The creation of Israel in May of 1948 and its survival afterwards depended in large part on the Truman Administration’s willingness to recognize and support the Jewish state. In the few weeks before independence, President Truman’s commitment wavered. Without the efforts of American Jewish leaders such as Dewey D. Stone and Frank Goldman — and the unlikely efforts of Eddie Jacobson — it is not clear whether Truman would have kept America’s weight behind Israeli statehood.
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted to divide Palestine so that a Jewish national homeland could be created from one of its parts. As Abba Eban observes, “No sooner had the partition resolution been adopted than attempts were made to thwart it.” The surrounding Arab states threatened to make war on any Jewish political entity. The British, who had administered Palestine before partition, took a hands-off policy toward Arab attacks on Jewish settlers.
Most significantly, the American government, which had been championing partition, began to have second thoughts. The outbreak of fighting between Jews and Arabs in Palestine after the partition vote gave the State Department, which had never been enthusiastic about creating a Jewish state, an excuse to ask the United Nations to delay partition and place Palestine under a temporary trusteeship. Partition and the creation of a Jewish homeland might be put on hold.
In contrast to the State Department, President Harry Truman had strongly favored partition. In 1945, soon after Truman took office, European Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann convinced him of the justice of creating a homeland for Jewish Holocaust survivors. Truman considered many American-born Zionists excessively strident critics of Administration policy, however, and in the early months of 1948, while reevaluating American policy, Truman refused to meet with any American Zionist leaders — even with Weizmann, a man he admired. The Administration’s positive attitude toward the creation of the State of Israel seemed on the verge of changing.
On March 12, 1948, Dewey D. Stone of Brockton, MA, spent the day in New York City with his close friend and mentor Weizmann, who was troubled by Truman’s refusal to meet. Stone was a leading American Zionist who would become chairman of the United Jewish Appeal, United Israel Appeal and the Jewish Agency. On that night, Stone returned to Boston to attend a B’nai B’rith dinner at the Parker House Hotel at which he and Frank Goldman, national president of B’nai B’rith, were being honored. Stone confided Weizmann’s distress to Goldman regarding Truman’s refusal to meet. Goldman replied that, by coincidence, he had just visited Kansas City, where he presented a B’nai B’rith award to Eddie Jacobson, who was none other than Harry Truman’s former partner in a clothing store. Goldman offered to call Jacobson to urge him to intervene with Truman. Stone and Goldman borrowed a handful of coins from others at the dinner, went to the hotel lobby and phoned Jacobson.
When Goldman put Stone on the phone, the New Englander quickly surmised that Jacobson knew little of the issues and, however close they might be personally, would have a hard time making a political or moral case to the President. Stone invited Jacobson to meet him in New York as soon as possible. The two men met for breakfast, Stone briefed Jacobson on the issues, then brought him to Weizmann’s apartment where, according to Eban, “like so many people of all stations and many countries before him, [Jacobson] fell immediately under Weizmann’s spell. After a few hours he left Weizmann’s apartment, intellectually and emotionally prepared to exercise an influence on Truman.”
Jacobson hopped a train for Washington and, according to Eban, walked in unannounced on his old friend, the President of the United States. Truman was happy to see Jacobson, but reluctant to be pressured about the Zionist issue. Stymied, Jacobson pointed to the bust of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office and told Truman, “Weizmann was a national leader cast in the same mould and temperament as the great Tennessee President whom Truman revered.” Truman laughed, made an off-color remark and told Jacobson to make an appointment for Weizmann to see him.
On March 18, 1948, the two leaders met in Washington. Truman promised Weizmann to continue to work on behalf of the establishment of Israel. He also vowed that, when the British Mandate expired on May 14, 1948, he would recognize the state immediately. Moments after midnight on May 14, as the British withdrew, Weizmann declared the creation of Israel. True to his word, Truman immediately extended recognition on behalf of the United States.
“It was evident,” Eban concludes, “that Dewey Stone together with Frank Goldman and with the aid of a few humble coins had been able to make a deep impact on the central issues affecting Jewish destiny.” One might add that Eddie Jacobson’s plain talk to his friend, Harry Truman, helped prevent a change in American policy toward Israel and, possibly, the course of modern Jewish history.