Looking Back, Looking Forward: Israel in the eyes of its first US ambassador

James G. McDonald, first US ambassador to Israel, in a 1952 interview on "Longines Chronoscope," a CBS-network program. (Photo: screenshot)

An archived TV interview from 1952 provides a rare real-time glimpse into conditions surrounding the toddler Jewish state, as reported by James G. McDonald, America’s first ambassador to Israel.

Few Americans today will remember “Longines Chronoscope,” a CBS-network program sponsored by a watchmaking company that ran from 1951 to 1955. Billing itself as “a television journal of the important issues of the hour,” this prototype of today’s talk-show hosted political personalities ranging from Eleanor Roosevelt to (a very young) John F. Kennedy.

The Chronoscope episode on May 12, 1952 focused on the new “experiment” in the Middle East known as the State of Israel. Recorded shortly after Israel’s fourth Independence Day celebration, the questions the interviewers posed to former Ambassador James G. McDonald revealed open skepticism about the viability of this new country.

There was good reason for doubt. Of those first four years, Israel had spent two fighting for its life on the one hand, and absorbing a flood of Jewish refugees on the other. After ceasefires were hammered out in 1949 with Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon (Iraq refused), the fledging nation then struggled to feed, house and employ these new immigrants — which had doubled the population in just four years — while cobbling together a national infrastructure. Because of the war, the Israelis also needed to rebuild bombed Tel Aviv, bury 6700 dead and care for 15,000 wounded. Meanwhile hostilities unofficially continued; suicide bombers infiltrating the porous borders forced Israel to divert already scarce funds to defense.

US involvement in those early years was indeed generous: a combination of loans, philanthropy and business investment that comprised a whopping 90-95% of all material support extended to the resurrected Jewish homeland. McDonald, who had recently visited Israel again, was considered an authority on this “issue of the hour“: Would the heavy American investment in that controversial “human experiment” pay off, or go down in history as a naive and expensive mistake?

Showing how little has changed in 65 years, the first question wondered “if Israel and the Arabs can work out a lasting peace” to follow up on the four separately signed armistice agreements. Showing how much has changed, the interview never mentioned anything called “Palestinian rights”. The ceasefires had awarded the Gaza Strip to Egypt; the Golan Heights to Syria; and Judea, Samaria and the eastern half of Jerusalem to Jordan. All Jews living in those territories were evacuated, leaving Israel with an area McDonald described as the size of the US state of New Hampshire. And that included the Negev, from which Britain was pressuring Israel to withdraw.

McDonald predicted that there would be no war in the near future, but neither would there be peace. “Why not?” he was asked. “Because the Arabs see no reason for making peace… they hope that Israel will fall from its own weight.” He was referring to the Jewish refugees still pouring in, which he estimated at “nearly 700,000 from 60 different countries, when there were only 650,000 Jews there to begin with.” By 1952 most of these new arrivals were Jews ejected from Arab countries after being stripped of their personal assets, hinting that Arab leaders were deliberately trying to sink the newborn country under waves of poverty-stricken Jews.

This information provoked renewed doubts from the interviewers about whether the “relief project” would survive, seeing that so many of these refugees were unproductive. The main industry was citrus fruit, but Israeli imports were eight times the value of their exports. McDonald mildly retorted that unlike America, “the Israelis did not discriminate” in admitting immigrants; they welcomed the sick and elderly together with able-bodied workers.

Despite its poverty, however, McDonald judged Israel to already be the most industrialized country in the Middle East. He spoke with admiration about Israeli courage and optimism in meeting the many challenges. Israeli morale, he noted, was high despite the economic hardships. The country was making up the huge trade imbalance through loans, gifts and the sale of Israel bonds. In short, it was surviving on expressions of faith in its future.

McDonald’s own faith was unshakeable: “I’m confident that it will be a civilizing, modernizing and democratizing influence” in the region. In fact, he viewed the Jewish State as “one of the few hopeful developments” in the world of that time.

James McDonald’s personal involvement with the welfare of the Jewish people was legendary, yet until recently it was largely unnoticed. Long before he was tapped in 1948 by US President Harry Truman to personally report to him on the progress of the Zionist project, McDonald had been advocating for Jewish rights in the land of Israel and Jerusalem. His conviction was based on a strong Christian faith coupled with a realistic assessment of antisemitism. McDonald’s personal contact with Nazi leaders in the early 1930s convinced him that Europe’s Jews would become targets for extermination, and his passionate but unsuccessful efforts to convince the Roosevelt administration to rescue them were the focus of a 2014 documentary by Israeli-born filmmaker Shuli Eshel, “A VOICE AMONG THE SILENT: The Legacy of James G. McDonald.” His extensive diaries describing that era were recently published by the US National Holocaust Memorial Museum.

After the war McDonald dedicated himself to supporting Zionism, pushing the British to open the gates of Palestine to Jewish refugees. His appointment as America’s first ambassador to Israel involved his daughter, Barbara McDonald Stewart, who later helped bring McDonald’s work to public attention.

Writing of that diplomatic service in My Mission in Israel (published a year before the Chronoscope interview), McDonald expressed strong confidence in Israel’s future. “The economic difficulties I am confident will be met somehow or other,” he wrote on page 291. He wryly added, “Israel is a country which habitually acts as if it were entitled to miracles; as a strategy, this almost pays off.

Concerning the “almost“, the lack which the former ambassador had in view was a spiritual component. He considered the Israeli desire to be like all the other nations as wrong-headed and self-defeating (emphasis in the original):

Israel came into being as the result of a dream of millennia, and of the practical work of more than half a century. The dream was of, and the work of, a Jewish State. The threatening paradox is that the very success may be the substance of its own failure. For, in becoming a State, Israel automatically satisfied the demand for a State for Jews – but not yet for a Jewish State…. I firmly believe that Israel must incorporate the best of its Jewish traditions, and be ready and worthy to represent those traditions before the world. This means first that Israelis must hold on to – or regain where they have lost it – pride in Jewishness. (My Mission, p.296-7)

Today, more than 60 years later, this destiny is still hotly debated: does Israel have to choose between being a democratic state and being a Jewish state? The challenge of personally embracing Jewishness is particularly relevant for our own Israeli community, since Jewish followers of Yeshua have never agreed on what “Jewish identity” means.

Nevertheless, James McDonald’s final word on the issue is one that we share: “The future of Israel as a spiritual force is not without danger, but it is pregnant with splendid hope.” That hope is based on the One who has defied the odds several times over by keeping His promises expressed to the prophets of Israel: planting the nation back in its own land, keeping it viable despite attempts to destroy it, and causing it to take the lead in many arenas. The fact that we have not yet been spiritually revived is painfully clear. But McDonald would probably say that this only means the best is yet to come.