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Book Reveals New Details About the Founding of Israel

History professor co-edits new book about first US ambassador to Israel

By Rebecca Basu and Patty Housman

Book cover

Cover of the new book co-edited by Prof. Richard Breitman. Courtesy University of Indiana Press.

A new book co-edited by AU history Professor Richard Breitman has unearthed critical documents—created in the wake of the Holocaust—that shed new light on the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

To the Gates of Jerusalem: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald, 1945-1947 (University of Indiana Press, in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2014) is the third in a series of books featuring the diary of foreign policy expert James G. McDonald, the first U.S. ambassador to Israel. Breitman coedited the book with three colleagues, Norman J.W. Goda, Barbara McDonald Stewart, and Severin Hochberg. The book examines McDonald's papers during several critical years: 1945 through 1947, when the United Nations partitioned Palestine. 

A View from the Inside

In December 1945, McDonald was appointed to the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, a 12-member committee tasked with finding solutions to the problem of European Jewish refugees and the growing frictions between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. McDonald's diaries and papers present a highly personal account of the committee and the politics surrounding it. 

"McDonald was a prolific diarist," Breitman said. "His writings offer an insider's view and the most graphic and reliable account of how and why President Harry S. Truman broke with the British government on Palestine, and why Britain gave up its mandate in 1947."

According to McDonald's papers, he and Truman engaged in a heated discussion over Palestine, with McDonald supporting the establishment of a homeland for Jews. "When Truman accepted McDonald's view, he overrode his own State Department and effectively put strong pressure on Britain to give up its mandate," Breitman explained. 

McDonald's papers discuss the strong personalities represented in the committee, dramatic political maneuvers, and how the U.S. system of checks-and-balances was tested. They reveal that McDonald was instrumental in the committee's recommendation that 100,000 Jewish refugees should be admitted to Palestine, and that he fought to win the president's trust to ensure the report's recommendations were followed.

New Revelations

In McDonald's papers, Breitman and his coeditors also identified new information that impacts our understanding of the historical underpinnings of the creation of Israel. In the book, they present the following conclusions:   

* Contemporary Arab discourse concerning Israel primarily started in 1946 by minimizing the Holocaust and dressing Arab anti-Semitism in the anti-colonialist language of anti-Zionism.″   

* Zionist discourse in 1946 was not, as some scholars have argued, chauvinistic or aimed at the "takeover of Palestine." On the contrary, McDonald's writings show that in 1946, Jewish leaders all testified that Jews and Arabs could live together peacefully in Palestine and that development there would benefit the entire Middle East.   

* White House politics concerning Jewish immigration to Palestine were not manipulated by American Jewish leaders. Rather, they developed from the conviction of Truman's non-Jewish committee appointees, and the President himself, that Europe's Jews needed to end their state of homelessness following the Holocaust.

"This book connects the Holocaust and the re-creation of a Jewish state like no other," said Breitman. 

Early reviewers agree. "This collection is a must-see for students and scholars researching the origins of Israeli statehood, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the decolonization of the Middle East, and other important topics," wrote Peter L. Hahn, from the Ohio State University. 

Deborah E. Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University wrote, "For anyone interested in the history of the Middle East and how things came to be as they are, To the Gates of Jerusalem is indispensable reading. But it is also far more than just that. It provides an insight into the rarefied world of the international diplomat as it was in the wake of World War II. One sees how both international considerations and idiosyncratic personalities played a role in the decisions that were made."

For more information, visit: http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/product_info.php?products_id=807389