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The Torah of Truman

Though some internal disagreements in the U.S. government remained, Truman recognized Israel minutes after its official founding on May 14, 1948.
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July 11, 2024
US President Harry S Truman (left) receiving the Torah from Israeli President Chaim Weizmann, on the steps of the White House, May 29, 1948. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

With the buzz over Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming address to Congress building and the America-Israel relationship continuing to play an outsized role on the presidential campaign trail, it’s worth revisiting how the Jewish state was reborn thanks in part to the advocacy of an Israeli statesman to an American president.

As Jehuda Reinharz and Motti Golani recount in their magisterial new biography of Chaim Weitzmann, the State Department under president Harry Truman was inclined against supporting the U.N.’s partition plan. The Zionist leadership was hoping to have Weitzmann, the renowned scientist and internationally respected former head of the World Zionist Organization, champion their cause to the president. But Truman refused to meet with him. Desperate, the Jewish leaders turned to Eddie Jacobson, a Jew from Kansas City. Truman and Jacobson had been haberdashery partners decades prior, having co-run an 18-by-48-foot clothing store together in the Glennon Hotel. Though the business failed, Jacobson remained a trusted friend of Truman over the years and had access to Truman in the White House. 

As Reinhartz and Golani tell it, Jacobson “showed up and asked Truman to see Weitzmann. When Truman again refused, Jacobson pointed to the bust of one of Truman’s heroes, President Andrew Jackson. He said that he, too, had a hero, a man he himself had never met, just as Truman never met Jackson. In his opinion, Jacobson said, this man was the greatest Jew of his time … ‘My hero,’ Jacobson told the president, ‘is a gentleman and distinguished statesman. I am speaking’ Truman’s former partner said, ‘of Chaim Weitzmann.’”

Truman agreed to a secret meeting on March 18. Weitzmann, battling years-long health ailments and a high fever, “did not plead nor try to get into Truman’s good graces, nor did he issue threats. He knew that [Secretary of State] Marshall and his State Department team had warned the president that the Yishuv’s left-wing advocated a Jewish state aligned with the Soviet bloc. Weitzmann assured the president that these fears were largely groundless and that the best way to ensure that Israel would align with the West would be to embrace it.” He also, Reinharz and Golani wrote, “made a brilliant pitch about how recognition would win Truman the Jewish vote and swing key states in his favor.” Having argued his case, Weitzmann received a warm handshake from Truman. He then was helped up, escorted out a concealed side door and driven off in a car with curtained windows. 

Though some internal disagreements in the U.S. government remained, Truman recognized Israel minutes after its official founding on May 14, 1948. By May 25, Chaim Weitzmann, now president of the State of Israel and no longer having to hide his presence, returned to the White House. He presented Truman with a gift of a Torah scroll in appreciation of America’s support.

Over 76 years later, America and Israel find themselves at another pivotal moment. Though the players are different, the stage remains similar. Those that would prefer to see a Jewish state not exist exerting pressure both within the United States and on the global stage. A tiny swath of land in the Middle East finds itself impacting presidential politics and press coverage more than the exponentially larger and more populous nations. Yet now, as then, three key themes are clear.

The first is the alignment between Zionism and American values. If decades ago, America viewed Israel as a bulwark against Communism, today Israel stands strong as the Middle East’s only democracy. As thenVice President Mike Pence put it in his 2018 address to the Knesset: “We stand with Israel because your cause is our cause, your values are our values, and your fight is our fight. We stand with Israel because we believe in right over wrong, in good over evil, and in liberty over tyranny. We stand with Israel because that’s what Americans have always done, and so has it been since my country’s earliest days.” 

Secondly, the role of the American Jewish community is crucial in bridging divides between Israeli leaders and American politicians. Through the establishing and strengthening of personal relationships, even the strongest of political hesitations might be overcome.

The role of the American Jewish community is crucial in bridging divides between Israeli leaders and American politicians. Through the establishing and strengthening of personal relationships, even the strongest of political hesitations might be overcome.

Lastly, while our leaders, both in America and Israel, have well-documented flaws, comfort can still be found in our faith. As Weitzmann’s gift of a Torah to Truman attests, the Jewish story has always been guided from Above. It might be political figures’ negotiations that make policies manifest, but Israel’s miraculous rebirth and subsequent survival can be attributed, ultimately and always, to the workings of Providence.


Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern is Senior Adviser to the Provost of Yeshiva University and Deputy Director of Y.U.’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. His books include “The Promise of Liberty: A Passover Haggada,” which examines the Exodus story’s impact on the United States, “Esther in America,” “Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth” and “Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land: The Hebrew Bible in the United States.”

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