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February 10, 2016 6:40 pm

At Presidents Day, Un-presidential ‘Joke’ About Jews is Whitewashed

avatar by Rafael Medoff /

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FDR. Photo: Frank O. Salisbury.

FDR. Photo: Frank O. Salisbury. – Another Presidents Day, another whitewash of a president’s “joke” about Jews.

The latest offender is Susan Butler’s “Roosevelt and Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership” (published in March 2015), a recent entry in the very long list of books about president Franklin D. Roosevelt. It “describes in meticulous detail the proceedings at the Tehran and Yalta conferences,” according to Kirkus Reviews. The Christian Science Monitor agrees that Butler has “a firm grasp on the details.”

Except for one detail that Butler skipped and the reviewers haven’t noticed: an unpleasant “joke” about Jews that Roosevelt told Stalin at Yalta in 1945. Butler is the latest in a long line of FDR-admiring authors and historians who have omitted or minimized what Roosevelt said to Stalin about Jews.

Ten years after Yalta, the State Department released the transcript of FDR’s conversations with Stalin—but several lines were censored because State feared it would harm Roosevelt’s image if the public knew what he said about Jews. U.S. News & World Report revealed the unpleasant truth: when FDR mentioned he would soon be seeing Saudi leader Ibn Saud, Stalin asked if he intended to make any concessions to the king, and “the president replied that there was only one concession he thought he might offer and that was to give him the 6 million Jews in the United States.”

Was the “we-don’t-want-Jews-and-he-wouldn’t-either” spirit of Roosevelt’s remark all in good fun, or did it on some level reflect FDR’s private feelings about Jews? Certainly it was not an isolated instance of such humor. For example, Roosevelt once joked that relatives might suspect his fifth child was Jewish, in view of the baby’s “slightly Hebraic nose.” FDR’s grandson Curtis recalled “hearing the president tell mildly anti-Semitic stories in the White House,” in which “the protagonists were always Lower East Side Jews with heavy accents.”

A number of other major studies of FDR or Yalta likewise have ignored Roosevelt’s remark about Jews, including Conrad Black’s “Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom” (2003) and S.M. Plokhy’s “Yalta: The Price of Peace” (2010).

FDR was far from the only president who enjoyed privately sharing humorous stories laced with ethnic stereotypes. A number of his predecessors and successors did, too.

Woodrow Wilson, for example, was notorious for telling jokes about “darkeys” and “coons,” sometimes with a faux accent and occasionally in less-than-private setting such as Princeton University alumni dinners. Those remarks have been cited in recent testimony by scholars to the Woodrow Wilson Legacy Review Committee, which is considering demands by student activists to remove Wilson’s name from Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs.

Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were reported—after they left office—to have told jokes involving harsh ethnic stereotypes. Ronald Reagan was once caught in an “open mic” moment, joking about Italians and Irishmen.

As public disapproval of racism intensified over the years, the consequences of telling racist jokes became more severe. Agriculture secretary Earl Butz was forced out in 1976 after word leaked of a crude joke he told about African-Americans. In 1983, interior secretary James Watt resigned after telling a harsh ethnic joke about “a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple.”

Yet others have managed to weather the brief storms that their racist jokes caused.

Nothing happened to President Barack Obama’s national security adviser,  James Jones, after he told an unflattering joke about Jewish merchants in 2010. Vice President Joe Biden used a faux Indian accent to mimic telemarketers during a 2012 campaign speech. It was quickly forgotten; Biden’s propensity for gaffes has resulted in a general lowering of the bar when it comes to public reactions to his loose lips.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump, speaking to a Jewish audience in December, joked about Jews being canny negotiators and good at handling money. Even more than Biden, Trump is so well-known for outrageous statements about ethnic groups (and many other subjects) that his Jewish remarks caused barely a ripple.

There may not be a clear public consensus today as to what should happen to a public figure who engages in racist humor. But surely the public is entitled to know if a president, or another elected official, has used such language. Presidents Day is a time to celebrate the accomplishments of our presidents, but it can also be a time for reflecting on some of the less than flattering aspects of our presidents’ records—if historians would candidly share that information with the public.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

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  • John Mustart

    I am shocked to the core. I am a Christian and I will stand with them in the coming persecution of Jews and Christians. Not surprising, America will be one of the main leaders of that persecution. The coming persecution will outdo Hitler. America is slipping into fascism and is virtually there already. 911 is one of the clues.

  • Wm. J. Levy

    Obama is anti-Jew and pro-Arab. Yet,the Jews voted for him just as they voted every time for FDR despite the fact that millions of Jews would have been saved if he lifted a finger to help them.

    Stupid Jews, my stupid people.

  • It is not a secret that FDR was an antisemite, but it was not unusual in America in those days – there was that film made with Jimmy Stewart, about antisemitism in America. I don’t think Obama is any less of an antisemite, but he has to be more PC these days. The problem is that ‘progressive’ American Jews are also self-hating Jews and are afraid to challenge antisemitism in America, especially in politics. Hillary Clinton is no better than Obama and Bernie Sanders is a left-wing self-denying Jew as well. Another problem is that American Jews think that they are SAFE in America when given the present climate on university campuses in particular, they are not at all SAFE from anti-Jewish pogroms.

  • Robert Davis

    roosvelt’s antisemitism is well known and he proved it by not moving a finger for them during ww2. As to Wilson he was a total idiot and a fool’s jokes do not matter.

  • Fred

    It was no secret about FDR anti Semitism. He admired Hitler for resolving the Jewish question. He was complicit in the banning entry to the US to Jews it was well after the war ended that few Jews were allowed into the US, No such restrictions to German NAZI’s & many murderous concentration wardens found refuge in the good old USA.

  • Mickey Oberman

    I understand that at least one of FDR’s ancestors was Jewish.

    I trust he had an authentic Jewish accent when he told his jokes.

    Jews often tell jokes about themselves but with love not any vicious intent.

  • Franklin Delano Paskutnik

    The two-faced FDR was terrified that people would think that he was of Jewish origin (God forbid!)- so this could be one of the reasons for his anti–semitic “jokes”.Perhaps he was just an old-school upper-class American anti-semite like Hitler’s friend Henry Ford and his cabal of Jew-hating millionaires.In fact Hitler embarked on a propaganda campaign to “prove” that Roosevelt’s family was of Jewish origin – to the great embarrassment of FDR and his administration,lest the world think that America is fighting a war for the sake of the Jews.He could also have been pandering to Stalin to get into his good books as everyone knew how much Stalin hated Jews.
    By the way, the “photo” shown as by Frank O.Salisbury is a painting by Salisbury,a member of Britain’s Royal Academy.

  • stevenl

    When u have power U and are in the majority U can do and say anything. At the end it is a matter of EDUCATION!

  • Ephraim

    Naturally nothing happened to James Jones. Why would it? His boss is antisemitic to the bone.

    FDR sheds light on the very difficult ways in which the man is portrayed. There is no question he did incredible good for the US morale during the 1930s, nor his loathing of Adolph Hitler from the beginning. But this is also the man who frequently vacationed in the south and saw firsthand how Black people were treated. He said and did nothing, because he was trying to keep the southern Democratic Party (now firmly GOP) in line with the northern Democratic Party. And his tendencies toward antisemitism speak very loudly indeed. His knowledge of the Holocaust, and very low quotas for Jewish refugees. The fact that he never allowed those low quotas to be filled in any year. His opposition to a Jewish state, and other remarks, such as commiserating over Germany having to put up with so many Jewish doctors and lawyers.

  • Robert B Geller

    Why is it so hard for American Jews to recognize that FDR was truly an anti-Semite. Not only did he tell disgraceful anti-Semitic jokes, he sent boatloads of Jews back to the concentration camps to die, he refused to increase immigration of Eastern European Jews to the US to flee Germany, and he had one of the most anti-Semitic State Departments. FDR hatred of the Jews went way beyond telling a few jokes. Wake Up!