Book Review: 'To the Gates of Jerusalem'

The third volume in a series US representative James McDonald’s diaries and papers covers his work for the Jewish people from the end of World War II to the 1947 UN decision to partition Palestine.

the ‘Exodus 1947’ after the British takeover. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
the ‘Exodus 1947’ after the British takeover.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The arrival of special US representative James McDonald in Haifa on August 12, 1948, was a welcome and encouraging first development in Israel’s struggle for world recognition. McDonald was president Harry Truman’s personal representative and an old friend of the Jewish people. Within a short time, he won Israel full US diplomatic recognition and a $100,000 US Export-Import Bank loan for development.
To the Gates of Jerusalem – the third volume in a series of McDonald’s edited diaries and papers – covers his work for the Jewish people from the end of World War II up to the November 29, 1947, UN decision to partition Palestine. It witnesses the terrific struggle between the tiny Yishuv as it demanded its rights and free immigration, and the powerful British intrigue. It recalls how British foreign secretary Ernest Bevin sought to eliminate the Jewish Agency, disarm the Hagana and enforce the unfair British-American Grade-Morrison “Provincial Autonomy Plan,” which would give the Jews 10 percent, the Arabs 40%, and Britain 50% of the Palestinian territory.
The November 13, 1945, creation of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry Regarding the Problem of European Jewry and Palestine was Bevin’s idea, his delaying tactic. Bevin sought American financial assistance, and yet had to justify his refusal to honor Truman’s demand to let 100,000 Jewish refugees from the European detention camps into Palestine. Bevin believed that his six well-chosen British delegates would easily outsmart the six naive Americans on the committee. However, he had underestimated the honesty and strength of character of James McDonald, who stubbornly refused to sign the committee’s unanimous final report unless all his demands were met.
McDonald was born in Coldwater, Ohio, on November 29, 1886. He grew up in Albany, Indiana, where his parents owned a small hotel. As a history and political science student at Indiana and Harvard universities, he developed a deep, humane interest in world affairs. Chairman of the League of Free Nations Association since 1919, he promoted public awareness of global affairs among American leaders, including Franklin D. Roosevelt. This led to his appointment in 1933 as the League of Nations high commissioner for refugees – mostly Jews escaping from Hitler’s Germany.
As chairman of Roosevelt’s Consultative Committee for Political Refugees at the 1938 Evian conference, McDonald soon found out that the doors of the free world were closed to Jews. The study of Heinrich Graetz’s Jewish history completed his knowledge of their predicament.
McDonald expressed his worst fears to a friend, famous Jewish comedian Eddie Cantor, who tirelessly raised money for the United Jewish Appeal and had connections in Washington. “The more I think about this new Commission... the more tragic I think it would be if it failed to face the terrible realities.... The danger is that after months of costly delay, during which the toll would be inevitably heavy among the victims of insensate hatred and the war, nothing constructive will be done,” Mc- Donald wrote. How right he was.
Presiding over the six-man US delegation to the committee was anti-Zionist judge Joseph C. Hutcheson. The remaining four members – Dr. Frank Ayelotte, a Quaker and Anglophile; Frank W. Burton, a journalist; William Phillips, a diplomat; and Bartley C. Crum, a lawyer and devoted Catholic – were hardly more sympathetic. McDonald soon found out that the American members had to investigate the situation, while their British colleagues received their instructions from London and were expected to look after their imperial interests only.
Four prominent American scholars joined forces to introduce, edit, explain and publish every single item of McDonald’s diary: Norman J.W. Goda, professor of Holocaust studies at the University of Florida; Barbara McDonald Stewart, Mc- Donald’s daughter and author of US Government Policy on Refugees from Nazism, 1933-1940; Severin Hochberg, a historian at the US Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies; and Richard Breitman, professor of history at American University and author of FDR and the Jews.
They introduce us to the history of Palestine from the Balfour Declaration up to 1946. The committee’s hearings and the diary started in Washington on December 13, 1945. There were 37 witnesses, who first submitted a written statement of their views and who included the who’s-who of both the sworn enemies of Zionism and its most dedicated supporters. The committee’s unanimous report was published in Lausanne, Switzerland, on April 22, 1946.
Editors’ comments and explanations follow each of McDonald’s daily notes, completing the picture. The witnesses included politicians, scholars, clergy, soldiers and generals, past and present high commissioners – all of them distinguished figures in their time. All of the Arabs, except for the Lebanese Maronites, had rejected Zionism; the inspiring addresses of Chaim Weizmann, Albert Einstein and David Ben-Gurion belong to history.
McDonald, who met privately with halutzim (Zionist pioneers) and fellahin, churchmen and rabbis, wrote down his own comments and observations. In Lausanne, he stood fast against 11 of his colleagues and ultimately won the battle: The committee recommended unanimously that 100,000 Jewish refugees be immediately admitted into Palestine – a demand Bevin promptly turned down, breaking his promise that he would honor whatever was approved unanimously, and demanding that Jews ought to disarm first.
Within a few months, Bevin and US State Department official Henry Grady had cooked up a new joint British-American program, the Grady-Morrison “communal” plan for Palestine. It was again McDonald who, after two hours of tough discussions, succeeded in persuading Truman to recall Grady and cancel this project, to the great disappointment of the British.
Finally, on May 13, 1947, the UN created the Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) to study the problem anew. This led to the UN’s crucial November 29, 1947, vote on the partition of Palestine.
McDonald’s fascinating diary – which includes a visit to the Nuremberg Court, where the top Nazis were tried – offers scores of fascinating, long-forgotten episodes.
In one instance, he freed Palestine Post Beirut correspondent Yehuda Hellman from a Lebanese jail and brought him in his car to Jerusalem. The diary offers a rare picture of the workings of the world’s diplomacy, revealing many secrets of the US State Department, the British Foreign Office, and the last days of the Mandatory Government of Palestine. While it is true that the committee failed in its ultimate purpose, it was a stepping stone on the hard road to Israel’s ultimate independence.