Streetwise: McDonald Street, Netanya

James Grover McDonald, the first US ambassador to Israel, dedicated himself to saving Germany's Jews.

McDonald street 88 248 (photo credit: David Deutsch)
McDonald street 88 248
(photo credit: David Deutsch)
McDonald Street in Netanya is home to the Orthodox synagogue known to all and sundry as "McDonald's," a predominantly Anglo community full of elderly Brits and Americans who have retired to the seaside town in their golden years. One wonders how many who turn up for their weekly orisons have the remotest idea who McDonald was. In fact, James Grover McDonald was the first US ambassador to Israel. But he was so much more than that. He kept a diary which recorded his meetings with some of the history-making personalities of the 1930s, and his activities on behalf of the Jews back in the '30s when no one would listen. His diary, which was never intended for publication, was dictated to his secretary at the end of each day, as he considered himself a better speaker than a writer. One can surmise that there are few entries of the "schnitzel for lunch, walked the dog" variety. In a number of key diplomatic posts he had access to the highest levels of government in Europe and the United States. The diaries, which began in 1922, record events up to 1936. In his capacity as the League of Nations high commissioner for refugees from 1933 to 1935, he saw firsthand what the Nazis were plotting and believed, long before many German Jews had internalized the threat, that Hitler would destroy European Jewry. He was born in Coldwater, Ohio, in 1886 and as his mother was German, he spoke the language fluently. He studied at Harvard and became friendly with visiting German students who later became prominent Nazis and in his work as chairman of the Foreign Policy Association, a job he held from 1919 to 1933, he regularly visited Germany. The Nazi officials, charmed by his fluent German and aquiline features, spoke openly about their plans for the Jews. On April 4, 1933, he records his meeting with two Nazi officials. "I looked forward to an informing analysis of the Nazi economic program. Instead, after we discussed it for 10 or 15 minutes, both Daitz and Ludecke drifted back to the subject of the Jews, which seems to be an obsession with so many of the Nazis... The casual expressions used by both men in speaking of the Jews were such as to make one cringe, because one would not speak so of even a most degenerate people. "When I indicated my disbelief in their racial theories, they said what other Nazis had said: 'But surely you, a perfect type of Aryan, could not be unsympathetic to our views'... I had the impression that they really do set unbelievable store by such physical characteristics as long heads and light hair." SO CONVINCED was he that the Jews were marked for destruction in Germany that he appealed to the international community to help settle them outside the Reich but had very little success. As Deborah Lipstadt wrote in her review of the diaries, now published as a book, Advocate for the Doomed, "McDonald, unlike many of his contemporaries, tried to make a difference in what would become a unique story of doom and destruction." In December 1935 he resigned in protest at the lack of support for his work. Later he played a role in the creation of Israel acting as an intermediary between the Truman administration and the founding fathers. Today all his private diaries are in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and how they ended up there is a story in itself. In May 2003 the museum's library director received a letter from the daughter of the man who was going to write McDonald's biography, saying her father had died prematurely and she possessed about 500 pages of the diaries. She delivered the writings to the museum and the archivist realized immediately that not only was the collection of huge historical importance but that they represented only a fraction of his total writings. Carrying out painstaking investigations, he discovered that the rest of the material was held by McDonald's daughter, Barbara McDonald Stewart, also a historian. She agreed to donate the 10,000 typed pages of diary entries to the museum and agreed to coedit them for publication. The first volume, covering the years 1932-1935, appeared in 2007. After he retired as ambassador to Israel, McDonald - who had been on conversational terms with Hitler, Roosevelt, Cardinal Pacelli (the future Pius XII) and Chaim Weizmann - continued as a passionate Zionist and helped to sell Israel Bonds until his death in 1964. He certainly deserves a street, a synagogue and other fitting memorials as a great friend of Israel and the Jews.