From its discovery, to the Revolutionary War, the founding of the Republic, and westward expansion, Jews have played an intrinsic role in building and shaping the America that we know today. In a tribute on this Independence Day, Curt Landry Ministries honors many of our American presidents with a brief history of their famous ‘Jewish firsts’ and other notable acts while in office. As you read the following historical accounts of some of America’s past presidents, and hear their commitment to the Jewish people in their own words, you will begin to see that America has been greatly influenced by many Jewish men and women who have helped pave the way for a great nation under God.
GEORGE WASHINGTON (1789-1797)
George Washington visited as Synagogue as acting first president. After the visit, President Washington wrote a blessing in a 1790 letter to this Jewish congregation at the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island: “…May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be non to make him afraid. May the Father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and, in his own due time and way, everlastingly happy.”
JOHN ADAMS (1797-1801)
“I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize man than any other nation.”—Letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson “Farther I could find it in my heart to wish that you had been at the head of a hundred thousand Israelites … and marching with them into Judea and making a conquest of that country and restoring your nation to the dominion of it. For I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation. [I believe … once restored to an independent government and no longer persecuted they [the Jews] would soon wear away some of the asperities and peculiarities of their character & possibly in time become liberal Unitarian Christians for your Jehovah is our Jehovah & your God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob is our God.]”—Letter to Mordecai Manuel Noah, 1819
THOMAS JEFFERSON (1801-1809)
Thomas Jefferson was the author of a bill called the Ordinance of Religious Freedom—otherwise known as the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—guaranteeing that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship… but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion.” He was also the first president to appoint a Jew to a Federal Post—Reuben Etting of Baltimore, as U.S. Marshall to Maryland.
JAMES MADISON (1809-1817)
James Madison was the first president to appoint a Jew—Mordecai M. Noah—to a foreign diplomatic post. He was sent to Tunis, in North Africa from 1813 to 1816 as consul, making this the first diplomatic post awarded to a Jew. Upon Noah’s return from Tunis, he was noted as attempting to create a new Jewish homeland near Buffalo, New York, called Ararat.
JOHN QUINCY ADAMS (1825-1829)
“[I believe in the] rebuilding of Judea as an independent nation.” –Letter to Major Mordecai Manuel Noah
MARTIN VAN BUREN (1837-1841)
Martin Van Buren was the first president to order an American consul to intervene on behalf of Jews abroad. In 1840 President Van Buren instructed the U.S. consul in Alexandria, Egypt to use their offices to protect the Jews of Damascus who were under attack because of a false accusation of murder, until the matter could be resolved—this incident is known as the Damascus Affair. Speaking on behalf of the President, Secretary of State John Forsyth issued this statement via the consul in Alexandria: “In common with all civilized nations, the people of the United States have learned with horror, the atrocious crimes imputed to the Jews of Damascus, the cruelties of which they have been the victims. The President [Martin Van Buren] fully participates in the public feeling, and he cannot refrain from expressing equal surprise and pain, that in this advanced age, such unnatural practices should be ascribed to any portion of the religious world, and such barbarous measures be resorted to, in order to compel the confession of imputed guilt; the offenses of which these unfortunate people are charged, resembles too much those which, in less enlightened times, were made the pretexts of fanatical prosecution or mercenary extortion, to permit a doubt that they are equally unfounded.”
JOHN TYLER (1841-1845)
In 1844, President Tyler was the first president to nominate a U.S. consul to Palestine, Warden Cresson, a Quaker convert to Judaism, who established a pioneer Zionist colony. In a response to a letter from Jacob Ezekiel, John Tyler had this to say about the Jewish people: “For the people of whom you are one, I can feel none other than profound respect. The wisdom which flowed from the lips of your prophets has in times past, and will continue for all time to come to be a refreshing fountain of moral instruction to mankind…”
MILLARD FILMORE (1850-1853)
Millard Filmore was the first president to offer a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court to a Jew—Judah P. Benjamin, then a U.S. senator from Louisiana. Benjamin declined the appointment, preferring to remain in the Senate.
FRANKLIN PIERCE (1853-1857)
Franklin Pierce was the first and only president whose name appears on the charter of a synagogue after he signed the Act of Congress in 1857 that amended the laws of Washington D.C. to enable both Christian churches as well as the city’s first Jewish synagogue, the Washington Hebrew Congregation, to incorporate. President Pierce also appointed the first Jewish American diplomat, August Belmont, to the post of U.S. Minister to The Hague.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN (1861-1865)
Abraham Lincoln was the first president to submit changes in the U.S. Armed Services chaplaincy laws to include Jewish Rabbis. These redefined laws ultimately won the approval of both the Senate and House in 1862. President Lincoln then appointed the Reverend Jacob Frankel to serve as the first Jewish military chaplain. Lincoln was also was responsible for immediately revoking an official act of anti-Semitism by the U.S. Government as he officially cancelled General Ulysses S. Grant’s “Order No. 11,” issued December 17, 1862, which expelled all Jews from the Tennessee district controlled by Grant’s armies during the Civil War. (Grant denied personal responsibility for the act, attributing it to his subordinates.) When asked about his views on creating a Jewish Homeland, Lincoln said that it was “a noble dream and one shared by many Americans.”
ULYSSES S. GRANT (1869-1877)
Ulysses S. Grant was the first president, along with his cabinet, to attend a Jewish synagogue service in Washington D.C.
RUTHERFORD B. HAYES (1877-1881)
Rutherford B. Hayes was the first president to guarantee the right of federal civil servants to observe the Sabbath. The president personally intervened regarding a job appointment of a Jewish woman to the Department of the Interior where the applicant refused to work on Saturday, because of her beliefs. The president was quoted as saying that anyone who would rather forgo a job than violate the Sabbath was a good citizen and worthy of the appointment. President Hayes was also the first to designate a Jewish ambassador to assist in the fight against anti-Semitism.
JAMES A. GARFIELD (1881)
James A. Garfield was the first president to appoint an American Jewish Ambassador to Cairo, Egypt—Simon Wolf—while Jerusalem was under Egyptian control. President Garfield’s last words to Wolf before he was shot by an assassins bullet were: “…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… there is still a God in Israel…”
CHESTER A. ARTHUR (1881-1885)
President Arthur was the first president to affirm American support for the Treaty of Geneva, establishing the International Red Cross. As the original founders of the American Red Cross, the president appointed the Jewish American, Adolphus S. Solomons, along with Clara Barton as the first delegates to represent the United States at the International Conference of the Red Cross held in Geneva in 1884. When Russia refused to issue visas to Americans who were Jewish, he responded, unfortunately with little success, that: “The Government of the United States concludes its treaties with foreign states for the equal protection of all classes of American citizens. It can make absolutely no discrimination between them, whatever their origin or creed.”
GROVER CLEVELAND (1885-1889 & 1893-1897)
During his first term in office, President Cleveland denounced the refusal by the Austrian government to refuse to accept John Kieley as his minister-designate because Kieley’s wife was Jewish. The president publicly announced that the United States would not tolerate religious discrimination and preferred to leave the post vacant rather yield to such anti-Semitic acts.
BENJAMIN HARRISON (1889-1893)
President Harrison also appointed a special commission to travel to czarist Russia and investigate and report on the pogroms and anti-Semitic expulsions of the Jews in 1891. Outraged at the horrors of the report, Harrison resolved to request that Congress adopt a strong resolution to officially protesting Russia’s anti-Jewish persecution.
WILLIAM MC KINLEY (1897 – 1901)
William McKinley and his entire Cabinet were in attendance at the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, September 16, 1897, where President McKinley concluded the program with a congratulatory address to the congregation. In 1900, McKinley appointed Jacob Hollander, a young American Jew, as the first treasurer of Puerto Rico’s new government.
THEODORE ROOSEVELT (1901-1909)
In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to appoint an American Jew—Oscar S. Straus, as Secretary of Commerce and Labor—to a presidential cabinet. Prior to the appointment Roosevelt was quoted as saying to Straus: “I don’t know whether you know it or not, but I want you to become a member of my Cabinet. I have a very high estimate of your character, your judgment and your ability, and I want you for personal reasons. There is still a further reason: I want to show Russia and some other countries what we think of Jews in this country.” After winning a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to settle the Russo-Japanese War, President Roosevelt contributed a portion of his prize money to a Jewish cause—the National Jewish Welfare Board.
WILLIAM H. TAFT (1909-1913)
In 1912, William H. Taft became the first president to attend a Passover Seder while in office. He participated in a family Seder at the home of Colonel Harry Cutler—the first president of the National Jewish Welfare Board. President Taft was also noted to be the first president to speak from a synagogue pulpit during Sabbath services in 1909—the Congregation Rodef Shalom in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was also the first president to appoint a Jew to the high-ranking position of U.S. Navy Rear Admiral—Adolph Marix.
WOODROW WILSON (1913-1921)
Woodrow Wilson was the first president to nominate a Jew—Louis D. Brandeis—to the U.S. Supreme Court. President Wilson was also the first president to publicly endorse a national Jewish philanthropic campaign—the United Jewish Relief Campaign—to raise funds for the European War relief. As he said: “Here is a great body of our Jewish Citizens from whom have sprung men of genius in every walk of our varied life; men who have… led enterprises with spirit and sagacity… They are not Jews in America, they are American citizens.” It should also be noted that President Wilson was a staunch supporter of the Balfour Declaration and was said to have confided in his dear friend, Rabbi Stephen Wise regarding the 1917 Declaration: “How proud I am that because of the teachings instilled in me by my father, it has been my privilege to restore the Holy Land to its rightful owners.” In 1914 President Wilson nominated Paul M. Warburg—co-author and creator of the Federal Reserve System—to serve as vice-chairman of the newly created Federal Reserve Board.
WARREN HARDING (1921-1923)
In September 1922, Warren Harding signed a Joint Congressional Resolution that endorsed the Balfour Declaration and the Palestine Mandate—supporting the establishment of a national Jewish homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine.
CALVIN COOLIDGE (1923-1929)
On May 3, 1925, Calvin Coolidge became the first president to participate in the dedication of a Jewish community institution that was not a house of worship—the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center. Coolidge spoke these words at the dedication: “…The Jewish faith is predominantly the faith of liberty. From the beginnings of the conflict between the colonies and the mother country, they were overwhelmingly on the side of the rising revolution… It is easy to understand why a people with historic background of the Jews should thus overwhelmingly and unhesitatingly have allied themselves with the cause of freedom. From earliest colonial times, America has been a new land of promise to this long-persecuted race… Every inheritance of the Jewish people, every teaching of their secular history and religious experience, draws them powerfully to the side of charity, liberty, and progress.”
HERBERT HOOVER (1929-1933)
Herbert Hoover appointed a number of Jewish Americans to positions in government. He was also very supportive of the efforts made in Palestine after the Balfour Declaration: “I wish to express the hope that the ideal of the establishment of the National Jewish Home in Palestine, as embodied in that Declaration, will continue to prosper for the good of all the people inhabiting the Holy Land….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. It is very gratifying to note that many American Jews, Zionists as well as non-Zionists, have rendered such splendid service to this cause which merits the sympathy and moral encouragement of everyone.”—Message to the Zionist Organization of America on the Anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, October 29, 1932
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT (1933-1945)
In reference to the efforts in Palestine, Roosevelt stated: “The American people, ever zealous in the cause of human freedom, have watched with sympathetic interest the effort of the Jews to renew in Palestine the ties of their ancient homeland and to reestablish Jewish culture in the place where for centuries it flourished and whence it was carried to the far corners of the world. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the keystone of contemporary reconstruction activities in the Jewish homeland. Those two decades have witnessed a remarkable exemplification of the vitality and vision of the Jewish pioneers in Palestine. It should be a source of pride to Jewish citizens of the United States that they, too, have had a share in this great work of revival and restoration. “—Greeting to the United Palestine Appeal, February 6, 1937
HARRY S. TRUMAN (1945-1953)
On May 14, 1948, 11 minutes after Israel's Proclamation of Independence, President Harry S. Truman was the first head of a government to recognize Israel’s statehood. The president remarked: “One of the proudest days of my life occurred at 6:12pm on Friday, May 14  when I was able to announce recognition of the new state of Israel by the government of the United States. In view of the long friendship of the American people for the Zionist ideal, it was particularly appropriate that our government should be the first to recognize the new state.” In 1948, President Truman was also the first U.S. President to receive the president of Israel at the White House, Chaim Weizman, and an Ambassador for Israel, Eliahu Elat. In 1951-52, President Truman also obtained $140 million from the U.S. Congress to help manage the mass immigration experienced in Israel.
DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER (1953-1961)
Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Lewis L. Strauss chairman of the newly created Atomic Energy Commission. “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. The people of Israel, like those of the United States, are imbued with a religious faith and a sense of moral values”—Radio Address, February 1957
JOHN F. KENNEDY (1961-1963)
John F. Kennedy was the first president to appoint two Jews to his Cabinet:
• Abraham Ribicoff, as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare • Arthur Goldberg, as Secretary of Labor
“This nation, from the time of President Woodrow Wilson, has established and continued a tradition of friendship with Israel because we are committed to all free societies that seek a path to peace and honor individual right. We seek peace and prosperity for all of the Middle East firm in our belief that a new spirit of comity in that important part of the world would serve the highest aspirations and interests of all nations. In the prophetic spirit of Zionism all free men today look to a better world and in the experience of Zionism we know that it takes courage and perseverance and dedication to achieve it.”—Message to Zionist Org. of America Conference, 1962
LYNDON B. JOHNSON (1963-1969)
President Lyndon B. Johnson approved the sale of weapons to Israel in 1966, which ultimately aided Israel to defeat the Egyptian and Arab armies in the 1967 Six-Day War. The U.S. became Israel’s chief diplomatic ally and primary arms supplier. “Our society is illuminated by the spiritual insights of the Hebrew prophets. America and Israel have a common love of human freedom and they have a common faith in a democratic way of life … Most if not all of you have very deep ties with the land and with the people of Israel, as I do, for my Christian faith sprang from yours ….the Bible stories are woven into my childhood memories as the gallant struggle of modern Jews to be free of persecution is also woven into our souls.”—Speech before B'nai B'rith It is also recorded that while Lyndon B. Johnson was a congressman in the late 1930s, he supplied visas and false passport to Jews in Eastern Europe. Through his courageous actions, 400 Eastern European Jews were saved.
RICHARD M. NIXON (1969-1974)
President Richard M. Nixon appointed Henry Kissinger to the post of special assistant to the president for national security affairs in 1969, and then in August 1973 he was appointed Secretary of State—the first Jew to serve in that position. During the Yom Kippur War, President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger ordered several tons of crucial weaponry sent to Israel—weaponry that helped turn the tide of the war. In addition to weapons, Nixon summoned Congress for 2.2 billion dollars for military aid to Israel “to maintain a balance of forces and achieve stability in the Middle East.” “The United States stands by its friends. Israel is one of its friends Peace can be based only on agreement between the parties and agreement can be achieved only through negotiations between them. The United States will not impose the terms of peace. The United States is prepared to supply military equipment necessary to support the efforts of friendly governments, like Israel's, to defend the safety of their people.”—Speech to the World Zionist Organization
GERALD R. FORD (1974-1977)
“America must and will pursue friendship with all nations. But, this will never be done at the expense of America's commitment to Israel. A strong Israel is essential to a stable peace in the Middle East. Our commitment to Israel will meet the test of American stead, fairness, and resolve. My administration will not be found wanting. The United States will continue to help Israel provide for her security. My dedication to Israel's future goes beyond its military needs to a far higher priority—the need for peace. My commitment to the security and future of Israel is based upon basic morality as well as enlightened self-interest. Our role in supporting Israel honors our own heritage.”
RONALD REAGAN (1981-1989)
“Only by full appreciation of the critical role the State of Israel plays in our strategic calculus can we build the foundation for thwarting Moscow's designs on territories and resources vital to our security and our national well-being … Since the rebirth of the State of Israel, there has been an ironclad bond between that democracy and this one … In Israel, free men and women are every day demonstrating the power of courage and faith. Back in 1948 when Israel was founded, pundits claimed the new country could never survive. Today, no one questions that Israel is a land of stability and democracy in a region of tyranny and unrest … America has never flinched from its commitment to the State of Israel—a commitment which remains unshakable.”—Remarks at National Conference of Christians and Jews, March 23, 1982
GEORGE H. BUSH (1989-1993)
“The friendship, the alliance between the United States and Israel is strong and solid, built upon a foundation of shared democratic values, of shared history and heritage, that sustains the life of our two countries. The emotional bond of our people transcends politics. Our strategic cooperation—and I renew today our determination that that go forward—is a source of mutual security. And the United States’ commitment to the security of Israel remains unshakeable. We may differ over some policies from time to time, individual policies, but never over the principle … For more than 40 years, the United States and Israel have enjoyed a friendship built on mutual respect and commitment to democratic principles. Our continuing search for peace in the Middle East begins with a recognition that the ties uniting our two countries can never be broken … Zionism is the idea that led to the creation of a home for the Jewish people….And to equate Zionism with the intolerable sin of racism is to twist history and forget the terrible plight of Jews in World War II and indeed throughout history.”—Address to the United Nations, September 23, 1991 President Bush played a critical role in ‘Operation Solomon,’ which secured the exodus of 14,000 Ethiopian Jews, as well as insisting that the United Nations revoke its 1975 ‘Zionism is Racism’ resolution.
BILL CLINTON (1993-2001)
Bill Clinton is credited with appointing more Jews to his Cabinet than all previous presidents combined—a total of seven. “Our relationship would never vary from its allegiance to the shared values, the shared religious heritage, the shared democratic politics which have made the relationship between the United States and Israel a special—even on occasion a wonderful—relationship … The United States admires Israel for all that it has overcome and for all that it has accomplished. We are proud of the strong bond we have forged with Israel, based on our shared values and ideals. That unique relationship will endure just as Israel has endured.”—Letter to PM Netanyahu on occasion of Israel's 50th birthday
GEORGE W. BUSH (2001-2008)
President Bush’s address to the Knesset on May 15, 2008: “The alliance between our governments is unbreakable, yet the source of our friendship runs deeper than any treaty. It is grounded in the shared spirit of our people, the bonds of the Book, the ties of the soul … My country's admiration for Israel does not end there. When Americans look at Israel, we see a pioneer spirit that worked an agricultural miracle and now leads a high-tech revolution. We see world-class universities and a global leader in business and innovation and the arts. We see a resource more valuable than oil or gold: the talent and determination of a free people who refuse to let any obstacle stand in the way of their destiny.” [NOTE: Due to space restraints, the above list is certainly not meant to be all-inclusive, but is a brief overview.] “Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”—1 Timothy 2.1-4