US Jews and the president’s thin skin: Roosevelt to Obama

"Even Obama surely would agree that to be remembered for sentiments reminiscent of the worst of Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew and James Baker is not the kind of legacy he wants."

August 11, 2015 21:26
4 minute read.
Hanukka at the White House

Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama as they light a Hanukka made by pupils from Jerusalem’s Hand in Hand school, at the White House.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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US President Barack Obama recently complained to a group of American Jewish leaders about a newspaper ad that he said “portrayed him as an appeaser by comparing him to Neville Chamberlain,” according to The New York Times.

He is not the first president to gripe about his Jewish critics. But a thin skin is never an attractive quality in a chief executive. The advertisement to which Obama apparently was referring actually appeared more than four months ago, and did not explicitly compare him to Chamberlain.

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Sponsored by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s World Values Network, the ad, which was published on March 29, expressed concern that Obama was planning to make substantial concessions to Iran. Its headline read: “Mr. President: Fighting al-Qaida made you like Churchill. Appeasing Iran will make you like Chamberlain.” Even that conditional criticism must have stung, if the president is bringing it up again all these months later.

Some may be reminded of president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s extreme reaction, in 1943, to criticism of his Jewish refugee policy by the Bergson Group activists.

The group’s leader, Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook) later recalled what first lady Eleanor Roosevelt said to him shortly after one of the newspaper ads appeared: “She told me that the president thought the last ad was hitting below the belt, that now he was angry with us.” Bergson was not fazed. “I said I was sorry the president was angry but that I was at least glad it got [his] attention.”

President Roosevelt was furious when the Bergsonites and the Va’ad ha-Hatzala (an Orthodox rescue group) mobilized some 400 rabbis to march to the White House to plead for aid to Europe’s Jews. FDR’s senior aide and speech writer, Samuel Rosenman, told one Jewish leader that Roosevelt, in his private comments on the march, “had used language that morning while breakfasting which would have pleased Hitler himself.”

Several other presidents likewise have exhibited thin skins when it came to disagreements with the Jewish community.


President Harry Truman did not take it well when Jewish groups pleaded with him to urge the British to open Palestine to Holocaust survivors. At a July 30, 1946 cabinet meeting, he exclaimed: “Jesus Christ couldn’t please them when he was here on earth, so how could anyone expect that I would have any luck?” The tapes of Richard Nixon’s Oval Office conversations revealed how an exasperated Nixon constantly exploded with epithets blaming Jews for the crises that engulfed his presidency. He derided his critics as “Jew boys,” blamed the Watergate investigation on “those Jews” in the US Attorney’s Office, and claimed that a “Jewish cabal” in the Bureau of Labor Statistics was reporting inflated unemployment statistics in order to harm him. Unflattering news reports were the result of “total Jewish domination of the media,” Nixon claimed.

US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent assertion that Israel will be “blamed” if the Iran deal is rejected by Congress may remind some of Nixon’s remarks about Soviet Jewry protesters. If Jewish demonstrations harmed a forthcoming US-Soviet summit, Nixon railed (to secretary of state Henry Kissinger), “I’m gonna put the blame on them, and I’m going to do it publicly at nine o’clock at night before 80 million people. They put the Jewish interest above America’s interest, and it’s about goddamn time that the Jew in America realizes he’s an American first and a Jew second.... [T] he American people are not going to let them destroy our foreign policy – never!” When Nixon’s vice president, former Maryland governor Spiro Agnew, came under investigation for bribery, Nixon blamed it on “a Jewish crowd in Baltimore.”

Agnew, for his part, likewise had some harsh words about Jews. Shortly after being forced to resign from office, Agnew raged that “half” of the owners of major news media outlets were Jewish (The correct figure was about three percent).

The following year, while lobbying against legislation intended to combat the Arab boycott, Agnew claimed the bill would force America to “commit hara-kiri to satisfy the small but powerful Zionist lobby.”

Probably the most infamous overreaction to Jewish criticism by an American political leader was the profanity reportedly blurted out by secretary of state James Baker in 1990, during a private discussion about Jewish criticism of the Bush administration’s Israel policy: “F--- the Jews, they didn’t vote for us anyway.”

The vulgarity that a senior Obama administration last year used against Israel’s prime minister (according to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic) was, one might say, cut from the same cloth. President Obama’s own overheated complaints about “relentless lobbyists” spending “millions of dollars” to oppose the Iran deal do not stoop to Baker’s level, but his implicit dog-whistling about Jewish warmongers is surely heading in that direction.

President Obama reportedly views the Iran agreement as defining his legacy, an achievement that he hopes to be remembered by. But even Obama surely would agree that to be remembered for sentiments reminiscent of the worst of Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew and James Baker is not the kind of legacy he wants.

The author is the founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

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