The “Jewish” World of Herbert Hoover
A Review essay by Steven Windmueller
Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the “Jewish Vote” and Bipartisan Support for Israel
Is this book intended as an attack on the Democratic Party, and in particular, President Franklin Roosevelt for his failure to intercede on behalf of European Jewry, or is it a thoughtful historical study of the rise of Herbert Hoover and his impact on shaping and empowering the pro-Israel agenda?
Sonja Schoepf Wentling and Rafael Medoff offer us some fascinating insights into the political history of Herbert Hoover. In this well-researched and meticulously documented study, we are introduced to the humanitarian orientation of President Hoover and to the political environment covering a 25-year period, 1919-1944, in which this former president would play a high profile role.
In many ways the following excerpt from the Wentling/Medoff book best describes the writers’ primary thesis: “Despite Hoover’s record on Jewish concerns, most mainstream Jewish leaders refrained from building ties to the former president or other prominent Republicans.”
For Hoover, who was born in West Branch, Iowa, his Quaker upbringing would frame his social and political values. Over the course of his public career he would hold to the view that America was unique among the nations, and with this historical status, came a special responsibility. American exceptionalism was also a perspective that he would share with his Jewish friends.
From the outset Hoover, due to his role as head of the United States Food Administration and his involvement with humanitarian aid services during the period of the First World War, developed an array of personal and political connections with key Jewish leaders including Felix Warburg of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Lewis Marshall of the American Jewish Committee and Rabbi Stephen Wise of the American Jewish Congress. Hoover’s extraordinary skills in organizing relief efforts would be acknowledged by the Jewish community as essential in saving the lives of Jews and others.
During his Presidency, and at other times during his political career, Hoover was outspoken in his support of Jewish claims to Palestine. As early as 1922, he called for developing in Palestine “an asylum for the less fortunate masses of the Jewish people and as a restoration of religious shrines.” During his tenure as President (1928-1932), Hoover would speak out in support of the Zionist cause, despite facing strong opposition from his own State Department. Of the course of his Presidency, Hoover would issue statements of support to both Jewish and Pro-Zionist Christian groups.
In a chapter entitled “Hoover and the Origins of the Jewish Vote,” Wentling and Medoff initially revisit Roosevelt’s reluctance to act on behalf of European Jewry covering the period of 1942-1944. In turn, they provide a fascinating account of Republican efforts in 1944 to embrace the case for a Jewish.
State in Palestine and in turn, seek to pull the Jewish vote away from the Democratic Party. “...for the first time in history, the Republicans and Democrats adopted planks pledging support for Jewish statehood and actively competed for Jewish electoral support on that basis.”
Toward the end of this book, the authors move away from Hoover and focus almost exclusively on the “Jewish vote” seeking to identify any possible shifting patterns over the years that would suggest a change in the historic support garnered by Democrats among the Jewish electorate. This overt attention to politics seems to undermine the more central focus of their earlier work, to uncover for us the contributions and impact of Herbert Hoover.
It should be noted that at the same time the authors offer a far less sympathetic view of Franklin Roosevelt; commenting, for example, on Roosevelt’s involvement with the Evian Conference of 1938, they would write: “Roosevelt exhibited a kind of amateur geographer’s fascination with the idea of moving people around and creating new countries or societies.”
By introducing us to the world of Herbert Hoover, Wentling and Medoff share with us some insights into the broader political mindset of this period in American history with its deeply rooted anti-Semitism and isolationism.
Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.