Yesterday, Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), saw release of the book Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the “Jewish Vote” and Bipartisan Support for Israel . Hoover and the Jews? Yup. A very little discussed aspect of Hoover’s career and of the Republican outreach to American Jews is the subject of this timely book which in the midst of a presidential ace in which the Jewish vote is in play.
I had a chance to ask on of the authors, Dr. Rafael Medoff, about the book.
What did Hoover do for Jews?
Hoover supported unpopular legislation that would have admitted German Jewish children to the U.S. in 1939 — a bill that could have saved Anne Frank’s life. He collaborated with Jewish activists to publicize Hitler’s mass murder and urge the Roosevelt administration to rescue Jewish refugees. And he helped convince the Republican Party to include a plank supporting Jewish statehood in its 1944 platform — the first time either party did that.
What in his background or political outlook caused him to be so sympathetic to Jews and the Jewish state?
Hoover was a humanitarian at heart. His food relief missions in Europe during and after World World One saved millions of people from starvation. His instinctive sympathy for Jews persecuted by the Nazis in the 1930s-1940s was reinforced by his Christian Zionist belief that the people of the bible should be allowed to return to the land of the bible.
Did all those efforts simply get obscured by the Depression narrative? Why is this such an historical secret?
Many people assume they already know everything about Hoover, that is, his response to the Depression. They don’t realize there’s another story — what Hoover did before he became president, and during the twenty years he was America’s only living ex-president. Also: In the 1950s-1960s, Holocaust historians focused on the German perpetrators and the Jewish victims. It was not until about the 1970s that they began examining the Roosevelt administration’s abandonment of the Jews. And only in recent years has there has been a focus on those Americans who did protest and tried to help the Jews. When scholars do the research, public interest follows.
Other than Ronald Reagan, Jewish support for Republican presidential candidates has been minimal since FDR. Why?
The only Republican Party our parents’ generation knew was mostly isolationist, mostly anti-immigration, and perceived by Jews as the party of country clubs and WASP culture. Remember the “All in the Family” theme song, with Archie Bunker singing about how he missed Herbert Hoover? Most Jews associated the Republicans with bigots and reactionaries. People whose parents or grandparents had experienced pogroms preferred the party that championed inclusiveness. But American Jews are beginning to realize that today’s GOP is not their grandfather’s GOP — and neither is the Democratic Party.
With regard to the Jewish vote in 2012, is the same dynamic in place that we saw in 1980?
As in 1980, there is an incumbent Democratic president who is widely perceived as unsympathetic to Israel, and — also as in 1980 — there is a new generation of American Jews who do not share their parents’ automatic attachment to the Democratic Party. In fact, the Republicans today are in a stronger position than they were in 1980: Jews were more uneasy about Ronald Reagan than they are about Mitt Romney; the Republican Party did not yet have a long record of strong support for Israel, as it does today; historians’ findings about Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust have had an impact on political attitudes among American Jews; and today, a large segment of the Jewish community consists of the same voters who deserted Carter in 1980. Pulling the lever for a Republican candidate probably will be even easier the second time around.