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.