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Trump and A History of Presidential Anti-Semitism

In August, Donald Trump tweeted that Jewish Americans who vote for a Democrat are guilty of ignorance or “great disloyalty: “I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” Many commentators wrote that this assertion echoed the anti-Semitic trope that Jewish Americans have “dual loyalty” to Israel. 

Donald Trump is certainly not the first president tainted by anti-Semitic feelings, but as is often the case with Trump, he goes further in a manner and direction distinctively different from his predecessors. 

The first president, George Washington, made a good-will visit to Newport, Rhode Island, home of the Touro Synagogue, in August 1790. The legislatures of the neighboring states of Connecticut and Massachusetts were debating whether to ratify the amendments later known as the Bill of Rights that included freedom of religion. Washington, an adept politician, hoped that a visit to Rhode Island emphasizing religious freedom would turn the tide in favor of the passage of the Bill of Rights in the neighboring states.

Three days later, Washington wrote a letter to the Touro Synagogue in which he said, “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.” 

Successive U.S. presidents and leaders generally followed Washington’s acceptance of Jewish religious freedom and Constitutional rights. For example, during the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant issued an order expelling Jews from his district encompassing parts of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi because of suspicions that they were operating a black market in Southern cotton. Abraham Lincoln rescinded the order eighteen days later.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, increasing Jewish immigration created an increase in anti-Semitism, ultimately contributing to the passage of the National Origins Act of 1924. This law restricted immigration to two percent of each nationality residing in the U.S. in 1890. The law severely limited future Jewish immigration since few Jews had arrived by that year. Despite this harmful policy, Coolidge, the president who signed the Origins Act into law, praised the American Jewish community. In May 1925, at the laying of the cornerstone of a new Jewish center in Washington D.C., Coolidge delivered a speech praising the influence of Jewish culture on America. One of his successors, Franklin Roosevelt, would have a greater opportunity to confront issues of anti-Semitism at home and on the world stage.

Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR)’s relationship with Jews has sparked intense controversy. Many of FDR’s most prominent friends and associates were Jews. Henry Morgenthau, Felix Frankfurter, and Bernard Baruch were just a few of FDR’s closest and strongest Jewish supporters. FDR was twice re-elected with ninety percent of the Jewish vote as most Jews believed in his New Deal policies. 

However, as a member of Harvard’s governing board, FDR went along with the quota to restrict the number of Jewish students at the university in the early 1920s. In the years leading up to World War II, anti-Semitism was rampant in Germany. At home, anti-Semitism rose in America as workers feared competition from immigrants for jobs. In response, FDR limited immigration. Under the National Origins Act, 26,000 German Jews could immigrate annually during the years leading to World War II. But the quota was only a quarter filled because FDR’s administration placed impediments to block Jewish immigration. Vice President Henry Wallace wrote in his diary that FDR spoke to Churchill in 1943 about the desirability of spreading the Jewish population thin in the post-war world.

 FDR eventually led America in the destruction of Nazi Germany and the liberation of the concentration camps. In 1945 FDR secretly met with the Saudi King to persuade him to accept 10,000 Jewsin Palestine. The book FDR and the Jews by Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman is a scholarly study of this complicated history.

FDR’s successor, Harry Truman made anti-Semitic comments in private, but in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, he was supportive of Jewish interests and especially supported a Jewish state in the Middle East. Truman defied his most prominent cabinet members including Secretary of State George Marshall to recognize the State of Israel in 1948. According to Michael Benson’s 1997 book Harry S Truman and the Founding of Israel, while Truman was interested in the Jewish vote at home, he was primarily motivated by humanitarianism. 

Like Truman, Richard Nixon supported Israel publicly but he could be critical of American Jews in private. Despite the fact that several Jews including Henry Kissinger were prominent members of his administration, Nixon made anti-Semitic remarks privately on the White House tapes. For example, Nixon complained that Jews were “all over government”. But, Nixon approved Operation Nickel Grass, a massive airlift of fighter planes and missiles that enabled Israel to repel the attacks and invade part of Egypt during the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Like some of his predecessors, Donald Trump has made anti-Semitic comments. The former president of Trump Hotel and Casino recalls Trumps saying that he wants “short guys that wear yarmulkes” counting his money. This is no different from previous presidents who made critical remarks about Jews and privately promoted negative stereotypes. However, in public, Trump has departed from his predecessors with statements that reinforce anti-Semitism. While trying to court Jewish voters, he reinforced the view of anti-Semites that American Jews have a  primary allegiance to Israel. As with so many Trump blunders, he is apparently ignorant of the history and nature of anti-Semitism in America. That further serves to make Trump a president who dangerously expands hatred.