The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Politicians have long courted Jews, even as antisemitism abounds

Dating to the early years of the United States, American politicians have cited their understanding of, and tolerance for, Jews.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) is shown giving his address at his inauguration. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

One of Glenn Youngkin’s first acts as Virginia governor was signing an executive order to create a commission to combat antisemitism. The move stood out because Youngkin’s other early executive orders fulfilled a laundry list of right-wing goals: ending the teaching of “divisive concepts” in public schools, rescinding mask laws and vaccine mandates and withdrawing from a regional climate change initiative.

On the same day that Youngkin signed the order, however, a gunman outside Dallas held three congregants and their rabbi hostage for 10 hours in a synagogue.

Following the end of the standoff and safe release of the hostages, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) went on Twitter to highlight a call with the Israeli prime minister and Texas’s laws “against BDS & anti-Semitism.” (BDS stands for the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement that calls for a boycott of Israel over what supporters say is its mistreatment of Palestinians.)

The events of Jan. 15 highlight a complexity in the United States’ centuries-long history of antisemitism — alongside it, politicians have simultaneously and consistently courted Jews because of their political utility, ironically enough, in appealing to Christian voters. They’ve preached tolerance toward Jews and conducted outreach to signal their approval of religious tolerance and religious freedom — all without posing a threat to Christian dominance of the United States.

Dating to the country’s earliest days, engaging with Jews and knowing their customs have enabled Christian political leaders to indicate their support for the powerful and politically convenient ideal of religious freedom.

In May 1818, for example, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Mordecai Noah, a New York-based Jewish leader and writer. Jefferson thanked Noah “for the discourse on the consecration of the synagogue in your city. … I have read it with pleasure and instruction, having learnt from it some valuable facts in Jewish history which I did not know before. Your sect, by its sufferings, has furnished a remarkable proof of the universal spirit of religious intolerance in every sect … practiced by all when in power.”

At the time, there were only a little more than 3,000 Jews in the United States, but Jefferson understood that his target audience wasn’t Jews themselves. Gaining and wielding this knowledge appealed to Christians, because they wanted to see enlightened, non-theocratic political leaders.

Citing the allegiance of Jews and the importance of tolerance toward them also became a popular tactic in one of the big political fights in the early republic: the battle over Sunday mail delivery.

Christian “Sundayists” considered Sunday mail to be part of a larger secular threat against their sense of identity and power during the late 1820s and early 1830s. In 1829, Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher called the Sunday mail controversy, “perhaps the most important [issue] that ever was, or ever will be submitted for national consideration.” While Beecher believed it of the utmost importance to end Sunday mail, his opponents — notably religious minorities observing Sabbath on Saturdays and depending on Sunday mail for business, including Jews — adamantly defended the practice.

Col. Richard Mentor Johnson, chairman of the House Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads, wrote reports in 1829 and 1830, aiming to settle the controversy. He explained that Congress did not have any right to decide religious matters. And intervening in Sunday mail on behalf of the Sundayists would constitute just such a move when economic expediency made clear the value of seven-days-per-week mail delivery.

Jews and their religious freedom played a big role in Johnson’s rationale, and he and his allies cited Jews and Jewish customs to bolster the legitimacy of their arguments. One of his reports observed: “The Constitution regards the conscience of the Jew as sacred as that of the Christian and gives no more authority to adopt a measure affecting the conscience of a solitary individual than that of a whole community.” For Johnson, it was the government’s responsibility “to afford all — to Jew or Gentile, pagan or Christian, the protection and the advantages of our benignant institutions on Sunday as well as every day of the week.”

In fact, Johnson also pointed to an “ancient Jewish government” that enforced religious observances as an example of what not to do. His committee hoped that no American “would willingly introduce a system of religious coercion in our civil institutions.” But such examples from history admonished them “to watch carefully” for the “earliest indication” of the adoption of such practices.

While Johnson could have cited countless examples of government theocracy between ancient times and 1830, he chose a Jewish one, seemingly for two reasons. First, publicly deciding not to discriminate against Jews even though they upheld a theocracy thousands of years ago bolstered the egos of Christian policymakers. Second, however, Johnson recognized the utility of a Sunday observer like himself referencing Saturday observers in what would become the defining political speech of his career.

It made clear that Johnson understood the religious minority and their practices and was therefore both tolerant and enlightened. Jews remained so few in number — as of 1826, there were still only 6,000 Jews in the United States — that their support would’ve been meaningless. But Johnson knew that displaying these sentiments and knowledge would curry favor with Christian voters because it allowed him to display his commitment to religious freedom, and in a way that didn’t threaten Christian dominance of American society, because there were too few Jews to change the dominant culture.

Johnson’s political savvy paid off. Democrats mobilized around his reports, and he became known as a defender of religious freedom, helping to springboard him to becoming vice president in 1837.

A wave of Jewish immigrants from Germany in the 1840s meant that, by 1848, 50,000 Jews lived in America — a number that would grow to 230,000 by 1880. As the Jewish population increased, they experienced rising xenophobia. Even so, however, showing tolerance toward and courting Jews remained a political winner.

Nowhere was this clearer than when Ulysses S. Grant engaged in the practice despite having issued the most anti-Jewish policy edict in American history during his days as a military general. In 1862, Grant expelled Jews from his military district, using language in the order reminiscent of European discrimination and unfairly singling out Jews for speculation when soldiers of all religions had engaged in the practice.

Yet when Grant won the presidency in 1868, he began atoning for this sin. As president, Grant appointed several Jews to prominent positions in the government, including several postmasters. Magnolia, Calif., even had four consecutive Jewish postmasters from the late 1860s through the early 20th century, though this series began a year before Grant became president. At the time, serving as postmaster signaled the appointee’s social influence and political capital, making such appointments a major gesture.

By providing this capital, Grant was courting Jews, who finally constituted a large enough voting bloc to warrant attention. But he was also courting Christians by demonstrating atonement for his earlier, bigoted order and a commitment to the ideal of religious freedom in the United States.

These episodes expose how, like so many other minority groups throughout American history, Jews have confronted bigotry and discrimination. But politicians have also courted them, working to display a knowledge of the Jewish community and tolerance toward them. Doing so allowed politicians to espouse the American ideal of religious freedom — without posing a threat to any sense of Christian nationalism or the Christian predominance in society. Jews were a small enough proportion of the population that affording them tolerance wouldn’t change the character of society. Importantly, most Jews also passed as White. True concern over the dangers of antisemitism or Jewish rights played less of a role in motivating these actions than the sense that it would appeal to the Christian majority.

Youngkin and Abbott are following in this tradition, courting their Christian base by displaying tolerance toward Jews, support for Israel and an unwillingness to accept antisemitism. While it may seem at odds with how Republicans treat other minority groups in 2022, it makes sense in the history of this longer tradition.