Remembering the birth of the state

The dizzying, fateful days when Israel came into being resulted in eloquent and passionate support from American commentators across cultural and political spectrums.

WILLIAM PENN FRANK 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The drama of the birth of Israel was embedded in me as I sat next to my father, Louis Geffen, in shul in Atlanta on May 15, 1948, as my grandfather, Rabbi Tobias Geffen, spoke about the monumental event. That milestone has become more meaningful to me and my wife as we have grown older and as two generations of our family, both children and grandchildren, have served and are serving in the IDF. Born and bred in the United States, I have sought to learn more about the American reactions to the birth of this country in 1948 and 1949.
Fortunately, I have known people who spoke out publicly in favor of the establishment of a Jewish nation, and I have found information about many others who worked hard to bring Israel into being.
The most noted journalist in the state of Delaware in the 20th century was William Penn Frank. A native of Brooklyn, he moved in 1911 with his family to Wilmington, Delaware, at the age of six, after his widowed mother remarried. He grew up in the Orthodox Jewish community in the city. As a boy, he hawked merchandise for stores in and around the Jewish neighborhood.
He never liked the job, and went to work as a $10-aweek office boy at the Morning News while still in high school. A year later, in 1923, he was promoted to reporter. When he finished high school two years later, he went to work at the paper full-time. Frank spent his entire career in print and broadcast journalism in Wilmington until his death at age 84 in 1989.
A Zionist devotee in his home city, he wrote many pieces about the need for a Jewish state in the 1930s and ’40s. Wilmington was fortunate to have leaders from the Topkis family who were activists in the Zionist Organization of America. Louis Topkis was the national treasurer of the ZOA, and his brother William came to Palestine in 1923 and helped to make possible the work of the first Jewish tourist guides. While here, William Topkis also wrote a script for an early Ben-Dov film, Palestine Awakening. Frank knew these Zionist advocates and others like them in the community quite well.
In 1947, Frank started a radio show on WILM in Wilmington and continued that program for the next 10 years. As with his writing, he had the freedom to cover whatever topics he felt were of significance. On Sunday night, May 16, 1948, Frank devoted his show to the new Jewish commonwealth.
“Ladies and gentleman of Delaware, something very moving occurred on Friday. In the Middle East, a Jewish nation was born, and our president Harry Truman recognized this old-but-yet-new entity. The founders chose the name of Israel for their country.”
Now he drew his listeners in with a local note: “Only a few blocks from where I am broadcasting is a noted cemetery on Delaware Avenue. At the entrance to that final resting place is a majestic Cypress of Lebanon brought to our community in the 1860s by a sea captain who picked it up in Palestine, nurtured it carefully and brought here for planting. My friends, he saw Wilmington as his promised land and wanted a reminder of the original Promised Land to be placed in the soil here.”
Then Frank got personal.
“I know that most Jews have soil from the Promised Land of their ancestors placed in their coffins before they are buried. They believe that no matter where they are, their remains mingle with the holy soil.
What is so important now, fellow Delawareans, is that there are great numbers of Jews who want to move to Israel and live in that land. The tyrant Hitler killed almost six million Jews – good people – some my relatives.
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There are Jewish survivors residing in DP camps in Germany and Austria. The British have not permitted them to immigrate to Israel so they have continued to suffer even though the war ended in 1945. Now, my friends – a great change has occurred.”
He concluded: “The local Jewish federation, led by Ben Codor, is collecting money to help Israel survive because it has been attacked by its Arab neighbors.
Would it not be wonderful if the DuPonts and other leaders of their stature helped those locally who are working so hard to ensure the reality of Israel? Please, listen closely, my friends, as my technician plays “Hatikva,” the hope – the Jewish national anthem. My hope is that Israel will ever be.”
MY CLOSE friend here in Jerusalem, Rabbi Stuart Geller, originally of Denver, Colorado, shared this family reminiscence with me: “I am older than the State of Israel. I was even born before the age of television and the nightly news. In 1948, my parents listened to the radio, but I don’t remember listening to the news. I was just a kid when my mother let me go with the neighbors to the movies on Saturday afternoon. Mainly cowboy movies,” he recalled.
“Before the cowboys started to ride, we saw the Movietone News. My father, like many Jews of that time, came from an Orthodox home. But economics dictated that he would work on Saturdays. However, his sisters were all married to men who had escaped the Holocaust and came to Denver to maintain their Orthodox ways. I didn’t understand much, but I knew very well that they didn’t drive on Shabbat, let alone go to the movies.”
When Israel was born, Geller had quite an experience at the movies.
“At the end of May 1948, I was sitting in the Bluebird Theater. I was surprised, I would say, startled, to see all my aunts and uncles sitting in that movie theater on Shabbat. They greeted me warmly and told me to watch the screen because this was news from Israel. There on the screen I saw those famous pictures of Jewish people dancing around throughout the country after Israel had declared her independence.
When the news was over, they got up and left.
“Years later, [in 1966,] I was a student in Jerusalem; some of those relatives came for a visit. I told them that I remembered that they went to a cowboy movie on Shabbat. They explained that they still don’t go to the movies on Shabbat, but after all they had been through in Europe, they wanted to see for themselves the first moments of the new state.
“As a small child, I really didn’t come close to understanding the meaning of that moment in a darkened theater in Denver. I don’t recall anything else from 1948, or 1949 or 1950, for that matter, but somehow that May afternoon in 1948 changed my life forever. After visiting Israel on many occasions and studying here as a student during sabbaticals, I chose to make aliya with my wife after retiring from the active rabbinate 11 years ago.”
FROM THE ’30s, Ralph McGill, a journalist from the American South, was committed to the establishment of Israel. Episcopalian by faith, he was editor of the Atlanta Constitution for several decades, from the early ’40s until the late ’60s. In Vienna on assignment in 1938, he visited with a Jewish family and imparted to them a message from a family member in London, which he had memorized. Would that the world had listened closely to what he wrote.
“I sat there in the house, with the lights on because the curtains were drawn, and tried to believe that this was the world of 1938 – that it was not a dream... But it was the truth. I had read and heard the Nazis’ very effective propaganda that such things are not true. I was seeing them.”
The following day, Hitler marched in with his troops and took over Austria. After describing that sad moment, McGill focused on a children’s song that all Nazi youngsters learned: “How beautiful is iron; How beautiful is steel; How beautiful is a Jew at the stake of torture.”
He saw how clearly hatred was being taught to children, and he sensed what the outcome could easily be.
“I came out of Austria convinced, too, that the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine was one which had to be translated into fact. This was long before the gas chambers and crematoriums. I had seen relatively little violence in 1938 – men forced to scrub sidewalks while jeering crowds stood by laughing.
But witnessing human beings reduced and destroyed by the constant pressure of fear and uncertainty was enough to convince me then of the necessity for Palestine, a Jewish state.”
On his return to the Atlanta Constitution that year, he became the executive editor, and through the years rose to be the editor and publisher. During World War II, he continued to write about the “essential need of a Jewish homeland.”
In 1946, Herbert Bayard Swope, winner of the first Pulitzer Prize and head of the Overseas News Agency, sent McGill to Nuremberg, Cairo and Palestine to file stories via this syndicated news agency. He saw this country from one end to the other and wrote seven definitive articles that pinpointed the issues for readers around the world.
After describing the developments in farming and industry, after describing the scientific advances by Jewish researchers, after demonstrating that the land was habitable by both Jews and Arabs, McGill wrote in his last piece: “The problem of Palestine today is an ugly vicious child whose mother was Stupidity and whose father was Aggressive Bigotry.”
His understanding of the pressing need for a haven was based on what he had seen in the DP camps. “I have seen their faces, their graves, the furnace in which their children and loved ones were burned; the camps in which they starved; their surviving old with faces and eyes which reproach the world; their defeated but reviving middle-aged ones and their sometimes militant young.”
McGill concluded by calling on all his readers to recognize why those who had suffered so should now be granted their own place to live.
“I know, of course, that Palestine will not solve the problem,” he wrote. “But it will do this, and only faithless ones of whatever peoples will deny it – it will provide a base, an anchor, a permanent piece of land, a homeland for those who want and need it.”
On his return to the United States, he was sought out to speak for Jewish and Christian groups. In his talks, McGill made it clear, over and over again, that the British Mandate had to end and that there must be a Jewish state established. He was heard over national radio, NBC, addressing a forum that attracted an audience of 1,000 people at Symphony Hall in Boston.
He closed with a line that had become a part of all his presentations: “As long as the Palestine injustice exists, we cannot be comfortable calling ourselves a Christian nation.”
On May 16, 1948, the editorial in the Constitution, written by McGill, opened with these words: “A new state, Israel, comes back from the mists of antiquity.
Lost since Old Testament days, living only on the pages of the Holy Writ and in the minds of dreamers and prophets; wailed for through the centuries by the remnants of the wall of King Solomon’s temple, Israel now emerges as a recognized state, born in war and fighting for its young life as gunfire sounds from Dan to Beersheba.”
Two years later, David Ben-Gurion – via his minister of information, Gershon Agron, founder of The Jerusalem Post – invited McGill and his wife to visit Israel and witness firsthand what he had helped to create.
A memory from the UN building itself has been provided by noted author and journalist Dr. Ruth Gruber: “It was Friday, May 14, 1948. I was sitting in the press section of the United Nations General Assembly in Queens, New York. I felt my head thumping to see who would win the tug of war taking place in Washington.
“On one side was President Harry Truman, who told his aides that with the last British troops leaving Palestine he believed that the Jews had the right to declare their own state. He would see to it that the United States would be the first country to offer recognition.
“On the other side was the American State Department, which wanted the land to be a trusteeship under UN jurisdiction after the British left. The Secretary of State George Marshall was opposed to a Jewish state coming into being.”
Gruber noted that Marshall was so adamant about his position that he had announced publicly that he would refuse to vote for Truman in the election in November 1948.
Sitting in the press section, she joyfully recalled how the tide turned.
Gruber watched Philip Jessup, the US representative to the UN, hurrying up to the speaker’s podium. She assumed he was going to speak in favor of trusteeship and not statehood for Israel.
“Jessup was halfway up the stairs,” she remembered, “ when an AP reporter handed him a dispatch.
Jessup read it, descended the stairs and then disappeared.”
A reporter sitting next to her said, “He’s gone to the bathroom.” She knew better, shaking her head: “He’s gone home.”
The triumph had occurred and was real. She described those unforgettable moments.
“We were handed an AP report. In Tel Aviv, Ben- Gurion had just read the world’s newest proclamation of independence. Eleven minutes later, Harry Truman had recognized Ben-Gurion’s government as the ‘de facto authority’ of the new state. Israel was born.”
IN 1948 the mayor of Philadelphia was Bernard Samuel, a Republican and a Jew. He served from 1941 to 1952 and was well thought of in that city. As soon as Samuel knew that Truman had recognized the new Jewish state, he sent Ben-Gurion a telegram of congratulations, the contents of which were reported in the newspaper on May 16. The mayor focused on some appropriate themes to link the birth of Israel and the 1776 sounds of liberty heralded in Philadelphia.
“On the history-making occasion of the establishment of the independent State of Israel,” he began, “I send to you and your people sincere greetings and best wishes. I realize the magnitude of the task which now faces the people of Israel in the Holy Land. My hope and prayers, sent to you from the cradle city of liberty where freedom was proclaimed 172 years ago, for the success of the Jewish State and for an enduring peace.” David Preston, a noted journalist in Philadelphia, found several items of interest in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Hadassah Cheers Truman’s Actions” was a headline in the newspaper on May 17, 1948. This story came out of Reading, Pennsylvania: “President Truman’s prompt recognition of the new state of Israel was applauded today by speakers at a regional conference, Zionist women’s organization.”
There were 150 delegates there from 35 chapters in Eastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey and Delaware. It was a heady time for all of them, being together at such a historic moment. The speakers were Jack Snyder, who ran Camp Moledet, where young Zionists were then trained; Aliya Naimark from Junior Hadassah; and William Maxwell, president of the Intercollegiate Zionist Federation. On the agenda of the conference was a call to Truman and Congress to lift the embargo on arms shipments to the Middle East.
At the largest rally of over 1,000 people at the YMHA on Broad Street in downtown Philadelphia on May 16, the Inquirer quoted Dr. James G. Heller, who said, “We must not stop with the recognition of Israel, but must belabor the conscience of the United Nations and petition our government for the guns, tanks and arms necessary for the new state to go forward.”
Another speaker, Dr. David Petegorsky – executive director of the American Jewish Congress and my late uncle – raised everyone’s spirits: “President Truman has brought honor to America and joy to all Israel by his recognition of the Land of Israel. The events of the last few months show that the United States can give leadership to the world when that leadership is based on justice and right.”
The Philadelphia community, led by Judge Louis E.Levinthal, did its share in fund-raising. On Monday, November 17, 1948, during the Allied Jewish Appeal’s report luncheon at the Warwick Hotel, Levinthal announced that $6,181,548 had been collected for the rebirth of Israel as a state and a nation.
Another announcement in the Philadelphia area was “B’nai B’rith Youth Will Collect Clothing for Haganah.” It is important to remember that from 1946 to 1948, from all parts of America, Jews and Christians had amassed armaments, clothing, medical and food supplies and shipped them secretly to Palestine via organizations in Europe. Now everything began to be done above board, since Israel was a legitimate nation and needed to be able to protect itself.
A NOTED American leader who worked tirelessly to mobilize American Jewry was Dr. Israel Goldstein, who made aliya along with his wife Dr. Bert Goldstein, notable in her own right. In early May 1948 Goldstein flew to Tel Aviv and participated in the meeting of the Actions Committee of The Jewish Agency – Zionist Organization.
“It was a stirring event when our colleagues from a cut-off Jerusalem were able to reach us – as if they came from the other end of the world. The whole of Palestine was a battlefield and Jerusalem was at the center of the heart of survival,” Goldstein recalled. “It was at that meeting and under those circumstances that the decision was reached to proclaim the Jewish state, and the proclamation was then drafted.”
Goldstein then returned to the US to his Congregation Bnai Jeshurun and to his position as president of the United Jewish Appeal. On May 16, at the celebratory rally in Madison Square Garden in New York, he was one of the speakers, along with Dr. Chaim Weizmann, Dr. Abba Hillel Silver and others.
Then Goldstein made a decision. He asked his congregation for six months’ leave. Elected treasurer of the Jewish Agency, he and his wife went to Israel in December 1948. They purchased a home in Jerusalem, and he assisted in the absorption process during 1949, when almost 400,000 olim arrived. For Pessah that year, he was asked to speak on a radio program that would be transmitted around the world.
“The proclamation of the State of Israel was an act of faith, as great as any in Jewish history, as great an act of faith as that which led Israel of old to plunge into the Red Sea in quest of the Promised Land. There was no turning back then, and there was no turning back a year ago,” he declared.
“And this act of faith has been vindicated by a victory as great and miraculous as yeziat mitzraim, the Exodus from Egypt, and keriat yam suf, splitting of the Red Sea. It has been a wonderful year for Jerusalem and for Israel. For all the deliverance from political oppression and from physical peril, for all the emergence out of darkness into light, and for all the heroic resistance and the final victory, in which men and women, young and old, have played their part, let us joyfully say ‘Hallelujah.’”