Bernard Baruch (1870-1965) was an American financier, stock investor, philanthropist, statesman, and political consultant who, though he never ran for public office, was one of the most influential Americans of his time. He was often referred to as “America’s elder statesman” because, after his great success in business, he became a trusted adviser to seven American presidents on economic and other matters.
Baruch accumulated a fortune through financial genius and careful market research into raw materials, including gold, copper, sulfur, and rubber. As a result of his broad knowledge of the raw materials market, President Woodrow Wilson appointed him to the advisory commission of the Council of National Defense and made him chairman of the Commission on Raw Materials, Minerals and Metals. During World War I he served as chairman of the War Industries Board with the vast power to mobilize the American wartime economy. At the end of the war, he served as Wilson’s personal economic adviser to the Supreme Economic Council at the Conference of Versailles and, from that time on, his consulting and counseling services were sought by every American president.
A close friend and adviser to Franklin Roosevelt, Baruch urged the president not to underestimate the implications of Hitler’s rise to power and pressed him to prepare America for war. He was later named by President Truman as U.S. representative to the UN Atomic Energy Commission (1946).
Baruch was the son of Isabelle, a Sephardic Jew, and Simon, a German immigrant who served as a surgeon on General Robert E. Lee’s staff during the Civil War. Isabelle, who was raised in a kosher home, sought to raise her sons in traditional Judaism, including conducting prayer sessions at home and confining them to the Baruch house on Saturdays dressed in their Shabbat finery.
Simon was a founder and president of the Camden, South Carolina Hebrew Benevolent Association, Under Isabelle’s leadership, the association opened a Sunday school in 1880. Simon, however, moved the entire family to New York so that his sons could receive a more proper Jewish education, and Bernard attended a typical cheder.
Nonetheless, Bernard, who never cared about being Jewish or took any active interest in Jewish affairs, married an Episcopalian and raised their children in her faith. However, he argues in the correspondence shown below that he did rally to protect Jews, including substituting for President Truman when the president “refused to take part in a United Jewish Appeal.”
But perhaps Baruch’s greatest contribution to the Jewish people was dissuading FDR from issuing the “Hoskins plan,” a harsh decree against Zionism that would have decreed that public discussions and activities relating to Eretz Yisrael were seriously endangering the war effort and urged the Allies to immediately cease all such actions. The plan, which FDR had actually signed before yielding to the public and private pressure led by Baruch, would have come at a time when establishing a Jewish sanctuary in Eretz Yisrael was most needed for Jews fleeing the Holocaust.
Baruch’s record on Zionism is mixed. On the one hand, he was not a Zionist in the sense of supporting Eretz Yisrael as a Jewish state and he publicly proclaimed that he was not a political Zionist. He strongly opposed the establishment of any state based on religion; advocated a “United States of Africa” in Uganda as a refuge not only for Jews, but for all victims of persecution; and viewed the founding of Israel as only a partial and temporary solution (Churchill, for one, was very critical of Baruch’s opposition to Zionism).
On the other hand, he donated money to various Zionist causes; he condemned the policy of preventing Jews from seeking haven in Eretz Yisrael; and he played an important role in the birth of Israel when he obtained France’s vote in favor of the Palestine Partition Plan by visiting France’s UN delegate and strongly implying that French failure to support the resolution could lead to America withholding much-needed financial support.
Essentially a Jew by birth only, Baruch viewed himself always as an American first and foremost, a view he presents in more detail in this remarkable and historic December 31, 1953 correspondence on his personal letterhead to Rabbi Harold A. Friedman:
Yours of December 22nd was indeed a moving letter. You must be aware, of course, that I have been deeply interested in the subject matter. Many years ago, I joined with Justice Brandeis in buying lands in Palestine. In an address in the early part of World War II at an Al Smith Memorial Dinner, I criticized very sharply both the American and the British Governments for their actions towards Israel, so much so that Senator Lehman took me to task for my criticism of the American Government.
I am not interested in politics. I have been taught and feel very deeply for peoples, no matter what the race, color or creed may be. I also severely criticized Ernest Bevin, who was very anti-Semitic. My close friend, Winston Churchill, has been most friendly to the new State. He has admired, as who has not, the great spiritual movement and the courage of the people who have taken part in it. When President Truman refused to take part in a United Jewish Appeal, I substituted for him. At that time, it was the largest sum of money that was received. Of course, I have been a contributor to it over the years.
In 1946 because of my contacts with some of the Arab countries, particularly the Egyptian, I called the attention of our Government and the British Government to what was taking place in the Far East, but the situation was allowed to drift until we have the present impasse.
I have been in touch with Mr. Eban and his predecessor here. I feel that President Eisenhower and Mr. Dulles both are doing all they can in the circumstances. I am unable to do anything more than those things to which I am already obligated. Of course, the success of Israel, if she remains a democratic state and only if she does, is very close to my heart, but I must say to you, as I say to everyone else, that America comes first. My parents taught me that, and if they had not, my own experience has taught me that this is the fairest, finest, best country in the world, and that there must be no even secondary allegiance, only a primary one to our own country. I am sure, as a citizen of this country, you quite agree with me. At all times, because of our privileges here, we feel a very deep interest for the unfortunate peoples of the world, of whom the Jews are the most unfortunate.
So you see, my heart lies with you in my hopes and efforts. I believe our country will do the right thing. The last episode there was, I think, a mistake by the Israeli [sic] but we must stand with them whenever and wherever we can but never, as I said, unless the best interests if America lie in that stand.
In 1953, Abba Eban was Israel’s ambassador the United States (he also served at the time as vice president of the UN General Assembly). His predecessor, with whom Baruch says he was also in touch, was Eliahu Eilat, Israel’s first ambassador to the U.S. The “episode” to which Baruch refers is no doubt the Israeli retaliatory raid into Jordan in October 1953 that resulted in the deaths of sixty-nine Jordanian civilians and for which Israel was widely condemned, including by major Jewish organizations.
A noted Zionist, Rabbi Friedman (1917-1997), the recipient of Baruch’s letter, earned a Ph.D. in ancient languages at Hebrew University, was a professor of biblical and ancient history at several Southern colleges, and served as the rabbi of various congregations. He is particularly known, however, for initiating the idea of a “rolling synagogue,” a specially designed bus outfitted as a sanctuary, which he drove over a 1,200-mile circuit every two weeks, bringing the Jewish faith to isolated families.