Coolidge (1872-1933), who grew up in Vermont amongst Baptists, Methodists, and Congregationalists, had little general contact with Jews.
He did, however, have personal relationships with a handful of Jews, including Adolph Ochs, owner and publisher of the New York Times; Louis Marshall, a prominent attorney and founder of the American Jewish Committee; Eugene Isaac Meyer, whom he appointed to clean up the Federal Loan Board, which had been wracked with scandal; and, as we shall see, investment banker and mining mogul Adolph Lewisohn.
As president, he largely ignored the Jewish community and took no part in the debate that continued to rage during his administration over the anti-Semitism of Henry Ford. To the great disappointment of the American Jewish community, he also signed the Johnson-Reed Act, an immigration bill that restricted Jewish immigration (see discussion below).
When Charles Levine, “the Great Jewish Ace,” flew with Clarence Chamberlain to Berlin – and broke Lindbergh’s record a mere two weeks after Lindbergh’s historic flight – the Jewish community was irate when Coolidge invited Chamberlain to the White House but pointedly snubbed Levine.
Nevertheless, Coolidge signed “The Anglo-American Convention on Palestine,” a covenant with Britain that recognized the British Mandate over Eretz Yisrael. A more formal government recognition than Wilson’s recognition of the better-known Balfour Declaration, the Convention was characterized by Coolidge as a reflection of his sympathy with “the deep and intense longing which finds such fine expression in the Jewish National Homeland in Palestine.”
Through Coolidge’s ratification of the Convention on March 2, 1925, the United States formally recognized the historical connection of the Jewish people with Eretz Yisrael and the reconstitution of their national home there. Pursuant to Article 6:
The administration of Palestine shall encourage, in cooperation with the Jewish agency, close settlement by the Jews on the land, including state lands and waste lands not required for public purpose.
The Convention defines “land” as the entire Land of Israel included in the British Mandate and, significantly, it specifically prohibits the British from partitioning the land and its use for any purpose other than the creation of a national Jewish homeland.
(The treaty, which remains in effect and constitutes the law of the land, prohibits the right of any successive American administrations from limiting the right of Jews to settle any lands under the administration of the British Mandate, a prohibition blithely – and illegally – ignored by a number of American presidents.)
In 1924, Coolidge received Rav Kook, Eretz Yisrael’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, at the White House, thereby (as far as my research indicates) becoming the first president to receive a chief rabbi from Eretz Yisrael. Rav Kook thanked the president for his support of the Balfour Declaration and for aiding in Jewish relief during World War I, and the president responded that the American government would be pleased to assist Jews whenever possible.
Shown here is an exceedingly rare – it is only one of four copies known to exist – first edition of President Coolidge’s address at the laying of the cornerstone of the D.C. Jewish Community Center on Sunday, May 3, 1925, when he became the first president to speak at the dedication of a Jewish community institution that was not a house of worship.
In one of the most beautiful pro-Jewish speeches by a chief executive in American history, he affirmed that “Hebraic mortar cemented American democracy” and lauded the history and achievements of American Jews:
We have gathered this afternoon to lay with appropriate ceremony and solemnity the cornerstone of a temple. The splendid structure which is to rise here will be the home of the Jewish Community Center of Washington. It will be at once a monument to the achievements of the past and a help in the expansion of these achievements into a wider field of usefulness in the future.
About this institution will be organized, and from it will be radiated, the influences of those civic works in which the genius of the Jewish people has always found such eloquent expression. Such an establishment, so noble in its physical proportions, so generous in its social purposes, is truly a part of the civic endowment of the nation’s capital. Beyond that, its existence here at the seat of the National Government makes it in a peculiar way a testimony and an example before the entire country…. This edifice which you are erecting here is a fine example for other communities. It is a guarantee that you will keep step with liberty….
The Jews themselves, of whom a considerable number were already spread throughout the colonies, were true to the teachings of their prophets. The Jewish Faith is predominantly the faith of liberty. From the beginnings of the conflict between the colonies and the mother country, they were overwhelmingly on the side of the rising revolution…. Not only did the colonial Jews join early and enthusiastically in the non-intercourse program, but when the time came for raising and sustaining an army, they were ready to serve wherever they could be most useful….
It is easy to understand why a people with the historic background of the Jews should thus overwhelmingly and unhesitatingly have allied themselves with the cause of freedom. From earliest colonial times, America has been a new land of promise to this long-persecuted race….
This capacity for adaptation in detail, without sacrifice of essentials, has been one of the special lessons which the marvelous history of the Jewish people has taught. It is a lesson which our country, and every country based on the principle of popular government must learn and apply, generation by generation, year by year, yes even day by day. You are raising here a testimonial to the capacity of the Jewish people to do this. In the advancing years, as those who come and go shall gaze upon this civic and social landmark, may it be a constant reminder of the inspiring service that has been rendered to civilization by men and women of the Jewish faith. May they recall the long array of those who have been eminent in statecraft, in science, in literature, in art, in the professions, in business, in finance, in philanthropy and in the spiritual life of the world. May they pause long enough to contemplate that the patriots who laid the foundation of this republic drew their faith from the Bible. May they give due credit to the people among whom the Holy Scriptures came into being.
The official opening of the Community Center was on Washington’s birthday, February 22, 1926, and it went on to become the meeting place for several Jewish organizations, including B’nai Brith, Hadassah, and the American Jewish Committee.
* * * * *
In this March 2, 1926 correspondence to Adolph Lewisohn on his White House letterhead, President Coolidge writes: “I have been interested to see the letter from Minister Motoji, many of which you were good enough to send to me with your thoughtful note of February 27th. Please accept my thanks and my best wishes.”
Shinguma Motoji (1876-1947) held various high-level positions in the Japanese government, including Director-General of Bureau of Prisons of the Ministry of Justice, Public Prosecutor General, and Chief of the Japanese Supreme Court, but, following the Japanese defeat in World War II, he was purged from public office.
Although the subject of the Motoji letter that Lewisohn provided to President Coolidge is not specified, it is undoubtedly related to the Johnson-Reed Act, also called The Immigration Act of 1924. The Act, which included the Asian Exclusion Act that effectively all but cut off Japanese immigration to America, was aimed at further restricting immigration of Southern and Eastern Europeans – particularly Jews, who were “less racially desirable.” It set strict immigration quotas, provided important funding and an enforcement mechanism to carry out the immigration ban, established the U.S. Border Control, and introduced the term “illegal alien.”
Japanese immigration – the “Yellow Peril” that had been upsetting the West Coast in the early 1900s – was addressed by Theodore Roosevelt through an agreement pursuant to which Japan would cease issuing passports to American-bound emigrants in exchange for American acceptance of the Japanese already settled here.
Coolidge believed this agreement was sufficient to address the problems presented by Japanese immigration and that the exclusion clause in the 1924 act was unnecessary; he therefore expressed misgivings about needlessly irritating Japan, with whom the U.S. maintained good relations. He was proven right when the furious Japanese declared a “national day of humiliation,” which engendered a strong counter-reaction by the U.S. Senate so that Coolidge ultimately lost the battle to modify the exclusionary clause.
Nonetheless, Coolidge decided not to veto the bill, signing it with an attached statement condemning the exclusion clause. Many commentators argue persuasively that the Asian Exclusion Act played an important role in the rise of Japanese militarism in the 1930s and ultimately led to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
A central concern of the law was limiting Jewish immigration from Poland and Russia; supporters of the Act argued that it was necessary to protect American identity and preserve its ethnic homogeneity by barring the entry of immigrants who could not assimilate, would not contribute to the American economy, and would never adapt to American culture.
The law all but eliminated America as a refuge for Eastern European Jews, and the severely restrictive quotas were maintained even as Jews tried to flee Hitler in the 1930s, resulting in the deaths of countless Jews. Former First Lady Grace Coolidge campaigned to admit refugee Jewish children into America during this time period, and even volunteered to personally care for 25 of them, but President Franklin Delano Roosevelt – and most of the American public – remained unmoved.
Legislative hearings cited the Jewish population of New York’s Lower East Side as the perfect example of an immigrant group that could never be assimilated, and the law sharply reduced immigration from countries from which the vast majority of American Jews had come.
Renowned “eugenicists,” who were invited to testify before Congress regarding the “inferior stack” of European Jews, played no small part in the broad congressional support for the act. Particularly persuasive was eugenicist Harry Laughlin, who argued that immigrants, “mainly Jews,” were “a large part of the insane population.”
According to Secretary of Labor James A. Davis, the problem was exacerbated because “the Hebrews, above all other races, come [to America] to stay.” Even President Coolidge, in his first address to Congress, announced, “New arrivals should be limited to our capacity to absorb them into the ranks of good citizenship. America must be kept American.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler praised the 1924 Immigration Act for finally rejecting Jews from America’s shores.
Ironically, some commentators credit the Johnson-Reed Act for, albeit unintentionally, facilitating the dramatic growth of Zionism in the United States and the ultimate birth of Israel. With the Act effectively closing America to European Jews, the Jews turned their attention to establishing Eretz Yisrael as a Jewish homeland.
Lewisohn (1849-1938) – the recipient of this letter from Coolidge – was an investment banker, mining magnate, and renowned philanthropist. He immigrated to New York City at age 16 to help his brothers in the family mercantile business but, after meeting Thomas Edison, urged the family to invest in copper instead and went on to establish several highly successful mining companies.
In particular, Lewisohn Bros. broke new ground in the electrolytic processing of copper, and the brothers became “copper kings,” with just one of their mines earning $35 million by the early 1900s, when Lewisohn turned his efforts to philanthropy, particularly Jewish philanthropy.
He began Hebrew lessons at age five, attended daily synagogue with his father, and described his paternal family tree as an unbroken line of pious Jews “of the strictest orthodoxy in the matter of old traditional ritualistic customs.” However, he ultimately rejected his strictly observant father’s tradition, became an active Reform Jew, and all but ceased his religious devotion.
Notwithstanding his lack of Jewish observance and practice, however, he continued his extensive Jewish philanthropy; served as an important “shtadlan” in world Jewish affairs; and, in particular, became a powerful advocate for persecuted Jews in Czarist Russia. He was also at the forefront of the battle against restrictions and limits in Jewish immigration, and he often used his warm relationships with presidents Wilson and Coolidge to intercede on behalf of the Jewish interests.
Although by no means a Zionist – he opposed the creation of a Jewish state, and his aim was “the integration of the Jews, not another exile” – he nonetheless welcomed the Balfour Declaration.