United States Presidents and the Jews: From George Washington to George Bush
By Tina Levitan
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT was the first President to be given a Torah as a gift. He received a miniature Torah from Young Israel and another that had been rescued from a burning synagogue in Czechoslovakia. Both are now in the Roosevelt Memorial Library in Hyde Park. The Roosevelt administration's failure to expand the existing refuge quota system ensured that large numbers of Jews would ultimately become some of the Holocaust's six million victims. Fifty-six years after Roosevelt's death, the arguments continue over Roosevelt's response to the Holocaust.
HARRY S. TRUMAN, on May 14, 1948, just eleven minutes after Israel's proclamation of independence, was the first head of a government to announce to the press that "the United Stated recognizes the provisional government as the de facto authority of the new state of Israel." Truman was also the first U.S. President to receive a president of Israel at the White House - Chaim Weizman, in 1948 and an Ambassador from Israel - Eliahu Elat in 1948. With Israel staggering under the burdens of mass immigration in 1951-1952, President Truman obtained from Congress close to $140 million in loans and grants.
DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER was the first President to participate in a coast-to-coast TV program sponsored by a Jewish organization. It was a network show in 1954 celebrating the 300th anniversary of the American Jewish community. On this occasion he said that it was one of the enduring satisfactions of his life that he was privileged to lead the forces of the free world which finally crushed the brutal regime in Germany, freeing the remnant of Jews for a new life and hope in Israel.
JOHN F. KENNEDY named two Jews to his cabinet - Abraham Ribicoff as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, and Arthur Goldberg as Secretary of Labor. Kennedy was the only President for whom a national Jewish Award was named. The annual peace award of the Synagogue Council of America was re-named the John F. Kennedy Peace Award after his assassination in 1963.
JIMMY CARTER in a number of impassioned speeches stated his concern for human rights and stressed the right of Russian Jews to emigrate. He is credited with being the person responsible for the Camp David Accords.
GEORGE BUSH I in 1985 as Vice President had played a personal role in "Operation Joshua," the airlift which brought 10,000 Jews out of Ethiopia directly to resettlement in Israel. Then, again in 1991, when Bush was President, American help played a critical role in "Operation Solomon", the escape of 14,000 more Ethiopian Jews. Most dramatically, Bush got to the U.N. to revoke its 1975 "Zionism is Racism" resolution.
Tina Levitan is the author of First Facts in American Jewish History from 1492 to the Present, published by Jason Aronson Publishers.
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