The First U.S. Ambassador to Israel - Too Nice to Help Pre-state Israel's Jews?

'To the Gates of Jerusalem,' the annotated diary of James G. McDonald, a member of a panel on the postwar plight of Jews in Palestine, offers an inside look at an exercise in frustration.

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“To the Gates of Jerusalem: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald, 1945-1947,” edited by Norman Goda, Barbara McDonald Stewart, Severin Hochberg, and Richard Breitman, Indiana University Press, 320 pages, $30

The history of the Arab-Jewish conflict over Palestine is littered with investigatory missions and commissions. The British sent the Shaw Commission to Palestine in 1929, Hope-Simpson in 1930, Peel in 1936, and Woodhead in 1938. From the American side, there was the King-Crane Commission in 1919, followed in the 1940s by the missions of Harold Hoskins, Patrick Hurley and Earl Harrison. There was also a British-American commission – the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine (1945-46) – and then the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (1947).

What they all had in common is that none of their major recommendations were ever implemented. 

The diary of an individual member of the Anglo-American Committee thus offers an inside look at an exercise in frustration. “To the Gates of Jerusalem,” the annotated diary of committee member James G. McDonald, sheds new light on a few minor aspects of the diplomatic struggle preceding the establishment of the State of Israel, but not much more.

McDonald, a foreign-policy scholar who would later serve as the first U.S. ambassador to Israel, had a long record of involvement in refugee affairs. In the 1930s, he had served as the League of Nations high commissioner for refugees from Germany and then as chairman of the President’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees. (Two volumes of his diaries from that period have already been published.) Unfortunately, the mild-mannered McDonald was unable to convince President Franklin Roosevelt or other free world leaders to take any meaningful steps to aid the Jews.

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In 1945, McDonald was named to the six-man American half of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine. Their assignment was to hold public hearings in Washington and London, then visit displaced persons camps, Palestine, and neighboring Arab countries, to hear a range of opinions on how to address the plight of the DPs and the conflict over Palestine. McDonald’s diary offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the committee’s deliberations.

It is, however, the briefest of glimpses, because McDonald’s entries frequently offer the scantiest information as to what transpired in the talks. There is so little information in the diary, in fact, that Norman Goda and the other editors of “To the Gates of Jerusalem” follow almost every entry with lengthy comments to fill in the gaps. In the first two weeks of entries, the editors’ remarks occupy fully 65 percent of the text. A reader might justifiably wonder whether this is Goda’s account or McDonald’s.

It does not help that when McDonald did deign to write in his diary, he sometimes merely listed the names of famous people with whom he dined that day, paintings he just viewed in the Louvre, or the wines served with a particularly delectable meal. Writing about one visit to the White House, he relates more about a portrait of President Lincoln displayed there than about his meeting with President Truman. With its dramatic descriptions of moonlit walks and spectacular mountaintop views, McDonald’s diary at times reads like a travelogue.

Cluttered account

McDonald does not leave the impression that he intended his diary to be published, certainly not in its entirety. Prof. Allen Podet was far more judicious in his use of the diary, in his seminal 1986 study of the Anglo-American Committee. Goda et al. have not added to our understanding of the committee’s work by cluttering their account with every one of McDonald’s entries from the period, regardless of their content. A few well-placed ellipses would have done wonders.

The committee’s hearings in Washington and London elicited few surprises. Pro-Zionist witnesses spoke of the mass murder of European Jewry, the plight of survivors languishing in DP camps, the ancient Jewish right to the Land of Israel, and the blossoming of the country in the hands of the halutzim (pioneers).

Arab and other, anti-Zionist witnesses argued that Jews had no right to enter Palestine in defiance of its Arab majority, that Jews are communists and troublemakers, and that they are members of a religious faith, not a nation, and therefore undeserving of statehood. 

The Arabs’ intransigent rejection of anything more than a small Jewish minority in an Arab Palestine ensured that the Anglo-American Committee would be unable to find a workable solution to the conflict. The minimum demands of the two sides were just too far apart. Still, the committee members were determined to issue a set of recommendations, so they compiled a report that offered something to each side: 100,000 Holocaust survivors to be admitted to Palestine, but a continuation of British rule instead of a Jewish state.

McDonald at first threatened to resign in protest rather than add his name to a report by the committee that rejected Jewish statehood. But when the other members criticized him, he quickly backed down. “Didn’t like it, but under all the circumstances, thought I had better agree,” he wrote. McDonald’s personality was not suited to confrontations. He derived consolation from the slight softening of the final report’s harsh criticism of the Jewish Agency.

The consensus view among historians is that the Anglo-American Committee had no significant impact on either the British or American governments. Goda et al. offer a revisionist perspective, claiming that McDonald single-handedly convinced President Truman to stand firm on the 100,000 survivors and to reject the Morrison-Grady Plan of 1946, which would have divided Palestine into British-run cantons.

Certainly it is true that Truman was on the verge of endorsing Morrison-Grady, and that McDonald, accompanied by Senators Robert Wagner and James Mead, met with the president in the hope of dissuading him. But the only evidence of McDonald’s alleged influence that Goda and his colleagues offer is a self-serving letter from Senator Mead. 

Other scholars have pointed, more plausibly, to two other factors: opposition within Truman’s own cabinet (to which Goda et al. devote just half a sentence), and the influence of Truman’s political advisers, who feared Jewish voters would turn against the Democrats in that year’s midterm elections – and later in the 1948 presidential race – if the White House abandoned Zionism. A cable to Truman from the chairman of New York’s Democratic Committee asserted that if the president endorsed Morrison-Grady, “it would be useless for the Democrats to nominate a state ticket for the elections this fall.” Many such warnings reached Truman’s desk.

James McDonald was well-intentioned, but he was no match for those government officials, in Washington and London, who stood in the way of Jewish statehood. Those 100,000 survivors would not reach the gates of Jerusalem until the Israel Defense Forces secured the rebirth of Jewish national sovereignty.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and coauthor of “The Historical Dictionary of Zionism,” among other books.