Last week, President Obama said that he is “the closest thing to a Jew that has ever sat” in the Oval Office. Which means, he said, that when people say he’s “anti-Israel,” “it hurts.”
Since taking office, Mr. Obama has said many noxious things. Mostly overlooked was something he said at a meeting with Senate Democrats early this year: that he understood why the senators were opposing his deal with Iran, because (according to the New York Times) “he understood the pressures that senators face from donors and others.”
Needless to say, Obama was referring to the so-called Israel lobby, and to the general notion that support for Israel comes not from conviction, but from rich Jewish power-brokers. New Jersey senator Bob Menendez — who has opposed Obama over Cuba as well as Israel and Iran — stood up and told the president that he was out of line; Menendez said he took “personal offense” at Mr. Obama’s remark. (Menendez was later indicted by Eric Holder’s Justice Department.)
Several times, Obama has said he has “done more for Israel” — “more to ensure that Israel can protect itself” — than any previous president. This week, the Supreme Court ruled that only the president has the power to recognize nation-state sovereignty; despite congressional legislation, Mr. Obama’s State Department can choose — and has chosen — not to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
In 2008, Mr. Obama said: “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.” So remember: Obama says a lot of things.
So have past presidents, of course. Israel is a subject that predates 1948. And note that although a Jewish presence in North America predates 1789 by almost 300 years (Columbus’s interpreter was a Jew), the American Jewish community didn’t reach 1 percent of the national population until 1900. In 1819, when there were fewer than 5,000 Jews in the United States — and no Israel lobby at all — John Adams wrote a letter to a friend of his, a Jew who had been a major in the colonial army. Adams wrote that he wished his friend “had been at the head of a hundred thousand Israelites . . . marching with them into Judea . . . and restoring your nation to the dominion of it. For I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation.” On the subject of Jews, Adams added, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson: “I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize man than any other nation.”
Abraham Lincoln said to a Canadian Christian Zionist named Henry Monk that he felt a renewed Jewish homeland in Israel was “a noble dream, and one shared by many Americans.” Lincoln added that he had a Jewish doctor “who [had] so many times put [him] upon [his] feet” that he would be pleased to give his doctor’s co-religionists “a leg up.”
Woodrow Wilson credited ancient Israeli society with being “a divine precedent for a pure democracy,” and said that it was “distinguished from monarchy, aristocracy or any other form of government” in depending on “the principle, ‘that rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.’” “The pioneer Americans,” said Wilson, “held up . . . the Hebrew Commonwealth as a model government.”
Wilson responded to the Balfour Declaration, which proclaimed Britain’s support of a Jewish homeland in British Palestine, by saying, reverently, “To think that I . . . should be able to help restore the Holy Land to its people.”
Warren Harding said, “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 historic national home and there enter on a new and yet greater phase of their contribution to the advance of humanity.”
Calvin Coolidge said that “the Jewish faith is predominantly the faith of liberty,” and that he had “sympathy with the deep and intense longing which finds such fine expression in the Jewish National Homeland in Palestine.”
Herbert Hoover said, “I have watched with genuine admiration the steady and unmistakable progress made in the rehabilitation of Palestine, which, desolate for centuries, is now renewing its youth and vitality through the enthusiasm, hard work and self-sacrifice of the Jewish pioneers who toil there in a spirit of peace and social justice,” working for “a cause which merits the sympathy and moral encouragement of everyone.”
In 1948, when Israel declared its independence, Harry Truman recognized its government, over the objections of the State Department; we were the first country to recognize Israel, and Truman was very proud of that. He said he believed Israel had “a glorious future before it — not just another sovereign nation, but as an embodiment of the great ideals of our civilization.”
In 1957, Eisenhower — the man who defeated the Nazis — said that “our forces saved the remnant of the Jewish people of Europe for a new life and a new hope in the reborn land of Israel. Along with all men of good will, I salute the young state and wish it well.”
In 1962, JFK called Israel “the child of hope and the home of the brave . . . It carries the shield of democracy and it honors the sword of freedom.” JFK began our military alliance with Israel, and suggested the idea of an Israeli–American “special relationship” to Golda Meir.
In 1967, Soviet premier Aleksei Kosygin asked LBJ why the United States sided with tiny Israel over 80 million Arabs. Johnson said, “Because it is right.”
In 1967, Soviet premier Aleksei Kosygin asked LBJ why the United States sided with tiny Israel over 80 million Arabs. Johnson said, “Because it is right.” Johnson was the first president to give the Israelis large-scale military support.
Richard Nixon said, “Americans admire a people who can scratch a desert and produce a garden. The Israelis have shown qualities that Americans identify with: guts, patriotism, idealism, a passion for freedom.” When Egypt and Syria invaded Israel in 1973, Nixon ordered the U.S. Air Force to send Jerusalem aid: “Send everything that can fly.”
I could go on. In fact, you could argue that Israel’s best-ever friends in the White House were Reagan and the second Bush. None of the men quoted here supported Israel because of pressure groups. Most of these past presidents were deeply religious; those who weren’t were deeply thoughtful, and supported Israel as a matter of conscience, not of politics. Something that could be said of most Americans throughout our history — in fact, Americans have historically liked to think of America as a new Israel (as William Blake, for instance, did of England). Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin went so far as to propose that America’s national seal be an image of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea to a new land of freedom.
You can also, of course, chalk up the perpetual majority of Americans who have supported Israel to the reason Americans supported fighting in Vietnam, in Korea, and in the Second and First World Wars: because Americans would rather do what’s right than do what’s easy or popular. Something our president would do well to remember.
Anyway, the question remains: Which of our presidents came closest to being a Jew?
Who can say? But none of them except Barack Obama ever responded to a massacre of Jews in Paris by saying they were random people in a deli.