President Harry S. Truman & the State of Israel

Instructor: Michelle Penn

Michelle has a J.D. and her PhD in History.

In this lesson we will explore President Harry S. Truman's involvement in creating and recognizing the state of Israel. We will also explore some of Truman's reservations about the state of Israel.

Background to the Creation of Israel

Imagine you are president of the United States. One of the many things you have to deal with is a huge refugee crisis, on a scale previously unknown. Many of the refugees want to come to America, others to Britain, while still others want to go to the Middle East where they will start a new state for themselves. How do you deal with this crisis? And how do you go about helping create a new state?

Harry S. Truman in 1945
Truman picture

This was one of the issues facing Harry S. Truman when he became president in April 1945, after Franklin Roosevelt died. Because of World War II and the Holocaust, there was a large number of refugees and displaced persons in Europe. At the time, some Jewish survivors of the Holocaust were being forced to live in some of the same camps they had been liberated from by the Allies, often forced to remain there as if they were criminals. While many Jewish refugees and displaced persons wanted to return to their home country, or go to America or elsewhere in the world, many others wanted to go to Palestine.

Jews had been migrating to Palestine since long before World War II and the Holocaust. The modern Zionist movement had begun in the late-nineteenth century. The Zionists sought the establishment of a Jewish nation-state, with most believing that the proper location for such was Palestine, the historic home of the Jews before they were forced into exile in ancient times and dispersed around the world. Many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust believed that the Holocaust occurred in part because they did not have a state to protect them. A Jewish state would help ensure that the Holocaust would not happen again.

Truman, in spite of his use of offensive slurs against Jews and his referring to Jews as 'very very selfish', was still sympathetic to the plight of Jewish refugees.

At the time, Palestine was controlled by the British, and the vast majority of its inhabitants were Arab Muslims. However, there was a sizable Jewish population living there, and their numbers had increased substantially after Hitler's rise to power.

Truman's Proposals: A Binational State or an Arab-Jewish Federation

Many Zionist leaders argued in favor of a Jewish state, presenting this argument to Truman. However, Truman initially opposed the creation of a religious state, stating that 'the government of Palestine should be a government of the people of Palestine irrespective of race, creed, or color.' One of his political heroes was Thomas Jefferson, and Truman reportedly cherished Jefferson's insistence of the separation of church and state, and extended this principle to a possible state in Palestine. Instead of a specifically Jewish state, Truman wanted a binational state (representing both Jews and Arabs) or an Arab-Jewish federation.

The Morrison-Grady Plan

The British wanted to leave Palestine, and Truman agreed to have the United States work with the British to meet and decide what to do next. The outcome of these meetings was the 1946 Morrison-Grady Plan, (led by British cabinet minister Herbert Morrison and United States State department official Henry Grady). The Morrison-Grady Plan proposed that Palestine remain under British oversight, but Jewish and Arab provinces would be able to rule themselves. In spite of Truman's support, both Jewish and Arab representatives opposed the plan. Truman was concerned about the upcoming 1946 midterm elections. He was afraid that Democratic candidates would not be able to count on Jewish votes if he supported the Morrison-Grady Plan. Truman decided not to endorse the plan, even though he personally supported it. After the plan's rejection, Truman stopped actively trying to intervene in Palestine.

UN 1947 Partition Plan with the Arab state in yellow and the Jewish state in orange
1947 UN partition plan

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