Fledgling state of Israel found friend in Maryland's Theodore R. McKeldin

May 05, 1998|By William J. Thompson

AS ISRAEL marks its 50th anniversary, Americans are reminded of the many contributions made to ensure that nation's success and survival. One key contributor was Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, who, both before and after his two terms as governor, was mayor of Baltimore.

While McKeldin, a liberal Republican and Scots-Irishman, is often recalled as a champion of civil rights for African-Americans and is credited with articulating a vision for the Inner Harbor, less attention is given to his staunch support of Israel.

Other elected officials may have been equally passionate about Israel, but few surpassed McKeldin in his zeal for the fledgling nation. This helped him with the largely Democratic Jewish voters who supported McKeldin for mayor over Philip H. Goodman, a Jewish candidate, in 1963.

But McKeldin's support for Israel predated his run for elected office. It stemmed from his religious training as a child, when he was taught to believe "completely and literally in God's promise to restore Israel to its ancient home."

Also, his friendship with Simon E. Sobeloff, who was active in local Jewish groups, greatly influenced McKeldin's position toward Israel. The two young lawyers formed a personal and professional association that lasted more than 40 years. Sobeloff was a close political adviser who wrote many speeches for McKeldin.

Early supporter

In 1945, McKeldin, then mayor of Baltimore, called on this country and England to "fulfill the divine pledge of a promised land" to the Jewish people.

After he was elected governor in 1950, McKeldin took an even more active role in supporting Israel. He was a founding member and president of the America-Israel Society, an interfaith group, which sponsored cultural exchanges between the two nations.

In 1952, McKeldin traveled to Israel to see the economic and social advances that had been made since independence. Upon returning here, he was even more committed to Israel's development. He rarely missed an opportunity to recount the highlights of his trip, even to rural audiences, an unlikely place to tout the virtues of Israel. In typical McKeldin fashion, however, he soon had audiences in the palm of his hand, riveted by his description of events in Israel.

While governor, McKeldin visited Israel twice. In 1955, he dedicated a labor organization cultural center and a hospital pavilion named for him; he also planted the first tree in a forest named for him. In 1958, McKeldin laid the cornerstone for a theological seminary campus building and received an honorary doctorate.

He visited Israel five times, returning after each trip enthusiastic and optimistic about the country and committed to continued U.S. support for the nation.

In 1964, the year he was elected to a second term as mayor, McKeldin bolted the Republican Party to support President Lyndon B. Johnson. It was widely rumored that Johnson would appoint McKeldin to be ambassador to Israel, but that didn't happen.

Although increasing tension over civil rights occupied much of the mayor's time, McKeldin still spoke out on Israel's behalf. On June 5, 1967, with war starting in the Middle East, McKeldin and other Maryland politicians spoke to a crowd of 5,000 at a rally for Israel at the Pikesville Armory. He received a standing ovation when he declared that there was "nothing complicated" about the Middle East crisis. "Once again," he said, "the murder of Israel is being planned."

Continued support

McKeldin retired from public office in 1967, but continued to speak on behalf of Israel until his death in August 1974. On Israel's 25th anniversary in 1973, McKeldin saluted the "energy, tenacity, will and sheer brilliance" of Israel. The late Leon Sachs, a former president of the Baltimore Jewish Council, in a 1976 interview for a Maryland Historical Society oral history project on McKeldin, said that McKeldin was "a more ardent Zionist than most Jews that I know."

For McKeldin, who spent nearly 50 years in public service, support for Israel was not about votes or winning elections. It was the fulfillment of the biblical promise, learned as a youth to restore the Jewish people to the promised land.

William J. Thompson, an adjunct college professor, is writing a biography of Theodore R. McKeldin.

Pub Date: 5/05/98

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