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?