Although Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), called “the First Lady of the World” by Harry Truman, is considered to be both the most popular and most-studied First Lady in American history, very few historians have focused on her being indelibly defined by Jewish issues. She was a passionate advocate for admitting Jewish refugees to the United States, served as an unabashed and outspoken advocate of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael and embraced Israel uncritically, and was an activist member in many leading Jewish organizations.
Raised in the patrician WASP environment of antisemitism so prevalent in high society, Roosevelt was a young antisemite, as evidenced by her early writings and family history. Writing in Refuge Must Be Given: Eleanor Roosevelt, the Jewish Plight and the Founding of Israel (2022), perhaps the seminal book on the subject, John F. Sears, director of the Eleanor Roosevelt Institute and co-editor of her papers in 2007, cites numerous examples of her anti-Jewish views in her correspondence. For example, in 1920, she wrote to Sarah Roosevelt (her mother-in-law), complaining about the Navy party in honor of Bernard Baruch she had been forced to attend: “The Jew party was appalling. I never wish to hear money, jewels, and sables mentioned again.” In another letter, she described Felix Frankfurter as “an interesting little man, but very Jew.”
Her attitude toward Jews began to change in the 1920s as her social circles expanded to include close relationships with various Jews, including Elinor and Henry Morgenthau, her assimilated upper-class neighbors at Hyde Park. Her Jewish sensitivities changed to the point that she resigned her membership in a club that she herself had founded after it denied membership to Mrs. Morgenthau because she was Jewish, and she thereafter refused to speak at venues that excluded Jews. However, Roosevelt’s rejection of antisemitism had apparently not completely banished the old Jewish stereotypes that were ingrained in her consciousness in her youth; for example, even as late as September 1939, she wrote to a German friend that “there may be a need for curtailing the ascendancy of the Jewish people,” but that Hitler’s way was not the decent and humane way to achieve this.
Although she was an immensely popular first lady who drew broad public attention and admiration and who wielded great political influence and broad veneration for her work in humanitarian affairs, she generally maintained a public silence about the fate of European Jews in the Holocaust. Her public withdrawal was attributable not only to regular warnings from FDR and the State Department to stay out of diplomatic affairs but also because her closest Jewish friends, including Baruch and the Morgenthaus, advised her that American protests against the Nazi persecution of the Jews would only serve to increase antisemitism in the United States.
Nonetheless, she continued to work privately within the administration for the admission of Jewish refugees and to support and contribute to organizations funding such efforts, and, in at least one known case, she personally endeavored to sponsor a refugee. While her efforts mostly failed, it was not for lack of trying, and her husband’s foreign policy did not deter her from powerful activism on behalf of Jews fighting antisemitism within the United States, nor did it prevent her from regularly interceding with FDR on behalf of Jewish interests. For example, she was successful in influencing her husband to facilitate the admission of 86 refugees on the S.S. Quanza docked at Norfolk in September 1940, after they had been turned away while seeking haven in South America. However, her intercession with the president on behalf of hundreds of Jewish children, mostly orphaned, stranded in Teheran after a three-year trek from Poland who were seeking entrance to Eretz Yisrael, failed.
Kristallnacht (November 1938) was an important turning point for her. She decided that she could no longer remain silent, and she was galvanized into action, particularly with respect to saving children, including exerting extraordinary efforts to help pass the Wagner-Rogers bill, which would have admitted 20,000 refugee children to the United States. Although the bill ultimately failed, she continued the fight to admit children struggling to flee England after Nazi bombing in the Battle of Britain and she became active in the Interim Committee of the Non-Sectarian Committee for Jewish Refugee Children, acting as a Committee liaison with the White House.
In 1941, she lamented the fact that although the Jews were always at the forefront of offering help to people in trouble, no one was coming forward to help the Jews “in these terrible days.” In 1943, she praised Jews following a memorial service for Holocaust victims and denounced Jewish persecution: “One could not help having a great pride in the achievements of the Jewish people; they are the great names in so many nations, and yet rage and pity filled one’s heart for they have suffered in this war in so many nations.” She participated in countless Jewish rallies, including Peter Bergson’s famous We Will Never Die protest pageant; she educated millions of Americans about the reality of the Holocaust through her writings; and, after FDR ducked meeting with the 400 Orthodox rabbis who marched on Washington, she wrote a message of hope to the Jews under Hitler’s rule, which was broadcast by short-wave radio across Europe. Her efforts earned her exceptional vilification in the Nazi press.
After the war, she continued her interest in saving and protecting Jewish children, becoming deeply involved in Youth Aliyah, which brought orphaned Jewish children from the ashes of Europe to Eretz Yisrael and helped to settle them there, and brought in and supported Jewish immigrant children from North Africa and other Arab countries. After FDR’s death, she no longer needed to coordinate with her husband’s staff, and she used her considerable influence within the Truman administration to publicly lend her name to Jewish efforts to establish a Jewish State and pulled no punches in publicly criticizing Eisenhower’s tilt against Israel in favor of the Arabs.
Interestingly, even long after abandoning her early antisemitism, Roosevelt was initially not a Zionist. She wrote to Truman, “I do not happen to be a Zionist”; questioned the “absorptive capacity” of Eretz Yisrael; doubted that the Jews could defeat the Arab armies; and was, at best, ambivalent about partitioning the land into separate Arab and Jewish states. Her Jewish friends were primarily anti-Zionists or, at best, non-Zionists who feared that the birth of Israel would pose a challenge to their acceptance as Americans. However, the Holocaust – including survivors being forced to live in horrific conditions in the infamous DP camps – had a dramatic and lasting effect on her views. As she reported after a visit to Zilcheim, a DP camp outside Frankfurt:
Most of all, I remember an old woman whose family had been driven from home by the war’s madness and brutality. I had no idea who she was and we could not speak each other’s language, but she knelt in the muddy road and simply threw her arms around my knees. “Israel,” she murmured over and over. “Israel! Israel!” As I looked at her weather-beaten face and heard her old voice, I knew for the first time what the land of Israel meant to Jewish refugees in Europe.
She later recalled with admiration the “courage and steadfast hope” of the refugees and, in 1945, she wrote an article in which she argued that “tortured” Jewish survivors “naturally” wanted to go to Eretz Yisrael, “the one place where they will have a status where they will feel again that sense of belonging to a community which gives most of us security.” She characterized Britain’s immigration policy to Eretz Yisrael as “cruelty beyond words,” and she argued that Americans as a nation must respond to the needs of the refugees, “the greatest victims of this war” and that “our consciences can hardly be clear” at the news of their suffering.
In 1946, Truman appointed Roosevelt as a delegate to the nascent United Nations, in which capacity she notably served as the first Chairman of Human Rights. By the end of the year, she supported the UN trusteeship over Eretz Yisrael, and she was pleased when Great Britain decided to submit the trusteeship issue to the UN in February 1947. However, when the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) called for partition and the plan was approved by the UN General Assembly, she consistently used the UN to pressure Truman to support the Partition Plan and to establish a Jewish State, lest he severely damage the credibility and effectiveness of the new and important international organization. She played a leading role in the American support for the November 29, 1947, UN General Assembly Resolution in support of the creation of a Jewish State, taking head-on the usual ferocious State Department opposition to Israel.
Months later, she was instrumental in advocating for American recognition of Israel, again facing formidable headwinds from the State Department, including particularly Secretary of State George Marshall, and she successfully urged Truman to make the United States the first nation to recognize Israel. After Israel’s birth and throughout her life, she actively lobbied successive American administrations not only to provide military support for the Jewish state, arguing that it was very much in America’s interests to do so, but also urging the United States not to send any arms to the Arab states because there was no way that it could prevent use of the weapons against Israel.
In late 1948, she lobbied the government not to reject a proposed peace plan which would have given the Negev to the Arabs, writing to a friend, “I imagine that the Jews are the only people who would be energetic enough to develop it.” In fact, she believed deeply that Jews in Israel would soon lead the way to developing the entire Middle East: “The Jews in their own country are doing marvels and should, once the refugee problem is settled, help all the Arab countries,” and, “The people within the country are indomitable in the way they meet every situation no matter how difficult… [Israel] will become a great nation, not only helping their own people but the people in the other developing nations of the world.”
Roosevelt’s efforts in support of Jews was by no means limited to lobbying the American government and generating the support of the American people. For example, when she learned in 1956 that 10,000 Moroccan Jews were languishing in Casablanca camps and were being prevented from making aliyah, she famously wrote to the Sultan and pleaded with him to let the Jews leave – and, a few days later, the Jews were freed.
Her service to leading Jewish organizations was legion. She served on the advisory council of State of Israel Bonds, making a very public bond purchase in celebration of Israel’s third anniversary, and she served as the honorary president of the Women’s Division of the American Jewish Congress. She was a patron of the Israel Orphan Asylum; the Jewish National Fund; Hadassah (she praised Henrietta Szold over national radio for her work and contributions to humanity); the American Christian Palestine Committee; the United Jewish Appeal, B’nai Brith; and the Youth Aliyah Organization; and she frequently spoke at their events, including an address she delivered at a large “Salute to Israel Day” at Yankee Stadium in 1956. She also regularly wrote essays and articles in support of Israel, including her books The Mission of Israel, Youth Aliyah: Past, Present, and Future and This is Our Strength, and she wrote the introduction to the first American edition of The Diary of Anne Frank, which affected her emotionally.
Roosevelt visited Israel four times, the first in 1952, and the last eight months before her death in 1962. She not only maintained close personal friendships with Israel’s leaders but also, as was her wont, made a point of visiting ordinary citizens, including people whom she had met in DP camps, and orphaned children. In many letters to her friends and in her newspaper columns, she frequently sang the praises of the extraordinary beauty of the Israeli landscape, and she often lauded Israel’s educational institutions and healthcare facilities. She wrote in glowing terms about the incredible progress made by the young nation and its citizens, many of whom were only a few years removed from Hitler’s death camps. One of my favorite Roosevelt quotes is a line from an article she wrote on February 21, 1952: “I would say that the first concern of all Israel is the care of children – although a farmer told me today that the cows are almost as carefully tended.”
Roosevelt also pointedly contrasted Israel’s progress as a young country of refugees subject to unremitting attacks on all fronts by its mortal enemies with the corresponding and conspicuous Arabs’ lack of progress; she criticized the economics, culture, values and illiteracy of the Arab nations; and she blasted the selfishness of Arab leaders and blamed them not only for creating the “Arab refugee problem” in the first instance but also for purposely using their own people as a weapon against Israel instead of settling them in Arab countries. She argued that “the Arabs have to be handled with strength” and, in a March 23, 1956, article, she sounded like a classical Zionist:
I have an anonymous letter which asks me what is being done by the United Nations about the plight of the nearly one million Arab refugees of Israel aggression. Isn’t it astonishing how many mistakes can creep into one sentence?
There are 800,000 refugees who are being cared for by the U.N. and have been cared for since, during the war, their own Moslem mufti in Jerusalem called upon the Arabs in Israel to leave. Israel was not the aggressor in this war. The Arabs were the aggressors. The partition of Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel was the result of U.N. action. The Arabs did not accept the new state. So Israel fought and gained more land, holding it by defeating her Arab attackers. The Arabs who did not heed the call of the Mufti and leave Israel during the war are still living there . . . [B]y and large, with eight representatives in the Knesset (the parliament), they have a voice, as citizens of Israel, to demand redress for their wrongs.
In 1952, she traveled through Israel and parts of the Middle East and wrote that crossing the Mandelbaum Gate border into Jewish Jerusalem “was like breathing the air of the United States again… once I was through the barrier, I felt that I was among people… dedicated to fulfilling a purpose” and that “I felt at home with the people of Israel.” Following the visit, she wrote home enthusiastically to her aunt, “Israel was one of the most exciting experiences I have ever had.” During the visit, she attended a ceremony at Kfar Vitkin, where Hadassah and Youth Aliyah were constructing a vocational training school named in her honor. During her second visit to Israel, which she undertook to participate in celebrating the 25th anniversary of Youth Aliyah – which she lovingly called “this miracle of resurrection” – she attended the dedication of the Eleanor Roosevelt Day Center in Beer Sheva.
Exhibited here is a New York Post March 6, 1962, article by Roosevelt in which she writes of her impressions of the Hebrew University library and her meeting Ben-Gurion, Abba Eban, and Golda Meir:
The day before we left Israel we visited the library of the Hebrew University, which is one of the great libraries of the world. I was astonished to find so many books dealing with my husband, with Theodore Roosevelt and with Abraham Lincoln. I hope that some day Carl Sandburg will visit this library and see that even in this small and far away country the feeling for Lincoln which he has tried to inspire is being encouraged.
…I was happy to see the lecture room which has been named for me. From the university there is a wonderful view, which is true for so many of the public buildings in Jerusalem. One of the rather sad things we saw in the library were some books from the old university on Mt. Scopus – one book with a bullet buried in it and another that had been badly marred. This must have happened during the fighting, though it is hard to understand how fighting could have gone on practically within the old university itself. Today, by arrangement, the new library is allowed to bring a load of books once a month from the old library.
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It was a great pleasure also to call on Prime Minister Ben-Gurion in his office for a short time. He was in fine form – as vigorous and dynamic as any man could be. I believe that among those in the younger generation who understand him and follow him so staunchly, he is affectionately called the “old man,” but I think this is used in the sense that to them he seems quite ageless, belonging as much to their own generation as to any other.
Minister of Education Abba Eban was kind enough to invite us to a very delightful dinner the very last day, which was a filled to overflowing with pleasurable experiences. Mr. Eban’s dinner took place at the King David Hotel, where we were staying prior to our early morning departure, and during it I had the pleasure of sitting by the Attorney General (Gideon Hauser), who amusingly recalled the hectic round of public appearances on his only visit thus far to America. Earlier in the day at the home of Foreign Minister Golda Meir, I was glad to see our own minister Mr. [Walworth] Barber. He is still now in Israel, but I am sure they are going to like him.
One of the things which impresses me most about one’s friends in Israel is the way they come to the airport when one arrives or departs. Mr. [Yosef] Baratz [the founder of Degania Alef and a close personal friend], coming all the way from Degania, was at the airport at 8:30 in the morning to say a last word of goodby [sic]. Esther Herlitz [diplomat, politician and the first secretary of the Israeli embassy in Washington], always such a kind friend and now busy on the Tel-Aviv council with other interests, not only met us but saw us off, as did Gideon Tadmor and his wife, who had been with us during the trip…
As evident from the column, Roosevelt was deeply impressed by Israeli leaders, observing in 1959 that “they all seemed to possess strong personalities, with good qualities of leadership, and this perhaps is the distinguishing feature that accounts for their success in meeting problems that must at times seem insoluble.” She was particularly enamored with Ben-Gurion. In an April 1, 1955, article about her trip to Israel the previous week, she wrote:
Mr. Ben-Gurion typifies, as does Mr. Baratz of Degania, the pioneer in Israel, a man who felt he must live on the soil and make things grow and be as self-sufficient as possible… He lives in a new settlement not far from the Egyptian border and he says, “G-d made the rocks but forgot to put soil on them. Therefore, it is up to us to do it.” In his mind’s eye he sees the picture of his home surrounded with flowers and fruit trees and a garden and green grass everywhere. As I left, he said, “One must see the picture and then one can make it come true.”
Roosevelt also discussed other Israeli leaders such as Golda Meir, with whom she frequently visited and who she characterized as “a woman of great strength and calm and for me she symbolizes the best spirit of Palestine,” and she also maintained a close relationship with Abba Eban. During this visit, she promised Rachel Ben-Zvi (an Israeli poet and the wife of Israel’s president) that she would work to persuade American Jews to make aliyah – and she did.
Exhibited here is Ben-Gurion’s original December 12, 1968, letter to Stella K. Gerson regarding her book, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Jewish People, in which he mentions the “85th birthday of our dear friend Eleanor in the fall of 1969.” Hershan (1915-2014) was an Austrian-American novelist and biographer who immigrated to the United States in 1939 as a Holocaust refugee. Her other published works on Eleanor are A Woman of Quality and The Candles She Lit: The Legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt.