Jews long admired Woodrow Wilson for his intellect and political liberalism, as well as for the warm appreciation he displayed toward Jews at a time when so many other Americans were overtly anti-Semitic. When Wilson first ran for president, in 1912, a remarkable political ad in Boston’s Jewish Advocate urged readers to join with “practically all the great Jewish leaders throughout the country” in supporting him, citing his progressive views on immigration and his willingness to abrogate a trade treaty with Russia as punishment for its violations of Jews’ human rights. In large black letters, the ad listed famous Jews who supported Wilson, including financier Jacob H. Schiff, philanthropist Nathan Straus, and ambassador Henry Morgenthau. It urged all “thinking Jews” to join them.
As president, Wilson, frequently consulted with attorney Louis Brandeis, and in 1916, courageously nominated him as the first Jew ever to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. He continued to back him in the face of widespread opposition from prominent businessmen and lawyers and succeeded in pushing the nomination through the Senate. The appointment marked a turning point in American Jewish history.
When it came to his policies, Jews applauded when Wilson vetoed legislation that sought to reduce immigration by means of a literacy test. Wilson, along with pro-immigration activists and liberals of his day, argued that such a test would discriminate against those denied the opportunity to be educated in their countries of origin. He continued to oppose restrictionist legislation during his second term, sticking to his principles in the face of a rising anti-immigrant tide. Restrictions imposed in 1917 passed over his veto.
Wilson also pledged support for the aims of the Zionist movement. In 1917, he endorsed the Balfour Declaration that viewed with favor “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” As the son of a Presbyterian minister, he intimated, he considered it “a privilege to restore the Holy Land to its rightful owners.”
Wilson’s championing of both Louis Brandeis and Zionism elevated him to the status of a hero in Jewish history books. Alfred J. Kolatch and David G. Dalin, for example, conclude in their book, The Presidents of the United States and the Jews, published in 2000, that “perhaps more than any other president, Woodrow Wilson had the utmost respect and admiration for the Jewish people.” They recount that Jews of his day considered him “a hero and a savior, a man of principle and ethical uprightness.” The twenty-eighth president’s legacy, they predicted, “will loom large in the annals of Jewish history.”
Jonathan D. Sarna is University Professor and Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and the author of American Judaism: A History.
Source: Excerpted from “Woodrow Wilson was a Hero to Jews. What should we do with his racism?” Forward, (July 2, 2020), published courtesy of Prof. Sarna and the Forward.
Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Harris & Ewing, [LC-USZ62-7916]