Was FDR’s mother anti-Semitic – and does it matter?

Ted Morgan, in his 'FDR: A Biography,' wrote that “there lingered a residue of the social anti-Semitism he had inherited from his mother."

March 18, 2014 22:18
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT signs the declaration of war against Germany on December 11, 1941.

WWII Roosevelt Signing Declaration of War521. (photo credit: US Library of Congress)

‘I cannot fathom where the idea of ‘FDR’s notably anti-Semitic mother Sara’ comes from,” Lily Polliack wrote in the The Jerusalem Post (Letters, March 16). The answer is that it comes from the research of a number of Roosevelt biographers and other scholars.

Ted Morgan, in his FDR: A Biography, wrote that “there lingered in [FDR] a residue of the social anti-Semitism he had inherited from his mother and other relatives such as his half brother Rosy and his uncle Fred Delano, all three of them anti-Semites.” Morgan mentions that in 1928, Sara Roosevelt objected to having FDR adviser Belle Moskowitz join the family for lunch because she did not want “that fat Jewess” in the Roosevelt home.

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Roosevelt family confidante Joseph Lash, in his book Eleanor and Franklin, reported that Sara Roosevelt once wrote this about Elinor Morgenthau: “The wife is very Jewish but appeared very well.” Richard Breitman and Alan M. Kraut, in their 1987 book American Refugee Policy and European Jewry, 1933-1945, concluded: “The president’s mother was anti-Semitic, his brother even more so.”

The reason Sara Roosevelt’s views are now a matter of controversy is that Prof. Breitman chose to push Sara to the front and center of his recent book, FDR and the Jews (coauthored with Allan Lichtman) – as proof that she was not anti-Semitic. The opening scene of the book dramatically presents the elderly Sara addressing a Jewish women’s group, and announces that a Jewish organization gave her an award for “service to the Jewish people” – proof that “Franklin’s parents instilled in him religious tolerance” and imparted to him “the wise counsel needed to escape the anti-Semitism that was so common among upper-class Protestants.”

Breitman and Lichtman call that award “the Einstein Medal for lifetime humanitarian service to the Jewish people.” Their source is a news article in The New York Times in 1938, but that article actually reported the award was given “in recognition of ‘a lifetime of devoted service to every communal cause in the country’,” not to “the Jewish people.”

So what new evidence did Prof. Breitman uncover that led him to reverse his 1987 judgment that Sara Roosevelt “was anti-Semitic”? That remains a mystery, because, as the Post noted in its March 11 news report, “Breitman did not respond to a request for comment.”

He has not responded to my inquiries, either. By contrast, some of Sara Roosevelt’s other defenders have acknowledged problems in the presentation of the president’s mother as a philosemite.

Until recently, the website of Hunter College’s Roosevelt House showcased an essay depicting Mrs. Roosevelt as a major benefactor of Jewish immigrants and a champion of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. Many of the sources cited by the authors of the essay, Prof. Deborah Gardner and Ben Hellwege, actually showed Mrs. Roosevelt helping nonsectarian charities (which were Jewish-sponsored but did not benefit Jews specifically) or, in the case of Nazi Germany, aiding German Christian refugees. In response to complaints, Dr. Gardner recently removed the article from the Roosevelt House website and informed this author that the text will be corrected.

Does it matter what Sara Roosevelt thought about Jews? It does if there is evidence of a continuity of views from mother to son. FDR was, in general, strongly influenced by his mother. His family was part of the upper strata of 19th-century New York society, and his views on race and religion were nurtured in that milieu.

“At least a dozen lines of Mayflower descent converged in Franklin, and Sara could name every one of them,” writes FDR biographer Prof. Frank Freidel. “Franklin, who had effortlessly acquired the knowledge from his mother, could as a matter of course plunge into similar recitations.” Even in his White House years, FDR still “frequently recounted the exploits of his ancestors in his presidential small talk.”

Now consider some of the recently-discovered remarks made by FDR about Jews.

He boasted to one US senator (in 1939), “We know we have no Jewish blood in our veins.” He complained (at a cabinet meeting) that there were too many Jews among federal employees in Oregon; he described anti-Semitism in Poland as a response to Jewish domination of the Polish economy; he said (in 1943) the Germans had “understandable complaints” against the Jews because of the prominence of Jews in some German professions; he helped bring about the quota on Jews admitted to Harvard; and he recommended that Jews be “spread out thin” all over the world so they would not dominate any particular economy or culture. And there are many other similar examples.

Roosevelt’s statements indicate that he privately regarded Jews as potentially domineering, and often untrustworthy. Certain individual, assimilated Jews could be useful to him as political allies or advisers; but having a substantial number of Jews in the country, especially the less assimilated kind, was – in his mind – inviting trouble. And that attitude helps explain his otherwise inexplicable decision to suppress Jewish immigration far below the limits allowed by law.

The quota of immigrants from Germany (about 26,000 annually) was filled in only one year out of Roosevelt’s 12 in the White House. In most of those years, it was less than 25 percent filled. A total of 190,000 quota places from Germany and Axis countries sat unused from 1933-1945. If public or congressional opposition prevented liberalizing the entire immigration quota system, why did he not at least permit the existing quotas to be quietly filled? Without public controversy, without any quarrel with congress, he could have quietly given the order to permit the quotas to be filled. But Franklin Roosevelt’s personal vision of a predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant America – a vision possibly nurtured, in some measure, by his mother’s influence – did not make room for large numbers of Jewish immigrants.

The author is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and author of 15 books about Jewish history, Zionism and the Holocaust.

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