David Shayne

When Harry gave ’em hell!

In November, 1953, now-former President Harry S. Truman spoke at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His dear friend and former business partner, Eddie Jacobson, gave an introduction which included the statement, “”This is the man who helped create the State of Israel.” Truman came up and interjected “What do you mean, ‘helped to create’? I am Cyrus. I am Cyrus.”

Six years almost to the day of his appearance at JTS, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 181,“the Partition Plan, ”recommending that the British Mandate of Palestine be terminated and replaced with two independent states — One predominately Jewish and the other predominately Arab. Although the resolution was nothing more than a non-binding recommendation that the Arab side rejected out-of-hand, , its passage sparked the war from which the independent State of Israel would emerge. The day became enshrined in Israeli culture as “Kaf Tet B’November” the 29th of November, the only Jewish or Israeli historical day remembered by its Christian calendar date, to the best of my knowledge.

While Truman’s boast of being “Cyrus” — the Persian Emperor who conquered Babylon and then decreed the exiles from Judah could return there and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem — may be hyperbolic, it is not entirely inaccurate — without him, “Kaf Tet B’November,” 1947, would not be a Day to Remember.

As we come up on the 72nd “Kaf Tet B’November,” I thought it fitting to honor Truman and the vital role he played in putting Israel on the world map. In the course of writing my own book about the Palmah and its women warriors, I read two excellent books about Truman — the first is distinguished historian David McCullough’s biography, simply titled “Truman,” and the second a new publication by Evangelical author Craig Von Buseck titled, appropriately enough “I Am Cyrus.”

McCullough’s book is a general bio but devotes considerable attention to Truman’s role in establishing Israel, while Von Buseck’s book focuses mostly on that subject.

So how did these things come about, that the son of a poor Missouri farmer and mule breeder became the 33rd president of the United States and key figure in modern Jewish and Israeli history? (Truman’s full bio is beyond the scope of this article—both the books mentioned above are good sources). In 1944, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt stood for reelection, he decided he needed a vice presidential candidate who was more main stream than the leftist Henry Wallace, the current Vice President. FDR won reelection and so Truman became Vice President, even though he was fairly unknown to most Americans.

On April 12, 1945, Truman had a unremarkably routine yet busy day, and for much of it he was at the Capitol. While there, in his capacity as president of the Senate, he received a phone call from a White House functionary at 5:30 in the evening, asking him to report to the White House immediately but quietly. He was ushered into the First Lady’s sitting room. Eleanor Roosevelt rose from a chair, put her hand on Truman’s shoulder and said “Harry, the President is dead.” Stunned, it took Truman a moment to compose himself enough to say “Is there anything I can do for you,” to which Eleanor replied, “Is there anything I can do for you, for you are the one in trouble now.”

FDR had been in steadily failing health since his re-election, a fact known only to a few. Truman was not one of them. FDR died while attempting to recuperate in his home in Warm Springs, Georgia. His death, coming as it did as America and its allies stood on the brink of victory over Nazi Germany but still mired down in the Pacific against the weakened but stubborn Japanese Imperial forces, shocked America as no presidential death had since Lincoln’s assassination, and is equaled only by Kennedy’s assassination 18 years hence.

Eleanor was right—Truman was indeed in trouble, suddenly thrust into a position of unprecedented responsibility, even for an incoming president. He had no time to mourn with the Nation. While still moving his things into the White House Residence, he presided over Germany’s surrender, the establishment of the UN and the post war order and made the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. Despite these momentous developments in not just American but world history, he somehow found the time to learn and care about Palestine and about Jewish Holocaust survivors.

Truman is well remembered today for his support of the “Partition Plan” and for recognizing the State of Israel before the microphone into which Ben Gurion declared its existence had cooled down.

Of course, these and other stories about Truman and Israel are well known, such as his courageously overruling his own Secretary of State, the popular World War II general, George Marshall, who urged a pro-British and pro-Arab policy. It is no surprise numerous streets and institutions are named for him throughout Israel.

But, in my view, Truman does not receive sufficient recognition for his greatest contribution ,not just to the State of Israel but to the Jewish People as a whole—his deep and very genuine concern for Nazi death and concentration camp survivors and the Jewish refugees languishing in “Displaced Persons”-DP camps that sprung up at the end of the war.

Influenced by the Administration’s representative for refugees, Earl G. Harrison, who had been advocating for Jewish resettlement in the US and Palestine, Truman demanded that the British immediately admit 100,000 Jewish refugees into Palestine. He made his demand to Churchill, just before Churchill was unceremoniously voted out of office in July of 1945, and repeated the demand to the incoming Prime Minister, Clement Atlee. The Britsh pushed back, and argued such a move would inflame the Middle East and jeopardize British and, by extension, American interests in the Arab world.

But Truman did not budge. He continued to agitate for immigration and, generally, for the welfare of the Jewish refugees, ordering his own Generals to improve the treatment they had been receiving. Truman’s deep and genuine concern for the Jewish human refuse of Europe informed his policy choices regarding Palestine. It is one of the few instances in American history where a president fashioned policy based primarily on humanitarian concern against the dictates of real-politk and did so in the face of strenuous opposition from within his own administration.

To this day, anti-Zionist propagandists claim Truman had no real concern for the plight of Jewish holocaust survivors or the future of Palestine, and dismiss his pro-Jewish policies as cynical pandering for Jewish votes. McCullough debunks that lie by relating how, some time after Israel’s founding, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, Isaac Herzog, called on Truman and declared “G-d put you in your mother’s womb so you would be the instrument to bring the rebirth of Israel after 2,000 years.” Truman’s Jewish and pro-Zionist adviser, David Niles, thought that was “over doing things,” but he then looked over at Truman and saw tears running down his cheeks.

There are many reasons to admire and honor the memory of Harry S. Truman. He was a gutsy, no-prisoners-taken kind of man, remembered for his 1948 election campaign slogan “Give ‘em hell, Harry!” (it came not from him but from a spontaneous called out by a supporter) and the famous sign on his desk “The Buck Stops Here.” He made bold decisions particularly in his foreign policy decisions to stand up to Soviet expansion and oppression of satellite states. Some decisions were controversial, such as inserting the US military into the Korea conflict. Yet, he set the course that would result in America becoming the most prosperous and influential nation on earth.

Truman was a complicated man, it is ironic that he contributed to the welfare of the Jewish people as few Christians in modern times have, yet was not above an occasional Anti-Semitic slur (in his frustration with heavy-handed Zionist lobbying, he once remarked, “Jesus Christ couldn’t please [the Jews] while he was on earth, so how could anyone expect I would have any luck!”). Moreover, while he showed great courage and fortitude in pushing a pro-Zionist diplomatic policy, he dared not defy the State Department and US military’s firm opposition to supplying the new Jewish state with desperately needed military armaments—that vital task was left –also ironically–to Soviet Union’s Stalin through its client state of Czechoslovakia.

Nevertheless, the debt of gratitude the Jewish people owe to the Favorite Son of Independence, Missouri, had not yet been fully requited. On this upcoming Kaf Tet B’November, as we marvel at the miracle midwifed in Flushing Meadows, NYC on that date, let us remember fondly the Midwife-in-Chief of that event and the Commander-in Chief who guided the American people to final victory in World War II, and through the turbulent post war era to the time of peace and prosperity inherited by his successor.

About the Author
David Shayne is a dual citizen of the United States and Israel, he received his BA from Tel Aviv University in Political Science and his JD from the University of Oregon. He served as an attorney for the US government for 21 years, until his retirement in 2022, following which he relocated to Tel Aviv. He currently works as a senior attorney for a private company in Jerusalem, Israel.
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