Most of this column is based on Allis and Ronald Radosh, “A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel.”
Harry Truman had a friend in Kansas City, Eddie Jacobson. They jointly ran a canteen in the military. Later they ran a clothing store together for about one year.
Jacobson was not well-versed on the issue of Zionism. But Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld had several meetings with him and Jacobson was very impressed and promised to take him to Truman. In June 1946, Jacobson and Lelyveld met Truman and discussed the situation in Palestine.
In Oct. 1947, Jacobson wrote to Truman, appealing him to have the U.S. vote in favor of partition, and a few days after the vote, Jacobson went to the White House to thank him.
The time now is Jan-Feb. 1948. The State Dept., never supportive of a Jewish state, was trying to sabotage it. Their plan was to have the U.N. approve a trusteeship instead of partition. The pretext was that this change was needed to prevent the outbreak of war.
The American Zionist leaders realized that the only one who could prevent the State Dept.’s maneuvers was Truman. But Truman had banned their leaders from the White House. Truman wrote in his memoirs: “The Jewish pressure on the White House did not diminish in the days following the partition vote… Individuals and groups asked me, usually in rather quarrelsome and emotional ways, to stop the Arabs, to keep the British from supporting the Arabs, to furnish American soldiers, to do this, that, and the other…I found it necessary to give instructions that I did not want to be approached by any more spokesmen….”
The American Zionist leaders then thought of Chaim Weizmann, whom they knew Truman liked and respected. (The two had met previously in Nov. 1947 when Weizmann was able to convince Truman to keep the Negev and Eilat in the proposed Jewish state.) After the partition vote, Weizmann had stopped briefly in London and was looking forward to going home. His health was not good. But the Jewish Agency cabled him that he was needed back in the U.S. The boat with Weizmann and his wife landed in New York in Feb. 1948. He wrote to Truman on Feb. 10, asking for an audience before Truman left on vacation. But the president’s secretary responded that the schedule was full.
The Radoshes write: “On February 20, 1948, Frank Goldman, B’nai B’rith’s national president, called Eddie Jacobson in the middle of the night and told him that Truman was refusing to see any of the New York City political leaders who had been imploring him to see Weizmann… Truman was angry at leading American Zionists…and they were afraid that the president was washing his hands of the whole matter and would let the U.N. decide what should be done. Goldman wanted Jacobson to charter a plane immediately and see Truman… Jacobson was their last hope.”
Jacobson couldn’t suddenly fly to Washington but he sent a telegram: “I know that you have very excellent reasons for not wanting to see Dr. Weizmann. But as you once told me, this gentleman is the greatest statesman and finest leader that my people have. He is very old and heartbroken that he could not get to see you.” He noted that he had not asked Truman for favors during all their years of friendship, but he was now “begging of you to see Dr. Weizmann…” But Truman declined.
The Jewish Agency then asked Jacobson to come to Washington again after Truman came back from vacation. On Mar. 12 Jacobson flew in. He also called Abba Eban for advice, telling him about Truman’s reverence for Andrew Jackson. Eban replied: “No two human beings had ever walked on the face of the earth with fewer common attributes than Chaim Weizmann and Andrew Jackson.” Nevertheless, Eban suggested that Jacobson should try an analogy to Jackson.
Jacobson did not make any appointment and was let in. Truman was always glad to see him. They chatted about their families. But when Jacobson brought up the issue of Palestine, Truman became abrupt and bitter. Eventually, Jacobson came up with the following: “Harry, all your life you have had a hero. You are probably the best read man in America on the life of Andrew Jackson… Well, Harry, I too have a hero, a man I never met, but who is, I think, the greatest Jew who ever lived… I am talking about Chaim Weizmann… He traveled thousands and thousands of miles just to see you and plead the cause of my people…”
Eventually Truman said to Jacobson, “You win, you baldheaded son of a… I will see him.” A secret meeting with Weizmann was then scheduled. At the meeting, Truman assured Weizmann of the U.S. continued support for partition.
But the next day, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN made a speech that the U.S. was changing its position from support of “partition” to support of “trusteeship.” Truman was stunned. The State Dept. had double-crossed him. Clark Clifford remembers Truman saying: “I assured Chaim Weizmann that we were for partition and would stick to it. He must think I am a plain liar.” The Radoshes wrote: “Truman felt embarrassed and humiliated by his own State Department. In May, he would deliver his own surprise.” (May was when Truman granted Israel immediate diplomatic recognition.) The fact that Truman had promised Weizmann his support for partition in that meeting helped motivate Truman to keep his promise.
Many people are familiar with this story. But there is one question they do not ask. On Feb. 20 1948, how did that phone call to Jacobson get made? Here is what happened. Goldman was being honored at a dinner that night along with another Zionist leader, Dewey D. Stone. (Stone had first met Weizmann in 1940 and was captivated by him.) Earlier on Feb. 20, Weizmann had met Stone and told him that Truman had refused to see him. Stone was very upset and told Goldman. Goldman had just attended a dinner in Kansas City and saw Jacobson there. He realized that perhaps Jacobson could be employed to intervene. Goldman and Stone collected coins from fellow dinner guests and then went into the lobby to a payphone to make the call to Jacobson.
Stone was a businessman who was very involved in helping to create the Jewish state, in the military and diplomatic areas. A lot of his work was done behind the scenes. Afraid that the FBI was tapping his phones, he made his calls to procure ships and weapons from the house of his sister. His nephew Ted Teplow remembers overhearing him over the phone and being told not to talk about it. The Exodus ship was purchased by a front organization of which Stone was the sole stockholder. He also played an important role in enlisting the support of the Latin American countries for the partition plan. He also was one of the founders of the Weizmann Institute of Science, serving on its board from 1949 through 1970. He is the great-uncle of Teaneck resident (and my chavruta for two decades) Josh Teplow. Because he had no children and much of his work was done in secrecy, the true story of his tremendous contribution to the creation of the Jewish state has never been fully told.
Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected].