JEWS AND AMERICAN PRESIDENTS. Part III
By Sheldon Spear
President James Madison appointed Mordecai Manuel Noah as U. S. consul in Tunis in 1813. But in 1815 he concurred with his secretary of state James Monroe’s decision to dismiss Noah. The alleged rationale was that Noah’s Jewishness was a liability in dealing with the local rulers. Also, the consul purportedly spent too much money and had failed in an effort to free all American hostages held by the piratical North African state.
Many American Jews protested the dismissal, while Noah himself objected to Monroe’s reference to him as “the Jew.” Isaac Harby, a Jewish journalist and playwright from Charleston, South Carolina, rejected Monroe’s statement that it was not known beforehand that Noah’s religion would interfere with his consular duties. Harby declared: “I would ask since it was not then known whether it has been since discovered that religion disqualifies a man from the exercise of his political functions.”
John Quincy Adams (president 1825-29) was a morally upright and far-seeing figure whom historians judge to have been more successful as Monroe’s secretary of state than as president. For example, he was the real author of the 1823 policy statement known as the Monroe Doctrine, which warned European nations against further interference in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere. After his presidency Adams became one of the country’s most vehement foes of slavery. And, like his father, he favored the creation of an independent “Judea.” But he was also a supporter of his distant cousin Hannah Adams’s “Female Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews.”
American Jews continued to side overwhelmingly with the Democrats. Before the demise of their party, the Federalists tended to be anti-immigrant and especially anti-Jewish, a viewpoint that was perpetuated by the Whigs, their spiritual successors. The Whigs, for instance, sometimes labeled the Democratic opposition as “Shylocks” and their newspapers as the “Jew press.” They described Thomas Kennedy, who led the fight for granting Jews the right to vote in Maryland, as heading the “Jew ticket.”
Jews consequently celebrated the election victory of Andrew Jackson (president 1829-37). They benefited from the reform movements of the Jacksonian Era, such as rotation in office, which opened up office-holding to a broader element of the population. An increase in the immigration of German Jews, who tended to be liberal-minded, reinforced these pro-Democratic leanings.
Martin Van Buren (president 1837-41), Jackson’s hand-picked successor, was also known by his nickname, “Old Kinderhook,” after his birthplace in upstate New York. The common English word “okay” may have derived from this nickname.
Van Buren took action during his presidency that showed his humane instincts and a compassion for Jews. It was over an incident in Damascus, Syria where, in February 1840, a Capuchin monk and his young Muslim servant had disappeared. The Capuchin Order and the French consul encouraged local officials to charge the Damascus Jewish community with having murdered the vanished pair in order to use their blood for making matzoh (this old “blood libel” was the fiftieth case since 1800, though only the first in the Middle East). As a consequence, seventy-three Jews, including children, were arrested; some of these people were subjected to torture, which killed five of them.
The Jewish communities of Britain, France, and the U. S. protested these arrests. This was the first time that American Jews had spoken out over the mistreatment of their coreligionists abroad. At this juncture, without prompting, President Van Buren sent protest notes by way of American diplomats in Damascus and also in Turkey, which was the titular overlord of Syria. The Syrian authorities ultimately released the Jewish prisoners and repudiated the pernicious “blood libel” allegations.
To be continued.
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