Marking a sobering second Presidents Day in this Age of Trump, this moment’s historical incongruity is striking. The United States has blessed Jews with a parade of presidents who love Jews — including this one.
Most modern presidential campaigns pit two major party nominees competing to show who loves the Jews — and Israel — most. Today’s fury, therefore, is atypical. American Jews usually love to love their president — and love being loved right back.
The 1800s: Dear Jews, Welcome to America!
As with so much good in America, this love affair starts with George Washington. The most famous line from his 1790 letter to the Jews of Newport, R.I., affirms that “the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
Washington’s most significant words, however, noted: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” Instead, he insisted: “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.”
These words make America, America. The paternalist “tolerates,” “indulges”; partners share and bond. America changed history by including Jews in the American family. Washington echoed the Declaration of Independence’s recognition that every person enjoys inherent rights. Once rights are that fundamental, we protect one another — as fellow citizens defending shared privileges — sparking America’s real revolution.
Jews’ absorption into America doesn’t reflect Jewish power — just the power of the American idea.
Naturalizing every human’s rights created conditions of true acceptance, of Jews truly being at home. Defending Jews became the default position, for the first time ever outside the Land of Israel, because Jews were “us” not “them.” American Jews weren’t accepted contingent on their good behavior, a leader’s whims or the people’s will. Because this bond applied so broadly — although not at the time to Blacks or women — it penetrated so deeply it couldn’t be contained. That’s why it kept expanding until today it includes everyone.
In short, none of this was done because it was good for the Jews: it was just good. There were barely 2,500 Jews in the U.S. during the Revolution, maybe 15,000 in 1840. Jews’ absorption into America doesn’t reflect Jewish power — just the power of the American idea.
You didn’t have to be an American saint like George Washington to befriend the Jews. Even New York’s scrappy political operator, Martin Van Buren, defended Jews while advancing an even deeper value. In 1840, the United States was politically isolationist and physically isolated. Still, when Pasha Muhammed Ali, Syria’s overlord, kidnapped 63 Syrian Jewish kids and tortured 13 Jewish leaders during the Damascus Blood Libel, Van Buren acted. Expressing America’s “horror,” he explained that in America, we “place upon the same footing, the worshipers of God, of every faith and form.”
As president, Van Buren advanced human rights, not just Jewish rights. He considered the persecution of others, no matter how remote, America’s responsibility because liberty is indivisible and universal. Van Buren anticipated Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms (from want and from fear, to speak and to worship) — anywhere in the world — and the post-World War II charters defending basic rights for all, everywhere in the world.
Of course, America was a country, not paradise; anti-Semitism existed and persists. But expecting perfection is unfair and immature — the test is how a diverse democracy corrects itself when it sins, or sinners sin. Historian Jonathan Sarna’s excellent book, “When General Grant Expelled the Jews,” shows how a low moment redeemed Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, the Jews and this country. In 1862, during the Civil War, Gen. Grant’s General Order No. 11 banned Jews “as a class violating every regulation of trade” from Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi. Black marketeering was rife, involving some Jews, among others. Still, Grant deemed “the Israelites” an “intolerable nuisance.”
European Jews and Jews from Muslim lands will scoff: How lucky that this obnoxious yet mild restriction ranks as one of America’s “worst” anti-Semitic acts — especially because President Abraham Lincoln rescinded it quickly. The popular story has it that one Prussian immigrant in Kentucky, Cesar Kaskel, lobbied Lincoln directly.
Lincoln responded grandly, biblically: “And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?”
Kaskel responded: “Yes, and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom, asking protection.”
Father Abraham replied, “And this protection they shall have at once.”
After overruling Grant, Lincoln explained that “to condemn a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad.”
Grant quickly regretted what his own wife, Julia, called “that obnoxious order.” As president, Grant repented. He appointed Jews to public office. He attended Adas Israel’s three-hour dedication, becoming the first president to attend a synagogue service — perhaps the only one to stay till the end. Like Van Buren, Grant also defended oppressed Jews, this time in Russia and Romania. “Paradoxically,” Sarna argues, Grant’s “order expelling the Jews set the stage for their empowerment. … In America, hatred can be overcome.”
The 1900s: Welcome to American Leadership
If 19th-century America welcomed Jews to be invisible enough to fit in, 20th-century America empowered Jews to become visible and stand out.
Two classic Theodore Roosevelt tales define him — and those two phases of Jewish-American life. In 1895, a German rector, Hermann Ahlwardt, visited New York to, in Roosevelt’s words, “preach a crusade against the Jews.” Jews lobbied their police commissioner — Roosevelt — “to prevent him from speaking and not to give him police protection.” Roosevelt explained it “was impossible; and if possible would have been undesirable because it would have made him a martyr.”
Concluding his speaking tour, Ahlwardt thanked Commissioner Roosevelt, and the Aryan-looking police officers who had protected him — and illustrated his point. Roosevelt then introduced the racist preacher to the “Jew sergeant and a score or two of Jew policemen” Roosevelt had assigned to protect them. Roosevelt chuckled: “He made his harangue against the Jews under the active protection of some 40 policemen, every one of them a Jew!” Roosevelt made Ahlwardt look “ridiculous” to undermine Ahlwardt while teaching Americans “that there must be no division … of creed against creed, nationality against nationality, section against section.”
Inaugurating the 1900s, once president, Roosevelt appointed the first Jew to the Cabinet, designating Oscar Straus as Secretary of Commerce and Labor in 1906. To prove that any American could succeed, Roosevelt had to single out a Jew for the job. “I have a very high estimate of your character,” Roosevelt assured Straus. Then he explained his “further reason: I want to show Russia and some other countries what we think of Jews in this country.”
Perhaps the most heartbreaking presidential “incident” involves Franklin Roosevelt. He was so beloved by most Jews that he made most of them liberal Democrats. Jews joked about having three “velten” — Yiddish for worlds: this velt, the other velt — heaven — and Roo-se-velt. Yet FDR so took the Jewish vote for granted — winning 90 percent of some mostly Jewish precincts from Beverly Hills to Brooklyn — that when the Jews needed him to save European Jews, he could ignore them.
Jewish Trump-a-phobia confirms that Jews are now so comfortably American, that, while still loving to love most presidents, they can occasionally really love hating one, too.
Consider the lame letter Rabbi Stephen S. Wise wrote to his close friend, the president — when solid proof finally reached Wise in late 1942 that Nazis had already killed 2 million Jews. “Dear Boss,” Wise began, “I do not wish to add an atom to the burden you are bearing with magic and, as I believe, heaven-inspired strength, at this time.” FDR swatted away those concerns. No one who called him boss and could minimize such a monstrous problem would ever betray him.
Still, Roosevelt brought so many Jews to Washington that anti-Semites called Roosevelt’s New Deal the “Jew Deal.” Only surfacing later, these disappointments couldn’t extinguish the torch most Jews still carry for FDR, his Democratic Party and his liberal legacy.
That overlap between Jews and liberalism is one of those Jewish characteristics President Richard Nixon constantly condemned. When one of his daughters volunteered at a museum, Nixon fumed, “The arts — you know, they’re Jews, they’re left wing; in other words, stay away.” Another time, he deemed Jews a “very aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious personality,” believing: “Most Jews are disloyal.”
Nevertheless, Nixon hired many proud Jews, including Henry Kissinger, the first Jewish secretary of state. And Nixon supported Israel generously, mobilizing “every [plane] we have — everything that will fly” — to resupply Israel after the Arab surprise attack on Yom Kippur in 1973.
Jews as Mature Americans Today
Since Nixon, the Republican Party, once the “goyish,” even anti-Jewish party, has been pro-Israel and welcoming to a small, outspoken, band of conservative Jews. As my brother Tevi Troy wrote in Commentary in 2015: The rise of evangelical Zionism, the common front against totalitarianism in its communist and Islamist forms, and an approach emphasizing shared values and rewarding loyalty proved transformational. Just as “the world was learning to hate Israel, the Republican Party was learning to love it.”
Alas, amid today’s partisanship, Republican support for Israel risks giving the Jewish state a toxic embrace. Applying the transitive property beyond mathematics (if a=b and b=c, a=c), too many liberal Jews today believe that if they hate Trump and Trump loves Israel, they should hate Israel, too. (Of course, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s alienation of American Jewry has only made things worse.)
In this age of partisan myopia, when conservatives see only liberals’ flaws and liberals see only conservatives’ flaws, many Jewish liberals ignore politically correct bigots and tell a different tale of anti-Semitism. They reduce American-Jewish history to three moments: Gen. Grant’s General Order No. 11 in 1862; the Nazis marching in Skokie, Ill., in 1978 — which never quite occurred — and the Neo-Nazis Marching in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. Trump’s reprehensible moral failure to condemn these goons preyed on American-Jewish insecurity — although many, many Americans rose admirably to renounce these home-grown fascists.
A less neurotic look at history simply would exclaim, “God Bless America.” Today, we have a bipartisan tradition of a White House seder initiated by former President Barack Obama, beloved by most Jews yet sometimes unfairly caricatured as anti-Israel, and an annual White House Hanukkah Party initiated by another former president, George W. Bush, detested by most American Jews, yet beloved in Israel.
Today, our most Nixonian of presidents intensifies the Nixon conundrum.
Trump, like Nixon, is loathed by most Jews. Trump, like Nixon, relies on many Jewish advisers. Trump, like Nixon, outdoes his Democratic rivals in championing the Israeli government’s interests — and in being popular among Israeli Jews, not their American cousins. Yet Trump, unlike Nixon, has not been recorded cursing Jews, and Trump, not Nixon, is the first White House occupant with Jewish children and grandchildren.
This, then, is Donald Trump’s legacy to Jewish history and the Jewish community. His controversial, polarizing presidency triggers remarkable immaturity among slavish Republican supporters and fanatic Democratic opponents. Yet it may be remembered as another milestone in American Jewry’s maturation. Jewish Trump-a-phobia proves that Jews are not one-issue voters, always supporting the most pro-Israel candidate. Jewish Trump-a-phobia suggests that the ultimate power-play in the token Jew-hiring contest — having Jewish kids and grandkids — doesn’t work and can even infuriate. And Jewish Trump-a-phobia confirms that Jews are now so comfortably American, that, while still loving to love most presidents, they can occasionally really love hating one, too.