Before Lieberman, many Jewish 'firsts' in U.S. government

Posted: Friday, August 18, 2000

NEW YORK (AP) -- Vice presidential hopeful Joseph Lieberman isn't the first Jewish political figure to face questions about how he would carry out his duties on holy days. Legend has it that George Washington appealed for funds to financier Haym Salomon on the highest of holy days, Yom Kippur.

Salomon, it is said, suspended services in the synagogue upon learning of the desperate request, secured pledges from congregants and then proceeded with observances.

''The story has a ring of credibility,'' says Michael Feldberg, director of the American Jewish Historical Society in New York.

The Polish-born Salomon contributed much of his own fortune to help finance the American Revolution, found buyers for unsecured bonds issued by the fledgling U.S. government and lent money to members of the Continental Congress. During the British occupation of New York, twice he was arrested as a spy and imprisoned. He died penniless in 1785,having never held a government position.

It would be many years before Jews would make inroads politically. Well into the 19th century, laws in many places said no person could hold public office without taking an oath affirming the divinity of Jesus. (Salomon, who served on the governing council of a Philadelphia synagogue, helped repeal that city's test oath.)

Even when Jews escaping persecution in Russia began arriving in large numbers in the 1880s, they were slow to enter politics. The Irish, who already spoke the language, got involved early in public life, Feldberg notes. But most immigrant Jews distrusted the political system and, until World War II, shunned public attention.

''They were positive that anti-Semitism lurked just beneath the surface, so they made sure nothing they did aroused that monster,'' writes Melvin Urofsky, a history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, in a historical essay.

It was in 1841 that Congress got its first Jewish member, when David Levy Yulee was chosen as a delegate representing the territory of Florida. He was elected senator for the newly admitted state of Florida in 1845. In 1851, Emanuel Bernard Hart of New York became the first Jewish member of the House. In 1925, Florence Prag Kahn of California became the first Jewish woman representative, according to Kurt. F. Stone, author of ''The Congressional Minyan: The Jews of Capitol Hill.''

Yulee, the son of an eccentric land speculator who twice tried to found a Jewish homeland in Florida, told people he wasn't really Jewish but instead was a descendant of Moroccan royalty, Stone says. Yulee married the Christian daughter of the U.S. postmaster general.

Judah Philip Benjamin, a senator from Louisiana, was better known as secretary of state of the Confederate States. He worked closely with President Jefferson Davis. And at times when Davis was ill, says Feldberg, Benjamin ''almost singlehandedly ran the Confederacy.''

Benjamin did not practice his Judaism and married a Christian woman, who buried him in a Catholic cemetery in France. Still, Feldberg says that during his lifetime, Benjamin's Christian contemporaries never let him forget his roots.

''Wherever he went, he was accused of being a Jewish devil,'' said Stone.

The turn of the 20th century brought the first Jewish cabinet member: Oscar Solomon Straus, a member of one of the nation's most prominent German Jewish families, leaders in international finance. He became secretary of commerce and labor under President Theodore Roosevelt.

Straus declined when Roosevelt offered to make him secretary of the treasury.

''He was afraid too close an association of Jews and money would be bad for the image of Jews,'' Feldberg says.

Straus, he says, was subjected to ''the polite anti-Semitism of the upper classes,'' working but not socializing with Christians. Though not observant, he supported Jewish causes and lobbied on behalf of Jewish refugees.

Among later Jewish Cabinet members, Henry Morgenthau served as treasury secretary during the New Deal and Henry Kissinger was secretary of state under presidents Nixon and Ford.

Louis D. Brandeis faced little blatant anti-Semitism while working as a lawyer until 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson nominated him to the Supreme Court.

''It came out of the woodwork,'' Feldberg says, noting anti-Semitic remarks by senators at his confirmation hearing.

Brandeis had a ''distaste for formal religion'' and had little to do with organized Jewish life, Urofsky writes. Still, he was ''hailed by American Jews as ... a Moses'' because of his work on the court.

Through the years, many presidents have had informal advisers who were Jewish. Among the best-known was Bernard Baruch, counselor to presidents from Wilson to John F. Kennedy.

The son of a Jewish immigrant who fled East Prussia, he became a stock market speculator in the late 1800s. By time he was 30, he was a millionaire.

In 1916, President Wilson appointed him to the seven-man Advisory Commission of the Council for National Defense, and during World War I, he was named chairman of the War Industries Board.

Lieberman, Al Gore's choice as a Democratic running mate, was not the first Jew offered a chance at the vice presidency.

Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, who had been JFK's secretary of health, education and welfare, turned down Sen. George McGovern's invitation to be his running mate in 1972, according to Stone.

To date there have been 26 Jewish senators and 147 Jewish members of the House, according to Sandy Maisel, government professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and author of ''Jews in American Politics,'' to be released next year. Stone says the number is close to 179 if you include converts from Judaism.

Anti-Semitism has been on the decline for the past two decades, according to polls taken by the American Jewish Committee and others.

Nonetheless, Feldberg says, many Americans ''have an innocent ignorance'' about what it means to be Jewish -- an ignorance Lieberman's selection is already helping to dispel by his open expression of his faith.

Soon, says Feldberg, everyone will know what Jews do on the Sabbath.



CONTACT US

  • Switchboard: 907-283-7551
  • Circulation and Delivery: 907-283-3584
  • Newsroom Fax: 907-283-3299
  • Business Fax: 907-283-3299
  • Accounts Receivable: 907-335-1257
  • View the Staff Directory
  • or Send feedback

ADVERTISING

SUBSCRIBER SERVICES

SOCIAL NETWORKING

MORRIS ALASKA NEWS