Israelis went to bed on March 17 thinking that the two main political parties in that day’s election were tied and that their nation’s future was unknown. They awoke the next morning to the news that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party had decisively defeated his left-wing rivals. Several left-leaning Israeli newspapers went to press too soon, with headlines hopefully reporting that the Zionist Union party might yet be able to head the next government—or at least serve as an equal partner in a “national unity” government with Netanyahu.
Israeli electoral history now has a counterpart to the iconic photo of a beaming Harry Truman holding up the front page of the Chicago Tribune, with its infamously premature headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Smiling Likud activists are now pointing to the headlines of the two newspapers that were the most passionate in their opposition to Netanyahu in this election: “Neck and Neck,” announced Yedioth Ahronoth; “Netanyahu, Herzog tied—[President] Rivlin demanding national unity government,” declared Ha’aretz. These newspapers’ bewildered editors were left wondering how Israeli voters could have betrayed the media’s expectations.
Two days before the vote, one Israeli commentator scornfully predicted that Netanyahu would, in the final 48 hours of the campaign, unleash all sorts of “trickim v’shtickim”—colorfully spicing his Hebrew with English and Yiddish terms suggesting inappropriate tactics, but really missing the larger point. Israelis were not “tricked” by Likud’s “shtick.” They responded to what they perceive as existential threats: a nuclear Iran (a danger that Netanyahu made the centerpiece of his campaign) and an armed Palestinian state just a few miles from Israel’s population centers, which Netanyahu pledged to prevent.
Alternative explanations for the election results abound, of course. Among the least plausible is the notion, recently published on the op-ed page of USA Today by a clinical psychologist named Alon Gratch, that “the trauma of the Holocaust has penetrated every aspect of Israeli life,” filling Israelis with “anxiety and rage” over Jewish helplessness. This supposedly has created a “psychological burden” that shapes their attitude toward Iran and, presumably, influences their voting trends as well.
Thomas Friedman of the New York Times has made the same point, crudely describing Israel as “Yad Vashem with an air force” and complaining about the “Holocausting of the Israeli psyche.” As political analysis goes, this is pretty weak stuff. Most Israelis are not Holocaust survivors or children of survivors. The majority are immigrants, or the children of immigrants, from Arab or African countries. Their relatives were not gassed in Auschwitz.
Netanyahu occasionally invokes aspects of the Holocaust—typically to contrast the self-sufficiency of the State of Israel with the helplessness of Europe’s Jews under Hitler, the repetition of which he has dedicated himself to prevent.
But there is another aspect of the Holocaust that Netanyahu has publicly cited, which is quite germane to understanding the Israeli election results. In his address to the 2012 American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington, DC, he held up a letter written by a Franklin D. Roosevelt administration official in 1944, rejecting a request by Jewish leaders to bomb Auschwitz or the railway lines leading to it. The decision to cite that historical episode does not mean Israel’’ prime minister is somehow “traumatized” by “Holocaust rage.” Indeed, President Barack Obama commented at the time, “I am deeply mindful of the historical precedents that weigh on any prime minister of Israel when they think about the potential threats to Israel and the Jewish homeland.”
It is precisely the Allies’ abandonment of Europe’s Jews that many Israelis today regard as relevant to their situation. Israelis do not imagine themselves as comparable to shaven captives being herded into gas chambers. But they have a legitimate concern that the international community could abandon Israel in some future hour of need.
The weak response of the West to contemporary instances of genocide, such as Cambodia and Darfur, has reinforced the understandable fear of many Israeli voters that various governments will find reasons not to intervene if Iran attempts to implement its vow to annihilate the Jewish state.
Coincidentally, new research on the abandonment of European Jewry was featured at a conference on the Allies’ response to the Holocaust, which opened on election eve in Jerusalem’s Menachem Begin Heritage Center, the Israeli equivalent of a U.S. presidential library. The venue happens to include a fascinating exhibit on Begin’s first election as prime minister, in 1977, in an outcome as surprising to pollsters and pundits as the results of this latest race—or, for that matter, as stunning as Truman’s defeat of Dewey in 1948.
The element of surprise, however, is not the most significant point of comparison between Israel’s 2015 race and the American presidential campaign of 1948. Jewish fears of Israel being abandoned played a little-known role in that election as well—in this case, the fears of American Jewish voters. U.S. Jews were delighted by Truman’s speedy recognition of newborn Israel in May 1948, but were profoundly alarmed by Truman’s refusal to provide any military assistance to the Jewish state, even as it desperately fought off five invading Arab armies.
Former vice president Henry Wallace, running as a far-left third party candidate against Truman and Republican nominees Thomas Dewey, the governor of New York, made the Israel embargo a campaign issue. Not only did the platform of his Progressive Party call for “lifting the discriminatory arms embargo,” but Wallace himself repeatedly brought it up in his campaign speeches, especially in New York. At one rally, he accused Truman of “playing politics with the lives of the people of Israel.” At another, he charged that “Jewish blood lies on the hands of Mr. Truman tonight.” Soon, the New York Star was predicting that many Jews “may even vote for Henry Wallace because of their dissatisfaction with Truman’s record, particularly on Palestine.”
In the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, the most heavily Jewish neighborhood in the country at the time, Wallace received an astonishing 28 percent of the vote. He received similar levels of Jewish support in Coney Island, Borough Park, and Jewish sections of the Bronx such as the Grand Concourse and Mosholu Parkway, and Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Upper West Side. Overall, Truman received only 50-55 percent of Jewish votes in New York, with Wallace winning about 25 percent and Dewey around 20 percent. That is the lowest share of the Jewish vote for any Democratic candidate in modern presidential election history, except for Jimmy Carter.
Truman lost New York—the largest prize in the race that year, with 47 electoral votes—by just 60,959 votes, less than 1 percent. In his memoirs, Truman blamed Wallace for drawing votes away from him. Wallace won 8.25 percent, 509,559 votes, in New York State—almost 10 times the size of Governor Dewey’s margin over Truman.
Of course, not every Jewish vote for Wallace was motivated by anger at Truman over Israel. Some of Wallace’s Jewish support came from ideological left-wing partisans who backed him because of other issues. But radical-left sentiment was rapidly diminishing the American Jewish community by the late 1940s. Most Wallace voters were former FDR supporters who would have voted for Truman if Wallace had not been in the race. And many of them were furious that as Israel was fighting for its very existence, Truman refused to supply even a single bullet. The Jewish protest votes for Wallace took enough traditional Democratic votes away from Truman to deliver the state to Dewey.
Thus Truman lost New York, and as a result nearly lost the election, in part because of Jewish concerns about his stance on Israel. “Dewey Defeats Truman” came within a whisker of being accurate. On March 17, 2015, Israeli Jewish concerns about the current U.S. president’s stance on Israel helped ensure that the premature Israeli newspaper headlines will join that infamous edition of the Chicago Tribune in the dustbin of journalistic misunderstanding of public opinion.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is author of the author of 15 books about Jewish history, Zionism, and the Holocaust.