This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily and is
used with their permission.
Eddie Jacobson was once a folk hero among American Jews, and even today he is
far from forgotten. In their authoritative book A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman
and the Founding of Israel, Allis and Ronald Radosh tell how Truman’s old
business partner from Missouri did his part to bring the State of Israel into
Jacobson made his greatest contribution in March 1948, when the
US government was considering whether to withdraw its support for the United
Nations’ recently adopted plan for the partition of Palestine. American
Zionists, frustrated by president Truman’s refusal to hear their arguments,
struggled to get Chaim Weizmann, their most irresistible statesman, through the
White House door. Only thanks to Jacobson’s intervention did they finally
“You win, you baldheaded son of a bitch,” Truman muttered to his
pal before agreeing to see the man whom Jacobson identified – falsely – as his
personal hero. During the subsequent hush-hush White House meeting, the
president assured Weizmann that the US would continue to favor
In doing so, Truman cast aside the anti-Zionist policy designed
by a much greater celebrity than Eddie Jacobson: George F. Kennan.
first head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff and one of the most
important of the “Wise Men,” the architects of America’s Cold War strategy,
Kennan was generally preoccupied in the late 1940s with Europe and the Far East.
But in January and February of 1948 he produced position papers that called for
abandoning the plan to create two new states in Palestine and for establishing a
UN trusteeship over the country instead.
As John Lewis Gaddis explains in
in his recent, justly acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning George F Kennan:
An American Life, Kennan’s opposition to the creation of Israel stemmed from his
overall conception of American interests in the Middle East in the early Cold
Kennan feared that, one way or another, establishing a Jewish state
would play into the hands of the Soviets and, worse, might require the
deployment of American troops to enforce partition, an act that would be
“violently resented by the whole Arab world.” Kennan, according to Gaddis,
“failed to consider the humanitarian implications of withdrawing American
support for a Jewish state only three years after the world had learned of the
Holocaust.” But one should not leap to the conclusion that Kennan, like other
State Department officials of his day, was some kind of anti- Semite. He may
have uttered some unsavory things about Jews here and there; but he also went
out of his way, at his diplomatic posts in Czechoslovakia and Germany in the
late 1930s, to help Jewish friends and acquaintances escape from Hitler’s
Europe. Nor was Kennan one of the State Department’s notorious Arabists,
although he might have become one if his appointment in 1937 to the US consulate
in Jerusalem had not been canceled at the last minute. Abruptly reassigned to
duties in Washington, he gave up his study of – Yiddish.
WHAT GADDIS fails
to note is another concern of Kennan’s in 1948: that the establishment of a
Jewish state would disserve the best interests not only of the United States but
of the survivors of the Holocaust themselves. As Kennan and Loy Henderson
declared at the time, it was “improbable that the Jewish state could survive
over any considerable period of time in the face of the combined assistance...
for the Arabs of Palestine from the Arab states.” In the years following his
unsuccessful effort to prevent its birth, Kennan does not seem to have paid much
attention to the Jewish state. The 400 pages that Gaddis devotes to his
subject’s subsequent career as a diplomat, scholar and public intellectual
include virtually no mention of the country. But this in itself is
Kennan, a State Department veteran who brooded frequently and
publicly about the detrimental impact of ethnic minorities on the formation of
US foreign policy – he was, in the end, an isolationist – is just the sort of
person from whom one might have expected complaints, toward the end of the 20th
century, about the “Jewish lobby.” Yet on those few occasions when he did speak
about Israel, his remarks were essentially quite favorable.
In his 1977
book The Cloud of Danger, for instance, Kennan affirms that “when we lent our
support, nearly thirty years ago,” to Israel’s establishment, “we accepted a
certain share of the responsibility for the success of the undertaking.” If this
affirmation sounds somewhat rueful, the same cannot be said of what follows: “I
am fully aware of, and indeed personally share in, the deep concern of a great
part of American opinion for the survival and the prospering of this new state.
I interpret this concern as a commitment of sorts – a commitment not to the
Israelis but to ourselves – a commitment to do all in our power, short of the
actual dispatch and employment of combat forces, to assure that Israel continues
to exist – that its people are not destroyed, enslaved, or driven into the sea
by hostile neighbors.” There were limits, Kennan thought, to what the US should
be prepared to do for Israel; but there were also limits to what it should try
to make Israel do.
Explicitly taking issue with George Ball, another State
Department veteran and no friend of Israel, Kennan argued that the terms of any
Arab-Israeli agreement should be “left for direct negotiation between Israel and
her Arab neighbors.” For it was “they, after all, not we, who would have to live
with any settlement that might be achieved.” For example, it might be good for
Israel to give up the Golan Heights; “but how can we be sure? What would our
responsibility be if we urged this upon them and it turned out to be
disastrous?” These observations constitute only a very small part of George
Kennan’s 1977 tour d’horizon. But anyone who recalls his opposition to the
creation of the State of Israel in 1948 should be aware of them.
occasions when it is useful to be reminded that a wise man has learned something
from experience.The writer is a professor of Judaic studies and history
at Binghamton University, and the senior contributing editor of the
Review of Books. This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily and is
used with their permission.