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Skirball's Salute to Israel

Three exhibitions open today to mark the nation's 50th anniversary.

April 23, 1998|BOOTH MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the forefront of nationwide museum celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel are three comprehensive exhibitions opening today at the Skirball Cultural Center. Each focuses on the historic event from the American perspective.

The exhibitions--"On Moral Grounds: President Harry S. Truman and the Birth of the State of Israel," "Israel Through American Eyes: A Century of Photographs" and "Homecoming to the Holy Land: New Work by Moshe Zabari"--explore the role of the United States in the struggle to restore Jewish settlement in the biblical Holy Land, a struggle that culminated May 14, 1948, in the declaration of an Israeli state founded on democratic principles.

The Skirball's approach to the 50-year anniversary invokes the cultural center's mission to interpret the Jewish American experience. In fact, Skirball Cultural Center President Uri D. Herscher believes the relationship between Israel and the United States was, and remains, so important that he questions where Israel would be today without American support--or even if it would "be" at all.

"There is no question that the U.S. was a very critical partner in the founding of Israel and sustaining it in friendship. And I dread the thought of where Israel would be without Truman's recognition of the state," he said.

Just 11 minutes after Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the independence of Israel on May 14, 1948, Truman gave immediate recognition to the fledgling Jewish state, paving the way for international recognition of the new nation.

In a unique partnering of the Skirball and the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Mo., the exhibition "On Moral Grounds: President Harry S. Truman and the Birth of the State of Israel" documents the dramatic events leading to the historic recognition. Included are original papers and correspondence, photographs and artifacts, many of which are on display for the first time.

The exhibition paints Truman as a thoughtful humanitarian, greatly influenced by the horrors of the Nazi death camps and the plights of displaced Jewish refugees after World War II.

His support of the Jewish state is attributed, in part, to an understanding of the Bible, which Truman read cover-to-cover five times before the age of 15, according to the exhibition. Because of his religious understanding, Truman saw the return of the Jews to Israel as a modern Exodus, and a return to the Promised Land.

But he faced much political opposition, including that of Secretary of State George Marshall, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, foreign affairs advisor Dean Acheson and others. Their argument is a familiar one: that a Jewish homeland could pose a risk to America's accessibility to Middle Eastern oil.

A highlight of the exhibition is a recent videotaped interview with George Elsey, an assistant to White House Counsel Clark Clifford during the late 1940s. The interview provides firsthand details about the political showdown over the Israeli state.

Truman, of course, prevailed, and a facsimile of the official White House statement of recognition is one of the most moving articles in the exhibition. At that point, White House aides were still uncertain about what the name of the new Jewish state would be. On the document, Truman crossed out the phrase "new Jewish State" and wrote in pencil "State of Israel."

Elaborating on the theme of U.S. diplomacy and Israel is a related program, "Vantage Point: U.S. Foreign Policy and the State of Israel." The public symposium, which began Sunday with former Secretary of State George Shultz, continues with other American statesmen presenting their personal perspectives on American-Israeli relations, past and present. Upcoming speakers are former Secretary of State Alexander Haig (May 21) and State Department Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross (June 4).

(On Sunday, Truman's grandson, Clifton Truman Daniel, will speak about his grandfather's role in the birth of Israel at the Museum of Tolerance's communitywide Holocaust Remembrance Commemoration. See Family Listings for details.)

The second of the three exhibitions, "Israel Through American Eyes: A Century of Photography," reaches back 100 years through more than 70 original photographs.

The diverse works explore America's fascination with the land of Israel and document the motivations of photographers--both professional and amateur--who traveled to Palestine and the state of Israel for religious pilgrimages, scholarly research, commercial interest, leisure, military service, professional assignment or permanent settlements.

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