Eleanor Roosevelt, Liberalism, and Israel

Article excerpt

Eleanor Roosevelt was a leading American liberal and diplomat after World War II. Historians have long noted her strong support for the State of Israel and have attributed it to the decline of antisemitism, the legacy of the Holocaust, and the Cold War. These factors were significant, but perhaps equally important in understanding her attitudes were her liberalism and her Jewish friends. Israel was an American-style reformist republic, putting into action social programs reminiscent to Eleanor Roosevelt and others of the New Deal. For that reason, liberals in particular were enthusiastic supporters of the new state. In addition, Eleanor Roosevelt's support for Israel was shaped by her intimate relationships with a number of Jews-especially in the postwar period-most of whom supported Israel. The extent to which her Jewish friends and liberal ideals influenced her view of Israel is the subject of this article.

Following her first visit to Israel in 1952, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote home to her aunt, "Israel was one of the most exciting experiences I have ever had."1 Her enthusiasm never diminished. Eleanor Roosevelt was a strong supporter of Israel from that nation's founding in 1948 until her death in 1962. Yet her call in 1947 for the creation of a Jewish state would probably not have been predicted from a study of her earlier opinions, even those as late as 1946. Until now, much of the explanation for her support for Israel has been attributed to the decline of American antisemitism, the legacy of the Holocaust, and the spreading Cold War. These factors were significant, but perhaps equally important in understanding Eleanor Roosevelt's attitudes toward Israel were her liberalism and her Jewish friends.

Eleanor Roosevelt was among the most important American liberals of the decade and a half after World War II.2 Her leadership was notable in liberal political circles as well as in the public culture where she used her newspaper column, articles in the popular press, books, and appearances to great advantage-particularly in championing the cause of Israel. Americans, Eleanor Roosevelt among them, felt a vicarious thrill to see Israel advance politically, economically, and culturally at a time when the United States faced the possibility of flabby softness in a world of postwar luxury.3 The Jewish state was an American-style reformist republic, putting into action numerous social programs reminiscent to Mrs. Roosevelt4 and others of the New Deal. For that reason, liberals in particular were enthusiastic supporters of the new state. Importantly, the sanguine views of Israel's supporters were echoed in and reinforced by the public culture, including the mainstream press, popular fiction, and the speeches of prominent politicians. From the late 1940s through the early 1960s (when Mrs. Roosevelt died), the dominant image of Israel in American culture was that of an ideal liberal enterprise: progressive, modern, heterogeneous, youthful, democratic, and Western.5

Eleanor Roosevelt's support for Israel was shaped not only by her liberal ideals, but also by her intimate relationship with a number of Jews. Historians have previously argued that her views were affected greatly by her personal relationships, and that those relationships helped to increase her support for civil rights and liberal causes.6 Yet the significance of her personal relationships has not been fully appreciated in examinations of Mrs. Roosevelt's attitudes toward Israel. As historian Frank Costigliola suggests, we can "widen diplomatic history by exploring the connections between the personal and public lives of foreign policy makers."7 Eleanor Roosevelt began forming close relationships with Jews in the 1920s and continued up through her death in 1962. The people with whom she was closest later in life-outside of her family-were Jews. Moreover, most of those friends supported Zionism and, later, Israel. The extent to which they influenced Mrs. …