That Israel and the U.S. share a special relationship is conventional wisdom in the 21st century. That the roots of this relationship extend to the very founding of the United States is perhaps less known.
A new book, “The Elected and the Chosen: Why American Presidents Have Supported Jews and Israel – From George Washington to Barack Obama” (Gefen Publishing), attempts to highlight this relationship by describing various encounters American presidents have had with Jews and the support they extended to Israel. Its author, Denis Brian, has published 17 previous books, including “Joseph Pulitzer: A Life” and “Genius Talk: Conversations With Nobel Laureates and Other Luminaries.”
The Jewish Press: If you had to highlight two or three of the most interesting facts that appear in your new book, what would they be?
Brian: Well, one would be the tremendously pro-Jewish attitude of Lyndon Johnson, based on his aunt being a member of the Zionist Organization of America and telling him as a little boy that he must always help the Jews. That would be one of them.
Another one concerns FDR. People generally think there was a lot more he could have done to help Jews during World War II, but very few know that he helped save over 200,000 Jews. A little addition to that: He and Herbert Hoover both wanted the Jews to make Palestine their homeland, to put a defensive fence around it, and to get rid of all the Arabs by offering them money to go to other Arab countries and start farms.
It’s interesting that they made this suggestion. Today, talk of transferring Arabs out of Israel is considered abhorent.
I don’t think FDR made it publicly known. He discussed it with a close friend of his – I think it was Morgenthau, the treasury secretary – and Morgenthau wrote it down in his diary. But Hoover wrote at least one book on the subject. He said it was far better to [transfer the Arabs out of Palestine] than to have bloodshed.
In your chapter on President Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881), you mention his interference on behalf of a Jewish woman who was denied a government job because she refused to work on Shabbos. Was she the first Jew in American history who fought to work in the federal government and take off on Saturday?
I think she probably was. That’s why President Hayes had to get Congress to change the laws so that Jews need not work on their Sabbath.
You also write that a Jew created the teddy bear. Is that correct?
Yes, it was created by a Jewish woman who had read about Theodore Roosevelt not wanting to hunt an injured bear and having it quickly killed so that it didn’t suffer. She wrote to Teddy Roosevelt asking him for permission to make a toy like a teddy bear.
You aren’t Jewish, but both this book and your previous one, The Seven Lives of Colonel Patterson, concern Jewish topics. Any reason for that?
I [grew up] in southeast England. I had never met a Jew in my life until I joined the Royal Air Force in World War II. I had 36 missions, and I was aware after the war that people complained that we hadn’t bombed the gas chambers. I became very interested and concerned with that subject.
Then I was writing a biography of Ernest Hemingway and his son Patrick Hemingway told me that [one of his father’s short stories], The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, was based on a real person. That person was Colonel John Henry Patterson who led the Jewish Legion to victory in Turkey in World War I. He became a close friend of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the great Jewish leader, and became a fervent Zionist, lecturing throughout the United Kingdom and United States for a homeland for the Jews in Palestine.
Then I found out that Theodore Roosevelt had been tremendously active in his interest in Jews. He said they were great fighters, and he corresponded with Patterson, invited him to the White House, and congratulated him on what the Jews had done in Palestine. This all led up to the current book on the presidents.
What’s astonishing to me is how little people who have studied Jewish and American history know about the close and important relationships American presidents have had with Jews. The presidents were also all fervently for a Jewish homeland. John Adams, for example, said that no nation throughout history had done more for civilization than the Jews. He wrote in a letter that he wanted an army of Jewish soldiers to invade Palestine, take it from the Turks, and make it a Jewish homeland again.
Judging from your book’s footnotes, it seems that almost all the information in your book has already appeared in other works. What’s new about your book?
Take the autobiography of Abba Eban, for example, in which he writes that Eisenhower told him that as a boy he didn’t think there were any Jews on earth. He thought they were all in heaven as angels. He lived in Kansas where there were no Jews – he was brought up by a very religious mother who read the Old Testament at least twice – and so he thought they were all angels. Now, although that’s in another book, many historians and biographers don’t read these sorts of books.
I also got a lot of stuff from the presidential libraries and diaries that people hadn’t referred to before.
Who were the most pro-Jewish and pro-Israel presidents, in your estimation?
Lyndon Johnson, no question, and Obama alongside him. Also Teddy Roosevelt, who got Jews into the New York Police Department, among other things; the department had been almost all Irish. I would also put Kennedy on the list, and I think, despite everything, you can say FDR.
Those are some surprising choices. Let’s start with Johnson. Why him?
Because almost everything he did was very pro-Jewish. There was a very controversial bombing of an American ship, the USS Liberty, by Israeli planes during the Six-Day War. Literally everyone in his cabinet told him that the Israelis had done it deliberately. In spite of that, he sided with the Israeli report that it had been an accident. That was an extraordinary thing to do.
A Russian diplomat once asked him, “Why do you support the Israelis when there are 500 million Arabs and only six million Jews?” Johnson answered, “Because it’s the right thing to do.”
He was upset, though, when Israel launched its surprise attack on Egypt in 1967.
Yes, because he said they hadn’t warned him. He was furious because he was kept out of the loop.
How do you defend placing Obama on your list?
People say he was apologizing to the Arabs in his Cairo speech, but very early on in that speech he said that our relationship with Israel is absolutely solid. Also, Robert Gates, former secretary of defense, said he worked for five presidents and not one of them had done more for Israel than Obama had.
How, then, do you explain the cold shoulder Obama has given Israel on a number of occasions? Take his personal snubs of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, for example.
I think it’s entirely because Obama is a liberal while Netanyahu is right wing. The personalities of the two men don’t gel.
How about FDR? How does he gain a spot on your list considering his apparent neglect to save Jews during the Holocaust?
You know what’s ironic? He got advice from Jewish advisers telling him not to let more refugees in – that it would increase anti-Semitism in America.
But that was before the war started.
No, I think that was in the early part of the war.
And his failure to bomb Auschwitz or the railroads leading to it?
Let me give you one answer why that might be so. The British bombed an SS building in Denmark which contained British prisoners whom they believed were being tortured. They bombed it successfully, but there was a children’s school next door, and they killed a lot of children too.
So the fear would be if they bombed the gas chambers they’d also kill quite a large number of Jews. And [besides], what were Jews going to do in the middle of the war in Poland, free, surrounded by the enemy?
As for bombing the railroads, the Germans would have let the Jews starve in the trains or killed them in the trains. Just because they didn’t get to the awful gas chambers [didn’t mean they would live].
The subtitle of your book is Why American Presidents Have Supported Jews and Israel. But you never do explain “why” in your book, which seems to contain mostly facts and little analysis.
The “why” starts with the founding fathers. All of them were brought up on the Old Testament whether they were very religious or not. They all compared the Jews going from Egypt to the Promised Land to their own journey from Europe to America. They sympathized tremendously with the Jews in that respect.
From the very start – with George Washington telling a Jewish synagogue in Rhode Island that we will not allow bigotry in this country – every president with the exception of Andrew Johnson has been extremely pro-Jewish. And, ironically, Johnson never spent a day in school and was a drunk to boot.
In looking to the future, do you think that pro-Israel sentiment might diminish considering that the Bible – which you credit with strongly influencing many presidents – is, as of 50 or so years ago, no longer a central component of public and university education in America?
I don’t think that at all because of the Judeo-Christian tradition of ethics. Christians and Jews believe in life and making life wonderful while their enemies are more inclined towards killing and death. I don’t think that will ever change. I think that complete empathy and sympathy for the same way of life essentially will continue.
Your book is ostensibly about the presidents’ relationships with Jews and Israel, but more than half of the material in the book’s first 200 pages – until the chapter on Franklin Roosevelt – is unrelated to anything Jewish. Why include that material in your book?
Because I wanted readers to know what kind of men American presidents have been, what their education was like, the kind of women they married, and the kind of attitudes they had to life before they became presidents.
What will your next book be about?
It’s going to be on FDR, Truman, Ike, and the Holocaust. What they tried to do, what they did, and what they didn’t do. What information they had, how the information came to them over time, and how they responded.
About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and holds a Masters degree from Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel School of Jewish Studies.
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