The Jew in American Politics (part 6): WWI to the great depression

Weyl probably overemphasizes the loyalty of Jewish voters to the Republican party between the Civil War and World War I. But he correctly notes that to the extent Jews assimilated, they became more conservative (not the reverse).

From World War to Depression

From Lincoln's inaugaration to World War I, American Jews in their majority remained loyal to the Republican Party. This political alliance was cemented by the friendly attitude displayed toward Jewry by a succession of Republican Presidents and by vigorous American protests against the anti-Semitic outrages and pogroms in Russia and the Balkans. A second factor favoring the alliance was the fact that the Democratic machines in the North were preponderantly in the hands of Irish politicians. Hostility and at time intense antipathy had characterized the relations between Jews and Irish from the first decades of massive immigration of these two stocks. This deep-seated antagonism would eventually be mitigated by the gubernatorial and presidential candidacies of Alfred E. Smith and would disappear during the Kennedy era.

Theodore Roosevelt in particular, had the strong support of Jewish voters. His friendship for individual Jews and his willingness to espouse Jewish causes was well known. On two occasions, he predicted that a Jew would some day be elected President and he earned the distinction of being the first American Chief Executive to name a few to a Cabinet post-Secretary of Commerce and Labor Oscar Straus.

The leading Jews in the United States backed Roosevelt. Jacob H. Schiff stated that he could not conceive of a Jewish voter failing to cast his ballot for the President.l The bulk of American Jewry was by now of Slavic origin and far more heavily working class than in the Civil War era and the Gilded Age. Hence, there were strong radical and Socialist undercurrents in American Jewry striving for political expression. However, this Russian element was still, to a very large extent, new and unacclimated and hence it tended to accept the guidance of the solidly established leaders of German Jewry. This condition could not be expected to prevail indefinitely.

The first major Democratic inroad into the Jewish vote occurred in 1912 when Woodrow Wilson ran for the Presidency for the first time. The Boston Jewish Advocate believed he deserved the support of American Jewry because "he has made culture the shining purpose of his life."2

There were no issues in the l9l2 campaign of direct concern to Jews as Jews. The Jewish leadership and the Jewish vote split four ways. Louis Marshall, the outstanding leader of American Jewry and perhaps the most distinguished constitutional lawyer of his day supported William Howard Taft; Henry Morgenthau returned to politics to support Woodrow Wilson; Oscar Straus backed Theodore Roosevelt and ran with him on the Progressive slate for Governor of New York; a large proportion of the Jewish vote went to the Socialist Party candidate, Eugene Victor Debs.

Under Wilson, the philo-Semitic policies of Theodore Roosevelt were continued and amplified. Morgenthau was given the post of Minister to Turkey, a strategic spot from the Jewish standpoint since the Ottoman Empire misruled Palestine and oppressed a large population of Jews and other non-Moslem minority peoples. Bernard Baruch was placed in charge of the mobilization of American industry for war and Wilson broke precedent by naming Louis Dembitz Brandeis to a seat on the Supreme Court. In New York State, which contained over half the Jewish population of the United States and which was a special area of concentration for Jews of Russian and East European origin, nine of the sixteen Jews elected to the Assembly were Democrats against only five Republicans and two Socialists.

The return to peace and "normalcy" brought the majority of American Jewry back into the Republican fold. The B'nai B'ith News paid a tribute to President Warren G. Harding on his death and praised his taciturn successor, Calvin Coolidge, as "a sturdy protector of law and order."3

In 1920, eleven Jews were elected to Congess--ten Republicans and one Socialist; the two Jewish Democratic candidates went down to defeat. In 1924, however, Progressive candidate for the Presidency, Robert M. Lafollette, running with Socialist Party endorsement, had a bigger vote in the most heavily Jewish districts of New York City than either the Republican or the Democratic standard-bearer. This was a symptom of the fact that the political hegemony of German Jewry was rapidly crumbling. [. . .]

Alfred E. Smith, an Irish Catholic from the working class, a product of parochial schools, a man who had served two terms as Governor of New York State and made an exemplary record, predictably demanded, to the cheers of galleries packed with Tammany followers, that the convention repudiate the Klan by name. [. . .]

In 1928, however, Smith did win the nomination. His presidential campaign became a rallying ground for anti-Klan forces and as such captured the imagination and support of Jewish voters. Another factor in Smith's favor with American Jewry was his close personal and political association with Belle Moskowitz, who was both a nationally known leader of Jewish organizations and vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Jewish voters approved Smith's stress on social security and labor legislation, his support of civil liberties and his demand that public health services be enlarged.

With Al Smith its standard bearer, the Democratic Party now seemed to many Jews to be the rallying ground against the Klan and other movements of intolerance. In heavily Jewish districts of New York and Chicago, where Davis had polled only about a third of the total vote, Smith won 66% to 75% of the ballots.

The permanence of this shift was signaled by the fact that two years later six of the eight Jews sent to Congress were Democrats.

In the 1932 elections, Franklin D. Roosevelt opposed the Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover, in the fourth year of world depression. From the standpoint of specifically Jewish interests, there seemed to be no particular reason for preferring one candidate over the other. Both men had a record of friendship toward Jews. Domestic anti-Semitism was not a major force nor was it deemed a matter which lay within the powers of the federal government as defined by the Constitution. Nazism was not yet a matter which aroused American Jews; in fact, Hitler would not be named Chancellor of the German Reich until two months after the election. [. . .]

Yet the Jewish support for Roosevelt in 1932 was so overwhelming that it seemed almost unanimous. Fuchs, who has carefully analyzed the balloting in heavily Jewish electoral districts, points out that FDR received 84.7% of the vote in the 20 most Jewish precincts of Ward 24 of Chicago (which was over 90% Jewish). In the same precincts, 96% of the voters supported Henry Horner, the Democratic candidate for Governor, who was a Jew. In New York City, presidential candidate Roosevelt and gubernatorial candidate Herbert Lehman (Jewish) carried 92% of. the two-party vote (that is to say, excluding the Jewish vote for the Socialist and Communist candidates) in the l7th Assembly District. In Boston, wards which had voted 78% Republican in 1928 went overwhelmingly Democratic four short years later.

The Jews were not the only minority group which rallied behind the Roosevelt banner. As the protege of Alfred E. Smith and the leader of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, Roosevelt had overwhelming backing among Catholics, among stocks which had recently immigrated to the United States and among labor. The salient difference between the early Jewish support of Roosevelt and the backing given him by these other political blocs was that the Jewish identification was not based primarily on group self-interest. Jews, even those of a secular bent, saw in Roosevelt's programs the embodiment of ideals of brotherhood and charity which were deeply embedded in the ethical teachings of Judaism. The intensity of Jewish religious and ethical education made these concepts a vital part of the everyday lives and aspirations of ordinary Jews. This serves to explain the fact that Jewish support of Roosevelt did not lessen as one moved from the low-income to the high-income groups. It also serves in part to explain the intensity of this support and its consistency during the four campaigns in which Roosevelt sought and won the Presidency.

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