The two Presidents Johnson and the Jews
The Elected and the Chosen: Why American Presidents Have Supported Jews and Israel by Denis Brian; Gefen Publishing House, 978-965-229-598-9, 415 pages including bibliography and index.
By Donald H. Harrison
SAN DIEGO –The nice thing about writing a biography about someone who is no longer living is that the record of the person’s life is complete. He or she will not do anything in the future that might radically change a historian’s assessment.
So, in reviewing this book, I decided to set aside the chapters on the five living Presidents (Obama, the two Bushes, Carter and Clinton) and look at the chapters on the 38 presidents whose lives are over. Of these, I found the strongest contrast concerning their relationships with Jews between two Presidents with the same last name: Andrew Johnson and Lyndon B. Johnson. One Johnson was an anti-Semite, the other Johnson was a true friend of the Jewish people.
Andrew Johnson was a Jew-hater through and through. Up until reading this book, I always had sympathy for Andrew Johnson, believing that he was impeached by radical Republicans with no charity in their hearts for citizens of the vanquished South. I had seen the fight between Andrew Johnson and members of Congress as an ideological one, with Andrew Johnson being mistrusted by northern Republicans because he had been a U.S. senator from Tennessee and had remained loyal to the Union even after his state seceded. Johnson was later catapulted from the vice presidency to the presidency by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He generated the ire of the Northern Republican-controlled Congress because he had wanted to bring about reconciliation.
Now I’m not so sure about him. Anyone who can be so wrong-headed about our Jewish people may have made serious errors in judgment about other matters too. Perhaps, Andrew Johnson was not the well-meaning but misunderstood fellow some historians have made him out to be.
Much of Andrew Johnson’s recorded anti-Semitism was aimed at Judah Benjamin, who had served as a U.S. Senator from Louisiana but broke with the Union to become a member of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s Cabinet. Andrew Johnson described David Yulee, a U.S. Senator from Florida, as a “contemptible Jew” and added that Yulee’s colleague Benjamin “looks on a country as he would a suit of clothes. He sold out the old one; and he would sell out the new, if he could in so doing make two or three millions.”
WE all recognize that slur, as well as another one, voiced on another occasion, when Johnson denounced Benjamin for belonging “to that tribe that parted the garments of our Savior.”
Author Brian makes it clear that Lyndon Johnson was a President of far greater moral character and discernment.
His father Sam Johnson spoke out so forcefully against the lynching of Leo Franks that he had to hide in a cellar from the Ku Klux Klan, lest he be lynched himself. This made an impression on Lyndon Johnson, who evolved into a firm opponent of right-wing hate groups. When he became engaged to Claudia “Lady Bird” Taylor, he gave her as an engagement present a book called Nazism: An Assault on Civilization.
Brian reports that as a congressman, Lyndon Johnson helped to get the conductor Erich Leinsdorf out of Nazi-controlled Europe, and also was instrumental in obtaining 42 visas for other Jews trapped in Germany and Poland. Ignoring America’s strict curbs on immigration, he hid in the Texas Youth Administration Building some Jews who slipped into the United States with fake passports.
While serving in the Navy (and still a congressman) during World War II, Lyndon Johnson accepted an invitation from General Dwight D. Eisenhower to tour a concentration camp. According to author Brian, “he was devastated by what he saw and returned home with an overpowering feeling of revulsion and horror at what he had witnessed. The enormous cruelty of the Nazis had a lasting effect on him.”
Lyndon Johnson became a U.S. senator, and later vice president, and like Andrew Johnson before him, became president as the result of the assassination of a popular president–John F. Kennedy.
Lyndon Johnson was president during Israel’s Six Day War with its Arab neighbors in 1967. During that conflict, Israeli warplanes attacked the U.S. Liberty, an intelligence gathering ship sailing near the Egyptian coast, killing 34 Americans and wounding 171 others. Despite an outcry from some who believed the attack was deliberate, Lyndon Johnson gave Israel the benefit of the doubt, accepting Israel’s explanation that the incident was a terrible accident. In Lyndon Johnson’s view, “This heartbreaking episode grieved the Israelis deeply as it did us.”
Overall, author Denis Brian has done a good job of compiling research of other historians and putting it together in compact form for non-historian lay readers. Anyone wanting to delve deeper into a given president’s relationship with the Jews would do well to familiarize himself or herself with previous research by reading this book.
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World. He may be contacted at email@example.com
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