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Like Other Presidents, Truman Misread Depth of Mideast Anguish

In November 1953, Harry Truman spoke before an enthusiastic crowd of American Jews at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

Eddie Jacobson, a Jewish haberdasher from Kansas City who had been Truman’s business partner years earlier, introduced the former president as “the man who helped create the State of Israel.”

“What do you mean, ‘helped create?’ ” Truman asked.

“I am Cyrus. I am Cyrus,” he said, a reference to the ancient Persian ruler who saved the Jews from their exile in Babylon.

Last week, we learned that the same Truman also jotted down an anti-Semitic screed in his diary just a year before he recognized the new Jewish state.

“The Jews, I find, are very, very selfish,” Truman wrote in 1947. “The Jews have no sense of proportion nor do they have any judgement [sic] on world affairs.”

Historians and ordinary citizens alike have been startled by this anti-Semitic blast from a president long seen as an important friend of the Jewish state. But Truman’s remarks, distasteful as they are, perhaps shouldn’t be quite so surprising — first because they echo other aspects of Truman’s own complex record on Israel, and second because they echo a long tradition of presidential cluelessness about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Long before last week’s bombshell, historians had known that Truman was not immune to casual expressions of anti-Semitism: In a letter to his wife Bess, he once described his old friend Jacobson as a “smart Hebrew,” and as a child Truman carelessly referred to Jews as “kikes.”

More famously, speaking to his Cabinet in 1946 about the Jews, Truman reportedly asked, “If Jesus Christ couldn’t satisfy them here on earth, how the hell am I supposed to?”

But these sentiments hardly seem to have shaped Truman’s Middle East policies. Indeed, he was offended when Britain’s foreign minister, Ernest Bevin, accused him of encouraging Jews to settle in British-ruled Palestine because Americans “did not want too many of them in New York.”

But American Jews’ sentimental portrait of Truman as Israel’s devoted benefactor hardly tracks with the historical record. For all his after-the-fact romanticizing of his role as Israel’s midwife, Truman hated deciding what to do about Zionism.

Torn between a Zionist lobby frantic to create a state after the horror of the Holocaust and an American foreign policy establishment ferociously arguing that Jewish statehood would be a Cold War calamity, Truman waffled, improvised and fumed.

Ultimately, his lodestar was humanitarianism. He was furious at Bevin’s refusal to let 100,000 Jewish refugees who’d survived the Holocaust — they were known as displaced persons, or DPs — into British-ruled Palestine. Similarly, after Israel was created in 1948, he was angered by the Jewish state’s reluctance to take back the approximately 700,000 Arabs who’d fled or been driven out of their homes during Israel’s War of Independence.

“I am rather disgusted with the manner in which the Jews are approaching the refugee problem,” Truman complained.

This all helps explain Truman’s recently revealed rant.

The Jews “care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get murdered or mistreated as DP as long as the Jews get special treatment,” he wrote. “Put an underdog on top and it makes no difference whether his name is Russian, Jewish, Negro, Management, Labor, Mormon, Baptist he goes haywire.”

Rather than being a committed Zionist, Truman believed in sticking up for the little guy. In 1947, the Jews were the little guy: After the Holocaust and before the creation of Israel, one can hardly fault Jews for focusing on their own DP problem, not other postwar refugees; in post-Nazi Europe, asking to be let out of refugee camps hardly constituted “special treatment.”

Even so, this sort of failure — thinking the Jews’ desire for statehood was somehow casual, unjustified, or selfish — is hardly unique to Truman. A series of presidents have underestimated how seriously the adversaries in the Middle East take their nationalism and, at least intellectually, breezed past their deeply held sufferings.

Take Truman’s predecessor, President Franklin Roosevelt, who met the great Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann for the first time in February 1940.

“What about the Arabs?” FDR asked Weizmann. “Can’t that be settled with a little baksheesh?”

Nor did later presidents necessarily understand the antagonists’ motivations. In 1956, in the run-up to the Suez crisis, President Dwight Eisenhower mused in his own diary about an encounter he’d had as army chief of staff with “a couple of young Israelites [sic]” trying to secure American arms in the late 1940s.

Ike remembered lecturing them that the drive to create a Jewish state was unnecessarily “stirring up a hornet’s nest.”

Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, is said to have remarked that the problem of the Middle East was to get the Jews and Muslims to treat one another as good Christians would.

The president who started selling major U.S. weaponry to Israel, John F. Kennedy, also had his lapses. Visiting British-ruled Palestine at age 22 in 1939, Kennedy wrote his father that the Jews had “the desire for complete domination” of Palestine, and endorsed the British White Paper that barred Jews from emigrating to Palestine, stranding them in Nazi Europe.

In 1962, as president, Kennedy did little better at understanding why Palestinian refugees would want to return to their homes in what was now Israel.

“It’s like a Negro wanting to go back to Mississippi, isn’t it?” JFK asked his Middle East advisers, eliciting uneasy chuckles.

The Bush administration won’t repeat Truman’s burst of anti-Semitism. But as this administration plunges into its own Arab-Israeli diplomacy, it would do well to avoid his other mistake — ignoring the reality of the parties’ anguish.

Nationalist fervor may seem unfamiliar to U.S. policymakers accustomed to pragmatic problem-solving; indeed, it seems somehow un-American. In the Arab-Israeli conflict, however, it’s not just real, it’s in the way.

Warren Bass is the author of “Support Any Friend: Kennedy’s Middle East and the Making of the U.S.-Israel Alliance,” recently published by Oxford University Press.

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