For Jewish-Americans, the December date that lives in infamy is December 17. For on that day in 1862, Major-General Ulysses S. Grant issued General Order 11.
The order, which covered Grant’s military district in portions of Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky, declared that “Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled from the [Military District] within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.”
Those who dared to return would be “arrested and held in confinement until an opportunity occurs of sending them out as prisoners.”
The order was countermanded by Abraham Lincoln before anyone was expelled. But it became an issue when Grant ran for president in 1868. How to justify the wholesale expulsion of an entire people? Grant asserted that he was furious over illegal smuggling of Southern cotton to the North and that “the order was issued and sent without any reflection and without thinking of the Jews as a set or race to themselves, but simply as persons who had … violated an order.”
This rather curious defense was apparently enough for America’s tiny Jewish community. In 1868, a majority of them cast their ballot for the Republican candidate for president – General Ulysses S. Grant.
Time has softened the hard choices facing Jewish Americans. It would be somewhat more difficult today for a candidate to win nomination after advocating a mass expulsion. But the Jewish practice of voting for candidates who work against Jewish interests lives on.
A politician could play out his career in a thousand arenas where working against his supporters is suicide and only one where it isn’t. But that one applies when he works against Jewish Americans. In the 19th and early 20th centuries this phenomenon worked to the benefit of Republicans like Grant. Since that time it has worked to the benefit of Democrats.
One of the first to benefit from this trend was Franklin Roosevelt. He and Harry Truman never drew less than 75 percent of the Jewish vote and sometimes gained as much as 90 percent of it.
How did Franklin Roosevelt repay the Jewish community? By obstructing the issuance of visas to Jewish refugees seeking to flee Europe. In June 1940, Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long ordered American consuls “to put every obstacle in the way [to] postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of visas” in order to “delay and effectively stop” all such immigration.
Roosevelt knew, however, how to grant entry to refugees when he wanted to. In August 1940 he exploited a loophole in America’s immigration law for British children, declaring them “visitors” who intended to return home.
The story of Roosevelt and the Jews grew even darker during the war. I am prepared to concede that any reasonable cost-benefit analysis argued against bombing the rail lines to Auschwitz. The Germans would have repaired them quickly and hundreds of hard-to-train flight crews would have been lost – flight crews that were needed to win the war. What I cannot concede, indeed what I cannot understand, is why Roosevelt didn’t simply announce to the world what was going on in Auschwitz. Eli Wiesel once said something that I recall hearing from many others when I was growing up: Roosevelt knew what was going on the camps, but the Jews didn’t. Why didn’t he go on the BBC or Voice of America – which everyone in Europe listened to – and warn them not to get on the trains? For that matter, why didn’t he warn the Germans that those involved in the killing would be brought to justice after the war?
A simple announcement like that would have cost the allies nothing and would have saved countless lives. Why didn’t he do it? This is one of those questions that have no answer.
* * * * *
Harry Truman has often been portrayed as a great friend of Israel because of his recognition of the Jewish state. In truth, this was an empty gesture that had little influence on events. What had far greater influence was the arms embargo he imposed against Israel. It was precisely because of that embargo that the Soviets tilted in favor of Israel and allowed Czechoslovakia to sell weapons to Jerusalem. The Czech arms deal was the decisive event outside the field of battle and it would have happened whether Truman had recognized Israel or not.
During the fighting that followed Israel’s declaration of independence, Israeli troops had Egyptian soldiers surrounded in the Negev. Truman demanded that Israel free the Egyptians without getting a peace treaty in return. The Israeli army also held a large chunk of the Sinai Peninsula as well as two villages in Lebanon. Truman likewise demanded that Israel withdraw immediately and unconditionally from both.
At the same time, Syria held three small pieces of Israeli territory. David Ben-Gurion asked that the Truman administration work with similar dispatch to bring about a Syrian withdrawal. If Israel was being forced to hand over Arab land in the Sinai and Lebanon, it seemed only fair that Syria be forced to hand over Israeli land near the Kineret. The Truman administration refused. It never pressured Syria, choosing instead to broker an agreement to have that territory, and other territory in Israel, left demilitarized.
In other words, the Truman administration took the position that the Syrian army did not have to withdraw from Israeli territory unless the Israeli army withdrew from an equal amount of Israeli territory. This outrageous double standard bedevils the region to this day because Syria now takes the position that in return for peace Israel must withdraw not only from the Golan Heights but from the demilitarized zone as well.
It’s true that Truman’s successor, Dwight Eisenhower, displayed similar hostility toward Israel following the ’56 Sinai War. But Eisenhower didn’t get 75 percent of the Jewish vote as Truman had.
In the 1960s a Jewish American could feel good voting for the Democrats. John Kennedy was the first American president to sell arms to Jerusalem. Yes, they were defensive arms only, and Kennedy’s Mideast record was troubling in several areas. But Kennedy did choose as his vice president Lyndon Johnson, who had been one of Israel’s staunchest defenders in the Senate. And when Johnson succeeded Kennedy as president, he maintained that close relationship; indeed, a plausible argument can be made that LBJ was the best friend Israel’s ever had in the Oval Office.
The Jewish people will forever owe a debt of gratitude to Johnson, as they do his successor, Richard Nixon, who came through for Israel when it mattered in 1973.
* * * * *
But in 1976 Democratic voters (not just Jews) should have been made to wear dunce caps and sit in the corner, having nominated for president Jimmy Carter instead of Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and sending him to the White House.
In fairness, it should be said that even if Scoop Jackson had been elected, the Camp David Peace Treaty probably would have turned out the same: full withdrawal from Sinai in return for full peace, and agreeing to disagree on Jerusalem.
That doesn’t change the fact that Jimmy Carter treated Israel with nothing but unbending hostility. In his diary, Carter blamed Israel for every impasse, saw a Jewish lobbyist hiding behind every bush, and wrote that Sadat deserved the Nobel Peace Prize while Begin did not. The Israelis were particularly enraged by Carter’s insistence that a letter be included in the Camp David Accords stating that East Jerusalem was occupied territory that would have to be returned.
“Why,” Moshe Dayan asked in his memoirs, “was the Jewish Quarter in the Old City regarded as ‘conquered territory,’ held by us in contravention of international law? Simply because the Jordanian Arab Legion conquered it in 1948, destroyed its synagogues, killed or took captive the Jewish civilians who lived there? What was there holy about the military conquest by the Jordanian Army in 1948, and profane about our victory in the 1967 war – a war which also started with Jordan’s attack on Israel?”
None of that seemed to have fazed America’s Jewish community. At a particularly low point, the United Jewish Appeal honored Lillian Carter, Jimmy Carter’s mother, as its Outstanding Humanitarian of the Year. She declared, “I’ve never been around so many Jews before” – and got a standing ovation. Incredibly, Carter received a plurality of the Jewish vote when he ran against Ronald Reagan in 1980, garnering 45 percent to Reagan’s 39 percent. (Third party candidate John Anderson picked up the rest of the Jewsih vote.)
How fortunate that the American people could see what American Jews could not. The 1980s were a particularly difficult time for Israel. Those years witnessed the destruction of Saddam’s nuclear reactor, the First Lebanon War, the Sabra and Shatilla massacre, Israel’s economic collapse in 1985, the arrest of Jonathan Pollard, the leak by Mordecai Vanunu of Israel’s nuclear capability, and the First Intifada. I shudder to think what might have happened if even one of those events had occurred on Jimmy Carter’s watch. Ronald Reagan never wavered in his support.
As Moshe Dayan tells it in his memoir, there was only man in the Carter administration even more hostile to Israel than Carter himself. “What I resented most,” he writes, “was the part played by Vice President Mondale . I was disgusted.” In 1984, when Reagan was reelected to a second term with 59 percent of the general vote, Jews gave 67 percent of their votes to his Democratic challenger – Walter Mondale.
In more recent times, no one talked with greater emotion about Israel than Bill Clinton. He bid “shalom” to his chaver Yitzhak Rabin and never tired of quoting his pastor, whose dying words were “Don’t forget Israel.” I saw him tell the pastor story in New York City. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
One can only wonder, then, what Clinton was thinking in 1993 when Hizbullah started a border war with Israel. At a time during which Hizbullah had murdered more Americans than any other terror group – this was before 9/11 – Clinton decided to pressure his chaver Rabin into a cease-fire agreement after just ten days. He did the same thing in 1996 to Prime Minister Shimon Peres after just seventeen days. Hizbullah concluded that Washington would always come to the rescue. Not surprisingly, after each such rescue it went right back to shooting at Israel.
When Hizbullah attacked Israel in 2006, kidnapping Regev and Goldwasser and killing eight other soldiers, the group told Lebanon’s prime minister not to worry. The infidel Jews would bomb for a few days and then they’d be forced to stop.
What Hizbullah failed to take into account was that this time there was a Republican in the White House. George W. Bush reasoned that if other countries had the right to fight back, then Israel should enjoy that right as well. With no American pressure to speak of, the war lasted 34 days. It was the only war in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict that Jerusalem started on its own terms and ended on its own terms. When the guns fell silent, there was rubble piled high in Beirut and a new set of rules on the ground. The border between Israel and Lebanon has been almost totally quiet ever since.
The contrast between Clinton and Bush was just as stark with respect to the Palestinians. When Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Palestinians on Purim in 1994, the Clinton administration sprang into action. Despite the fact that Goldstein acted alone, the administration allowed the Security Council to condemn Israel and even set up an international observer force in Hebron to help protect Palestinians.
When Palestinians attacked Israelis in an organized fashion with claims of responsibility, the response from Clinton was of a different kind altogether. After Benjamin Netanyahu, in his first go-round as prime minister, opened the door to the Kotel Tunnels, Yasir Arafat started a mini-war that left dozens dead. Clinton blamed the episode on a startled Netanyahu and demanded concessions from Israel.
The same thing happened after Netanyahu announced new building in Har Homa. Arafat responded by emptying out Palestinian jails, a caf? in Tel Aviv was bombed – and the Clinton administration blamed Netanyahu. In September 2000, after the trumped up “provocation” of Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount, Arafat almost certainly figured he was back in the driver’s seat. The next day he started the al-Aksa Intifada.
George W. Bush, derided by the vast majority of American Jews, stood up for Israel’s right to defend itself, granting Jerusalem the leeway it needed to win the war against Arafat’s suicide bombers. (Try to imagine the outcry if Israel had entered Jenin on Clinton’s watch.) Israel even hurried to finish up Operation Cast Lead in January 2009 on the last day of Bush’s administration. It had good reason to do so. A Democrat was about to assume office.
* * * * *
All of which brings us to Barack Obama. In December 2008 Israel offered the Palestinians the two-state solution once again, including an unprecedented offer to absorb thousands of refugees. The Palestinians said no, made no concessions and offered no counter-terms.
Obama assumed office a month later. The Great Man determined that the real problem was – what else? – the settlements! He then took a position that was even more anti-Israel than the Palestinians had taken. Until then, the Palestinians accepted the idea that Israel could build in the three settlement blocs. Obama demanded that Israel freeze building everywhere, even in East Jerusalem. The peace process has been in a ditch ever since.
A personal note: I am embarrassed to admit it now, but I was a Democrat myself for almost twenty years. I once hosted an event for a Democratic candidate that raised $25,000. It was Bill Clinton and his treatment of Israel that cured me once and for all. I am now a Republican. And I have all the zeal of the converted.
In a democracy, you get the government you deserve. The Jewish people have long deserved better. This Tuesday, we have an opportunity to stand with those who have stood with us. We owe ourselves nothing less.
Uri Kaufman is the author of “Low Level Victory,” scheduled for release early next year.