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Quotations on Judaism & Israel: Eleanor Roosevelt

(March 1, 1958)

In an article entitled “My Round-the-World Adventures,” published in the Saturday Evening Post on March 1, 1958, Eleanor Roosevelt recalls her travels through the Middle East following her husband's tenure as President of the United States from 1933-1945. The following are exerpts from that article, if you wish to read the full article, please click here.

Support for Israel

I decided to return home by the long route around the world so that I could stop in various countries including Israel. Before I left Paris, however, Charles Malik, the Lebanon representative at the United Nations, told me I could visit some of the Arab countries as well as Israel, in order to get a more complete picture of the Near East.

“That's true,” I replied, “but since the Arab states don not recognize Israel as a nation, they won't honor a visa for travelers to go on to Israel. And I don't have time to fly back to some non-Arab country from which I could legally proceed to Israel.”

Malik assured me he could make special arrangements permitting me to visit Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, and then go directly to Israel. As a result, my secretary, Miss Maureen Corr, and I flew directly to Beirut, Lebanon, from Paris. The next morning I got a real surprise. The Lebanon government had arranged a schedule permitting me to see a great deal in a short time, but when I went to my car to start the day's activities, I discovered they had also arranged for a truckload of soldiers to accompany me - for my “protection” in the event of any incident that might arise from the fact that I had always made clear my approval of creation of the state of Israel.

Fake Refugees

My visit to the Arab countries was extremely interesting. In some areas - Lebanon, for example - I was fascinated by the way the hills were so carefully cultivated in small plots. There were many wonderful places to visit, and I saw some of the workers' homes. I also visited camps for Arab refugees who had left Palestine during the fighting there. In this connection, I vividly recalled that several years previously I had seen the Jewish refugee camps in Germany, where I was much impressed by the yearning of the occupants for a better future. One old woman knelt in a muddy road and threw her arms around my knees and said over and over, “Israel. Israel.” I remembered, too, a young boy who had wandered into one camp leading his smaller brother, but who was unable to tell officials where he had come from or what had happened to his parents. He sang for me a “Song of Freedom,” although I felt there wasn't much freedom in a refugee camp. These people made me know for the first time what the small land of Israel meant to Jewish refugees in Europe. And now, in the Arab countries, I learned something of the grave problems of refugees from Israel.

The Arab refugee camps were the least hopeful I had ever seen. Nothing had been done to preserve the skill of Arabs displaced by warfare in the Near East and they had little to look forward to. The standard of living was low and accommodations poor. I saw one hill dotted with tents and slashed by rain that made every one cold and miserable. In one tent, a woman showed me her baby, which had been bitten by a snake. Many babies slept on the ground. Food cost about three cents per day per person, but even this small sum provided more to eat that was available to some of the nomad tribes in the nearby desert. As a result, if any of the Arab refugees were persuaded to resettle permanently - as was possible in Jordan at times - and left the camp, their places did not remain vacant. Overnight, people from the hungry nomadic tribes slipped into the refugee camp to replace those who left, because they could in that way at least get three meals a day, poor as those meals might be.

Eleanor and the Bedouin Sheik

Perhaps I should mention here that while I was in Israel I was taken to visit the large estate of Sheik Suleiman near Beersheba. He is one of the few Arab sheiks who remain in Israel and he lives in rather feudal fashion, although his land is worked with modern machinery. The sheik, a big, bearded man in his late middle age, received us in a large, sparsely furnished room of his home. He wore the robes of Arabia, but spoke excellent English and made us feel at home. As we entered, I had noticed a number of women near a door in the courtyard and, knowing that the sheik practiced polygamy, I asked him how many children he had.

“I think about seventy-five,” he replied thoughtfully, stroking his beard, “but I am not sure.”

We had a pleasant visit, and later, when some friends of mine visited Israel, I wrote a note introducing them to Sheik Suleiman. He received them warmly and invited them to an Arab dinner of roast kid. When I learned of this, I wrote him a note of thanks, and some time later received from him a beautiful silver dagger and a letter saying the dagger had been his own for thirty years. I did not give this series of incidents any special thought, but a year later my son James, was in Israel and he, too, called on Sheik Suleiman. In the course of their conversation my name was mentioned and the sheik called James' attention to a photograph that he had of me.

“I have thirty-nine wives,” he said, pointing to my picture, “and she should have been the fortieth. I will never understand why she did not accept my offer.”

I would like to make it very clear that, so far as I know, the sheik had never made me an offer. I believe he must have been joking but when James told me about it, we enjoyed a chuckle over the idea that I might have had the chance to be the fortieth wife of a real sheik.

Jews of Morocco

While I am on the subject of Israel and the Arab states, I want to tell you about a trip I made in March of 1957 to Morocco, because Morocco may one day prove to be and important “bridge” for better understanding between the Western democracies and the Arab states associated with Egypt... The sultan also extends an invitation for you to visit Morocco.

There was no possibility of a visit then. Shortly afterward, however, friends in New York told me a large number of Jews in Morocco had secured French visas to migrate to Israel, but that the Moroccan government had delayed issuing them visas and that they were being held in embarkation camps by Moroccan officials. There was considerable Arab hostility toward Jews and there was also fear of an epidemic in the camps because of poor sanitary conditions. Upon learning of this, I wrote a letter to the sultan asking him to correct the situation. I received no reply, but later I learned that the necessary permission to depart had been given and the Jews had proceeded to Israel about two weeks after I had written.

Source: Eleanor Roosevelt, “My Round-the-World Adventures,” Saturday Evening Post, (March 1, 1958).