2000-05-05: Israel Truman
By Donald H. Harrison
Kfar Truman, Israel -- In honor of Harry S. Truman's decision in 1948 to confer U.S. recognition upon Israel just eleven minutes after it became a state, this small village near Israel's international airport was renamed in 1950 after the still-sitting American president.
Miriam and Moshe Yaari, who had helped establish this community in 1949, have had nearly a half century to get used to Truman's name, but they confess they still wish the town bore the name given to it when it was founded: B'nai Har'el (Children of Har'el).
Some of the founders of this settlement were members of the Har'el division of the Palmach which fought the Arabs during the War of Independence for control of the vital road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
"President Truman was a friend of Israel," Miriam Yaari explained to visitors earlier this year. "But in all due respect to him, I would have preferred it still be named for the Palmach. A lot of blood was shed."
In Jerusalem, years later, Truman was accorded a far more enthusiastic honor: The Hebrew University named for him its Harry S Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace.
B'nai Har'el was hardly more than a rough settlement in 1950 when representatives of the Jewish Agency approached the villagers. If they would be willing to change the name to Kfar Truman, the Jewish Agency would encourage the Israeli government to grant the community official recognition, thereby entitling it to such services as roads, running water and electricity.
The founders agreed, and eventually representatives of the American Jewish community came to the village and, with the residents, conducted a ceremony officially changing its name. For good measure, the forest alongside Kfar Truman was renamed for Margaret Truman, daughter of the American president.
No representative of the Truman family or even of the United States government attended the ceremony changing the addresses of approximately 70 families, according to Yaari. "The only people who came were from the committee (of American Jews) and the Jewish Agency," he said.
Regardless of whether the settlement was called B'nai Har'el or Kfar Truman, it was a dangerous place during the 19 years between I948 Independence and the 1967 Six Day War.
Located a bit east of the air field that now is known as Ben Gurion International Airport, it was situated about three miles from what was then the 1967 border with Jordan in the narrow midsection of Israel.
Mervyn Engelberg, who boards animals at his 10-acre "Uncle Moshe's Farm" here, said a dry river bed (wadi) comes down from the eastern hills and passes by the southern edge of his property en route to Tel Aviv. After Israel was established as a state, he said, "that wadi was the way the fedayeen -- the terrorists of those days -- used to come in.
"Those fedayeen used to come down here and they used to steal cattle and sheep," said Engelberg, who immigrated to Israel from South Africa. "In those days no one wanted to live on the specific farm which I am on now because we are the most isolated -- I don't have a neighbor on my south. The property changed hands four or five times as people moved to other parts of the village."
It being such a dangerous area, Kfar Truman's population changed several times as residents moved to safer areas of Israel. "Most of the original settlers left," Moshe Yaari said. "Eventually there were only three families left of the original nucleus."
"What goes on today on the Lebanese border is nothing compared to the rough times we had here," Miriam Yaari asserted.
In 1953, a group of immigrants from Yugoslavia settled in the town, but "they left after a year." Then, in 1956, "there was a big unemployment, so the association of builders took it upon themselves to build houses here for the unemployed," Moshe Yaari said.
Many of the trees in what had been the Margaret Truman Forest were cut down for use in the construction. Today a stand of eucalyptus trees still remains, however.
Truman never visited the village named in his honor, but the Yaaris recalled he did send a letter once acknowledging the honor. They were unsure whether anyone had preserved the note.
Security for the village improved after the 1967 Six-Day War when Israel's border with Jordan was pushed back farther east.
But the standard of living in the little village did not improve dramatically as a result of its presidential name. The Jewish Agency was slow to influence the Israeli government to provide services to the little town.
According to the Yaaris, the town only recently was connected to the central sewer system -- for which it had to pay a fee of $10,000.
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In 1966, Hebrew University's president, Eliyahu Eilat, who had served as Israel's ambassador to the United States from 1948 to 1950 went to Independence, Missouri, for a reunion with Truman, who by then had been out of office for 13 years. Eilat told the former president that the university was considering setting up a center for American studies and would like to name it for the American who had played such a crucial role in Israel's own history.
Truman replied that he had never lent his name to any university, but would do so in this case if the center were instead dedicated to the advancement of peace. After Hebrew University agreed, Truman sent out a letter to various friends--many of whom were American Jews-- and approximately 40 of them contributed a total of $100,000 as an endowment for the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace.
Originally, the institute was to have been built at Givat Ram, the area of Jerusalem where Hebrew University had been forced to relocate as a result of the 1948 War of Independence. However in 1967, Mount Scopus was recaptured by the Israelis and the decision was made to put the Truman peace center there.
The former president was too frail to travel to Israel for the center's inaugural ceremony in 1970, but he was represented at the celebration on Mount Scopus by his former presidential adviser, Clark Clifford, who himself had played a key role in the events leading up to Israel's recognition by the United States.
In a celebrated showdown on May 12, 1948, three days before the State of Israel was declared by David Ben-Gurion, Clifford had been pitted by Truman against Secretary of State George C. Marshall in an Oval Office debate over whether the United States should recognize the Jewish State.
Marshall, who had been a leading U.S. general during World War, argued that the Jewish State (as yet unnamed) would be overpowered by its Arab adversaries, and that it inevitably would have to call on the United States for military help -- potentially opposing American interests to those of the Arabs.
Referring to the upcoming presidential election, Marshall contended that those pressuring Truman to recognize the Jewish state were more interested in domestic politics than in international stability.
Clifford in turn argued that the United States had morally committed itself to the Jewish people since the time of Great Britain's Balfour Declaration, and that further delay after all the Jewish suffering that had occurred in the Holocaust would be unconscionable.
Truman continued to side with Clifford, and Marshall, feeling humiliated by having to debate international policy with a man he considered to be a domestic political advisor, refused ever to speak to Clifford again.
Truman died in Kansas City, Mo on Dec. 26, 1972. "He did not live long enough to give us a clear mandate why he was so concerned about associating his name with the cause of peace," Edy Kaufman, the center's executive director, told me earlier this year in Jerusalem. "So in a way, we were given a free hand to decide how to interpret his legacy."
Kaufman said the center now focuses on "building bridges between Israeli and Palestinian academics in particular but also with Jordanians and Egyptians. ...We were the only peace research institute in the Middle East for 25 years. It is interesting that only after 1991, after the Madrid Peace Conference started, that we see a booming of peace research centers and institutes all over Israel."
The center has 83 researchers, "half of them with a specialty on the Middle East and about 20 of them working on Palestinian-related subjects," Kaufman continued. "Then we have a smaller unit on Asia with a very good concentration on China and Japan, and we have an even smaller unit on Africa with about 10 researchers, Latin America, and now a new unit on the Balkans just started this year.
"We are covering areas of the world where there is no peace and that is why we don't cover the United States or north or west Europe."
The Truman Institute is located in a three-story building, which includes on the ground floor "a very specialized library." Kaufman said: Besides offices for the scholars, "we have the archives of (former Israeli Foreign Minister) Abba Eban here, and a wonderful auditorium used for international conferences."
During my visit in February, two exhibits covered the ground floor lobby: one about President Truman's life and administration; the other -- supplied by the Carter Center at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga -- a series of posters about the Camp David peace process that led to the signing of a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.
Carter, as an ex-president, visited the Truman Center. "He has a great intellectual interest in peace-making and he was trying to understand the role of academics and intellectuals" in that process, Kaufman said. "We call it 'two track diplomacy' and it is very important because sometimes official diplomacy gets stuck on formalities. It takes, sometimes, academics to be able to meet confidentially...."
Paul Scham, who once set up the Americans for Peace Now office in Washington D.C., is now working at the Truman Institute on a project to develop an inventory of Arab-Israeli cooperative projects which are sponsored by a variety of organizations, including the Hansen Institute of the San Diego State University Foundation.
Escorting me on a tour of the center early in March, he stopped in front of a plaque bearing the name of Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist whose efforts to save Jews from the nazis were made famous by the Steven Spielberg movie, Schindler's List.
"What is less known than his exploits in World War II is that he became close to Israel, and was head of the German Friends of the Hebrew University," Scham said.
"When he died he asked that a floor or something at the Peace Institute at Hebrew University commemorate him. So we have had various people come here, descendants and some of the 'Schindler Jews' themselves because this is one of the few actual memorials to him. We are setting up a scholarship fund to bring European, Arab and other students here to study and do research projects on peace."
Besides a bust of Harry Truman, which one might expect to see at the institute; there also is a bust of George Schulze, who was Secretary of State in Ronald Reagan's administration. Schulze has had an ongoing advisory relationship with the Institute.
Additionally, Scham said, there has been a tradition of former U.S. Ambassadors to Israel chairing the Institute's board of directors. "Sam Lewis, who was ambassador here for eight years, was chairman for several years, and now it is Bill Brown, who was ambassador to Israel in the early '90's."