Books and Culture

Harry Stein
The Democrats’ Jewish Problem
A new book revisits an uncomfortable—and ongoing—history.
23 October 2012

Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the “Jewish Vote” and Bipartisan Support for Israel, by Sonja Schoepf Wentling and Rafael Medoff (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 238 pp., $15)

As a Jewish liberal-turned-conservative, I am asked the question with mind-numbing regularity: how can Jewish voters remain so attached to a Democratic Party seemingly so often hostile to their interests? Given Barack Obama’s stance toward an Israel facing the threat of Iranian nuclear annihilation, needless to say, that question has been posed with particular urgency and confusion during the 2012 campaign.

Generally, I offer a variation of the answer Norman Podhoretz put forth in his 2010 book on the subject, Why Are Jews Liberals?: that for a great many secular Jews, liberalism itself constitutes a kind of religion; that since Jews were historically subject to unending violence and oppression, fighting injustice and championing the powerless is at the heart of our ethical and moral tradition; and that, indeed, for all its occasional shortcomings, the Democratic Party fundamentally embraces that tradition, while Republicans, representing the interests of the cosseted rich and powerful, are inimical to it. In innumerable Jewish homes, these assumptions are beyond question; or, more precisely, to question them is nothing less than to question a communal faith in which a handful of magic phrases—“tolerance,” “human rights,” “social justice”—are apt to be invoked with outraged certainty that puts an end to any contrary argument.

That said, there is necessarily another factor at play: the striking ability of such voters to deny, or willfully misinterpret, the evidence before their eyes. That this has been the case for generations is the unhappy but inescapable conclusion of a recently published book that examines Jewish political behavior during the crucial years from the end of World War I through the achievement of Israeli independence in 1948: Herbert Hoover and the Jews, by historian Sonja Schoepf Wentling and Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. Its intriguing title aside, the book’s principal character is Hoover’s successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, still revered in many Jewish homes as the ultimate champion of the little guy and the most devoted friend of the Jewish people ever to hold the nation’s highest office.

Of course, many have observed over the years that FDR was a masterly showman, and that his public image was largely artifice. David Brinkley, for one, who covered Roosevelt as a young reporter, notes in his memoir that the patrician president was a “social snob” who in private didn’t hide his contempt for those “educated in what he called redbrick colleges.” But it was in his attitude toward minorities, and Jews in particular, that Roosevelt’s reputation and the facts diverge most sharply. For no president ever found himself positioned, at a key juncture in history, to do more on behalf of the Jewish people—and did less. This, too, is well known to those who’ve cared to look, historians and presidential confidantes alike. Indeed, FDR’s betrayal of the Jews—there is no other word for it—is even the basis of a superb novel, City Journal contributing editor Stefan Kanfer’s Fear Itself.

The attitudes underlying that betrayal are all too clear. Though he numbered Jews among his closest associates, FDR was given to a casual anti-Semitism, common to those of his background. This would be more understandable, or at least far less consequential, were the evidence not so strong that those feelings influenced his policy choices. But they did, almost from the outset, since the rise of Adolf Hitler coincided nearly exactly with Roosevelt’s ascension to the presidency. From the start, FDR failed to take action on behalf of Germany’s, and then Europe’s, imperiled Jews, rigorously enforcing immigration quotas formulated in earlier, safer times. As late as three months prior to the outbreak of war in Europe, the Roosevelt administration opposed the Wagner-Rogers Bill, which would have admitted to the United States 20,000 German-Jewish children (likely including Anne Frank and her sister) outside of the quota system. In one chilling episode, the authors quote the diary of J. Pierpont Moffatt, chief of the State Department’s Western European Division, on an exchange with FDR’s cousin, Laura Delano Houghterling, wife of the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration, at a posh dinner party: “Her principal reserve on the bill was that 20,000 charming children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults.”

Roosevelt was no better. In a recent issue of the weekly Jewish World, historian Edward Alexander, author of The State of the Jews, cites two examples of the president’s commenting on Jews in ways abhorrent even at the time. According to a memorandum on the January 1943 Casablanca Conference, aimed at setting the guidelines for a postwar future: “The President stated that his plan would further eliminate the specific and understandable complaints which the Germans bore toward the Jews in Germany, namely, that while they represented a small part of the population, over fifty percent of the lawyers, doctors, school teachers and college professors, etc., in Germany, were Jews.” Then there was this, from the diary of Jewish FDR loyalist Henry Morgenthau, dated January 27, 1942, on a lecture the president gave “for no apparent reason whatsoever” to another aide, Leo Crowley, a Roman Catholic. “‘Leo, you know this is a Protestant country, and the Catholics and Jews are here on sufferance. . . . It is up to both of you (Crowley and Morgenthau) to go along with anything I want at this time.’”

By then, news of mass exterminations of Jews had already leaked out, and FDR was facing pressure to do something about it. He was disinclined to act, because he regarded the matter as a distraction from the larger project of winning the war. To the extent he regarded the murder of Jews as a problem, he saw it as a political issue to be managed, lest it affect the outcome of the 1944 campaign.

This is where Herbert Hoover comes in. No one ever described Hoover as haimish—Yiddish for down-to-earth, simpatico—let alone as a mensch. An Iowa-born Quaker, wealthy and self-made, he was stiff, formal, and bland, a living caricature of the sort Republican Jewish voters have long regarded with special scorn. But where their favorite Franklin Roosevelt, all jaunty bonhomie, brilliantly played at empathy, Hoover was a genuine humanitarian. Indeed, it was his remarkable record of saving millions of Europe’s destitute from starvation in the wake of the First World War that forged his political career. That career came crashing down, of course, with his failure as president to manage the Depression. But in the thirties and forties, from the political wilderness and in the face of isolationists in his own party, Hoover bravely took up the cause of Europe’s Jews.

Returning from a visit to Germany and a meeting with Hitler in early 1938, Hoover denounced the Nazi state in the harshest possible terms, speaking out about concentration camps and the country’s “darkest picture . . . the heart-breaking persecution of helpless Jews.” Already he was pushing for the lifting of immigration restrictions favored by the Roosevelt administration, as later he would futilely urge decisive action to rescue those who still might have been saved. Moreover, along with such other leading Republicans as Wendell Willkie and Clare Boothe Luce, he embraced the cause of Jewish statehood, resulting in a pro-Zionist plank in the 1944 Republican platform.

Meanwhile, with cover unfailingly provided by America’s most prominent Jewish spokesman—the American Jewish Congress’s Rabbi Stephen Wise, who referred to FDR as “The Chief” and “The All Highest”—Roosevelt did nothing. Only when the still-vibrant Jewish press began making an issue of the administration’s inaction in response to the tragedy of Europe’s Jews did Roosevelt, fearing a potential backlash at the polls, even make the gesture of getting a similar plank inserted into the Democratic platform. Not that he had any cause for concern: in 1944, 90 percent of Jewish voters went for FDR.

Even knowing the outcome in advance, this can make for frustrating reading. While obviously the particulars are dramatically different, a large proportion of the world’s Jewish population again faces an existential crisis, and the Democrat in the White House again appears all but indifferent to the threat. As the Harvard scholar Ruth Wisse put it in the Wall Street Journal last week, President Obama heedlessly calls “for Israel to return to its 1967 borders—the roughly nine-mile diameter that invited combined attacks from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and the Palestine Liberation Organization,” even as he insistently “ascribes equal responsibility to Israelis and Arabs for regional hostility.” He’s done nothing of consequence to impede the development of nuclear weapons by the homicidal Iranian state pledged to Israel’s annihilation. Where history instructs this is apt to lead is obvious, or should be. Yet, astonishingly, even most Jewish voters who still profess to care about Israel’s safety figuratively close their eyes, put their hands over their ears, and troop off once again to vote for Obama.

Hardly incidentally, authors Medoff and Wentling note that Harry S. Truman was also strongly anti-Semitic, and in fact expressed himself on Jews in even coarser terms than his predecessor. He referred to New York as “kike town,” for instance, and reacted to pressure from American Jews as he wrestled with whether to recognize the soon-to-be-born Jewish state by snapping: “Jesus Christ couldn’t please them when he was here on earth, so how could anyone expect me to have any luck?” And though Truman did of course recognize Israel, the vital step in securing its existence, the authors discount the oft-told story that he did so at the behest of his Jewish Kansas City buddy, Eddie Jacobson; the overriding reason, they maintain, was political, the necessity of locking up the Jewish vote for the looming 1948 election.

Still, there is good reason to believe that had the beloved FDR lived out his fourth term, he would not have done likewise. On March 1, 1945, he met with Saudi King Ibn Sa’ud, among the most uncompromising foes of the Jewish state, and afterward reported to Congress that “I learned more about the whole problem, the Moslem problem, the Jewish problem, by talking with Ibn Sa’ud for five minutes, than I could have learned in an exchange of two or three dozen letters.” He followed this up with a private letter to the king, dated April 5, exactly a week before his death in Warm Springs, noting that “during our recent conversation I assured you that I would take no action, in my capacity as Chief of the Executive Branch of this Government, which might prove hostile to the Arab people. It gives me pleasure to renew to Your Majesty the assurances which you have previously received regarding the attitude of my Government and my own, as Chief Executive, with regard to the question of Palestine and to inform you that the policy of this Government in this respect is unchanged.”

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