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American Jewish History 88.3 (2000) 377-406

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The Engineer and the Shtadlanim: 1 Herbert Hoover and American Jewish non-Zionists, 1917-28

Sonja P. Wentling

In 1967, retired Admiral Lewis L. Strauss, a lifelong friend and trusted confidant of Herbert Hoover, offered a postmortem appraisal of the president's racial attitudes: "He appreciated talent. He didn't care whether the man who had it was of his political persuasion. He was [End Page 377] absolutely color-blind as to race, and he didn't care anything about denomination." 2 Granted, this strong endorsement of Hoover's weltanschauung as one untainted with the ignorance of bigotry and racism did come from a close friend, but it was also based on years of experience and cooperation with Hoover in humanitarian and relief efforts.

Hoover's attitude on race, 3 particularly his views on Jews, has received little attention from biographers, and the overall consensus is not favorable. While revisionist historians have successfully rehabilitated the damaged persona of Hoover by stressing his organizational genius and humanitarian progressivism, the prevailing opinion of Hoover's racial views holds that he did not rise above the prejudice of his time. [End Page 378] Even Donald J. Lisio concedes that the Chief's encounter with racism is "the tragic yet instructive tale of a good man who insisted that he was color-blind but could not even see and understand the racism that engulfed him and his society." 4

The following examination of Hoover's record on Jewish relations is limited in scope to his years of public service between 1917 and 1928. Based on one chapter of a doctoral thesis that deals with the ambiguity and ambivalence surrounding both American Zionism and the actions of the Hoover administration, this study tries to ascertain the early relationship patterns between Hoover and the American Jewish community. Hoover lived a long and full life, encompassing an impressive career both as a private citizen and public servant. His relations with the Jewish community were thus varied, depending upon the changing circumstances over time, and can be roughly divided into three phases: the years of public service between 1917 and 1928, the years of Hoover's presidency, and his activities during the post-presidential years. 5 This study is an attempt to address the first phase of the dynamics between Hoover and American Jews and to set the parameters for an evaluation of Hoover's performance on Jewish matters during his presidency.

An analysis of Hoover's record on Jewish relations between 1917 and 1928 defies simple explanations and must be understood within the confines of ideology, politics, and culture. Hoover's Quaker mentality and engineering background prepared him well for American relief efforts overseas and defined his cooperation with Jewish relief organizations. Hoover cultivated relations with the non-Zionist, highly assimilated and largely German-Jewish leadership of American Jewry that seemed far removed from the masses of recent eastern European immigrants. A common interest in humanitarian work cemented a friendship and political partnership between Hoover and leading members of the American Jewish community like Louis Marshall and Felix Warburg, both wealthy philanthropists and loyal supporters of the [End Page 379] Republican party. Yet, a closer look at Hoover's record on the Jewish question in Poland reveals the inherent tensions between humanitarian concerns and larger foreign policy objectives. Moreover, his near silence on anti-Semitism during the 1920s and his attitude toward Zionism show that the relationship between Hoover and the shtadlanim operated within the parameters of Americanism as much as humanitarianism.

Hoover was an ideologue and a visionary, his philosophy of life deeply rooted in his Quaker upbringing and experience as an engineer. He was born in 1874 in West Branch, Iowa, to practicing Quaker parents who imbued young Herbert with the values of their faith. He learned to accept the precepts of hard work, plain living, and honest faith and was deeply influenced by the Quaker sense of harmony and unity of voluntary community cooperation. A cooperative work ethic, whereby all...


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