Eddie Jacobson’s good name is closely associated with President Harry Truman. Jacobson’s sustained efforts for Israel spanned several years and made a critical difference during the new nation’s precarious infancy. He was an unlikely diplomat, yet he rose to the occasion with distinction when he was needed most.
Edward Jacobson was born to poor immigrants in New York’s East Side in 1891. His father was a shoemaker and the family was orthodox. His parents moved the family west to Leavenworth, Kansas in 1893, in search of a better living, which proved elusive. In 1905, the Jacobsons moved to Kansas City and Eddie, then 14 years old, got a job at a wholesale dry-goods firm. It was in that role that he first met Harry Truman, who was working as a bookkeeper at Union National Bank. Truman returned to his Grandview, Missouri family farm in 1906, and the two young men lost touch.
Jacobson and Truman were reunited in the U.S. Army in 1917. Lieutenant Truman and Sergeant Jacobson were tasked with opening a canteen at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. The operation thrived. Truman noted in his memoirs, “Many other canteens of the 45th Division were failures, and some of the men who ran them were sent home, but after our arrival in France I was promoted, largely because of the work Eddie Jacobson and I had done.”
The success of their canteen led them to open a men’s clothing store in downtown Kansas City in 1919, after World War I. The store did well initially but was forced to close in 1922, after an economic downturn. Truman and Jacobson each assumed their share of remaining debt from the store, which took years to repay. Truman became a judge of the Jackson County Court and Jacobson went on the road as a traveling salesman.
In 1919, Jacobson married Bluma Rosenbaum who was a B’nai Jehudah confirmand. After the failure of the haberdashery, they made their home with her parents and the family regularly attended Temple services together. In 1927, Bluma and Eddie became members in their own right to enroll their first child, Elinor, in Sunday school. Jacobson maintained his B’nai Jehudah membership throughout his life and served on the Brotherhood board in 1944.
Jacobson’s concern for the plight of Europe’s Jews was first nurtured though his active participation at B’nai Jehudah. The British were threatening to close Jewish immigration to Palestine by March 31, 1944. B’nai Jehudah’s board sent a resolution to then U.S. Senator Truman in favor of opening Palestine to Jewish immigration, a desperate need as Nazi persecution of the Jews became known. Truman went on record as being supportive of a Jewish Homeland in Palestine.
Truman’s unexpected elevation to the Presidency lifted Eddie Jacobson from obscurity to public notice. By 1945, Jacobson was back in the menswear business at 39th and Main Streets in Westport. Soon, people were stopping in the store to ask him to use his friendship with President Truman for favors. Jacobson was uncomfortable to impose on the President for personal gain and all such requests were rejected on the spot. However, he said he was glad “to urge the President to use every influence he has to rescue and save as many of the desperate and homeless Jews of Europe as possible.”
Jewish leaders, including B’nai Jehudah’s Rabbi Samuel Mayerberg, sought to persuade Jacobson to discuss Palestine with President Truman. Great Britain was enforcing Jewish immigration restrictions more than ever, just as hundreds of thousands of homeless European Jews needed a place to resettle. Some of Truman’s closest advisors opposed any involvement in Palestine. In 1946, Jacobson arranged a meeting with President Truman for himself and Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, who was director of the Committee on Unity for Palestine. They asked the President for financial and technical aid to transport 100,000 displaced persons to Palestine. Truman agreed to support the request.
Jacobson and Kansas City Jewish attorney A.J. Granoff called on Truman at the White House on December 9, 1947. The purpose of that visit was to express appreciation for the U.S. role in obtaining the United Nations General Assembly recommendation for a Jewish State in a partitioned Palestine. By January 1948, Palestine was in chaos while the British prepared to end their mandate on May 14. Meanwhile, Arabs demanded control of all of Palestine with no partition. Zionist leaders pushed President Truman aggressively, so much so that he refused further appointments with anyone promoting a Jewish homeland.
Dr. Chaim Weitzman came to America in February 1948, to try to gain an audience with Truman. Again, Eddie Jacobson was asked to arrange a meeting between the future President of Israel and President Truman. Initially, Truman refused the meeting but Jacobson persisted. Eddie presented himself at the White House in March and persuaded Truman to meet with Weitzman. The meeting took place days later. Truman committed to work for the establishment and recognition of the Jewish State.
In Tel Aviv, at midnight on May 14, 1948, the first sovereign Jewish State in more than 2,000 years came into being as the British mandate ended. Eleven minutes later, the White House announced United States’ de facto recognition of the provisional government of Israel.
Weitzman was elected as Israel’s first President on May 17, and asked Jacobson to call on President Truman as his unofficial ambassador to discuss lifting a U.S. arms embargo and for a $100 million loan to Israel. On June 22, the United States and Israel established diplomatic relations. The loan was authorized in January 1949. On January 31, 1949, Eddie Jacobson was one of three American Jews to witness the signing of the decree by which President Truman proclaimed full United States recognition.
In March of 1949, Bluma and Eddie Jacobson flew to Israel and were houseguests of U.S. Ambassador and Mrs. James G. McDonald for two weeks. Upon his return, Jacobson gave President Truman a first-hand report about his visit to Israel and its “great potential for industrial, agricultural and scientific growth.”
Jacobson called on the President several more times during his administration, each time making the case for economic or other support for Israel. His influence resulted in Truman requesting an increase in assistance to $80 million from a planned $25 million. Congress approved a $73 million grant-in-aid for the government’s fiscal year 1953.
Eddie Jacobson died on October 25, 1955, at the age of 64 and was interred at Rose Hill Cemetery. B’nai Jehudah’s sanctuary was filled to overflowing for his funeral. Former President Truman said poignantly at his death, “Eddie was one of the best friends I had in the world. He was absolutely trustworthy. I don’t know how I’m going to get along without him.”
This B’nai Jehudah member and unlikely diplomat was one person who made a world of difference.
Click below for a short video about Eddie Jacobson, President Truman and Israel: https://www.aish.com/jw/s/Harry-Trumans-Lifelong-Jewish-Friend.html
Adapted from Roots In A Moving Stream by Frank Adler z”l
April 2, 2021