Buried in a Footnote, I Find a Hero

As the El Al plane landed at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, the voice of the captain came over the loudspeaker: “Please remain seated, with your seatbelts fastened, until this plane is at a complete standstill and the seatbelt signs have been turned off. We also wish to remind you that using cell phones on this aircraft is strictly prohibited.” A few minutes later: “To those who are seated, we wish you a Merry Christmas and hope you enjoy your stay. And to those of you who are standing in the aisles and talking on your cell phones, we wish you a Happy Hanukkah, and welcome back home.”

Another secular new year is closing in on us, and what a year it has been! Yet at the end of each year, we diaspora Jews, together with our brothers and sisters in Israel, commemorate and celebrate eight miraculous days from long ago. This year I found my gift in a footnote from history. When you get older, material presents become less important. The gift of knowledge, for me, has become more gratifying.

Much is made of the fact that on May 14, 1948, then-president Harry Truman instructed his U.S. 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. That is fact. But in the backstory, I find 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, whatever to call me. The Jews have no sense of proportion nor do they have any 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 to the underdog.” (Rafael Medoff, Algemeiner, 08/30/2013)

Yes Harry, Jews did indeed get special treatment—all six million of them— while America and others turned their backs, feigning ignorance of the atrocities. 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 England to open the gates to Palestine and allow Jews into the land formally agreed in 1920 to have been their 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 the ex-president Truman in 1953 why Truman 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, Benjamin Cohen 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 D.P. camps as a result of being denied entry to Palestine.

Do not imagine that you will be able to escape in 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, pp. 94-95). For Jews, Clark Clifford z”l was perhaps the most important advisor to a world leader since Joseph sat next to the throne of Pharaoh.

Keep in mind that although the U.S. had voted at the U.N. on November 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 Department and Defense Department, that Truman reversed the U.S.’s position in favor of trusteeship under the U.N. Snetsinger describes the U.N. delegates’ reaction to the announcement by the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Warren Austin:

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. (Ibid., p. 89)

At the same time, Truman had implemented an embargo, as Secretary of State George C. Marshall had suggested, against any American arms going to the Jewish fighters in Palestine, while the British continued to supply the Arabs.

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. (Ibid., p. 132).

But 1948 would be an election year; Clifford understood the reality and worked to help Truman appreciate 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. During the months following Truman’s reversal, Clark Clifford single-handedly worked to convince Truman of the importance of the Jewish vote and the states of New York, Ohio, California and Illinois.

In his efforts, 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., p. 105) The Republicans and their presidential candidate, Thomas Dewey, had already incorporated into their party’s platform their support for the Jewish state. Some things don’t change very much. 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 the U.N. 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, 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 floor [of the U.N.]. … 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 de facto authority of the new State of Israel.” (Clark Clifford, Counsel to the President, p. 22).

For two days, Truman and Clifford had kept the State Department and the Defense Department 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 was made, the first person Truman wanted to tell was David Niles, one of his Jewish advisors, but he was nowhere to be found. 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,” Niles said 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, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has kept us alive and sustained us and brought us to this time.” As he finished the Shehecheyanu, people wiped away tears of emotion and wished each other “mazal tov.

The first act of the Provisional Government was to nullify the White Paper and all its provisions, including retroactive repudiation of the Lands Law. Then spontaneously, from within the hall and from the crowd that had gathered on the front plaza, could be heard the strong, 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 east, satisfied he had done his part, and wondering if the new state would survive. If for no other reason, the recognition by the United States helped give Israel encouragement. Rediscovered in a footnote was a determined and courageous non-Jew who was not afraid to go against the powers of the majority: Clark Clifford z”l. May his memory be for a blessing and his memoir a most nifty Hanukkah gift for 5777.

Shabbat Shalom, 12/23/2016                           Jack “Yehoshua” Berger

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About the Author
Educated as an architect with a Masters in Architectural History, Jack Yehoshua Berger became a practicing architect and real estate developer. In his late 30's he met a Rabbi who turned him on to the miracle of Israel and he began learning how the amazing country, against all odds, came to be the miracle of the modern world.