In a time when Israel’s ethos is wrapped up in remarkable statistics – as the 100th smallest country in the world, Israel has played a significant role in the development of the cell phone; Windows NT and XP operating systems; Pentium MMX chip technology and voicemails; with a net gain of trees entering the 21st century; developing the first fully computerized, no-radiation, diagnostic instrumentation for breast cancer, to name just a few devellopments.
It is easy to forget the painfully slow process of building political support for a Jewish state. There are interesting Minnesota connections to the incremental political steps which culminated in David Ben Gurion reading Israel’s Declaration of Independence 65 years ago on May 14, 1948 at the Tel Aviv Museum. These Minnesota connections include a role played in the decision of President Harry Truman to recognize the State of Israel only eleven minutes after the Declaration went into force.
In terms of the possibility of a Jewish state in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people, Minnesota was on the scene early in the aftermath of the First World War. This was a time when the victorious Allied powers (the United States, Great Britain and France) were creating the 20th and 21st century Middle East – for better or for worse – with the nations we know today as Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. (See David Fromkin’s “A Peace to End All Peace” ) A fulcrum at the making of the modern Middle East resulting from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was the Paris Peace Conference. Present at the conference were delegations from throughout the world trying to generate support for their national political aspirations. (David Ben Gurion and Ho Chi Minh met while staying at the same hotel in Paris in 1919, the same year Ben Gurion signed an agreement with Emir Faisal pledging cooperation in their respective national movements.)
The competition for influence and profile in Paris occurred on both sides of the Atlantic. The United States emerged from the First World War relatively unscathed – in contrast to the devastating losses suffered by the European combatants – with President Wilson determined to remake the world in accordance with his “Fourteen Points” speech. Point 12 was “Non-Turks in the old Turkish Empire should govern themselves.” Point 14 called for the creation of a League of Nations “to guarantee the political and territorial independence of all states.” These Wilsonian points – first articulated in a speech to the United States Senate on January 8, 1918 – were the point of contact between American idealism and the European penchant for “Great Games” as represented by the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
These Wilsonian Points became the point of departure for those interests in the Middle East (Jewish, Arab and others) seeking their say in the Paris Peace Conference. The campaign to strengthen Jewish interests in the Paris Peace Conference had an American corollary. This road led both through Washington, DC and the nation’s state capitols, including Saint Paul. In Rabbi Gunter Plaut’s “The Jews in Minnesota: The First 75 Years” (American Jewish Historical Society, 1959) he reports passage of the following resolution by the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1919:
“JOURNALOf TheHOUSEOf The FORTY-FIRST SESSION Of The LEGISLATURE Of The STATE OF MINNESOTA
69th Day] FRIDAY, APRIL 11, 1919. 1541
AFTERNOON SESSION.___________At 2:30 o'clock P. M. the House reconvened.
Mr. Levin offered the following concurrent resolution:
Whereas the future prosperity and peace of the world depend upon the just and equitable settlement of the European war, whereby each and every nationality, however small, shall be granted the liberty of determining its own destiny and the opportunity of living its own life.
And Whereas the government of the United States of America is recognized as an urgent exponent of the rights of the small nations;
Therefore, Be it Resolved by the House of Representatives of the State of Minnesota, the Senate concurring, that it is our opinion that the national aspirations and the historical c1aims of the Jewish people with regard to Palestine, be recognized at the Peace Conference in accordance with the British Government's declaration of November 2nd, 1917, that there shall be established such political, administrative and economic conditions in Palestine as will assure the development of Palestine into a Jewish commonwealth and that American representatives at the Peace Conference shall use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object.
Be It Further Resolved that it is our opinion that express provisions be made at the Peace Conference for the purpose of granting Jewish people in every land the complete enjoyment
of life and liberty and to the end that justice may be done to one of the most suffering people on earth, the Jewish people,
And Be It Further Resolved That a copy of these resolutions be transmitted by the Chief Clerk to the President of the United States.
Mr. Levin moved the adoption of the resolution.
Which motion prevailed.
Mr. Swenson, O. A., moved a call of the House.
The roll being called, the following members answered to their names:
Adams, Anderson, Arens, Arneson, Baxter, Bendixen, Bernard, Berve, Bouck, Boyd, Briggs, Brophe,Burdorf, Burrows, Carlson”
Minnesota became the ninth state to pass such a resolution at the time it was considered.
The resolution – while largely symbolic from a Minnesota vantage point – was both prescient and a marker for the deliberate pace of the incremental building of support for Zionism inside and outside of the Jewish community in the United States. It would take until 1942 – at a gathering of Zionist leaders from 18 countries known as the Biltmore Conference – for adoption of a resolution calling for a “Jewish Commonwealth” in Palestine echoing the 1919 Minnesota resolution. By this time, the Holocaust was well underway by the Einsatzgruppen in German occupied Soviet Union and by design, in the aftermath of the Wannsee Conference in January, 1942.
* * * * * * *
The events of May 1948 were dramatic as the British evacuated Palestine having declared an end to their mandate – against a backdrop of the November 1947 United Nations’ vote partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The bloody struggle for Palestine had begun in earnest shortly after the partition vote with the Arab Higher Committee vowing to destroy any nascent Jewish state. Again, across the Atlantic, a corollary struggle was unfolding in Washington, DC as the various parties sought to influence the Truman Administration and the policy it would follow for the future of Palestine after the end of the British Mandate on May 14, 1948.
There was a Minnesota connection to the political denouement in the White House: the Minnesotan, Max Lowenthal. Mr. Lowenthal’s role hasn’t been completely lost to history – it is discussed in the 1990 book by Michael J. Cohen, “Truman and Israel.” (Lowenthal’s papers are now fully organized and indexed at the University of Minnesota’s Andersen Library.)
In broadest strokes, this history is the story of Max Lowenthal earning the trust of Harry Truman over years of work. It is also the story of Mr. Lowenthal being in the right place at the right time as a presidential assistant – where counsel, given quietly, was deeply considered.
Mr. Lowenthal was a University of Minnesota graduate and graduated Harvard Law School in 1912. (His father was a founder of Kenesseth Israel Synagogue in Minneapolis.)
* Mr. Lowenthal, according to the Cohen book, was a protégé of Justice Louis Brandeis. Lowenthal introduced Truman to Brandeis and others in Jewish “New Deal” Washington, DC circles.
* Lowenthal served as chief counsel to the Senate Interstate Commerce Committee from 1935-1942 where he and Truman met and established a friendship that lasted until Truman’s death in 1973.
* Vic Messell, Truman’s secretary in the Senate commented: “Lowenthal was a mystery man… He exercised power behind the scenes…”
* Key Truman presidential advisor Clark Clifford brought Lowenthal to the White House in 1947 as Clifford’s chief advisor on Palestine affairs. Lowenthal wrote voluminous memoranda on the subject of Palestine with, according to Clifford, the underlying premise: “The United States should support the Zionist cause, come what may.”
In the momentous days leading up to May 15, 1948, Lowenthal’s memoranda were a critical counterworking center-of-gravity to the pro-Arab positions of the State Department and Department of Defense. He argued in one memorandum that maximum advantage for the United States lay in an “immediate statement” that he [Truman] intends to recognize the Jewish state when it is proclaimed.” Lowenthal asserted this recognition was consistent with American national interests since it would strengthen the US relative to the USSR, reduce violence in Palestine and strengthen the United Nations.
Truman wrote a letter to Lowenthal in 1952 in which he noted:
“I know exactly how you feel about the ideas of your not wanting to be considered as benefactor to the State of Israel but I don’t know why you should because I don’t know who has done more for Israel than you have.”
Yet, when Lowenthal was interviewed by the Truman library staff in 1967, according to Michael Cohen, he claimed he never discussed Israel with Truman during that time – at all. Lowenthal said he heard second hand from another White House staffer about Truman’s decision to recognize Israel.
Putting aside the issue of Max Lowenthal’s modesty, President Truman’s decision to recognize Israel was a decision of historic proportions which has echoed throughout the world ever since.