Harding’s presidency marked a turning away from the government activism of the reform era, as he embraced a renewed isolationism and adopted laissez-faire policies both on economic and social policy. Domestically, he signed the first federal child welfare program; backed striking mining and railroad workers; supported a standard 8-hour workday; established the Bureau of the Budget; and fought for civil rights for African Americans. In foreign affairs, he rejected the League of Nations; signed a separate American WWI peace treaty with Germany and Austria; and advanced a successful world naval program.
However, he is best known for the infamous Teapot Dome Scandal, which involved the acceptance of bribes by Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall, who later became the first Cabinet member to be sent to prison. Various other administration officials, some of whom committed suicide, were convicted of fraud and taking kickbacks and, although he was a very popular president, many historians rank him among America’s worst chief executives. However, as we shall see, his enthusiastic support for the Balfour Declaration and for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael established an important precedent for American Zionism and played an important role in the birth of Israel.
Nonetheless, Harding (1865-1923) often acted contrary to the interests of American Jews. As a senator, he voted against the confirmation of Louis Brandeis for the Supreme Court and, in a stunning blow to Jewish interests, the newly elected president called a special session of Congress to enact legislation that would greatly curb immigration. He went on to promptly sign the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which reduced to a trickle the number of Jewish immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. During his administration, quotas were imposed on Jewish students in American colleges and universities; antisemitic activity, which had been largely dormant, grew significantly, including the growth of the Ku Klux Klan; and antisemitism was publicly spread by Henry Ford, among other staunch Harding supporters.
Notwithstanding Harding’s general apathy toward the Jews, however, he knew where to find them when he needed them. In the July 1, 1920, letter exhibited here, Harding writes to famed censor Will Hays, then his presidential campaign chairman, referring Hays to Adolph Danziger who, he believes, “can help immensely. He will come to you with this note. I am sure he has been helpful in the past, and can help us.” Hays writes in response “Dear Senator: I have your note in re Mr. Danziger and am delighted to meet with him.”
Adolphe Danziger (de Castro) (1859-1959) was a journalist, author, poet and noted Jewish scholar who wrote several books on the Talmudic tradition, including Jewish Forerunners of Christianity (1903), a well-regarded book on the Jewish patriarchs of the Second Temple period, beginning with Hillel and ending with a chapter on Rabbi Judah the Prince, the compiler of the Jerusalem Talmud. He was elected the first president of the Sephardic Community of Los Angeles (1920).
William H. Hays (1879-1954) served as chairman of the Republican National Committee (1918-1921); as campaign manager for Harding’s successful 1920 campaign for the presidency; and as the president’s Postmaster-General (1921-1922), in which capacity he became well known as an outspoken opponent of obscenity. He is perhaps best known, however, as the first president of the Motion Picture Association of America (1922-1945) and as the namesake of the infamous and highly restrictive Hays Code, which remains controversial to this day.
However, despite his general apathy for the national interests of American Jews, Harding surprised them with his heartfelt support for a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael. Soon after he succeeded Woodrow Wilson as president, he made clear that he would unreservedly support Zionism and its lofty aims; in a July 1, 1921 correspondence, he wrote to the chairman of the Reception Committee of the ZOA:
. . . I want to add an expression of my most friendly interest in and for the Zionist Movement. It is impossible for one who has studied at all the services of the Hebrew people to avoid the faith that they will one day be restored to their historical National Home and then enter on a new and yet greater phase of their contribution to the advance of humanity. Please assure those who will be gathered at the luncheon today of my continued concern for the cause in which you are so zealously laboring.
Harding made a point to meet with Chaim Weizmann and Albert Einstein in March 1921 when they came to the United States to launch the Keren Hayesod drive to raise funds for the settlement of Eretz Yisrael. The president, who presented the two great Jewish leaders with an award from the National Academy of Sciences, may have received them as an expression of his gratitude to American Jews for giving him a 43 percent plurality of the Jewish vote in the 1920 election, a very rare accomplishment for a Republican before or since.
During an hour-long meeting with Harding at the White House on January 13, 1922, Nahum Sokolow, then president of the Executive Committee of the World Zionist Congress, briefed the president on the persecution of Eastern European Jews and updated him on settlement progress in Eretz Yisrael. The president reiterated his sympathy for Zionism and promised the further support of the United States government and, in a May 11, 1922 correspondence, he expressed support for the pioneers of Eretz Yisrael:
I am very glad to express my approval and hearty sympathy for the effort of the Palestine Foundation Fund on behalf of the restoration of Palestine as a homeland for the Jewish people . . .I have always viewed with an interest, which I think is quite as much practical as sentimental the proposal for the rehabilitation of Palestine and I hope the effort now being carried on in this and other countries in this behalf may meet with the fullest measure of success.
In a July 25, 1922, correspondence to the Zionist Organization of America, he expressed his Zionist sentiments perhaps even more forcefully:
A long-time interest, both sentimental and practical, in the Zionist movement causes me to wish that I might meet the members of the organization and express the esteem which I feel in behalf of the great movement.
On August 21, 1922, the president sent the following Rosh Hashanah greetings to American Jews, which was received with great delight:
The commemoration this year of Rosh Hashanah, the New Year day of the Jewish people, will mark the end of a year peculiarly notable in Jewish annals. It has seemed the definite assurance to the Jewish people that their long aspiration for re-establishment of Jewish nationality in the homeland of this great people is to be definitely realized. This is an event of notable significance, not only to the Jewish people but to their friends and well-wishers everywhere, among whom the American nation has always been proud to be numbered.
But Harding’s greatest contribution to Zionism was his enthusiastic signing of the Lodge-Fish Resolution on September 20, 1922, in the face of hostile opposition from the two leading anti-Zionist institutions of the day, the U.S. State Department and the New York Times, owned by Jewish arch-anti-Zionist Adolph Ochs. Passed unanimously by both the Senate and the House of Representatives, it repeated the Balfour Declaration virtually verbatim:
Favoring the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled. That the United States of America favors the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which should prejudice the civil and religious rights of Christian and all other non-Jewish communities in Palestine, and that the holy places and religious buildings and sites in Palestine shall be adequately protected.
By enthusiastically embracing Lodge-Fish, Harding legitimized American Zionism and made it possible for Jews and others who had been reticent about publicly expressing their support for the Zionist cause to rally for the creation of a Jewish state. His support of the Resolution – which was never repealed and is still law – effectively rooted a Zionist ethos in successive American administrations and served as the basis for the birth of Israel in 1948.
Harding’s Zionism may be rooted in his Baptist faith and his knowledge of the Bible and, over and above his support for a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael, he often expressed positive sentiments about the Jewish faith. For example, shortly after becoming the Republican nominee for president, he declared, “It is my conviction that the fundamental trouble with the people of the United States is that they have gotten too far away from Almighty G-d.” In a beautiful January 10, 1923, correspondence apologizing for being unable to attend the Golden Jubilee Dinner of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations – which was printed verbatim in the January 25, 1923, New York Times – he emphasized the importance of religious faith in general and his admiration for the Jewish faith in particular:
Messrs. Adolph S. Ochs. Louis Marshall, Henry M. Morgenthau, Daniel P. Hays, David M. Bressler:
Receipt of your committee of the cordial invitation to the Golden Jubilee dinner of the Union of American Hebrew Congregation imposes on me a duty which brings both embarrassment and regret. Embarrassment, because at one time I made to you a tentative promise to participate on this occasion if personal circumstances permit; regret, that I am to be denied the pleasure I anticipated. The illness of Mrs. Harding, which for several months has rendered impossible any engagements requiring me to travel outside Washington, continues to interpose the same obstacle, and therefore compels me to ask you to excuse me.
I had hoped to take part in this commemoration because it seemed to afford occasion for saying some things which have been much in my thoughts of late. One of the marvels of humanity’s story has been the strength and persistence of the Jewish faith and the continuing influence and power of the Jewish people. I cannot but feel that these things are in large measure owing to the Hebrew conception of a personal G-d and of the individual accountability of men and women. There is evident almost everywhere in the world the need for a restoration of the soul of religious devotion . . .
Feeling thus, and recognizing the great debt that other religions owe to the Hebrew faith, I would have been glad to avail myself of the opportunity which you have tendered to express somewhat my convictions in this vital department of human concern. The world needs the renewed assurance of faith in the Almighty, and the tranquility which comes of that faith. There will be among those taking part in your notable commemoration many better than I to express these thoughts, so I can express no more sincere wish than that the gathering may inspire some of them to voice in words of conviction and power the thought I have sought to convey.
With all assurances of my sympathetic interest in behalf of your splendid purposes,
In 1905, Florence Harding, the president’s wife, had a kidney removed, one result of which was an increased susceptibility to infection for the rest of her life. In late 1922, she contracted chronic kidney disease followed by sepsis, which brought her close to death and kept the president at her side. Although she ultimately recovered, her kidney condition later returned and she died of renal failure fifteen months after her husband’s death from a heart attack on August 2, 1923.
Although Harding did not seem to have any personal relationships with individual Jews, he appointed Rabbi Joseph Saul Kornfeld (1876-1944), a reform rabbi ordained by the Hebrew Union College in 1899, to serve as United States Minister to Persia (Iran), the first rabbi ever to represent the U.S. in a foreign diplomatic post. During his time in Iran (1922-1924), Kornfeld was in frequent contact with the Iranian Jewish community, helped to fight antisemitism there, and prevented attacks against the Jewish community on several occasions.
In one particularly notable case, Kornfeld saved the Jews in Tehran from a certain pogrom. On September 4, 1922, the custodian of a yeshiva in the Tehran ghetto stopped a donkey on which a servant of a Tehran mullah was riding to prevent it from colliding with children leaving the school. When the Islamic cleric was advised that he had been held up by “filthy Jews,” he demanded revenge against them for their sacrilegious act; local goons armed with sticks and clubs beat up Jews in the street, and thousands of armed rioters encircled the ghetto. Kornfeld interceded with the Iranian Minister of War, Reza Khan Pahlavi, who dispatched a military force to disperse the rioters, and calm was restored with no loss of Jewish life. (Three years later, Pahlavi would seize power and become the Shah of Iran.) As a token of its gratitude, the Persian Jewish community presented him with a silver plate engraved with the Ten Commandments and, in an allusion to the Purim story, which took place in Persia, he was hailed as “the Present Day Mordechai.”
Harding also appointed Albert Lasker (1880-1952), an American businessman who, as “the father of modern advertising,” is credited with transforming advertising from simple informational announcements to an advanced form of promotion and salesmanship that revolutionized the entire industry. As a key advisor to Harding’s presidential campaign, he designed new and successful ways to advertise, effectively employing newspaper and magazine ads, billboards, and motion pictures, all of which played an important role in the president’s sweeping victory. Harding appointed him as chairman of the U.S. Shipping Board and, as only the third Jew to be appointed to such a high post in the federal government, his accomplishments as chairman included developing a national maritime policy, refitting the SS Leviathan for passenger service, and originating ship-to-shore telephone service.
Jews of all denominations and all political affiliations, both in America and overseas, joined in expressing deep sorrow at Harding’s passing. In the exhibit shown here, for example, American citizens in Carlsbad, Czechoslovakia, adopted a resolution mourning the loss of “our beloved president,” which was transmitted to the Secretary of State. The prayer at the memorial services was led by Rabbi Samuel Reich, who became the chief rabbi of Vrbove in Slovakia in 1902 and held office until the dissolution of the entire community by the Nazis and the deportation of its Jews to Auschwitz in 1942. Rav Reich was one of the few Jews of Vrbove to survive the Holocaust, after which he made aliyah to Jerusalem.