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Prime ministers, presidents and the Jews

(From l-r) Justin Trudeau, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Harper and George Washington
(From l-r) Justin Trudeau, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Harper and George Washington

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberals were recently admonished for not mentioning the Jews (or anyone else, for that matter) in a Jan. 27 press release about International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Did the Liberals make this omission on purpose, or was it an oversight?

Opinion is mixed, to be sure. Trudeau has apologized for the incident. My sense is that the only error was in judgment. We’ll see what happens with future press releases.

During this brouhaha, I started to think about my old friend and boss, former prime minister Stephen Harper. Would he have ever allowed this to happen? Would Jews, and other communities, have been mentioned in a Tory press release instead of “victims,” the umbrella term the Liberals used?


Having held the pen for some of Harper’s speeches, I can confidently say that it never would have happened. The Jewish community would have been mentioned.

It also got me thinking about American presidents and their (mostly) positive relations with Jews. Would they have handled this type of situation the same way as Harper or Trudeau?

Let’s examine two presidents who stand out a bit more than the rest.

George Washington had a very good relationship with the Jewish community. As a strong believer in religious liberty and freedom, he felt all communities had an important role to play in building the country.

In particular, his 1790 letter to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., still stands out as one of the most pro-Semitic documents in early American history.

Washington wrote, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it were by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For, happily, the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

He also wrote this enlightening section, “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Abraham Lincoln, much like Washington before him, also had very good relations with American Jews. “I myself have a regard for the Jews,” he once famously said. 

Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapell’s book, Lincoln and the Jews: A History, shed new light on this rarely discussed subject. Lincoln’s ancestors “were fascinated by Jews, and many in the town bore names,” like he did, “from the Hebrew Bible.” Early on, he was “deeply influenced” by schoolbooks that contained pro-Semitic passages, including Lindley Murray’s The English Reader and William McGuffey’s Eclectic Third Reader. As well, Lincoln’s parents “evinced no interest whatsoever in converting Jews to Christianity,” so he was never taught to think differently of them.


“Lincoln knew Jews,” Shapell noted. This future president “interacted with Jews, represented Jews, befriended Jews, admired Jews, commissioned Jews, trusted Jews, defended Jews, pardoned Jews, took advice from Jews, gave jobs to Jews, extended rights to Jews, revoked an expulsion of Jews, and even chose a Jew as his confidential agent.”

As the authors note, “[h]is relationships with Jews were not exploitative but warm and genuine, and went further and deeper than those of any previous American president.” Lincoln was “influenced by the Jews whom he befriended,” and he “took account of Jewish sensitivities.”

It’s impossible to know how Washington and Lincoln would have handled the press release error. Times were different, and neither man witnessed the Holocaust. But based on their beliefs, support and appreciation of Jews, they would likely have favoured Harper’s strong support over Trudeau’s mea culpa.