Circa 1942. Text on back of photograph: President Franklin Roosevelt expressing appreciation for the effectiveness of JWB’s [Jewish Welfare Board’s] religious activities program in rallying support of the Jewish community behind war efforts. Photo from American Jewish Historical Society Archives.
U.S. Presidents and Jewish Officials by David P. Rosenberg, Senior Reference Librarian – Collections, Center for Jewish History
With Presidents’ Day approaching, I remembered having encountered a book called The Presidents of the United States & the Jews (by David G. Dalin & Alfred J. Kolatch) in our reading room here at the Center. I mentioned the book in my blog post, “The American Jewish chaplain experience: historical perspectives.” Now I wondered about the relationships between individual presidents and Jewish officials, specifically in the country’s earlier history. Our intern Zachary Loeb and I searched the collections to find out more, and here is some of the material that we discovered:
Mordecai Manuel Noah was associated with several presidents including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Tyler. He became the first Jew to be appointed to a diplomatic post when he was appointed consul to Tunis in 1813. The Mordecai Manuel Noah collection contains correspondence relating to Noah’s political career. Items of particular note include a portion of the debate regarding the Impeachment of the President of the United States from 1827, a copy of an 1818 letter from President Thomas Jefferson to Noah, and an 1816 letter from Secretary of State James Monroe regarding Noah’s dismissal as consul to Tunis.
David Levy Yulee became the first Jewish Senator in 1845. The David Levy Yulee papers contain a letter to President Franklin Pierce and an executive order signed by President Andrew Johnson.
Judah P. Benjamin turned down President Millard Fillmore’s offer of a seat on the Supreme Court and is instead best known for his role as the “Secretary of the Confederacy.” Benjamin’s collection includes four Confederate notes and two bonds bearing his picture about ten years after he turned down rejected Fillmore’s offer.
According to The Presidents of the United States & the Jews, “Pierce has the unique distinction of being the only president whose name appears on the charter of a synagogue.” This was a result of signing a bill that abolished District of Colombia laws that discriminated against Jewish houses of worship.
Abraham Lincoln helped establish Jews in the military chaplaincy. (See my post on American Jewish chaplains.) Adolphus Simeon Solomons was a Jew who was “admired and respected” by Lincoln. He arranged for Rabbi Morris J. Raphall to give the first invocation at a morning session of Congress. As a side-note: Abraham Lincoln has street named after him in Jerusalem. (See the previously-cited Presidents of the United States… p. 73-4).
Ulysses S. Grant served as the kvater for Simon Wolf’s son. The YIVO Encyclopedia for Jewish Research defines “kvater” as “godfather” or “the man honored with holding the child during the actual circumcision.” Simon Wolf’s papers in the collections are primarily composed of correspondence with members of Congress and government officials concerning anti-Semitism in the United States and abroad and the treaty with Russia.
Simon Wolf also served as a consul. He was pointed to the consul of Eygpt (when Jerusalem was under Egyptian control) a day before President James A. Garfield was shot–July 1st 1881. Garfield said of the appointment: “I am happy to name a descendant of a people who had been enslaved by the Egyptians as a representative to that country from a great free land…” (Presidents of the United States… p. 98. AJHS and YIVO have copies of Simon Wolf’s The presidents I have known from 1860-1918.
Louis Brandeis was the first Jew appointed to the Supreme Court when he was tapped by Woodrow Wilson. AJHS has a small Louis Brandeis collection and a multitude of books on and by him. Stephen Wise had extensive relations with Presidents Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft, Harry S. Truman, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Theodore Rosevelt. AJHS has a set of microfilm (the originals are stored at Brandeis) of Stephen Wise papers. Baruch also advised Wilson, and the Bernard Baruch papers are in the collections as well.
After President Wilson’s time in office, Jewish involvement in politics and as advisers to Presidents became more and more commonplace, from the illustrious Henry Kissinger–who is the subject of over 50 books in our collections–to Ruth Joan Bader Ginsburg–nominated by Clinton as the second female / first Jewish female Supreme Court Justice, 77 years after Louis Brandeis was the first Jew to serve on the Supreme Court.
To conduct your own search of our partners’ collections, click here.
Unless otherwise noted, all collections in this article are held by the American Jewish Historical Society.
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