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Presidents Who Knew the Most About Judaism

A humble list; and Obama is not number one

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The news that at a meeting with Conservative Jewish leaders President Obama “stressed he probably knows about Judaism more than any other president, because he read about it” has prompted a barrage of incredulous responses—not least Charles C. Johnson’s historical catch-up in Tablet Magazine. Obama knows the most about Judaism of any president? Let me throw John Quincy Adams back at you!

Johnson focuses much of his attention on explaining how various presidents understood “Judaism” as fairly strictly defined, that is, as a religious nation. But he also mentions Truman’s crucial early support for Israel. And so while he derides Obama’s “intimate knowledge of the milieu of Hyde Park Jewry,” I do think there are, particularly in post-assimilated eras, flexible ways to “know about Judaism.”

With that caveat in mind, here’s my list, with explanations when necessary, of which presidents knew the most about Judaism. I’m sure I’ve inadvertently listed at least one anti-Semite higher than he should be, so my apologies.

43.* Richard Nixon.

* Why 43? Don’t we have 44 presidents? Actually, though Obama is considered the 44th president, that counts Grover Cleveland, who lost a re-election bid and then later won election again, twice. Only 43 men have served as U.S. president.

42. Jimmy Carter (this isn’t even about Israel; for a modern Democratic incumbent to get only 60 45 percent of the Jewish vote??).

41. Andrew Jackson.

40. Chester A. Arthur.

39. William Henry Harrison.

38. John Tyler.

37. Millard Filmore.

36. Franklin Pierce.

35. Zachary Taylor.

34. George H.W. Bush (“Fuck the Jews, they didn’t vote for us anyway” -James Baker).

33. Rutherford B. Hayes.

32. James A. Garfield.

31. James Buchanan.

30. Dwight Eisenhower (handling of Suez war not too cool).

29. Benjamin Harrison.

28. Martin Van Buren.

27. James K. Polk.

26. Andrew Johnson.

25. Thomas Jefferson.

24. William McKinley.

23. JFK (pro: lots of Jewish friends; con: dad a huge Jew-hater).

22. LBJ.

21. Warren G. Harding.

20. Gerald Ford.

19. Woodrow Wilson (worked with the ADL).

18. James Monroe (wasn’t he just Madison’s third and fourth terms?).

17. Calvin Coolidge.

16. Grover Cleveland (did business with the Rothschilds, of which was made a campaign issue).

15. William Howard Taft (served on Supreme Court with Brandeis).

14. John Quincy Adams.

13. Abraham Lincoln (religious, rescinded Grant’s order).

12. Ronald Reagan.

11. Herbert Hoover (see here).

10. James Madison.

9. Ulysses S. Grant (repented!).

8. Harry Truman.

7. Theodore Roosevelt (appointed first Jewish Cabinet member, Commerce Secretary Oscar Straus).

6. Barack Obama.

5. George Washington.

4. FDR.

3. George W. Bush (so many Jewish advisers, religious himself).

2. John Adams (fluent in Hebrew).

1. Bill Clinton (kishkes).

Related: Obama’s Historical Chutzpah [Tablet Magazine]
Obama Awards Rock Icon Bob Dylan Highest Presidential Honor [Haaretz]

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Marc, very nice try.  But – and I say this as someone who generally does not admire Wilson – Pres. Wilson also successfully nominated Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court, a move that at the time was very brave and forward-looking.  I would put him closer to the Top ten, if not in that list. 

Cool_Romeo says:

Didn’t FDR sit back and do nothing during the Shoah?  I’m pretty sure that’s worse than anything even Nixon did.

David Eber says:

Obama doesn’t just know “Hyde Park Jewry,” he understands the American Jewish experience of trying to find your way in two civilizations: ours Jewish and American, his Black and American. None of the other Presidents can make that claim.

mikeman123 says:

Could you share your criteria for making this list, and be a bit more specific than saying it’s more “flexible”? Because, say, being fluent in Hebrew does not guarantee knowledge about Jews. 

I find it odd that  Lincoln is rated lower than Grant when he was the one who rescinded Grant’s order.

 mikeman, what *other* nation’s literature was an 18th century Hebrew scholar going to read?! Nowadays, sure, a Hebrew student might be going into the Ugaritic literature or Semitic linguistics. But in Adams’s day, learning Hebrew meant a serious desire to learn about Jews. (Same with Jerome.)

The whole Adams family were known for their scholarly pursuits. (And for their alcoholism, true, but we’re not getting into that.) John Quincy Adams recently got famous again for his (accurate) comments about Islamic teachings. That means that JQA had taken it upon himself to learn about Middle Eastern religions. I suspect that JQA had, by the way, learnt a thing or two about Judaism.

 mikeman, what *other* nation’s literature was an 18th century Hebrew scholar going to read?! Nowadays, sure, a Hebrew student might be going into the Ugaritic literature or Semitic linguistics. But in Adams’s day, learning Hebrew meant a serious desire to learn about Jews. (Same with Jerome.)

The whole Adams family were known for their scholarly pursuits. (And for their alcoholism, true, but we’re not getting into that.) John Quincy Adams recently got famous again for his (accurate) comments about Islamic teachings. That means that JQA had taken it upon himself to learn about Middle Eastern religions. I suspect that JQA had, by the way, learnt a thing or two about Judaism.

You *do* realise that he is not Mashiakh, nu?

You *do* realise that he is not Mashiakh, nu?

I am not a Wilson fan, not in the least; he was the archetypal fascist. But Wilson was the son of a Presbyterian minister. I agree with you that he likely had some real knowledge of Judaism.

I am not a Wilson fan, not in the least; he was the archetypal fascist. But Wilson was the son of a Presbyterian minister. I agree with you that he likely had some real knowledge of Judaism.

oaklandj says:

Unlike the right, we don’t deify our politicians, as difficult as that is for the right to understand.

oaklandj says:

Unlike the right, we don’t deify our politicians, as difficult as that is for the right to understand.

PhillipNagle says:

In 1973, when Israel was at one of its darkest hours, Richard Nixon had vital munitions airlifted to Israel.  A fact for which I will be forever grateful grateful.  During Israel’s war for independence, Harry Truman emposed an arms embargo on Israel.  I’m afraid the author is letting his politics determine his rankin gs.

msant says:

How many of these Presidents conducted a Passover seder in the White House?
Obama is the only one.
M.

jonathansg says:

In responses to Brandeis, Wilson fares far better than William Howard Taft and other leaders of the bar, as indicated by this excerpt from  Wikipedia on Brandeis:
On January 29, 1916, Wilson “surprised the nation” by nominating Brandeis to become a member of the U.S. Supreme Court.[27] However, his nomination was bitterly contested and denounced by conservative Republicans, including former president (and future Chief Justice) William Howard Taft, whose credibility was damaged by Brandeis in court battles and at one point calling him a “muckraker.”[4]:470 
Further opposition came from the legal profession, including former Attorney General George W. Wickersham and former presidents of the American Bar Association, such as ex-Senator and Secretary of State Elihu Root of New York, claiming he was “unfit” to serve on the Supreme Court.[4]:470-475
The controversy surrounding Brandeis’s nomination was so great that the Senate Judiciary Committee, for the first time in its history, held a public hearing on the nomination…, a then-unprecedented four months lapsed between Wilson’s nomination of Brandeis and the Senate’s final confirmation vote.[28]
“What Brandeis’s opponents most objected to,” write Klebanow and Jonas, “was his ‘radicalism’.” The Wall Street Journal wrote, “In all the anti-corporation agitation of the past, one name stands out . . . where others were radical, he was rabid.”[2] And the New York Times also felt that having been a noted “reformer” for so many years, he would lack the “dispassionate temperament that is required of a judge.”[29]:73…

According to legal historian Scot Powe, much of the opposition to Brandeis’ appointment also stemmed from “blatant anti-semitism.”.[28] Taft would accuse Brandeis of using his Judaism to curry political favor, and Wickersham would refer to Brandeis’ supporters (and Taft’s critics) as “a bunch of Hebrew uplifters.”[30] Senator Henry Cabot Lodge privately complained that “If it were not that Brandeis is a Jew, and a German Jew, he would never have been appointed[.]“[31]…

davidallyn says:

This exercise is ludicrous.  Virtually all the Presidents listed require explanations for their respective positions (which are nowhere to be found).  And the author seems to vacillate between the criteria of being well disposed toward Jews as indicated by some ill-defined set of policies or attitudes and knowing something about Judaism, which are not necessarily synonymous positions. 

Many of the listings make no sense by any criteria. 

What exactly did Bill Clinton do that was superior to or more knowledgeable than Harry Truman?  What has Barack Obama done that places him ahead of any of those beneath him?  Why is Woodrow Wilson – the President that appointed the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis, and championed the League of Nations that supported the Balfour Declaration through its Mandate for Palestine to Great Britain – so far down the list in comparison to others who did very little or nothing for the vital interests of the Jewish People? 

And in the final analysis is it accurate to assume that all decisions affecting Jews are necessarily driven by an understanding of them (or lack thereof) as opposed to other considerations?…The list (of shortcomings) goes on….

bialac says:

Showed it to a historian friend.

      “Being a contrary
sort of guy I’ll throw in a comment…..he left out Jefferson Davis.  As
President of the Confederacy Davis appointed Judah P. Benjamin to his
cabinet….as Secretary of State, Secretary of War and Attorney
General.  That was long before Teddy Roosevelt’s appointment.  I wonder
where that would rank ol’ Jefferson Davis in comparison to the others?” 

mahatmacoatmabag says:

I protest your ranking Tricky Dick Nixon last.  Last should be Hussein Obama – Extremist  Islams prayer answered & the Father of the Iranian Nuclear bomb program thanks to his procastination & for betraying US  ally , dictator though he was,   Husni Mubarak .

FYI as an IDF Infantry reservist  who fought in the Sinai & later crossed over into the Egyptian rear during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, I bless Tricky Dick for the massive resupply of weapons, ammo & material that begun whilst the battles were still raging & may well have contributed to a speedier victory over the Egyptians thus saving many lives.

 It was Nixon, who over the objections of Dr. Strangelove AKA Sec.of State Henry Kissinger , who ordered the resupply by air, drawing the material from US stockpiles. All the material sent was first rate front line equipment, not 2nd hand or reconditioned

God bless America, the land of the free & hopefully soon to be free of Hussein Obama, the stooge of KGB master spy George Sorros !

Saint_Etienne says:

As pointed out by others, this article needs a serious overhaul. It’s confused and muddled.

Phil N says:

During the Yom Kippur war, when the situation was still in doubt, Nixon air lifted tons of military equipment to Israel. On the other hand, though FDR was well informed of the Holocaust, refused to let Jews in the country or to pressure Britain to let them into Palestine. Then there is Obama, who should be 42nd, one step above Carter, for his grossly anti Israel actions. I suspect the author of this article was as much motivated by politics as by anything else.

JEFFREY PENSO says:

DIDN’T NIXON SAVE ISRAEL IN THE 1973 WAR?

HE WAS MUCH MORE SUPPORTIVE THAN THE CURRENT PRESIDENT

How can you possibly put FDR at #4 when I just finished reading your article about FDR and Jewish refugees. That guy was one of the biggest anti-semites there was.

Lynne Arons says:

Michelle’s first cousin is a Rabbi in Chicago, he had an Orthodox conversion and has a large congregation on the south side. He knows a lot about Judaism.

I think Truman (although Clinton’s “Bubba means the same thing as Mench” on the ‘Imus in the Morning Show’ is memorable) should be ranked number one comparing himself to Cyrus the Great by bring the Jews back to Israel and having been a Shabbos goy when growing up. Certainly Truman should not be number eight.

(Prof. Emeritus) Alan Jay Weisbard says:

Marc Tracy, you are a fool.
Your review of Shai Held’s book on Heschel in yesterday’s Times Book Review was an anti-intellectual atrocity, one that should stand as a black mark on your reputation forever. You are simply incompetent to review a serious work.

This article is just another piece of trash. George Washington parroted the language sent to him from a synagogue, and that had lasting significance, but had little to do with Jews in day today life. Hebrew was taught as a classical language relevant to Christian texts and origins, but had little to do with actual acquaintance with living Jews. Both Roosevelts named Jews to Cabinet and advisory offices, FDR to many, but neither was altogether friendly.. W is a joke. I think Clinton and Obama are the most comfortable with actual Jews and Jewish culture, and the least likely to think of actual living Jews as “other”.

Simply put, this “list” lacks the details, adaquate research, and documemtation like most of Tablet’s articles. It simply has a catchy title and appealing graphic (of Washington) without providing enough information to illuminate and inform the readers

I will go on to add that many making coments here are poorly misimformed and bring a political bias not fitting to the topic. As far as the snipes at President Obama, all I will say is that the Rabbi of the synagogue across the street from the Obama’s house in Chicago has written some very nice things about President Obama and his relation to Jews. And during the 2008 campaign it was Barack Obama’s talk about anti-semitism and Tekun Olam on Dr. King’s birthday to and African-American audience that made me sit up and take notice of how different he was. And then there are the White House Seders.

Lois Butt says:

I looked at several different sits online and none of them stated that John Adams spoke Hebrew. However they all said that James Madison read and spoke Hebrew at college and stayed an extra year to continue studying it. I think you got the 2 Presidents confused.

Why? Nice list, but how did you come by your choices?

BigGuy says:

Obama’s half brother is Jewish, his wife’s first cousin, once removed, is a rabbi, and he lived across the street from a synagogue for over a decade. I think he deserves to rank higher on your list.

Nixon was privately anti semetic, but he was also anti everything but White Protestant, and disciplined himself from acting upon his prejudices.

There’s no way George W Bush should be ranked so high on your list. Other than his mom and very close advisors, every body else is “the help”.

judith nusbaum says:

FDR #4? This invalidates your entire article. FDR chose to save works of art, rather than human beings, Jewish human beings.

George H. W. Bush actually played a big role in several of the operations to save and bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the 80′s. Should give him a better spot on the list, in my opinion.

Steven Klein says:

I’d much rather see a list of presidents ranked by their friendliness to Jews, rather than their knowledge of Jews & Judaism.

The Nazi Julius Streicher’s reference to “Purim-Fest, 1946″ suggests he knew more about Purim and the Book of Esther than the average Jew. That doesn’t mean he’s worthy of our respect.

As someone else pointed out, Nixon’s action during the Yom Kippur War probably did more to help Jews than any action taken by any others on this list.

hana blume says:

Why does Tablet undermine itself by letting dolts publish these stupid articles?

Audrey says:

According to Pittsburgh Jewish history, as reported here http://rodefshalom.org/about-rodef-shalom/history,

“At Rabbi Levy’s invitation, President William Howard Taft visited Rodef Shalom on Saturday, May 29, 1909. This was the first time that a sitting United States president spoke from the bimah of a Jewish congregation during regular Sabbath services.”

Apparently he understood *something.*

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Presidents Who Knew the Most About Judaism

A humble list; and Obama is not number one

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