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Presidents Day

Some of Abraham Lincoln’s best friends were Jews – and some of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s best jokes were about Jews. As we celebrate Presidents Day on Feb. 15, two stories about two American presidents.


Some of Lincoln’s best friends were Jews

By Beth Kissileff

Lincoln_jacketmech_v4_ID5-5.indd(JTA) – A whopping 16,000 books have been written about President Abraham Lincoln. But a 2014 book by Jonathan Sarna, the leading historian of Judaism in America, and Benjamin Shapell tells a previously untold story about Lincoln: his relationships with Jews.

Benjamin Shapell has been collecting documents relating to Lincoln and the Jews for over 35 years, housing them in the in the archives of the Shapell Foundation. For the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, Shapell persuaded Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, who had authored a book about Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and the Jews and co-edited a Civil War reader, to help organize the material so it could be shared with a wider audience.

Interestingly for a project connected with physical archives, the Internet proved a boon. The American Jewish newspapers from Lincoln’s time are all online now, so for any name mentioned in a document, a search could be made in contemporary newspapers.

Their collaboration yielded a book, Lincoln and the Jews: A History (Thomas Dunne Books) and an exhibit entitled “With Firmness in the Right: Lincoln and the Jews,” that was on display at the New York Historical Society exhibit through much of 2015. Sarna will deliver a public lecture on “Jews & American Politics: Historical Ideals and Contemporary Realities” on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 4:30 p.m., at Trinity College in Hartford.

The documents, Sarna said, give “a real sense of Lincoln the human being, who writes to all sorts of people” and show that “the private Lincoln is as impressive as the public Lincoln.”

Lincoln had 120 Jews in his circle, among them five friends and 48 acquaintances. The friends include Abraham Jonas, an Illinois lawyer and one of the first to suggest Lincoln’s candidacy for the presidency. In an 1860 letter, Lincoln told Jonas, “You are one of my most valued friends.”

Others in his circle included his podiatrist, Issachar Zacharie, who traveled south to gather information on Lincoln’s behalf, and Lincoln’s personal physician, “a Jew named Lieberman,” Sarna said.

As America’s Jewish population grew — from 3,000 in 1809, the year Lincoln was born, to 150,000 when he was assassinated in 1865 — Lincoln encountered “more and more Jews,” Sarna said, adding that the archival materials indicate that Lincoln was “distinctive” for his time in judging people “as people not by religion or race.”

Lincoln not only knew Jews but was willing to act on their behalf. As Sarna noted in one of his previous books on General Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln was quick to rescind Grant’s General Orders Number, which barred Jews, who were suspected of smuggling cotton, from areas under Grant’s control. In 1862, the president also appointed the first Jewish military chaplain for the 7,000 Jews in the Union Army.

Some of the first eulogies given for the president were the homilies delivered by rabbis in synagogues the next day, a fact duly noted in the press at that time. The prominence of Jews connected to Lincoln “normalized the place of Jews” in American society, Sarna said.

Sarna said he would like to see American Jewish day schools include the “Lincoln and the Jews” material in their U.S. history courses in order to “imbue students with the sense that Jews are part of history.”

“I think when you see Jews as part of the polity today, recognized as equal, we are enjoying the fruits of seeds planted in Lincoln’s day,” he said.

Prof. Jonathan Sarna will be the 2016 Greenberg Distinguished Visiting fellow of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College. He will deliver a public lecture on “Jews & American Politics: Historical Ideals and Contemporary Realities” on Wednesday, Feb. 17 at 4:30 p.m., in Mather Hall, on the Trinity College campus in Hartford.


At Presidents Day, unpresidential ‘joke’ about Jews is whitewashed

By Rafael Medoff/JNS.org

Another Presidents Day, another whitewash of a president’s “joke” about Jews.

FDRThe latest offender is Susan Butler’s Roosevelt and Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership (published in March 2015), a recent entry in the very long list of books about President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It “describes in meticulous detail the proceedings at the Tehran and Yalta conferences,” according to Kirkus Reviews. The Christian Science Monitor agrees that Butler has “a firm grasp on the details.”

Except for one detail that Butler skipped and the reviewers haven’t noticed: an unpleasant “joke” about Jews that Roosevelt told Stalin at Yalta in 1945. Butler is the latest in a long line of FDR-admiring authors and historians who have omitted or minimized what Roosevelt said to Stalin about Jews.

Ten years after Yalta, the State Department released the transcript of FDR’s conversations with Stalin—but several lines were censored because State feared it would harm Roosevelt’s image if the public knew what he said about Jews. U.S. News & World Report revealed the unpleasant truth: when FDR mentioned he would soon be seeing Saudi leader Ibn Saud, Stalin asked if he intended to make any concessions to the king, and “the president replied that there was only one concession he thought he might offer and that was to give him the six million Jews in the United States.”

Was the “we-don’t-want-Jews-and-he-wouldn’t-either” spirit of Roosevelt’s remark all in good fun, or did it on some level reflect FDR’s private feelings about Jews? Certainly it was not an isolated instance of such humor. For example, Roosevelt once joked that relatives might suspect his fifth child was Jewish, in view of the baby’s “slightly Hebraic nose.” FDR’s grandson Curtis recalled “hearing the president tell mildly antisemitic stories in the White House,” in which “the protagonists were always Lower East Side Jews with heavy accents.”

A number of other major studies of FDR or Yalta likewise have ignored Roosevelt’s remark about Jews, including Conrad Black’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom (2003) and S.M. Plokhy’s Yalta: The Price of Peace (2010).

FDR was far from the only president who enjoyed privately sharing humorous stories laced with ethnic stereotypes. A number of his predecessors and successors did, too.

Woodrow Wilson, for example, was notorious for telling jokes about “darkeys” and “coons,” sometimes with a faux accent and occasionally in less-than-private settings such as Princeton University alumni dinners. Those remarks have been cited in recent testimony by scholars to the Woodrow Wilson Legacy Review Committee, which is considering demands by student activists to remove Wilson’s name from Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs.

Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were reported — after they left office — to have told jokes involving harsh ethnic stereotypes. Ronald Reagan was once caught in an “open mic” moment, joking about Italians and Irishmen.

As public disapproval of racism intensified over the years, the consequences of telling racist jokes became more severe. Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz was forced out in 1976 after word leaked of a crude joke he told about African-Americans. In 1983, Interior Secretary James Watt resigned after telling a harsh ethnic joke about “a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple.”

Yet others have managed to weather the brief storms that their racist jokes caused.

Nothing happened to President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, James Jones, after he told an unflattering joke about Jewish merchants in 2010. Vice President Joe Biden used a faux Indian accent to mimic telemarketers during a 2012 campaign speech. It was quickly forgotten; Biden’s propensity for gaffes has resulted in a general lowering of the bar when it comes to public reactions to his loose lips.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump, speaking to a Jewish audience in December, joked about Jews being canny negotiators and good at handling money. Even more than Biden, Trump is so well-known for outrageous statements about ethnic groups (and many other subjects) that his Jewish remarks caused barely a ripple.

There may not be a clear public consensus today as to what should happen to a public figure who engages in racist humor. But surely the public is entitled to know if a president, or another elected official, has used such language. Presidents Day is a time to celebrate the accomplishments of our presidents, but it can also be a time for reflecting on some of the less than flattering aspects of our presidents’ records—if historians would candidly share that information with the public.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

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