Megillat Esther and Harry S. Truman by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


You may be wondering: what does United States President Harry Truman (who served from 1945 to 1953) have to do with Megillat Esther? Megillat Esther has very much to teach us how to understand Truman’s very surprising (but very welcome) decision to support the United Nations establishing a Jewish State in Palestine in November 1947 and to recognize the State of Israel only eleven minutes after it declared independence in May 1948. Megillat Esther teaches us how to notice Hashem’s subtle hand in manipulating earthly events. When a chain of events happen against all odds, such as the selection of Esther as queen and Achashveirosh’s insomnia and reading of Mordechai saving him specifically on the night Haman came requesting Mordechai’s execution, this points to Hashem manipulating the situation.

We seek to demonstrate that Hashem’s hand is readily apparent to a thinking individual who ponders Truman’s remarkable ascension to power in 1945 and support for a Jewish State in 1947-1948, both highly improbable events, as we shall discuss. We shall base most of our understanding of Harry Truman’s life from David McCullough’s comprehensive Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Harry S. Truman, entitled Truman (all references hereinafter refer to this book, unless otherwise noted).

Truman’s Unlikely Support for a Jewish State

Had Truman not instructed the United States ambassador to the United Nations to support the partition of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, the Jewish State never would have come into being. This is especially so, since as the leader of the free world (the United States emerged from World War II as the dominant democratic power in the world), Truman exercised influence by encouraging other countries to support the partition plan (p.601). His recognition of the nascent State of Israel in May 1948 was critical to Israel’s emergence as a nation, especially at a time when there was strong support to rescind the November 1947 partition plan in the wake of intense Arab violence beginning the day after the UN vote.

Truman’s support was highly unlikely from many perspectives. On a personal level, Truman was raised in rural Missouri and was not fond of the Jewish People. In fact, he expressed his dislike of New York upon his first visit there before he was shipped to fight in France during World War I, because of the many Jews who live there. He even derogatorily referred to New York as “K___ town” (p.110 and also see p. 286). It is also recounted that Bess Truman (the president’s beloved wife who was a great influence upon him) was anti-Semitic to the extent that she would not permit a Jew to enter her house.

Moreover, Truman’s venerated secretary of state General George Marshall (the architect of the fam  d Marshall Plan) urged Truman in the strongest of terms against supporting Israel, warning the president that if he supported the Jewish State he would not vote for him in the next election (p.616). Truman’s spurning of Marshall’s advice is utterly shocking due to the immense respect Truman accorded to Marshall. Truman once remarked that there was not a military decoration big enough for General Marshall (p.472).

Marshall’s opposition was not at all rooted in anti-Semitism. It emerged from a sober political calculation that the United States could ill afford to antagonize the entire Arab and Muslim world by recognizing and voting for a tiny country that seemed most likely to be destroyed by Arab armies that vastly outnumbered and had far more ammunition than the Jewish State. Moreover, the Arab countries possessed vast petroleum resources which was feared would be necessary to power United States military vehicles in what looked like an inevitable military clash with the Soviet Union led by Joseph Stalin (Yimach Shemo VeZichro). The communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in early 1948 led many prudent politicians and diplomats to fear that many other countries would be vulnerable to a communist takeover. It was feared that United States recognition of Israel would antagonize Arab countries and push them to ally with Stalin against the United States and the democratic world.

Truman’s Rise to the Presidency against All Odds

Only a decent man of extraordinary character and down to earth common sense and religious devotion would have spurned geopolitical considerations in favor of basic values such as pity for the Jewish refugees as well as recognition of the morality of the Jewish right to establish a state in part of Palestine. Both Truman’s predecessor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (p.596), and his successor, Dwight Eisenhower, were not supporters of a Jewish State and would have been highly unlikely to recognize the State of Israel. These two hard nosed politicians would be most unlikely to favor basic morality over geopo­litical considerations.

Hashem’s guid­ing hand in bringing Truman to power follows the Megillat Esther scheme of a series of events happening against all odds. Truman was an unsuccessful farmer and clothing store owner when chosen in the early 1920’s to serve as a county judge in western Missouri’s Jackson County. He subsequently made a most unlikely leap from county judge to be elected a United States Senator in 1934. He was given almost no chance of reelection in 1940 after a relatively lackluster performance in the Senate during his first term in office (p. 241). Four years after his remarkable reelection, he was chosen by the Democratic Party to serve as Roosevelt’s running mate in the 1944 presidential election. This was yet another truly stunning development in light of the fact that Truman made no effort to obtain this position. In fact, he supported another Democrat, to the extent he even prepared a nomination speech for the man he felt best suited for the position (pp.292-313).

In addition, Hashem’s hand is evident in that the fateful decision to recognize the nascent Jewish state emerged in a hotly contested American election year (1948), when Truman needed to court the Jewish vote, especially in key “battleground states”. Courting the Jewish vote was a significant factor in Truman’s deliberations about Jewish State issue.

Cyrus as a Hero to Truman

At a young age, Truman developed a passion for history and counted the ancient Persian Emperor Cyrus as one of his heroes (p.58). Cyrus (Koresh) was the Persian emperor who permitted us to return from exile and build the Second Beit HaMikdash (Ezra chapter one). Much later, after being introduced to a Jewish audience in 1953 as the one who contributed to the establishment of the State of Israel, Truman protested and asserted that he did not merely assist in the establishing the state. He insisted that he was the one who established the Jewish State. “I am Cyrus, I am Cyrus,” he proclaimed. How fortunate, or rather providential, it was that Cyrus was one of Truman’s idols from a young age. It is very likely that Truman, with his keen sense of history and love of the Bible (p.989), was eager to live up to the ideals of Cyrus, one of his childhood heroes.

Clark Clifford

One of President Truman’s aides, Clark Clifford, countered General George Marshall’s opposition to the establishment of the State of Israel. McCullough (page 502) describes Clifford’s presence on Truman’s staff as “almost chance”. That Truman followed the young Clifford (whose arguments for recognizing the Jewish State included citations from Sefer Devarim – pp. 615-616) over the highly experienced Marshall is by itself remarkable. However, the heretofore obscure Clifford’s very presence in the White House was also against all odds.

Eddie Jacobson

The most remarkable figure of our discussion is Truman’s Jewish friend Eddie Jacobson. Truman remarked to a visiting Israeli diplomat many years later (Yehuda Avner The Prime Ministers p.119) that Jacobson “was the best friend anyone could ever have”. That someone with strong anti-Semitic leanings would develop such a strong friendship with a Jew is simply astonishing.

Truman met Jacobson during stateside training for World War One. Together they administered the camp’s canteen (p. 107) and they later decided to become business partners after they returned from the war. They opened a men’s clothing store which failed after a few years. It took both men many years to pay off the large debt accumulated while running this establishment. Remarkably, Truman and Jacobson remained very close friends despite this very painful experience, which is also highly unusual.

Eddie Jacobson was to play a decisive role in convincing President Truman to recognize the State of Israel. Truman was soured to Zionism by some overzealous advocates for Israel such as Reform Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver who, together with Reform Rabbi Stephen Wise, pounded on the president’s desk and even yelled at the president demanding Truman’s support for a Jewish State (pp.598-599). When the legendary Chaim Weizmann traveled to America to make the case for supporting a Jewish State, Truman at first refused to meet with him. It was Eddie Jacobson who managed to convince Truman to meet with Weizmann whose considerable charm and powers of persuasion strongly impacted the president. Jacobson was at first rebuffed by Truman, but somehow (we see it as Hashem’s influence), Jacobson’s was inspired to compare Weizmann with one of Truman’s heroes, Andrew Jackson. The mostly inapt analogy somehow managed to change Truman’s mind—and the rest was history (pp.606-607).

Conclusion – Rav Herzog and President Truman

After the establishment of the State of Israel, the Ashkenazic chief rabbi Rav Yitzchak Herzog visited President Truman to offer his thanks. Present at the meeting was a secular Jew who served as Truman’s advisor for minority relations. Rav Herzog told Truman that God placed him in his mother’s womb in order to be the first world leader in more than two thousand years to establish a Jewish State in Palestine. The Jewish advisor, who viewed Rav Herzog’s words as unreasonable, was astonished to see tears streaming down the face of President Truman (p.620). Truman, who is described by McCullough as a spiritual man who lived to a great extent by the Bible, appreciated the truth of Rav Herzog’s insight.

Megillat Esther should serve as a springboard to recognize Hashem’s subtle hand in the workings of the world. As Shir Hashirim states, “Hineih Zeh Omeid Achar Kotleinu…Meitzitz Min HaCharakim,” “Here He is, standing behind our walls… peering through the lattice work” (2:9). Megillat Esther should inspire us to seek Hashem beyond the “latticework” as we have sought to do in the case of President Harry S. Truman’s most improbable support for the establishment of the State of Israel. Even when reading a book of history, one can, encounter the divine.

Dr. Moshe Wilner, instructor of history at TABC, comments: “I think Truman is a must read for all Jewish homes (of course, along with The Prime Ministers). His ability to rise up and support the UN Resolution, despite the anti-Jewish environment he grew up in, reveals that maybe Hashem's hand in this was more of an open "Neis" than a hidden one. Truman compares well with Achashveirosh, who is drawn to Haman and his anti-Jewish ways early on, and despite this takes on the cause of the Jews (through Esther and Mordechai). Both Truman (who had his Jacobson) and Achashveirosh had to overcome early “Jew hatred" to save the Jewish people in their respective time periods of history."

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