What did America’s first envoy think of the Jewish state?

James McDonald championed Israel despite the State Department.

US and Israeli flags (photo credit: REUTERS)
US and Israeli flags
(photo credit: REUTERS)
“Are you a Democrat?” US president Harry S Truman’s special adviser, Clark Clifford, asked James McDonald on the phone in June 1948.
Once McDonald replied in the affirmative, Clifford informed him that he had been named as Washington’s first head of diplomatic mission to the newly established State of Israel. Later, McDonald was upgraded to ambassador.
The question is the opening entry in a diary of McDonald’s, parts of which appear for the first time today in The Jerusalem Post.
After his 28-month tour of duty, McDonald published a memoir called My Mission in Israel, 1948-1951. The book omitted many pithy details, because of its release so close to the unfolding of momentous events. But all has not been lost, thanks to what McDonald did write down in his own private diary.
McDonald, his daughter Barbara (Bobby) and assistants arrived in Israel in August 1948, in the middle of the War of Independence. Signs of war were in plain view. Buildings in Tel Aviv were damaged by Egyptian Air Force bombs. It was difficult to find an apartment, and McDonald’s entourage took over a few rooms on the second floor of the Gat-Rimon Hotel on the Tel Aviv beach. Above them, on the third floor, lived the Soviet Union’s diplomatic mission. The flags of the two powers flew next to each other on the hotel’s masts.
“The first sight of the rooms was a shock,” an entry in McDonald’s diary reads, adding how the space “was tiny, there was no lavatory and opened to friendly eyes or otherwise from three sides and no telephone in the room.”
“There was shortage of everything” reflected his daughter Barbara in the introduction to the new book. “No one was starving, but food was in limited variety. It took weeks to get a telephone or to get utilities hooked up and a new refrigerator had to be ordered from the States.”
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During most of his tenure, McDonald expressed sympathy for Israel, accepted most of its positions and repelled British and UN motions that sided with the Arabs. His direct line to the White House and then-president Truman helped him to influence and shape to a certain degree US policy designed by the State Department.
For example, he reported that prime minister David Ben-Gurion and his cabinet would never agree to the return of Palestinian refugees, which he estimated at 300,000, nor the peace plan put forward at the time by UN special envoy Count Folke Bernadotte.
McDonald religiously dictated diary entries to his daughter, Barbara Ann McDonald Stewart, and secretaries whenever he had the time. For 50 years, the diary was held in private hands and inaccessible to the public. In 2004, it was found and handed over to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Historians Richard Breitman, Norman Goda and Severin Hochberg were entrusted with the task of editing the diary and giving it an historical context with an elaborated background and references. Barbara McDonald assisted in the endeavor.
Between 2007 and 2017, three volumes were published jointly by the Indiana University Press and the Holocaust Museum. Now the fourth volume, which editors see as the most significant, has come to light, titled Envoy to the Promised Land: The diaries and papers of James McDonald 1948-1951. Barbara died at the age of 89 in December 2015, just after the manuscript was edited.
The diary has a lot of entries and comments about his meetings with Israeli leaders and officials discussing the burning military and diplomatic issues during the 1948 War of Independence and the first two years after the establishment of the Jewish state. Most of these topics are well known and have been deeply covered by hundreds of books and articles, based on declassified official documents released by Israeli, American, British and Arab archives. Regardless, it is no less interesting to read McDonald’s personal impressions and insights depicting the first days of newly born Israel and its daily life, impressions which were usually excluded from his and his embassy staff’s official reports.
James Grover McDonald was born in Ohio in 1886 and completed first and second degrees in history, political science and international relations at Indiana University. Later he taught at Harvard University and worked as a commentator on international affairs for NBC Radio.
In April 1933, during a tour of Europe, he met privately in Berlin with Adolf Hitler. In the second volume of his diary, the horrifying and prophetic sentence appears: “I will do the thing that the rest of the world would like to do,” said Hitler. “It doesn’t know how to get rid of the Jews. I will show them.”
The shocked McDonald reached the conclusion already at that early stage that the Nazi regime was murderous and that Hitler should be believed. The future ambassador to Israel became a philo-semite. He joined the League of Nations, worked to resettle Jewish refugees, deplored Nazi racism and criticized the silence and apathy of the democratic states and their appeasement.
Upon returning to America, he joined the editorial board of The New York Times and worked as a special consultant on refugee matters to then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt. After the Second World War, president Truman appointed him to be a member of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, whose findings planted the seed for the UN Partition Resolution of November 29, 1947, to establish a Jewish state and an Arab state in British Mandatory Palestine.
McDonald’s support for Jewish refugees and a Jewish state made him unsuitable to be an ambassador to Israel, in the eyes of then-secretary of state George Marshal and the senior echelon of the State Department, many of whom were Arabists and even tainted with antisemitism. For them, McDonald was a Zionist and a sympathizer of communism.
His boss at the Times, publisher and editor-in-chief Arthur Sulzberger, was also a staunch anti-Zionist. Marshal threatened that, if the US did not slow down its readiness to recognize the Jewish state, he would not vote for Truman in the forthcoming 1948 presidential election. Truman was not impressed.
His decision to appoint McDonald to lead the mission in Israel derived precisely from his suspicions and distrust of the State Department. “I shall expect you to keep me personally informed,” the president wrote him in a letter. “Let me assure you that you have my fullest confidence and support.”
To make life tougher for him, State Department officials tried to reduce McDonald’s salary to $15,000 annually. After wheeling and dealing, McDonald managed to get the same salary and amenities as the US ambassador to Egypt.
Before arriving in Israel, McDonald met in Switzerland with Dr. Chaim Weizmann, who would become the first president of Israel. Weizmann complained that the Provisional Government of Israel led by Ben-Gurion was not sending him money for his living expenses and was not in a hurry to bring him back to Israel. Weizmann asked McDonald to raise his problems with the Israeli leaders and McDonald promised to do so.
A few weeks after McDonald’s arrival in Israel, he moved to an official residence, a big house in the Tel Binyamin neighborhood of Ramat Gan. Today the house is situated on a street called McDonald, named after the ambassador. The rent was enormous in those days.
The owner, Lazar Braudo, was one of the founders of the Zionist movement in South Africa and chairman of the Anglo-Palestine bank, now Bank Leumi. He demanded rent of $10,000 a year with a contract for three years.
The State Department allocation was only $6,000. McDonald complained, but Braudo was a tough businessman and refused to give the American diplomat a discount. McDonald liked the house and decided to pay the difference – $4,000 a year, or 40% of his salary – out of his pocket.
McDonald’s troubles with the State Department never ended. “The State Department’s discussions on Israel for a long time deliberately excluded McDonald,” said one of his editors, Prof. Norman Goda.
Immediately upon his arrival, the new ambassador began his rounds with Israeli leaders and officials. He met with Golda (Meyerson) Meir, who was heading to be Israel’s first ambassador to Moscow. When he told her about Dr. Weizmann’s complaints, she rejected it out of hand.
“He could not stand the heat,” she told McDonald, referring to Weizmann’s scheduled return to assume the office of state president, “and would not in any case consider returning before September 15.”
McDonald, like the entire US administration, was concerned about the “communist orientation” of Israeli socialist leaders and a possible “communist seizure” of power. Meir assured him that, knowing well the kibbutzim and the Histadrut trades union federation, it would never happen.
After meeting with Ben-Gurion, he filled a long diplomatic report with a few interesting remarks about the prime minister’s wife, Paula. “She is an old-fashioned, motherly person quite unawed by her husband, with a good sense of humor.”
According to historian Norman Goda, one of McDonald’s biggest achievements was diplomatic: “The Bernadotte Plan was watered down beyond recognition, sanctions were avoided and Israel got past a very dangerous diplomatic period. In the broader sense, McDonald got the State Department to understand something of the Israeli mentality.”
Bernadotte had suggested that Israel should agree to receive Palestinian refugees, surrender the Negev to the Arab state or Egyptian control and agree that Jerusalem would be the capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Trans-Jordan.
“Had [Bernadotte] known of the Jewish millennial prayers for their return to Jerusalem, he could not [have] put forward his proposal,” McDonald wrote.
Another editor of the book, Richard Brietman, has some short advice for David Friedman, the new US ambassador to Israel: “Read McDonald’s diaries.”