Truman and the Birth of Israel | May 14, 2023
On May 11, 2023, The Honorable Michael Herzog, Israel ambassador to the U.S., visited the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of President Truman’s politically courageous decision to recognize the nascent state of Israel. A transcript of his remarks follows. Watch the recorded program, in its entirety, on YouTube.
Truman and the Birth of Israel
Dear friends, distinguished guests.
It is a pleasure for me and my wife Shirin to be here with all of you today for what is truly a special gathering.
I want to extend my sincere gratitude to Mr. Clifton Truman Daniel, Mr. Alex Burden, members of the board and the team members of the Truman Presidential Library for organizing this event to mark a milestone moment in the history between our two countries.
On a personal note, my grandfather, who was the first chief rabbi of the state of Israel, and my father who was Israel’s first defense attaché in the U.S, and later became Israel’s sixth President, both had the honor of meeting President Truman and both were highly impressed and inspired by him.
We are commemorating here today the initial spark of what has become seventy-five years of a deep, unique bond between our countries. This is a bond anchored in shared values and interests as well as a special affinity between our peoples. I feel honored to have been invited to speak and reflect on these seventy-five years of friendship.
The miracle of the story of Israel, which continues to evolve and develop, is linked to a few distinct historical moments. 75 years ago, only eleven short minutes after its birth, President Truman became the first world leader to formally recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.
The historical record shows that this was not an easy decision for President Truman. He faced opposition from senior officials in the Department of State and from among his advisors as well as allies from around the world. Some of them outlined to him why it was not beneficial to U.S. interests to recognize the State of Israel.
Yet Truman was resolute, seized the moment and took the first step in a joint journey characterized by a very close, iron-clad alliance and partnership.
President Truman did so first and foremost out of a deep conviction, believing that the Jewish people deserved the right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland. He did not do only what he perceived to be beneficial but more importantly what he perceived to be fundamentally right.
Truman was an avid reader of history. Once, when he reflected to a Jewish audience on his decision to recognize Israel, he told them that it was informed, among other things, by his deep impression as a child reading the bible with his father, of King Cyrus’s decision, in 538 BC, to allow the Jewish people to return to their homeland from exile in Babylon and rebuild their temple in Jerusalem.
Truman was also well aware of the horrors of the Holocaust, just a few years earlier. It was not lost on him that the Jewish people, having just emerged from a systematic effort to exterminate them, were evermore longing and willing to fight for their independence.
Ultimately, President Truman has been proven right rather than his opposing advisors because of his strong sense of history and morality, and also because his life’s experience as a worker, farmer, dealer and above all a brave military leader in World War I – made him connected to real life.
History is constituted by certain defining moments. As President, Truman created several such moments, and we are proud to be included in them. It is no exaggeration to say that his decision to recognize Israel was a critical point in the history of the Jewish people. People perhaps do not realize how easily it all could have gone the other way.
Yet in that decisive moment, he courageously signaled to the world that the United States was committed to the idea of Jewish statehood in Israel.
Now let’s look at what that statehood has achieved over the past 75 years. Israel has written an unparalleled success story. Against all odds we have built a thriving, democratic society, all while being forced to fight wars and confront campaigns of terror and boycotts. We absorbed immigrants from over 70 countries around the world with over 70 languages, created an amazing melting pot of cultures and traditions, built formidable state institutions, become the start-up nation and turned into a powerhouse of creativity and innovation. All the while we fostered our close friendship with the U.S.
I strongly believe that the values and ideas that underscored President Truman’s historic decision, the values and ideas that underpin the unique relationship between our two countries – and at their core liberty, freedom and equality – remain as strong today as they were 75 years ago, notwithstanding significant challenges. The United States and Israel stand today as beacons of equality and democracy in a turbulent world.
In practical terms, this partnership extends much further than ideals and values. Our alliance has yielded innumerable achievements. Together we stand at the frontlines of fighting violent extremism and countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the threat of terrorism. Our cooperation in the fields of defense, intelligence and cyber is unparalleled. Our collaboration in the fields of science, technology, healthcare, agriculture and many more areas critical to humankind is breathtaking. American and Israeli collaboration in the tech sector is already making strides on many fronts, including in securing the vital supply chain, fighting climate change, tackling food insecurity and preventing the next pandemic. These advancements make a difference in the everyday lives of millions of Israelis and Americans, showing the power of tikkun olam, repairing the world, in action.
Unfortunately, not everything is rosy. 75 years on, there are still significant regional and international actors who refuse to accept Israel’s existence and openly call for its destruction.
First among them is Iran. Here we have a regime that espouses an extreme anti-western, anti-Israel, anti-Semitic ideology, nuclear and regional hegemonic ambitions, and a constant drive to realize these ambitions – all while brutally repressing its own people.
They seek to do so through the development of nuclear capabilities and the buildup of heavily armed proxies across the Middle East and especially in the countries enveloping Israel.
As we speak the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an internationally designated terrorist organization and proxy of Iran, has been indiscriminately firing hundreds of rockets from the Gaza Strip, aiming at Israeli civilians.
In the face of the threat from Iran and its proxies, we have no choice but to be strong and resolute, defend ourselves, enhance our deterrence, and continue to work closely with the United States.
We have said time and again, and we mean it, that we are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapon capabilities. Such a reality would gravely endanger our country, the stability of the Middle East and the world.
Furthermore, less than a century after the Holocaust, Antisemitism is once again raising its ugly head in new and dangerous ways here in the United States and around the world.
The hateful rhetoric spewed by public figures, the targeting of students on college campuses, and the outright attacks on Jewish persons and institutions across the country are expressions of a centuries-old hatred that has long sought to tear us down.
The newest form of this ancient hatred has taken aim not only at the Jewish individual or the Jewish people, but also at the Jewish state, implying it has no right to exist.
I am here to say that the idea of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people, which was recognized by President Truman 75 years ago, is just as legitimate and valid today as it was then.
It is one thing to criticize certain Israeli policies. It is something totally different to question the very legitimacy of the Jewish State.
Alongside the challenges, there are also opportunities. A major opportunity lies in the historic Abraham Accords, whose second anniversary we celebrated late last year. What we have achieved in this short period is quite remarkable.
Together with our American allies we are working relentlessly to deepen and expand Israeli Arab normalization, which holds an important key to improving the well-being of the citizens of our troubled region and securing a better future for the next generation.
My friends, Israel is an imperfect democracy, and we, like you, have our own set of internal challenges. As a young nation, “only” 75 years old, we are still grappling with important questions relating to our democratic system. But let me assure you: Israel will remain a vibrant democracy.
As we celebrate this momentous occasion, here would be my ask of you: whether you are Jewish or not, tell your children and grandchildren about Israel. Take them to Israel if you can. Show them that our country is so much more than our complexities and conflicts; we are a beautiful, modern country with a rich history. We are a country of a strong, proud, and diverse people.
My friends, more and more young Americans and Israelis are growing up without an understanding of the importance of the alliance between Israel and the United States or the values and history in which it is rooted. They do not know the incredible story of the moral courage demonstrated by President Truman in 1948. We have a duty to educate the next generation and pass this down and I want to commend the Truman Library for carrying this mantle.
I want to conclude by reflecting on the following quote from President Truman, and I quote: “I had faith in Israel before it was established, I knew it was based on the love of freedom, which has been the guiding star of the Jewish people since the days of Moses. I believe it has a glorious future before it, not just as a sovereign nation but as an embodiment of the great ideals of our civilization.”
I would like to believe that seventy-five years after President Truman took the valiant step to recognize the State of Israel, he would also agree that what our country has accomplished is nothing short of a miracle.
Thank you for your friendship. May we all continue to go from strength to strength. May G-d bless the United States of America and may G-d bless the State of Israel.
Thank you, Todah Rabah.