James G McDonald: Early Guardian of the Jewish State

A young Joseph B. Soloveitchik used to travel to Vilna to talk in learning with R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinski. On one such visit, the future Rav Soloveitchik asked the gadol hador some halachic questions about a future Jewish state that people were talking about. Rav Chaim Ozer told him, “A Jewish state? There will be hair on my palms before there is a Jewish state.”

The founding and early history of the State of Israel are best described as a series of improbabilities nestled on a bed of coincidences. Unless, of course, you are a believer, in which case reading about it is the study of Divine intervention in human affairs. A recent article in Middle East Quarterly offers delectable tidbits for those who like feasting on the story of how Hashem engineered the impossible.

Rabbi Shlomo Slonim, one of my fellow mispalelim at Beit Knesset Harel in Yerushalayim, served on the faculty of Columbia before becoming the James G. McDonald Professor of American History at Hebrew U. The name on his chair makes it not at all improbable that he would write a review of the latest two volumes of the papers of McDonald, a career diplomat who exerted enormous influence on Harry Truman in his dealings with the young Jewish state. McDonald earlier had worked vigorously to save European Jews from destruction by providing safe havens, but no one was interested, including the US. McDonald succeeded in frustrating the many attempts of the British to subvert the 1947 UN partition plan that created a Jewish state, and a later effort to remove half the territory from the fledgling state by stripping it of the Negev.

Our readers will be familiar with many in the cast of characters in this brief article. But they will likely learn new things about both the heroes (Clark Clifford, David Niven, Eleanor Roosevelt, Benjamin Cohen) and the villains (the State Department, George Marshall, FDR). They may discover new depths to the treachery of Breckenridge Long and Ernest Bevin.

Readers may be overcome with nostalgia when they read of the efforts of the two NY Senators on behalf of Israel. Remember when US Senators in NY and NJ just had to embrace Jewish causes?

McDonald’s wistful gaze at the machinations of those ready to throw the Jewish state under the bus generated a line that rings ever-true today: “How blind are men who permit their hatreds and their frustrations to close their minds to realities. And, how tragic that other men should accept such men as dispassionate, disinterested and trustworthy guides. ”[1]

Most impactful to me was the account of the meeting McDonald had with Hitler, ym”s, shortly after his ascension to the chancellorship. (Born of a German mother, McDonald was fluent in German.) Hitler told him, “I will do the thing that the rest of the world would like to do. It doesn’t know how to get rid of the Jews. I will show them.” Lesser people would have dismissed it as bravado. (FDR was not stirred to any action by the report.) McDonald, however, was transfigured by the evil he had encountered, and became a tireless worker to save Jews, and later Jewish refugees. He had intuited what much of the world still does not understand: When people threaten Jews with annihilation, they have to be taken seriously.

  1. This could have served as a foundational statement in my recent debate on these pages with Rabbi Avi Shafran about whether Airbnb should be termed anti-Semitic.

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10 Responses

  1. Shmuel says:

    Thank you Rabbi Adlerstein.
    Richard Breitman was interviewed a few years back on a special Fox News segment. He (as one of the editors of the then-emerging book) argued that with this testimony of McDonald the debate between Intentionalists and Functionlists is effectively over. This conversation between H. and McDonald illustrates that the German dictator had in mind what unfolded, in varying stages, as the Holocaust at the very beginning.

  2. D K says:

    Wow, it’s so interesting to read about a non-Jew who cared so much more about Jews than the leaders of the Zionist movement themselves. Being that he was 1/2 German is even more of a Chiddush…

  3. Steve Brizel says:

    McDonald was an Ohev Yisrael in the Foreign Service where few made and still make their careers

  4. David Ohsie says:

    “The founding and early history of the State of Israel are best described as a series of improbabilities nestled on a bed of coincidences. Unless, of course, you are a believer, in which case reading about it is the study of Divine intervention in human affairs.”

    Would that it were so. Many believers seem to have a hard time believing that.

  5. Raymond says:

    I find it so remarkable when two people so closely related to one another, can see things entirely differently from one another, and are sometimes paradoxes within even themselves. Here we have Franklin Roosevelt, to whom credit must be given for helping to defeat the nazis, but at the same time had refused to bomb the tracks leading to Auschwitz and refused to meet with 100 Orthodox Rabbis descending on the White House to plead with him to save European Jewry. And yet at the same time, he was a distant relative to, and married to, Eleanor Roosevelt, whom I have heard was very much a philosemite. Even before they were married, they were distantly related to each other biologically, but far closer relatives involve the Kennedy and Bush families: Joseph Kennedy Sr was a notorious antisemite, and yet his son Robert was actually murdered because of his very strong support for Israel. And while George Bush Sr was to some extent hostile to Israel, his son George W has been an unwaveringly solid, good friend to us Jews. A rather chilling non-Jewish example of all this, is the case of the Booth family, in which John Wilkes Booth absolutely despised and of course tragically murdered Abraham Lincoln, while his brother Edwin was a strong supporter of this country’s greatest President. Moving on to the Torah, we see how utterly different Yishmael was from Yitzchak, despite having the exact same father…and what a father they had! Now, in the cases of the Kennedys, Bushes, and the case of Yishmael versus Yitzchak, it could be argued that what caused the difference were their mothers, but that does not explain the cases of the Booth family, nor of Ya’akov versus Eisav, who had the exact two same parents. Even if one says that Rivka having Lavan for a brother caused Eisav, then how was it that Ya’akov was what he was, whom some have even described as the greatest of all of our forefathers? In any case, too bad that Eleanor Roosevelt did not have more influence on her husband when it came to the Jews, although maybe it wasn’t from a lack of effort on her part.

  6. PHJ says:

    from R’ J B Solovechik on one end of the spectrum through the satmar rav on the other end, and including all of those in between, all of the great jewish thinkers alive at the time that the state of israel was founded felt that it was the result of blatant divine intervention. some saw it as the beginning of the geula, others as a comfort measure after the terrible punishment of the holocaust that g-d was forced to visit upon us. the satmar rav felt that it was a test, would the blandishments of a state undermine our loyalty to hashem. but no one questioned that it was a supernatural phenomenon. considering that just about every believing jew alive today is a follower of one of great leaders of post holocaust judaism, i am wondering where you find the many believers who have a hard time accepting that the state of israel was a result of ” Divine intervention in human affairs”.

    • Shmuel says:

      Please provide the source on this website that illustrates that the Satmar Rav ztl also understood it that way.

      • PHJ says:

        it’s been a number of years since i learned it, so i can’t give you the verbatim quotes with page numbers, but that was my impression from ויואל משה‎. inspired by your challenge, i did further research, and i will now concede that the satmar rav seems to have said conflicting things. sometimes he approached it as a divine test (ie the empowerment of evil in order to challenge us), but other times he seems to have said that we were fortunate that g-d did not perform miracles for the zionists; because if he had, the punishment that would be meted out to klal yisroel (for following zionism) and the difficulty of the test, would be much greater. my understanding is that he is drawing a distinction between nes nistar (divine intervention that appears to be part of the natural order) vs nes nigla (divine intervention that appears to conflict with the natural order). i will concede however, that one who wants to claim that the satmar rav denies explicit divine intervention (beyond the usual divine running of the world) in the founding of the zionist state, can find the quotations to support that position. therefore i will amend my above comment to read “from R’ J B Solovechik on one end of the spectrum up to and possibly even including the satmar rav on the other end, and including all of those in between…”
        thank you for your point

  7. D K says:

    Well said. When i read David Ohsie’s comment i was wondering the same thing. But i think that he was coming from the erroneous assumption that “Divine intervention in human affairs” means that the State was divinely ordained as the new leaders of Klal Yisroel and the invention of a new, Kochi V’Otzam Yadi, “Macabee-Jew”. Since Torah true Jews do not believe in this notion, we automatically dispose of such nonsense, lending some to believe that we think that the State did not come into being with Yad Hashem.

  8. Shmuel says:


    Your clarification and decision to revisit your presentation are increasingly uncommon and appreciated.

    My initial reading of your post led me to misunderstand that you were positing Heavenly intervention of a positive kind, even to the Satmar Rov. Given his famous saying that the events of the Six Day War were מעשה שטן it was very difficult to understand how he would have seen a positive יד השם in the events of 1948.

    Thank you.

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