Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

Before defeating incumbent Republican William Howard Taft and going on to serve two full terms as the 28th president of the United States (1913-1921), Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) served as president of Princeton University, where he became a leading spokesman for progressivism in higher education, and as governor of New Jersey (1911-1913), where he took on party bosses to win passage of several progressive reforms.He was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize for his promotion of the League of Nations, and perhaps most importantly, as we shall see, he was arguably the most pro-Jewish and Zionist president in American history.

Wilson portrait.

During his first year as president, Wilson infamously authorized racial segregation within the federal bureaucracy, ousting many African Americans from federal posts, and he was a staunch opponent of women’s suffrage. His first term was largely devoted to working to enact his progressive New Freedom domestic agenda, which included passing the Revenue Act of 1913, which lowered tariffs and began the modern income tax, and the Federal Reserve Act, which created the Federal Reserve System. He led the effort to enact the Federal Trade Commission Act and the Clayton Antitrust Act, which promoted business competition and limited extreme corporate power.


Wilson was narrowly reelected in 1916, running on a platform of keeping the United States out of World War I and war with Mexico, but he reversed course in 1917 when he asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany in response to its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare that was sinking American merchant ships.Concentrating on diplomacy and leaving military matters to the generals, he issued his famous “Fourteen Points” in January 1918, which the Allies and Germany accepted as a basis for post-war peace.After the Allied victory in November 1918, he went to Paris, where he and the British and French leaders dominated the Paris Peace Conference and where he successfully advocated for the establishment of a multinational organization, the League of Nations, which was incorporated into the Treaty of Versailles.

Even during his years as president of Princeton University, Wilson had appointed the first Jew to the faculty, and while it is generally well-known that he appointed and battled valiantly in the face of monumental opposition for the confirmation of the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis, not as well known is that in one of his first official acts as governor of New Jersey he also appointed the first Jewish Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, Samuel Kalisch (1852-1930). Wilson affirmed that he appointed Kalisch not only because of his high qualifications and character but also to remedy the fact that Jews had not received sufficient political recognition in New Jersey government.


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In this April 25, 1911, correspondence, written only a week after appointing Kalisch to the high court on April 18, Wilson writes:

I do not feel that I deserve any thanks for your appointment. I picked you as the man most qualified and the appointment gave me a great deal of pleasure. It will be a pleasure to be associated with you here in Trenton.

In the November 12, 1912, letter exhibited here, Wilson responds to Kalisch’s letter congratulating him upon his election as president:

I need not tell you that your letter of congratulations gave me genuine pleasure. I have learned to think of you as a highly valued friend, and know how to appreciate your words of congratulation.

Kalisch was the son of Reform Rabbi Dr. Isidore Kalisch (1816-1886), a noted scholar, philologist, author, and one of the leading Reform rabbis in the United States and Germany at the end of the 19th century. Though he studied advanced Hebrew and received a classical Jewish education from his father, he did not take any active interest in Jewish affairs until a few years before his death. One of the first movements to claim his attention and bring him into closer contact with Jewish life was the United Palestine Appeal and, even though he was a non-Zionist, he took an active part in the 1927 Appeal drive as honorary chairman of the New Jersey Lawyers’ Division. He also served as head of the New Jersey campaign to raise money for the Yeshiva College (1928) because he believed that the modern rabbis who serve Jewish communities in the United States must be equipped with a more comprehensive and deeper knowledge of Jewish law than was usually demanded. He is the author of the well-regarded Legend of the Talmud and a famous Memoir on the life of his father (1928).

Kalisch’s first years on the New Jersey Supreme Court were marked by the legal war he waged against the corrupt politicians of Atlantic City. After 25 years during which institutional graft made it virtually impossible for prosecutors to obtain indictments against criminals protected by the political bosses, Kalisch took immediate action to restore the rule of law, disqualifying the sheriff from selecting and summoning a grand jury to investigate election fraud; in one such case, the sheriff himself was indicted. Kalisch was also a prominent journalist, editor and poet, and his series of articles on legal abuses were credited with leading to the reform of the New Jersey federal district courts.

Wilson recognized in American Jews a spiritual force that had adapted itself to the American spirit and made broad contributions to the advancement of the welfare of the nation and of the world. As president, he exhibited great contempt for those who disparaged Jews, and on numerous occasions he evidenced unquestioning confidence in their loyalty and integrity. He earned great respect and admiration from the Jewish people because of his open warmth for Jews in general and for the American Jewish community specifically, particularly at a time of growing overt antisemitism, both nationally and internationally.

In particular, Jews were deeply appreciative of his readiness to abrogate a trade treaty with Russia as punishment for its violations of Jewish human rights, including a demand that Russia recognize Jews as American citizens and his veto of three restrictive immigration measures because, as he made clear, he believed them to be aimed principally at the Jews. When, after World War I began, the president was advised by the Anti-Defamation League that the Army Manual of Instructions for Medical Advisory Boards included a provision that “The foreign born, and especially Jews, are more apt to malinger than the native-born” (emphasis added), he ordered its recall and revision.

In response to a request by the Central Committee for the Relief of Jews Suffering through the War, a.k.a. the Central Relief Committee (CRC), Wilson proclaimed January 27, 1916, as “National Jewish Relief Day:”

Whereas in the various countries engaged in war there are nine millions of Jews, the great majority of whom are destitute of food, shelter, and clothing and

Whereas millions of them have been driven from their homes without warning, deprived of an opportunity to make provision for their most elementary wants, causing starvation, disease and untold suffering and

Whereas the people of the United States of America have learned with sorrow of this terrible plight of millions of human beings and have most generously responded to the cry for help whenever such an appeal has reached them; therefore be it

Resolved that in view of the misery, wretchedness, and hardships which these nine millions of Jews are suffering, the President of the United States be respectfully asked to designate a day on which the citizens of this country may give expression to their sympathy by contributing to the funds now being raised for the relief of the Jews in the war zones.

And whereas I feel confident that the people of the US will be moved to aid the war-stricken people of a race which has given to the US so many worthy citizens;

Now, therefore, I, Woodrow Wilson, President of the US, in compliance with the suggestion of the Senate, do thereof appoint and proclaim January 27, 1916, as a day upon which the people of the US may make such contributions as they feel disposed for the aid of the stricken Jewish people.

Historic photo (copy) of the Jewish Relief Day delegation on the steps of the White House (February 17, 1916).

On February 17, 1916, representatives of the CRC and the Woman’s Proclamation Committee were received with great courtesy at the White House by Wilson, who graciously accepted an illuminated copy of a certificate commemorating Jewish Relief Day. The president stated that he “deemed it a great privilege to have been afforded the opportunity of lending his assistance in such a worthy humanitarian cause.”

Wilson was relentless in the struggle to overcome antisemitism, as he demonstrated in his battle to confirm Brandeis as a Supreme Court justice, an action opposed even by his own administration and by at least one current member of the Supreme Court. Over and above elevating Brandeis to the High Court, he appointed several Jews to important positions in his administration, including Bernard Baruch as chairman of the War Industries Board; Henry Morgenthau as ambassador to Turkey; and Paul Warburg as vice-chairman of the newly created Federal Reserve Board. The Jewish vote may have been the key factor in his narrow reelection in 1916, as he earned 55 percent of the Jewish vote but only 49 percent of the national vote.

As a Christian Zionist, Wilson believed that the Jewish right to Eretz Yisrael was biblically ordained, and he was unambiguous in his support for a Jewish state:

Recalling the previous experiences of the colonists in applying the Mosaic Code to the order of their internal life, it is not to be wondered at that the various passages in the Bible that serve to undermine royal authority, stripping the Crown of its cloak of divinity, held up before the pioneer Americans the Hebrew Commonwealth as a model government. In the spirit and essence of our Constitution, the influence of the Hebrew Commonwealth was paramount in that it was not only the highest authority for the principle, “that rebellion to tyrants is obedience to G-d,” but also because it was in itself a divine precedent for a pure democracy, as distinguished from monarchy, aristocracy or any other form of government. To think that I, the son of the manse, should be able to help restore the Holy Land to its people.

“The Jews Look to America for Help.” A jugate of Wilson and a bearded rabbi referring to efforts to create a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael in the aftermath of WWI.

A supporter of the Balfour Declaration, Wilson was proud that because of the teachings instilled by his father, a Presbyterian minister, “it has been my privilege to restore the Holy Land to its rightful owners.” In a War Cabinet meeting in September 1917, British ministers decided that, before issuing the Balfour Declaration, the British government should obtain President Wilson’s views and, according to the cabinet’s minutes on October 4, the ministers noted that Wilson’s confirmation of the Declaration was “extremely favourable to the movement.” [Wilson had communicated his approval without the knowledge of the State Department which, given the anti-Zionist views of Secretary of State Robert Lansing and his minions, he knew would have vehemently opposed any such action.]

Chaim Weizmann wrote with great excitement to his key American ally, Justice Brandeis, that Wilson’s message had been “one of the most important individual factors” in breaking the internal British deadlock regarding the issuance of the Balfour Declaration, and many historians conclude that it was, indeed, the president’s support that led the British to deliver the Declaration.

Reacting to the announcement that the Balfour Declaration had been issued by the British government, Wilson stated privately that “The allied nations with the fullest concurrence of our government and people are agreed that in Palestine shall be laid the foundations of a Jewish Commonwealth.” For many months, the president did not publicly declare his support for the Balfour Declaration, likely because he sought to avoid straining relations with Turkey who, despite being allied with Germany, had promised to protect American interests in the Ottoman Empire. Wilson finally publicly announced his endorsement of the Declaration on August 31, 1918 through a historic letter to Rabbi Stephen Wise, then vice president of the Zionist Organization of America, which the president specifically asked to be held for publication in the New York Times until Rosh Hashanah (September 5):

I welcome an opportunity to express the satisfaction I have felt in the progress of the Zionist movement in the United States and in the allied countries since the declaration by Mr. Balfour on behalf of the British Government of Great Britain’s approval of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and his promise that the British Government would use its best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of that object, with the understanding that nothing would be done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish people in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in other countries.

Wilson’s Rosh Hashana letter to Rabbi Wise constituted a critical step toward the unification of the Allies’ position at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference and an important development which led to the incorporation of the Balfour Declaration into international law in the 1922 League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, as discussed below. Wilson went on to display increased interest in the Jewish National Home concept, and on several occasions he gave it his public blessing, much to the chagrin of his own State Department. After he left office, and freed of State Department and Arabist pressure, he wrote a strong letter of support for a Jewish State in Eretz Yisrael, going so far as to object to territorial concessions regarding its border:

To the north, Palestine must include the Litani River and the Watersheds of Hermon, and on the east it must include the plains of Jaulon and the Hauron…Narrower than this is a mutilation…I need not mind you that neither in this country nor in Paris has there been any opposition to the Zionist program, and to its realization the boundaries I have names are indispensable.

Wilson’s greatest legacy to Jews is probably the role he played in personally leading the American delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in Versailles (and thereby becoming the first sitting American president to visit Europe) and in writing into the 1919 Accords guarantees for the minority enclaves – including Jews – in the newly-created states of Eastern Europe. He believed that the other great powers, Britain, France and Italy, generally agreed with the war aims he pronounced in his “Fourteen Points,” which set forth the principles by which he wanted the peace to be determined. Wilson’s 12th Point was quite specific:

The Turkish portions of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development.

To Jews, the president’s proposal for the League of Nations meant not only a guarantee to ensure the viability of the newly created states of Eastern Europe but also a return of Jews to Eretz Yisrael, although Arab delegates contested the Zionist interpretation of Wilson’s proposals. Wilson invited Jewish representatives to be part of his Versailles delegation and to make their case for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael. (His decision to appoint Justice Brandeis as one of America’s plenipotentiaries to Versailles was blocked by Chief Justice Edward Douglass White, who refused to grant Brandeis leave for that purpose.)

After Rabbi Wise completed his address to the Conference, Wilson assured him that “Palestine is yours.” But despite the best assurances of the well-intentioned Wilson, it did not turn out to be so easy: forced to compromise, Wilson agreed to the League of Nations’ “mandate system” that extended European domination of the Middle East. The British took control of Eretz Yisrael, allegedly to carry out the mandate of the Balfour Declaration; the Palestinian Arabs almost immediately began rioting against the Jews; and the rest, as they say, is history.

Wilson eagerly followed the progress of the Zionist movement even after his retirement to private life. In 1921, when informed that the Mandate for Palestine had been finally ratified, he sent a telegraph to the Zionist Organization of America: “I am proud that it should be thought I have been of service to the Jewish people.” Most historians and commentators agree that his advocacy played a leading role in making the protection of minorities, including Jews, an international issue.

In this October 7, 1914, correspondence, President Wilson extends his congratulations to Herman Bernstein on his founding of The Day, a Jewish newspaper which Bernstein established and edited:

Wilson’s October 7, 1914, correspondence to Herman Bernstein.

I am greatly interested in what you tell me of the projected daily to be entitled “THE DAY” and am heartily glad to know that you are to be its editor and moving spirit. I have learned to entertain the highest esteem for you and to believe that you are devoted sincerely not only, but in a disinterested way, to the advancement of the highest interests of the Jewish people in America…

Bernstein (1876-1935) was a journalist, author, translator and diplomat who was widely recognized for his efforts to expose antisemitism in the United States and around the world. He famously won a retraction from Henry Ford after suing him for libel for antisemitic statements Ford had published in the Dearborn Independent. In The History of a Lie (1921), he exposed the fraudulent origins of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and he released The Truth about the Protocols of Zion (1935) to combat a renewed interest in the Protocols coinciding with the rise of antisemitism in pre-war Europe.

Throughout his career, Bernstein researched and wrote about the conditions of Jews in Europe, reporting on pogroms in Poland and Russia and the effects of the Revolution on Russia’s Jews. Bernstein worked tirelessly with organizations such as ORT, the Central Relief Committee, the American Jewish Relief Committee, and the Joint Distribution Committee, to improve conditions for Jews in Europe, and he also served as secretary of the American Jewish Committee, as an officer of the Zionist Organization of America, and as a member of various committees of HIAS. Politically, he advocated for liberal immigration policies, and, as a member of the Democratic National Committee, he worked to elect Wilson. He was at the forefront of supporting the creation of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael and wrote about the politics of the Middle East and settlement of the land.

Wilson’s correspondence to Adolph Lewisohn.

Lewisohn Stadium, an amphitheater and athletic facility built on the campus of the City College of New York, opened in 1915 and was demolished in 1973. Besides sporting events, the stadium was used for performances by world-renowned artists (including George Gershwin, who famously performed his Rhapsody in Blue there), and the stadium was a frequent venue for the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic – which was sometimes called the “Stadium Symphony Orchestra.” In this March 16, 1915, correspondence on his presidential letterhead, Wilson wrote to Adolph Lewisohn regretfully declining an invitation to attend the opening of the stadium.

Lewisohn (1849-1938), born to a well-established family whose connection to mercantile affairs formed part of Hamburg’s history, became an investment banker, mining magnate and renowned philanthropist.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 did not share his strictly observant father’s bitterness about Reform Judaism, and his religious devotion waned in America when he became an active Reform Jew. His lessened observance, however, had no impact on his Jewish philanthropy, which included financing Sinai Temple in the Bronx; endowing the Hebrew Technical Institute; funding the Hebrew Sheltering Guardian Society; backing the Hebrew Free Loan Society and the United Hebrew Charities; and founding “The Ort,” which established trade and agricultural training schools for Jews impoverished by WWI.

Nor did it have any effect on his efforts as an important “shtadlan” in world Jewish affairs, as he became a powerful advocate for Jews being persecuted in Czarist Russia, taking his concerns to his friend, President Wilson. Though opposed to the creation of a Jewish state – his aim was “the integration of the Jews, not another exile” – he nonetheless welcomed the Balfour Declaration.

Wilson’s dedication to his friend, Sam Ungerleider.

Finally, exhibited here is a photograph that Wilson dedicated to his friend, “Ohio Sam” Ungerleider, founder of a Jewish museum and a senior partner in Ungerleider Financial Corporation, founded in 1929. Ungerleider also bought out the Belmont Products Company, which included the Belmont (Ohio) Brewing Company when the 21st Amendment repealing prohibition became effective on December 6, 1933.



Mini collection of postage stamps featuring Wilson.



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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].