May 15, the day after the anniversary of Israel’s creation in 1948, is known in the Arab world as “Nakba Day,” or “the day of the catastrophe.” We can expect Arab militants to spend Tuesday hurling rocks and firebombs at Israeli passersby as an expression of mourning over Israel’s defeat of the invading Arab armies. Probably not many of the rioters realize that while Arab tanks and planes were unable to prevent the birth of the Jewish state, the U.S. State Department almost succeeded in doing so.
Documents I discovered in the research for my new book, “Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the ‘Jewish Vote’ and Bipartisan Support for Israel” (coauthored with Prof. Sonja Schoepf Wentling) reveal the State Department went so far as to threaten to incite a wave of anti-Semitism in the United States if Zionist leaders did not cancel the planned proclamation of the state of Israel.
In the end, though, the State Department’s bullying campaign was stymied — by a dose of old-fashioned American democracy.
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The episode took place in early 1948. The Truman administration had supported the recent United Nations vote recommending the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. But the Palestinian Arabs rejected the plan and launched a war against the Jews. President Truman, afraid of the U.S. getting drawn into the conflict, began to back away from the idea of Jewish statehood.
“I have about come to the conclusion that the situation is not solvable as presently set up,” Truman wrote to a friend. The Jews wanted “a big stick approach” by the U.S. to implement the partition plan, but “we can’t do that.”
What Zionist leaders actually wanted was not American intervention, but a shipment of some U.S. “big sticks” so the Jews could defend themselves against the Arab onslaught. The State Department, however, persuaded Truman to impose a complete arms embargo on the Middle East. That move primarily affected the Jews, since the Arab states had little difficulty obtaining weapons from Great Britain and other countries.
Despite protests from Republicans and dissident Democrats (former New York governor Herbert Lehman, for one, said the policy was “giving aid and comfort to the Arabs”), Truman refused to budge. The administration rejected even a request for armored plates to shield Jewish civilian buses from Arab snipers.
The State Department also convinced Truman to support “international trusteeship” over Palestine instead of Jewish statehood. When the American ambassador to the United Nations announced this new policy on March 19, 1948, an enormous public outcry erupted. Thousands of angry letters and telegrams poured into the White House. Congressman Arthur Klein (D-NY) called it “the most terrible sell-out of the common people since Munich.” Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion denounced Truman’s reversal as “a surrender to Arab terror.”
Surprised by the fierce reaction, Truman tried to distance himself from his ambassador’s statement, blaming the trusteeship idea on officials in “the third and fourth levels of the State Department.” In fact, according to the documents I found, during the weeks to follow, the Truman administration — including the first level of the State Department — continued to promote that policy, and went even further.