January/February 2016

There was a time when the calendar featured Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (February 12) and George Washington’s birthday (February 22).  Schools were not in session on those days as a way of paying tribute to these great U.S. Presidents.  Somehow, these dates of significance were taken from our calendar, displaced by the more general and less profound “Presidents Day,” which has morphed into what is now a school vacation called Presidents Week – with most attention paid to the vacation rather than the presidents.

I suggest that a few moments spent focusing on the history of some of our presidents’ intersection with Jews and with Israel is most fitting, with some additional attention paid to the wisdom of Washington and Lincoln, the two great presidents America held in the highest esteem. 

George Washington (1st President, 1789-97):  First President to visit a synagogue, The Touro Synagogue, in Newport, R.I.  “It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.”  “If we desire to secure peace, one of the most powerful instruments of our rising prosperity, it must be known, that we are at all times ready for War.”  “The propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained.”  “It is far better to be alone, than to be in bad company.”  “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair; the rest is in the hands of God.”

John Adams (2nd President, 1797-1801):  “I will insist the Hebrews have [contributed] more to civilize men than any other nation. If I was an atheist and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations ... They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this Earth. The Romans and their empire were but a bubble in comparison to the Jews. They have given religion to three-quarters of the globe and have influenced the affairs of mankind more and more happily than any other nation, ancient or modern.”

Thomas Jefferson (3rdPresident, 1801-09):  First President to propose religious freedom for Jews in the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia (adopted in 1785).  He also appointed the first Jew, Reuben Etting, to a Federal post: U.S. Marshall for Maryland.

James Madison (4thPresident, (1809-1817):  First President to appoint a Jew, Mordecai M. Noah, to a diplomatic post in Tunis.    

John Quincy Adams (6thPresident, 1825-1829):  “[I believe in the] rebuilding of Judea as an independent nation.” 

Martin Van Buren (8th President, 1837-41):  First President to order an American consul to intervene on behalf of Jews abroad. He instructed the U.S. consul in Alexandria, Egypt to protect the Jews of Damascus who were under attack because of the infamous Damascus Blood Libel of 1840.

Franklin Pierce (14th President, 1853-7): First President whose name appears on the charter of a synagogue. Pierce signed the Act of Congress in 1857 that amended the laws of Washington D.C. to enable the city's first synagogue, the Washington Hebrew Congregation, to incorporate.

Abraham Lincoln (16th President, 1861-65):  First President to make it possible for Rabbis to serve as military chaplains, by signing the 1862 Act of Congress which changed the law that had previously barred all but Christian clergymen from the chaplaincy.  “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”  “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”  “I must stand with anybody that stands right...  and part with him when he goes wrong.”  “We the people are the rightful masters of both Congress and the courts, not to overthrow the Constitution but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.”  “ You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”  “It is difficult to make a man miserable while he feels worthy of himself and claims kindred to the great God who made him.”

Rutherford B. Hayes (19th President, 1877-81):  First President to designate a Jewish ambassador for the purpose of fighting anti-Semitism. In 1870, he named Benjamin Peixotto as Consul General to Romania.  Hayes also ordered the employment of a Jewish woman who had been denied a position in the Department of the Interior because of her refusal to work on Shabbat.

Theodore Roosevelt (26th President, 1901-1909):  First President to appoint a Jew to a presidential cabinet – Oscar S. Straus, Secretary of Commerce and Labor.  He was also the first President to contribute from his own funds to a Jewish cause. In 1919, when he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to settle the Russo-Japanese War, he contributed part of his prize to the National Jewish Welfare Board. 

William Howard Taft  (27th President, (1909-1913):  First President to attend a Seder while in office.  In 1912, he participated in the family Seder of Colonel Harry Cutler, president of the National Jewish Welfare Board, in the Cutler home in Providence, R.I.  

Warren Harding (29th President, 1921-23): First President to sign a Joint Congressional Resolution in September 22, 1922, endorsing the Balfour Declaration and the Palestine Mandate supporting the establishment in Palestine of a national Jewish home for the Jewish people. He said: “It is impossible for one who has studied at all the services of the Hebrew people to avoid the faith that they will one day be restored to their historic national home and there enter on a new and yet greater phase of their contribution to the advance of humanity.”

Harry S. Truman (33rd President, 1945-53): On May 14, 1948, just 11 minutes after Israel's proclamation of independence, he was the first head of a government to recognize Israel.

Lyndon B. Johnson (36th President, 1963-69):  While a congressman in the late 1930s, he illegally supplied visas and false passports to Jews in Eastern Europe, an act which saved an estimated 400 Eastern European Jews, including musician/conductor Erich Leinsdorf.  During World War II Johnson raised substantial funds to arm Jewish underground fighters in Palestine. When Soviet premier Aleksei Kosygin asked Johnson why the U.S. supported Israel when there were 80 million Arabs and only three million Israelis, Johnson simply and profoundly said: "Because it is right.”