“You must see Dr. Weizmann,” Jacobson said to Truman, according to “First Friends: The Powerful, Unsung (And Unelected) People Who Shaped Our Presidents,” a 2021 book written by Gary Ginsberg. “You must support an independent Jewish state.”
The suggestion annoyed and angered Truman, who, historians say, had been known to disparage Jews with antisemitic slurs in private, and the president even swiveled his chair to turn his back on Jacobson. Then, Jacobson, an Army buddy and former business partner of Truman’s who had come to the White House unscheduled, found a small statue of Andrew Jackson on horseback and made a desperate appeal to his friend.
“Harry, you have a hero, Andrew Jackson. I, too, have a hero, Chaim Weizmann,” Jacobson said, according to Clifton Truman Daniel, Truman’s eldest grandson, in a post for the Truman Library Institute. “He’s the greatest Jew who ever lived. He’s an old and sick man and he’s traveled all this way to speak to you and you won’t see him. That’s not like you.”
Truman drummed his fingers on the desk and turned around in his chair. The president had changed his mind.
“All right, you baldheaded son of a bitch,” he said to Jacobson. “You win. I’ll see Weizmann.”
The agreement led to a secret meeting between Truman and Weizmann days later, in which the president promised to continue to work on behalf of the establishment of Israel. Then, 11 minutes after Israel declared its independence, Truman made good on his friend’s request: “The United States recognizes the provisional government as the de facto authority of the new State of Israel,” Truman wrote.
The note signed by Truman on May 14, 1948, which was met with pushback by his own State Department, marked the start of relationship between the U.S. and Israel that has lasted more than 75 years, with president after president reiterating America’s support of the Jewish state. And it all began with a favor.
“Jacobson did untold service in setting up the Israeli government,” Truman said at a chapel dedication in 1959, according to the Columbian Missourian. “He was a man after my own heart.”
Several Western leaders announced plans to travel to Israel this week in a show of support for the country ahead of an expected ground offensive, and to plead for humanitarian relief for the Gaza Strip. Among them is President Biden, who said he will visit Israel on Wednesday to show solidarity with the U.S. ally “in the face of Hamas’s brutal terrorist attack” that killed more than 1,400 Israelis. Biden will also visit Jordan, where he plans to meet with Jordanian King Abdullah II, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which has endured Israeli airstrikes that have killed more than 2,700 Palestinians.
Biden to travel to Israel on Wednesday
The friendship that helped lead to U.S. recognition of Israel started in Kansas City, Mo. Born on June 17, 1891, Jacobson was raised on New York’s Lower East Side by his parents, David and Sarah, impoverished Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, before the family moved to Kansas City.
Not long after the move, Jacobson, a 15-year-old high school dropout, was depositing the day’s receipts for a nearby dry goods store at Union National Bank when he met Truman, then a 22-year-old vault clerk, in 1906. They reconnected years later in 1917 at Oklahoma’s Fort Sill, where they trained to fight in World War I. The friends got together to run a successful canteen in camp to help raise funds for more food and supplies for their colleagues.
“I have a Jew in charge of the canteen by the name of Jacobson,” Truman wrote, according to “First Friends,” “and he is a crackerjack.”
How a U.S. president known to disparage Jews became godfather of Israel
After the war, they were inspired to go into business together again. This time, in November 1919, Truman and Jacobson decided to open a haberdashery in downtown Kansas City.
“Harry would get around a lot, you know, and was mixing with people. He never stayed in the store all day — he would get out and go to lunches and mix with people,” Ted Marks, a close friend of Truman’s, recalled in a 1962 interview with the Truman Library. “He was very well known in that way and Eddie Jacobson would stay around and take care of the business.”
But the business failed due, in part, to the 1921 collapse in grain prices that hammered the Midwest economy. The post-war recession had caught up to the store, which closed in 1922.
“Jacobson and I went to bed one night with a $35,000 inventory and awoke the next day with a $25,000 shrinkage,” Truman wrote in 1945 as part of his autobiographical manuscript, according to the Truman Library. “This brought bills payable and bank notes due at such a rapid rate we went out of business.”
Jacobson declared bankruptcy in 1925, and the debt followed him in his career as a traveling salesman. Truman also struggled to pay off the debt, but did so in 1935, which is when he was representing Missouri in the U.S. Senate.
The two kept in touch over the years, with Jacobson inviting Truman on hunting and fishing expeditions along the Missouri River. Then, leaders of Zionism, the international movement to establish in Palestine a homeland for the Jewish people, had reached out to Jacobson to see if he could convince Truman to meet with Weizmann. While Truman had previously gotten along well in meetings with Weizmann, the president had gotten so irritated talking about Zionism that his support of a Jewish state was waning.
Jacobson was Jewish, but not ultra religious. He had spoken to Truman about the atrocities happening against Jews before and during the Holocaust, but the president wasn’t initially as receptive when it came to the subject of an independent Jewish state. Jacobson had previously reached out to Truman, but the president reiterated his stance in a February 1948 letter: “The situation has been a headache to me for two-and-a-half years. The Jews are so emotional, and the Arabs are so difficult to talk with that it is almost impossible to get anything done.”
Still, Jacobson agreed to try again and called Truman on the morning of March 13, 1948, from a Washington hotel to see if his friend had a few minutes to meet with him that day.
When Jacobson asked Truman to meet with Weizmann and consider recognizing Israel, the president snapped, saying how “disrespectful and mean” certain Jews had been to him, according to Ginsberg. Jacobson wept in making his case for Truman to meet with Weizmann, according to “Plain Speaking,” the 1973 biography by Merle Miller.
“Now you refuse to see him because you were insulted by some American Jewish leaders, even though you know that Weizmann had absolutely nothing to do with those insults, and would be the last man to be a party to them,” Jacobson said. “It does not sound like you, Harry.”
At this point, Truman relented, calling his longtime friend a “baldheaded son of a bitch.” Two months and one day later, Truman recognized Israel. Days after the president recognized Israel, Truman invited Weizmann for a public meeting at the White House.
While some had wanted Jacobson to become president of Israel, the businessman scoffed at the notion, telling reporters in 1949 that he was “too proud of my American citizenship to trade it for any office in the world.”
Jacobson hoped to escort Truman on his first trip to Israel. But that wasn’t to be: Jacobson died of a heart attack in 1955 at the age of 64. When Truman sat shiva at Jacobson’s home in Kansas City, the former president was devastated and could barely speak. He later found the words to remember “one of the best friends I had in this world.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever known a man I thought more of, outside my own family, than I did of Eddie Jacobson,” Truman said, according to “Famous Friends.” “He was an honorable man. He’s one of the finest men that ever walked on this earth, and that’s covering a lot of territory.”