uite a few celebrities, such as Leonard Bernstein and Edward G. Robinson, passed through Israel/Palestine in 1948 and 1949, especially during the lengthy truces between the bouts of combat in that first Arab–Israeli war. Many of them met with James McDonald, who was President Harry Truman’s first “Special Representative” in Israel and then, from February 1949 until the end of 1950, America’s ambassador. Among the visitors was Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian-born journalist and novelist, who had already lived in and reported from Palestine in the late 1920s and again in 1945. For years, Koestler had identified with the Revisionist Movement (the progenitor of today’s Likud), before growing disillusioned (as was his wont with most things he touched). On September 20, 1948, he arrived on McDonald’s doorstep for “tea and sherry.”
In the fourth volume, just published, of his diary—Envoy to the Promised Land, the Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald 1948–1951—McDonald characterized the meeting as “delightful and civilized.”1 Koestler avowed that his “chief interest in this country is its intellectual future,” by which he meant its cultural-ideological-political evolution. “He sees three possibilities,” McDonald wrote. “A) Levantinism; b) Clericalism; c) Westernization.” McDonald explained: “By [Levantinism], he means the kind of superficial culture such as is prevalent…in the Arab states with a shallow but non-understanding knowledge of the West. Under [clericalism], he would lump the various possibilities arising from undue rabbinic influence.…[Westernization] is self-explanatory.” Koestler, he said, doubted that would happen. The sabras, native-born Palestinian Jews, had a “limited provincial outlook,” in Koestler’s view, and lacked “knowledge of the West” or “interest in Western Europe.”
In his quiet way, McDonald sprang to the defense, arguing that Israel was “a pioneer country in which it was natural for a generation or two or three [that] the emphasis would be on material development and perhaps rather crude nationalism rather than on culture.” This had been the case with “pioneer America and pioneer South Africa.” Koestler “seemed inclined to agree.” Somewhat contradictorily, McDonald then added that Israel was sui generis, and that all comparisons were unreasonable. What neither he nor Koestler could have foreseen was that Israel would develop simultaneously in all three directions, as it has done in the past seven decades.
McDonald spent much of his two and a half years in the country2 meeting and entertaining people. But most of his time was devoted to matters of state and diplomacy—and this fascinating volume provides a wealth of information and insights about the forging of the American-Israeli “special relationship” and the foreign-policy deliberations inside the Truman administration about the Middle East. It also abounds with data and insights about young Israel’s (dour) relationship with the UN and its agencies and the failed secret peace talks between Israel and Jordan, Israel and Syria, and Israel and Egypt, facilitated in part by the United States. “Underlying all was the sense of living in an historic moment,” recalls Barbara McDonald Stewart, James’s daughter, in her introduction to the volume.
McDonald was born in Ohio to parents who managed small hotels. After a brief academic career and working for a foreign-relations nonprofit, he was appointed the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from Germany, where he helped Jews attempting to flee Nazism. In 1945 and 1946, he served on the Anglo-American Committee on Palestine. In a surprise move, Truman selected McDonald as America’s representative to the new State of Israel. He arrived there in August 1948. Truman allowed McDonald to correspond with him directly, alongside—and bypassing—his routine reporting to his State Department superiors. His years in Tel Aviv were marked by continuous military, political, and diplomatic crises. “There is never a dull moment in Israel,” he noted in December 1949. “Moreover, the Jewish people in proportion to their numbers cause more stir in the world than any other folk.”
Level-headed, charming, and pro-Zionist, he instantly gained unqualified access to top Israeli officialdom. He met with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett formally and informally at least once a week and appears to have lunched with President Chaim Weizmann, the elder statesman of Zionism, even more often. “Protocol was at a minimum,” Stewart recalls. “When there were not enough glasses for all the guests, or…not enough napkins, I went next door and borrowed from Mrs. Sharett.… We were given a live turkey for Thanksgiving. How to bring it to the table? Yossi, the gardener, chased it around the yard with a BB gun and filled it so full of shot that we could not eat it.” Material conditions in postwar Israel were grim. There was food rationing and a lack of fuel. Indeed, Ben-Gurion’s “house was cold as a barn,” McDonald noted after one visit in December 1948.
McDonald was repeatedly struck by the quality and intellectualism of the Israeli leadership. In August 1949, he recorded a conversation he witnessed between Ben-Gurion and Sharett. They argued about languages. They
disagreed about Jesus’s probable common [sic] language. Ben-Gurion insisted it was Hebrew, and Sharett said it was Aramaic. Ben-Gurion argued that if you read the New Testament in the original Greek, you must be convinced that the words attributed to Jesus could only have been spoken in Hebrew, so characteristically Hebrew is the sentence structure. To this, Sharett countered that this might be true but that it came about not because Jesus spoke Hebrew, but because his Aramaic vernacular was written down in classic Hebrew.
McDonald’s sound reporting endeared him to Truman, and he was a major influence on White House thinking about the Israeli-Arab conflict and Israel more generally, counterbalancing the routinely pro-Arab views of the State Department bureaucracy. State (and the Defense Department) had opposed his appointment.
Britain throughout McDonald’s tenure as ambassador had been firmly anti-Zionist. In the diary, McDonald describes his meeting with British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin in London in August 1948 on his way to Tel Aviv. “[Bevin] was sitting [in] back of his desk glowering…in a deliberately unpleasant mood.” McDonald tried to be affable, but Bevin responded “in a tone of arrogance, which bordered on insolence,” twisting the history of Anglo-American-Zionist-Arab relations. “I was…aghast at the effrontery of this distortion.” McDonald concluded that Bevin was “a bully who is carrying over into the Foreign Office the worst of his traits as a trade union leader.”
Under Arab and British pressure and in light of its global Cold War needs, Washington gradually veered toward pro-Arab positions. On May 29, 1949, Truman demanded that Israel make territorial concessions and agree to repatriate a large number of Palestinian refugees. If Israel “continues to reject [UN decisions] and the friendly advice offered by the U.S…the U.S. will regretfully be forced to the conclusion that a revision of its attitude toward Israel has become unavoidable,” he wrote. Implied was a cut-off of critical financial aid and, perhaps, other sanctions. Specifically, the Americans, following Britain’s lead, wanted Israel to cede all or part of the Negev to create a land bridge between the Muslim Arab East and West (Jordan and Egypt), something Britain regarded as crucial to its strategic position (it had military bases in both countries).
Truman’s note triggered what McDonald called the “worst crisis” in U.S.-Israel relations. McDonald, flanked by his deputy, Richard Ford, delivered the note to Ben-Gurion. The prime minister reacted by saying that Israel was being invited to “commit suicide.” The mass of returning refugees would fight alongside the Arabs if it came to a new war. And the Negev, down to the Red Sea, was crucial to Israel’s security and development. “I sympathize with you,” Ford replied. But McDonald “remained silent.” (State Department officials subsequently criticized him for not speaking up in support of Truman’s reproofs.) McDonald thought about it for a few days. Then he told Truman that Israel would never willingly yield the southern Negev, so the land bridge idea was impracticable, and that the Soviets would support Israel. The implication and warning were that if Washington abandoned Israel, it might seek allies elsewhere.
By late 1948, the Palestinian Arab refugee issue had emerged as a major obstacle to serious Israeli-Arab negotiations and as a threat to the budding U.S.-Israel relationship. (McDonald noted: “Sometimes I think that I am fated always to be connected directly or indirectly with refugees.”) In October 1948, McDonald had warned that the refugee problem was “reaching catastrophic proportions” and that 100,000 would die for lack of food or shelter during the winter. The warning proved a vast exaggeration, and refugee numbers swelled as, in November and December, the Israeli army conquered new territory. In the Egyptian-occupied Gaza Strip, the rulers were treating the refugees as “little more than animals,” an American Quaker official informed McDonald. (During 1949–50, the American Friends Service Committee was in charge of refugee relief in Gaza and the Galilee.)
Truman warned that Israel would have to choose “between a break with him and making a constructive contribution to the refugee solution.” In response, in July 1949, Israel informed Washington of its readiness to take in “100,000” refugees if the Arab states would absorb the remainder. According to the UN, there were more than 700,000 Palestinian refugees; Israel put the number at just over 500,000; the Arab states spoke of 900,000. But the 100,000 offer, as Sharett explained to the Israeli cabinet, was not as (relatively) generous as it seemed, since it included 25,000 who had already repatriated, by agreement or illegally, and 10,000 more who had or would still return through an already agreed family-reunion scheme. Earlier, in May, Israel had proposed that if Egypt ceded the Gaza Strip, which it had conquered in May 1948, to Israel, then Israel would be willing to absorb the refugees in the strip (Israel believed there were some 180,000 there; the Americans, 230,000), thereby doing its share to solve the refugee problem. But Egypt had refused. And in July 1949, the Arab states flatly rejected the 100,000 offer; they insisted Israel take back all the refugees. Taking a middle road, the U.S. deemed the Israeli offer insufficient and demanded that it take back a quarter of a million. But Israel refused, citing security concerns. The “Gaza” and 100,000 offers were the last time Israel would agree to take in a substantial number of refugees until Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the Camp David summit and its aftermath, in 2000, reportedly offered to allow back 50,000.
In truth, the years from 1948 to 1950 were marked by two refugee problems. Aside from the Palestinian Arabs, there were masses of Jews fleeing the Arab world, initially from Yemen, then from Iraq, and the hundreds of thousands who had survived the Holocaust languishing in displaced-persons camps. Israel absorbed some 700,000 Jewish immigrants from ’48 to ’51—a population slightly larger than its own in 1948. McDonald predicted that this massive “ingathering of the exiles will mean economic disaster for Israel.” Weizmann shared his concern: McDonald reported the great man feared that
the projected rate of immigration, particularly if it included a large percentage of Oriental Jews, would swamp the country and destroy its economic soundness. There simply were not funds enough.…Weizmann indicated his fear lest a too large proportion of Orientals with habits and traditions so alien to those of the pioneers who had built the country would destroy its unity or profoundly change its character. Weizmann said that he was glad I had come because I had enabled him to get these fears off his chest.
And yet during his years in Israel, McDonald gave scant attention to the new immigrants themselves. While helping to secure American loans to finance their absorption, he apparently failed to visit any of the large transit camps to which many were initially sent. But in February 1950, against the backdrop of a “historic blizzard,” he did note: “How the country must be suffering…pitiful exposure in the [immigrants’] camps in tents and unheated barracks.”
Gazing beyond the immediate daily crises, McDonald often pondered Israel’s future—usually with optimism. Indeed, after returning to the U.S., he spent the remainder of his working life (he died in 1964) heading the American Financial and Development Corporation for Israel, selling Israel Government bonds. But as ambassador he encountered a great deal of pessimism, usually connected to the seeming prospect of indefinite conflict with the surrounding Arab world. For instance, on November 15, 1949, McDonald met the newly appointed Israeli army commander, Yigael Yadin. Yadin, who had been the IDF chief of operations during the 1948 war, was, at 32, “the youngest chief of staff of any army in the world.” (After retiring from the army, he emerged as Israel’s most prominent archaeologist.) McDonald described their talk as “not very encouraging.” Yadin spoke of “rapid” Jordanian, Egyptian, and Iraqi rearmament coupled with widespread Arab talk of a prospective “second round.” Yadin added: “There is a minority party within the [Israeli] Army which, fearful of the advantage which would come to the Arabs through…rearmament, would prefer to take the initiative and to ‘settle once for all with the Arabs.’” But he himself preferred to maintain peace on the basis of the status quo. If war did break out, the IDF’s “aim,” he told the American, would be “to drive deeply into enemy territory” and fight the war “on enemy soil” (as, in fact, occurred in Sinai in 1956 and in Sinai, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights in 1967).
A major preoccupation of McDonald’s during his ambassadorship was Jerusalem, the capital of the biblical Judaic kingdoms, which the UN General Assembly in 1947 had earmarked for international rule and which in the 1948 fighting had been divided between Israel and Jordan. In late 1949, the Israelis declared (west) Jerusalem the state’s capital and began moving the government and Knesset there. But America and the other major powers refused to recognize this and maintained their legations in Tel Aviv (where they remain to this day). It was the United States, Ben-Gurion scolded McDonald, “which is the chief obstacle to international recognition of Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its capital.”
Washington’s problems with what exactly constituted “Israel” were not restricted to Jerusalem. On December 29, 1948, McDonald recorded, he was visited by “Young Morris”—he was referring to my late father, Yaakov Morris—who came to Tel Aviv to invite the ambassador to the founding ceremony of his kibbutz, Yas’ur, in Western Galilee. McDonald said he couldn’t attend “because their site is just beyond the territory assigned to Israel under the  partition scheme” in territory earmarked for Palestinian Arab sovereignty. “I had to decline on the ground that my presence there would be misunderstood.” He said my father “understood.” Yas’ur was duly established in January 1949 on the lands of the abandoned Arab village of Birwe (the birthplace of the late Mahmud Darwish, commonly regarded as the Palestinian national poet).
Describing those years in Israel in her introduction, Stewart writes: “There was an excitement in the air, a sense of wonder at the very existence of the new state, a determination to make it work.” Her father and Israel’s leaders shared “a common goal… It was [his] hope that Israel would be an inspiration for democracy and a catalyst for modernization in the whole region.”
Looking back, one must note that Israel has so far failed to serve as a catalyst for Middle East democratization—though it may well have inspired measures of “modernization” that provide little ground for rejoicing (such as in the military field). But McDonald was certainly instrumental in keeping the emergent U.S.-Israel relationship on an even keel and helping to avoid rupture when the policies of the two countries diverged. Shimon Peres, one of Ben-Gurion’s aides at the time, summed it up for McDonald’s daughter when he told her that her father “had done more than any other” person to establish the U.S.-Israel “special relationship.” This volume details how he did this, day by day, week by week.
1 Edited by Norman J.W. Goda, Richard Breitman, Barbara McDonald Stewart, and Severin Hochberg. Indiana University Press, 1,072 pages.
2 Despite the book’s title, the entries end in December 1950, when he left Israel.