April 5, 2001
Chai-Level Jewish Contributions
"The Presidents of the United States and the Jews" by David G. Dalin and Alfred J. Kolatch. (Jonathan David, $35.00)
In traditional Jewish life, parents often add excitement to Pesach (or Shavuot or Sukkot) by giving gifts to their children (and even each other). Gift-giving, not just reserved for Chanukah and birthdays, spices up all of Jewish life.
A good gift for a history buff or interested teenager might be "The Presidents of the United States and the Jews." It is full of interesting stories, fascinating tidbits and wonderful illustrations, such as the photograph of William McKinley and his Cabinet at the cornerstone ceremony for the Washington Hebrew Congregation in 1897.
We meet, for example, Simon Wolf, one of the first Jewish Republicans. Though a delegate at the 1860 Democratic convention, he switched that year to support Abraham Lincoln. In the long chapter on that most amazing president, Kolatch relates how Lincoln -- demonstrating his characteristic compassion -- at Wolf's request and over the objections of Secretary of War Stanton, pardoned a Jewish boy who had deserted to visit his dying mother. Later, the youth was killed at Cold Harbor, leading a charge with flag in hand.
Authors Kolatch and Dalin write separately about each president, so there is an occasional repetition of fact. (Wolf, for example, is reintroduced in each section.) The strength of that technique, however, allows the reader to enjoy each chapter on its own. A systematic and thorough reading of the whole book explains the history of Jewish involvement in presidential politics, outlines key Jewish players in American political history, and details both individual and collective Jewish concerns as they have unfolded in U.S. history.
Each chapter opens with a brief biographical synopsis of each president, states the principal issues at stake in each administration, and expands upon the intersection of that particular president with Jews and Jewry. Senators, financiers, businessmen, Cabinet officers and military men all make their appearances and play their roles. Mordecai Noah, best-known for Ararat, an abortive settlement in upstate New York intended as a temporary homeland for the Jews, was the first Jewish U.S. diplomat, appointed by James Madison to Tunis.
Rabbi Kolatch, author of a series of popular books on Judaica such as the "Jewish Book of Why" and its sequel, brings a light touch. Rabbi Dalin has written extensively on American Jewish politics and political thought, ranging from editing a selection of essays by the late Will Herberg to a serious academic work written with Jonathan Sarna: "Religion and State in the American Jewish Experience." Only by noting the attribution at the bottom of each chapter, however, can one identify which of the co-authors wrote a particular piece.
The greater part of the book deals with 20th-century history. Teddy Roosevelt was lionized by the Jewish community of New York City. In 1895, as commissioner of police there, he appointed a detail of Jewish police officers, led by a Jewish sergeant, to provide security for a German anti-Semitic preacher, Rector Ahlwardt. He also appointed the first Jewish Cabinet member, Oscar Straus (of department store fame) as the secretary of commerce and labor.
Following his presidential term but before his tenure on the Supreme Court, Taft publicly attacked Henry Ford's scurrilously anti-Semitic publication "The Dearborn Independent."
The Holocaust, the State of Israel and American Jewry's deep and profound involvement in political life reverberate in the balance of the book. Bill Clinton had more Jewish Cabinet members than all the other presidents combined. FDR led the fight against Nazism but failed to understand the reality of the European slaughter. Truman appointed Hoover after World War II to feed Europe and was one of the great heroes of Israeli independence.
Eisenhower, who held quite different views from those of David Ben-Gurion (most notably during the 1956 Sinai campaign), criticized Israel publicly but also fended off, as did Truman, an Arabist foreign service. Johnson and Nixon both had complicated and complex interactions with Jews, the Jewish community and Israel. Surrounded by Jewish advisers, Johnson lost Jewish communal political support over the Vietnam War.
Nixon was arguably the most explicitly anti-Semitic president. Nixon's anti-Semitism in words seems to be belied sometimes by his deeds: without his explicit commands, overriding both the Pentagon and the State Department, armaments would not have been sent to Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Golda Meir wrote her sister Clara, "I'll never forget that if it hadn't been for Nixon, we would have been destroyed."
Since the Carter Administration, Jews and Jewish interests have clearly been a central part of U.S. presidential politics, internationally and domestically. Jews have played prominent roles in public life: Alan Greenspan first showed up in the Nixon campaigns of 1968 and 1972 and was appointed chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers by Gerald Ford. We don't know yet what roles Jews and Jewish issues will play in the George W. Bush Administration. But we do know this: Jews are an integral part of the American political landscape. Kolatch and Dalin make that history perfectly clear.