its very soul, drew sustenance from the memory of these forty-eight warriors.

Brothers who fell in our War of Independence: We have not forsaken your dreams, nor have we abandoned your teaching. We have returned to the Mount, to the cradle of our national origins, to the heritage of our Patriarchs, the land of the Judges, the stronghold of the kingdom of David. We have returned to Hebron and Samaria, to Bethlehem and Anatot, to Jericho and the fords of the River Jordan. Brothers, we bear within us your grim lessons of Gush Etzion and the Old City that fell and were destroyed, and their people taken captive. To Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives the history of our own day has linked with blood the battlegrounds of Sheikh Jarrah, French Hill and Augusta Victoria. In order that Jerusalem shall live, we know that the soldiers and armor of the Israel Defense Forces must stand guard on the mountains of [Judea and] Samaria.

— Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, 1967

Much is made of the fact that on May 14, 1948, then-president Harry Truman instructed his representative on the U.N. Security Council to vote for recognition of the newly declared State of Israel “eleven minutes” after David Ben-Gurion had announced Israel’s statehood. But in the backstory lies a true, if forgotten, hero. Truman had been incensed when Henry Morgenthau, Jr. called him about the plight of the refugee ship Exodus 1947. Revealed in his diary are some of his feelings about Jews: “He [Morgenthau] had no business whatsoever to call me. The Jews have no sense of proportion or judgment on world affairs. … The Jews, I find, are very, very selfish. They care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get murdered or mistreated as [displaced persons] as long as the Jews get special treatment. Yet when they have power – physical, financial or political – neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment of the underdog.” (Rafael Medoff, Algemeiner, Aug. 30, 2013.)

Yes, Harry, Jews did indeed get special treatment – all six million of them – while Britain’s Churchill, America’s Roosevelt and others turned their backs ostensibly for “national security.” Comparing Jews to Hitler or Stalin – two years after the slaughter became common knowledge – is outrageous. In 1947, Jewish leaders finally appealed to the U.S. to persuade His Majesty, Britain, to open the gates to Palestine and allow Jews into the land they had agreed, in 1920, to have been the Jews’ national home and refuge.

In his book, Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989, Michael Beschloss relates that when talk show host David Susskind asked Truman in 1953 why he had never invited him to his home despite their many interviews, Truman replied, “You’re a Jew, David, and no Jew has ever been in the house. Bess runs it, and there has never been a Jew inside the house in her or her mother’s lifetime.

In Truman and Israel, Michael Cohen notes Truman’s reference to New York City as “kike town” and his Jewish friend and business partner Eddie Jacobson as his “Jew clerk.” With these comments in mind, one might question Truman’s true feelings regarding his decision to recognize Israel’s statehood. An outright anti-Semite, perhaps. Yet, I’m smiling for my long forgotten hero.

David Niles, Max Lowenthal, Jacob Blaustein, Sam Rosenman and (for the most part) Morgenthau, Jr. – close Jewish advisors to the president – all refused to get involved in the issue of Jewish Holocaust survivors languishing in British D.P. camps as a result of being denied entry to Palestine.

Do not imagine that you will be able to escape the king’s palace … For if you persist in keeping silent at a time like this, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place. (Esther 4:13-14)

And deliverance did come – in the form of a tall, 38-year-old Episcopalian lawyer from St. Louis who arrived in Washington in 1945, initially to serve in a relatively minor position as assistant to the president’s naval aide. “[Clark] Clifford swiftly became Harry Truman’s most influential all-around advisor and, as such, one of the four or five most important White House aides in history … perhaps the most successful of all the talented and ambitious men who have struggled in the shadows of presidential power.” (John Snetsinger, Truman, the Jewish Vote and the Creation of Israel.) For Jews, Clark Clifford, of blessed memory, was perhaps the most important advisor to a world leader since Joseph sat next to the throne of Pharaoh.

Sadly, it’s forgotten that although the U.S. had voted at the U.N. on Nov. 29, 1947 for partition and the re-establishment of a homeland for Jews in Palestine, it was on March 19, 1948, under pressure from both the State and Defense Departments, that Truman reversed the U.S.’s position in favor of trusteeship under the United Nations. Snetsinger describes the U.N. delegates’ reaction to Ambassador Warren Austin’s announcement: As delegates listened unbelievingly to the American abandonment of the partition plan that the United States had helped pass, there was pin-drop silence and bewilderment throughout the hall. Adding insult to injury, Truman forbade any American weaponry going to the Jewish fighters in Palestine (as Secretary of State George C. Marshall had suggested), while the British continued to supply the Arabs with both weapons and officers.

U.S. Senator Irving Ives (a Presbyterian) commented that Truman has “run out on every commitment he has ever made to the Jewish people.” The evidence is overwhelming, noted Snetsinger, not only in official statements but also in the record of behind-the-scenes maneuverings, that the president was deliberately and calculatingly playing politics with this explosive issue. But 1948 would be an election year. Clifford understood the reality and was able to convince Truman that his only chance to get elected was to win the Jewish vote. Without it, he’d go back to being a bankrupt haberdasher in Missouri. Clifford enlisted the help of Chicago’s leading Democratic figure, Jacob M. Arvey. “Arvey wrote Truman to discuss the ‘political repercussions implicit’ in the establishment of a Jewish state. ‘I fear very much,’ he confided, ‘that the Republicans are planning to exploit the present situation to their further advantage. This ought not to be permitted.’ ” (Ibid.) Thomas Dewey, the Republican presidential candidate, had already incorporated support for the Jewish state into his party’s platform. (Some things never change.) According to Snetsinger, Truman’s decision was purely political—to win the election. But here’s where it gets interesting.

On May 12, 1948, just two days before Ben-Gurion was to declare the state, the official public position of Truman and the U.S. was to vote against recognition and in favor of a trusteeship under U.N. authority. At 5:40 p.m. on Wednesday, May 12, Clifford walked into the Oval Office and finally convinced Truman to vote in favor of recognition. In his memoir, Counsel to the President, Clifford wrote that at 5:45 on May 14, “I called Dean Rusk to ask him to inform Ambassador Warren Austin, the head of our U.N. delegation, that the White House would announce recognition of Israel right after 6 p.m. … Stunned at the news, Austin decided not to return to the [U.N.] floor… Instead, he got into his car and went home. Thinking that Austin had simply gone to the washroom, his colleagues in the American delegation continued to round up votes for trusteeship. Just after 6 p.m., I [Clifford] walked hurriedly past the White House press corps in the lobby of the West Wing, to the office of Charlie Ross, the President’s press secretary. … Handing Ross a piece of paper, I asked him to gather the press as quickly as possible. At 6:11 p.m., Ross read aloud to them: … The United States recognizes the provisional government as the defacto authority of the new State of Israel.” For two days,Truman and Clifford had kept the State and Defense Departments in the dark regarding Truman’s decision to again reverse his position and to now recognize the newly proclaimed State of Israel.

The story is told that after the announcement, the first person Truman wanted to tell was David Niles, one of his Jewish advisors. As Truman walked the White House hallways looking for Niles, he heard a strange sound coming from a janitor’s closet. As he opened the door, there was Niles, huddled in the closet, sobbing. “I heard what you did, and I thank you, Mr. President,” said Niles through his tears. Truman, a bit shocked, responded, “I didn’t know it would affect you like this.” And Niles replied, “I didn’t know either.” Sometimes the pintele Yid is just buried under the clutter of ambition.

Meanwhile, on a Friday afternoon, 6,000 miles away, a crowd had begun to gather at 16 Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, at Beit Ha’atzmaut (Independence Hall). There had been rumors, but no definitive announcement. Battles had already begun in other parts of the country. Shortly before the designated time, a car drove up to the front door and a short man with bushy white hair got out and walked up the steps and into the main hall where the crowd had assembled. Under the watchful eyes of a large portrait of Theodor Herzl, David Ben-Gurion grabbed a wooden gavel and pounded the table, calling the assembled to order:

Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books. …Placing our trust in the “Rock of Israel,” we affix our signatures to this proclamation… on this Sabbath eve, the 5th day of Iyar, 5708; May 14, 1948.

Then came the voice of Rabbi Yehuda Leib Fishman, trembling with emotion and tears: “Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, Who has kept us alive and sustained us and brought us to this time.” As he concluded his recitation of the Shehecheyanu, people wiped away tears of emotion and wished each other mazal tov.

The first act of the Provisional Government was to nullify all provisions of the British White Paper which forbade Jewish immigration into Israel, and retroactively repudiate the Land Laws. Then, spontaneously, from within the hall and from the crowd on the front plaza, could be heard the loud, defiant singing of Hatikvah – our hope of 2,000 years was no longer lost, to be a free people in our own land. The war for the survival of the State had begun.

From a window in the White House, a solemn Clark Clifford looked to the east, satisfied he had done his part, and wondering if the new state would survive. If nothing else, the U.S. recognition gave Israel encouragement. Rediscovered in a footnote was a courageous non-Jew who was not afraid to go against the powers of the majority. Clark Clifford today is probably smiling in heaven. Maybe it was for just this time that he attained his position—for deliverance did come from another place. May his memory be for a blessing on this, Israel’s 70th anniversary, in 5778.

Shabbat Shalom and Mazal Tov! 05/04/18     Jack “Yehoshua” Berger *

* Back issues archived at Times of Israel.com