When presidents send greetings to the American Jewish community on the eve of Yom Kippur, they don't expect their words to make headlines. President Obama's pre-holiday message to U.S. Jews this year, for example, offers boilerplate rhetoric about Yom Kippur as "a time of prayer and self-reflection" and an opportunity "to continue the work of repairing the world." That won't add much to the average rabbi's sermon.
But President Harry Truman's message to American Jewry on the eve of Yom Kippur in 1946 made front page news, was read aloud in synagogues from coast to coast, and had an important impact on the struggle to establish the State of Israel.
The future of British Mandatory Palestine was one of the first major international conflicts facing Truman after he became president, following the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945. Truman was reluctant to become embroiled in the conflict but faced strong pressure from both sides. The British, backed by the U.S. State Department, sought to continue ruling the country and prevent the Jews from becoming a majority. But American Jews were pressing Truman to support Jewish statehood, and his political advisers were warning that Jewish voters would turn against the Democrats if he didn't.
In mid-1946, a joint British-American committee recommended what came to be known as the Morrison-Grady Plan, to divide Palestine into autonomous Arab and Jewish districts under British rule. Truman thought the proposal was "really fair," but had second thoughts when New York State Democratic chairman Paul Fitzpatrick told him, "If this plan goes into effect it would be useless for the Democrats to nominate a state ticket this fall," because Jews in New York would overwhelmingly back Republican candidates as a protest vote.
At a July 30 cabinet meeting, Truman exploded over the barrage of telegrams and letters he had received from American Jews about Palestine (he waved "a sheaf of telegrams about four inches thick," according to Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace). "Jesus Christ couldn't please them when he was here on earth, so how could anyone expect that I would have any luck?," the president declared.
But the midterm Congressional elections, less than four months away, would determine whether Truman would have to deal with a friendly Democrat-controlled Congress, or a hostile Republican majority on Capitol Hill. And New York's congressional seats could tip the balance.
A visit to the White House in September from U.S. Senator James Mead, the Democratic nominee for governor of New York, further angered the president. Mead "shot off his mouth" about the danger of losing Jewish votes because of Palestine, an irritated Truman wrote in a note to the First Lady. "The Jews and the crackpots" seemed ready to desert the Democrats.
Just days before Yom Kippur, White House adviser David Niles caught wind of plans by New York's Republican governor --and likely presidential nominee-- Thomas Dewey to make a pro-Zionist speech at a large Jewish gathering right after the holiday. Niles pressed Truman to strike first, since "the Jewish vote in New York" was "crucial."
One of Truman's top Jewish donors, Abe Feinberg, urged the president to issue a Zionist statement of his own on the eve of Yom Kippur, since then "every single Rabbi in every single synagogue will broadcast what you say. Forget the newspapers, forget any other media. You will have word directly to the Jewish people."
Truman agreed to do it. Samuel Rosenman, a longtime speechwriter for both FDR and Truman, together with Eliahu Epstein of the Jewish Agency (later the first Israeli ambassador to Washington) drafted a statement favoring creation of a Jewish state in part of Palestine. The State Department watered it down by adding a sentence that the U.S. favored a solution in between statehood and the Morrison-Gray autonomy plan.
But in politics, perception is sometimes more important than reality. The news media chose to emphasize a phrase in which Truman noted that the Jewish Agency sought "a viable Jewish state," and he believed that a solution "along these lines" would "command the support of public opinion in the United States."
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency's report, which appeared in Jewish newspapers throughout the country, was headlined, "TRUMAN URGES ESTABLISHMENT OF 'VIABLE JEWISH STATE' WITHIN PALESTINE."
"Not a single newspaper pointed up [the State Department's] part of the statement," Eliahu Epstein reported to his colleagues. "All the headlines carried by the papers read 'Truman's support of a Jewish state.'"
In later years, Truman and his aides went to great lengths to deny they were motivated by political considerations--or even by the calendar. At the time, Acting Secretary of State Dean Acheson told the British ambassador in Washington, Lord Inverchapel, that Truman made the Yom Kippur statement in order to pre-empt Governor Dewey's planned pro-Zionist speech; but in his postwar memoir, Acheson claimed Truman "never took or refused a step in our foreign relations to benefit his or his party's fortunes."
Truman himself, in his autobiography, wrote that the day the statement was made just "happened to be the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur," and "Presidents have often made statements on this holiday, so the timing was nothing unusual, and what I said was simply a restatement of my position."
But in fact, by presenting a statement he knew would be understood and reported as a major new policy position, Truman was not merely "restating" his old views. He was, in effect, going on record for the first time in favor of Jewish statehood.
And even though Truman would later sometimes waver in his support of Jewish statehood, his Yom Kippur statement in 1946 strengthened the Jewish position in the international political struggle over Palestine, reinforced the emerging consensus among Americans in support of Jewish statehood, and, most important, accelerated the process by which the British became convinced that they would have to leave Palestine.