Iowa and the Jews, Then and Now

by Rafael Medoff

Since there are barely 6,000 Jews in the entire state of Iowa –less than two-tenths of one percent of the population– one would not have expected Jewish concerns to attract much attention in the campaign preceding next month’s Republican caucuses. Yet suddenly the Jewish State, and its American Jewish supporters, find themselves front and center as the competition in Iowa enters the home stretch.

Two prominent journalists who are not particularly sympathetic to the Republicans, Hemi Shalev of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz and Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, warned last week of dire consequences if the candidates for the Republican nomination continue to make strongly pro-Israel statements.

According to Shalev, Iowan Republican voters are Bible-thumpin’ fanatics so itching for “the war between Gog and Magog” that they do not mind if pro-Israel Republican candidates “inflame” the Arab world. A second problem, Shalev claims, is that Iowan voters and other “ordinary Americans” may start to “wonder about the sway this distant country [Israel] holds over American politics and about the motives of the Jews that support it.” In other words, they may become anti-Semitic.

Some years ago, as a Herbert Hoover Presidential Fellow, I spent a little time in and around West Branch, Iowa, Hoover’s birth place, where his presidential library is located and where I did research on Hoover’s interest in Zionism and his response to the Holocaust.

None of the Iowans I met seemed terribly anxious about an impending Apocalypse. I doubt Gog and Magog are any more on the minds of the average Iowan voter than they are on the mind of Hemi Shalev and, in fact, perhaps less so, since those biblical characters actually originate in the Hebrew Bible, which is part of the Israeli school curriculum.

As for Shalev’s notion that “ordinary Americans” in Iowa and elsewhere may turn anti-Semitic, I wonder what he thinks of his colleague Thomas Friedman’s December 14 column in the Times. Friedman asserted that the standing ovations Israel’s prime minister received during his recent address to the United States Congress were “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” Doesn’t that sort of rhetoric feed the canard about Jewish power to which Shalev alluded?

What was remarkable about the applause for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was its breadth. Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans clapped with apparently equal enthusiasm. Congressmen from Iowa and Montana and Utah, who do not depend on Jewish votes or campaign contributions, expressed their support for Israel as strongly as those who represent districts where there are many Jewish voters. It was a striking display of bipartisanship.

Interestingly, Iowa’s own political history offers two of the most notable examples of America’s legacy of bipartisan support for Israel.

One was Guy Gillette, born and raised in the northwest Iowan town of Cherokee, who served three terms in the U.S. Senate. After news of the Holocaust was confirmed in the United States in late 1942, Gillette became the most vocal Senate supporter of the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe (better known as the Bergson Group), a maverick activist group that pressured the Roosevelt administration to rescue Jews from the Nazis. Gillette was a Democrat, and challenging the policies of his own party’s president, in the middle of a world war, was not the most popular thing to do.

“It is not a Jewish problem alone,” Gillette wrote in the preamble to his 1943 resolution urging FDR to create a refugee rescue agency. “It is a Christian problem and a problem for enlightened civilization.” I recently called author and editor Miriam Chaikin, who worked in Gillette’s Senate office in the 1940s, to ask about Gillette’s motives. “He was a Bible-believing Christian,” she told me. “He felt it was his religious duty to help the Jews.”

Iowa’s most famous Republican likewise championed the cause of Jewish refugees. Herbert Hoover, too, was a devout Christian with a heartfelt concern about the Jews, even if he was not known to wear his Quaker faith on his sleeve. In 1939, ex-president Hoover jettisoned his anti-immigration past and endorsed legislation to admit 20,000 German Jewish refugee children. During the Holocaust, Hoover supported the Bergson Group’s rescue campaign and, in 1944, he brought about the GOP’s first-ever adoption of a party plank calling for rescue of Jewish refugees and creation of a Jewish State. That forced the Democrats to adopt a nearly-identical plank. Bipartisan support for Israel has been a part of American political culture ever since.

Both Democrats and Republicans in America’s bible belt have found in their religious faith strong reasons to feel positively about Israel and the Jewish people. That may not always sit well with the pundits, but it has been a healthy part of mainstream American politics for more than six decades and deserves more thoughtful consideration than it has received.

(As published in the Jerusalem Post – December 22, 2011)

December 2011