Harry Truman, who made “feisty” a White House press corps cliché, was the most important single non-Israeli who made its birth possible. On this day sixty years ago the delivery was announced, and Harry was the midwife. He defied British allies, marshaled American good will, and ordered his reluctant UN representative to support partition, knowing Arab rage and a war of attempted extermination would follow.
“This man…was Eddie Jacobson, one of the finest men I ever had anything to do with. And, he and I completely understood each other. And we offset each other. He was one of the best buyers that I ever came across. And I was one of the best salesmen that he ever had to be associated with.” One day Jacobson visited the White House.
“He came in, stood around, didn’t say very much, was as quiet as he could be, and I finally said, ‘Eddie, what in the world’s the matter with you? Have you at last come to get something, ‘cause you never have asked me for anything since I’ve been in the White House and since we’ve been friends.’ And then he told me that he thought that I ought not to keep Dr. Weizmann out of the White House. He thought I ought to see him.
“And I told him that I would see the doctor, but he’d have to bring him in the side door—I didn’t want any propaganda started on the thing. Dr. Weizmann’s first name was C-H-A-I-M, and I didn’t know how to pronounce it, so I called him “Cham”—called him that to his face—and he liked it. He was a wonderful man, one of the wisest people I think I’ve ever met. He was a leader—one of the kind you read about and seldom see.
“Dr. Weizmann came to see me. We had a long, long conversation, and he explained the situation from his viewpoint, and I listened to him very carefully, and at the same time I sent for Eddie Jacobson and they both sat down and talked to me for a long, long time. When we were through, I said, ‘Alright, you two Jews have put it over on me, and I’m glad you have, for I like you both.’
“On my desk at the White House, I used to keep a quotation from Mark Twain, which said, ‘Always do right. This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest.’” Truman astonished the world, as the envoy declared at the UN, “The United States recognizes the provisional government as the de facto authority of the new State of Israel.”
Today, exactly sixty years later, George W. Bush addressed the Knesset in Jerusalem, the culmination of a two-day conclave of heads of state, Nobel laureates, and other distinguished friends of Israel, convened by President Shimon Peres, who at 84 is the most prominent Israeli who was an adult in 1948.
Now, I’m no fan of Mr. Bush, but when, in the outdoor welcoming ceremony, the Stars and Stripes were raised between two blue Stars of David on fields of white, and heard an Israeli military band strike up “The Star-Spangled Banner,” I was moved–and then amused, remembering a T-shirt in Jerusalem: khaki-colored, with the outline of an F-16 and the words, “Don’t worry America, Israel is behind you.”
Bush’s presidency leaves much to be desired, but somebody wrote him a great speech. He mangled some ad-libbed Hebrew: “Yo-hem…A…Hatzmut” was his reading of “Yom Ha’atzma’ut,” but then “nucular” remains his idea of “nuclear.” A guy who’s still struggling in English can’t be expected to say “Happy Independence Day” in Hebrew. Then too, Harry said “Cham”—“ch” as in “Chuck”–instead of “Chaim.” He opened his heart to “Cham” and helped give life to Israel.
George saluted the ex-leaders in the audience and said, “Save a seat in the ex-leaders’ club.” For many, the day he takes that seat can’t come too soon. He also saluted Truman, whose feistiness he wants to emulate. And his sweeping sixty-year overview was superb. Unfortunately, this nice speech includeded a thinly-veiled swipe at Obama, which has dominated the news. (For my take on Obama, click here.)
Bush has been a friend to Israel, but was very late in trying to bring it peace. Still, better late than never, and if peace is delayed, Israel will take care of itself. Truman said that he would not send half a million troops to help Israel; he instead sent the number Israel asked for: none. The same is true of every single US president since.
As Peres recalled yesterday, John F. Kennedy once asked David Ben Gurion what he could do to help Israel. “Ben Gurion replied, ‘Be a great president of the United States of America.’” Bush is not that, Truman perhaps was, but Ben Gurion’s wisdom stands. What Israel needs most from America is America’s own strength, dignity, and freedom; this is automatically good for Israel and the Jews.