The State Department’s campaign against the ‘Jewish state’ idea—in 1954

Click photo to download. Caption: Secretary of State John Kerry, pictured here with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni, last week called it a “mistake” to continue to ask for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state in efforts to reach a peace agreement. Credit: State Department.

By Rafael Medoff/JNS.org

Secretary of State John Kerry’s remark last week that it is a “mistake” to insist that the Palestinian Authority recognize Israel as a Jewish state brings to mind a little-known episode in the early 1950s, when the Eisenhower administration briefly embraced the notion that Israel should stop identifying itself as a Jewish state.

The key figure in this unusual chapter in U.S.-Israel relations was a young U.S. Army officer named Henry A. Byroade, who in 1952 was picked by President Harry Truman to be Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, although he had no Middle East-related experience or education.

According to a previously unpublished interview with Byroade in the files of the Truman Presidential Library, in Missouri, the president summoned Byroade for a discussion in late 1952, shortly before he left office. “I was very critical of both the policies of Israel and our policy towards Israel,” Byroade recalled. “And he outlined his view[s] for me, which really were very surprisingly similar my own. I left there extremely encouraged that we would get White House backing for what I called an even-handed, balanced policy position between both Arabs and Israel.”

Click photo to download. Caption: Pictured in June 1953 is Secretary of State John Foster Dulles delivering a Mideast policy speech ghostwritten by Henry A. Byroade. In the speech, Dulles said the U.S. would not become “a backer of expansionist Zionism” and proposed that Jerusalem be ruled by “the world religious community,” and not be Israel’s capital. Credit: Courtesy of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

Bryoade reasoned that if Truman, who had received considerable Jewish support, was ready to back away from Israel, then his successor Dwight Eisenhower, who had much weaker ties to American Jewry, would be even less supportive of Israel. And he was right.

In April 1953, Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett visited Washington and got a first-hand taste of how Byroade was reshaping U.S. policy. Byroade demanded that Israel make territorial concessions to the Arabs, and threatened Sharett that the Eisenhower administration would present “our own peace plan,” which Israel might not like.

On the same day Byroade met with Sharett, two leaders of the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism (ACJ) met with President Dwight Eisenhower. The Council had provoked tremendous controversy with its lobbying in the 1940s against creation of a Jewish state. What is not widely realized is that even after Israel was established, the Council continued its activities and, in fact, had even more impact on U.S. policy than previously.

ACJ officials Lessing Rosenwald and George Levison urged the president to consider American Jews a purely religious group with no obligations to Israel. They also denounced the idea of American Jewish immigration to Israel and said the Israelis should become “Middle Eastern” like their neighbors. Levison came away from the meeting convinced that Eisenhower was “in general agreement with our views.”

Afterwards, they visited the State Department and delivered a memorandum making the same points. Assistant Secretary Byroade took the memo with him when he accompanied Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to Israel in May. Parts of the ACJ memo found their way into a landmark Mideast policy speech, ghostwritten by Byroade, that Dulles delivered in June. 

Click photo to download. Caption: Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (left) shakes hands with Henry A. Byroade, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, in March 1955. Credit: Bibliotheca Alexandrina via Wikimedia Commons.

Dulles vowed to improve relations with the Arabs, said the U.S. would not become “a backer of expansionist Zionism,” and proposed that Jerusalem be ruled by “the world religious community,” and not be Israel’s capital. Challenging Israel’s identity, Dulles declared that Israel “should become a part of the Near East community and cease to look upon itself… as alien to this community.”

Jewish leaders hoped the speech did not represent a shift in U.S. policy, but those hopes were soon dashed. When the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Abba Eban met with Dulles in October, the secretary ticked off a lift of demands that Byroade had prepared for him: Israel must “re-examine its policy of encouraging large-scale immigration,” refrain from counter-terror raids, and “bear her share of the Arab refugee burden.”

By the spring of 1954, Byroade was ready to go public. Sixty years ago next month (on April 19, 1954), in an address to the World Affairs Council, in Dayton, he called on Israelis to “look upon yourselves as a Middle Eastern state, rather than as a headquarters… of a world-wide grouping of people of a particular religious faith.” He also demanded that Israel “drop the attitude of the conqueror” and halt what he called “retaliatory killings.”

Then, with the approval of Secretary Dulles, Byroade delivered the keynote address at the ACJ’s annual convention, in Philadelphia on May 1. His public association with the anti-Zionist group appalled Jewish leaders.  And what he said at the conference was even worse. 

Byroade repeated his demand that Israel become “a Middle Eastern state.” He targeted Jewish immigration to Israel as a central obstacle to peace, asserting that Israel’s calls for “greatly expanded immigration” convinced the Arabs that it was planning “a future attempt at territorial expansion.”

The Israeli government filed an official protest against the “unjustified interference in matters which are purely Israel's own concern.” American Zionist leader Emanuel Neumann blasted “Byroadeism” for “negating the hopes and dreams and the religious emotions of countless generations.” In a dramatic demonstration of Israel’s commitment to aliyah, keynote speakers at 19 different government-sponsored Israel Independence Day events throughout Israel the following week focused their remarks on the need for increased immigration.

Rafael Medoff

The Eisenhower administration stood by Byroade and his comments. But the controversial policy he was shaping soon withered in the face of Arab intransigence. As Byroade discovered during his subsequent stint as U.S. ambassador in Cairo, Arab leaders such as Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser could not be appeased by Israeli concessions on immigration, territory, or refugees. Their unflinching refusal to accept Israel’s existence made it impossible for the Byroade line to be maintained as America’s Mideast policy in the years to follow.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is coauthor, with Chaim I. Waxman, of the “Historical Dictionary of Zionism.”

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Posted on March 18, 2014 and filed under Features, Israel, U.S..