It was perhaps the most important meeting in Jewish history, but it was also simply a discussion between two old friends.
Harry S. Truman was the president of the United States, the most powerful man in the world. Across from him in the Oval Office sat Eddie Jacobson, his former business partner and army buddy. Chaim Weizmann, a Zionist leader, was in Washington and Truman refused to meet him; Jacobson had come to the White House to ask him to reconsider.
The discussion did not begin well. Truman had not been in the best of moods, and Jacobson had been warned by one of the president’s aides not to raise the topic. But after a passionate argument from Jacobson, including the fascinating comparison of Weizmann and Andrew Jackson, the president concluded the meeting by saying: “You win, you bald-headed son of as bitch. I will see him.”
The rest, as they say, was history.
After weighing personal, political and strategic concerns, on May 14, 1948, Truman acted in support of the establishment of a Jewish state. The state was declared by then-chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel David Ben-Gurion, who went on to become Israel’s first prime minister. Truman recognized the State of Israel just 11 minutes after the new nation was proclaimed.
The story of his recognition of Israel is more than an invaluable history lesson—it contains a central theme that should resonate with anyone who cares about the American-Israeli relationship today.
Truman’s decision, like that of any world leader, was based on a variety of factors, but there’s no question that his sense of the historic justice of the choice was a main consideration. He felt so strongly about this decision that he went against the arguments of his own Secretary of State, George Marshall.
It’s difficult for us to understand the role that Marshall once held. Winston Churchill had called him the “organizer” of the allied victory in World War II, and Truman had appointed him to nearly every position of importance in his administration.
Yet as much as his head followed Marshall’s arguments about the challenges created by recognition, Truman’s heart was with the Jewish people, who had been denied their state for 2,000 years.
Today, there are voices in government who do not see Israel as a paragon of liberal values. They point to Israel’s struggles with the Palestinians or extremist voices within the Jewish state. Some have even compared Israel to oppressive regimes around the globe.
No nation is perfect, but there are few more robust examples of liberal democratic values on this planet than those that Israel embodies. Israel’s new government represents a remarkable display of unity and diversity, comprised of eight political parties from across the ideological spectrum, including a Muslim Arab party (Ra’am) in the ruling coalition for the first time in the nation’s history; Arabs jurists have also served on the Israeli Supreme Court.
To be sure, like minorities in any country, Israel’s Arab citizens face discrimination. But they are among the freest Muslims in the world. That is not hyperbole, it is objective fact.
Further, Israel is the only Middle East nation that fully protects the human rights of women and the LGBTQ+ community, and a place where immigrants make significant contributions to the nation’s growth and prosperity.
Meanwhile, for all his great wisdom, history proved Marshall wrong and Truman correct about Israel as a strategic asset. The strategic value of Israel to the United States was crucial in 1948 and remains of paramount importance now. The reason is simple: Democracies are the most loyal friends. In a chaotic region, Israel is the only Mideast ally that can be expected to consistently support America’s geopolitical decisions, as well as be an indispensable ally in the war on terror. This is Truman’s legacy in the region.
Now, this story has come full-circle as my organization, the Jewish Agency for Israel, has launched a new partnership with the Truman Library Institute to work together to increase education and awareness of the history and legacy of Truman’s support for the creation of modern-day Israel. We will collaborate on new and existing educational programs that reach audiences in Israel and America, including schoolchildren, Jewish Agency shlichim (Israeli emissaries) who serve U.S. communities and the general Israeli public with the overall objective of strengthening both historic knowledge and current ties between Americans and Israelis.
As the museum’s executive director Kurt Graham correctly noted, it was Truman’s relationship with the leaders of the Jewish Agency that played a crucial role in this moment in history. Both organizations in the new partnership have an obligation to work together to educate the world about this history.
The Jewish Agency is honored to partner with the museum to honor Truman’s memory. At the same time, all members of the pro-Israel community bear a special obligation to the former president. Truman set the stage for the special relationship between the United States and Israel—a relationship that has endured and only strengthened over the decades, despite some bumps along the road.
The Israel of 1948 was not perfect, nor is the Israel of today. Yet like Truman and Jacobson, we need to see the overall big picture that a Jewish state is worth fighting for, and that America must always stand behind this beacon of democracy.
Dan Elbaum is head of North America at The Jewish Agency for Israel and the president and CEO of Jewish Agency International Development.