Remembering a Jewish Hero and Advocate for Black Americans
As biographer Naomi Cohen showed, Jacob H. Schiff was the prime example during the era of mass immigration of a new “Americanized” style of Jewish leadership.
Schiff was born in 1847 in Frankfurt am Main into an illustrious rabbinic family. His father was a broker for the Rothschilds. Young Schiff defied his family by immigrating to the United States after the Civil War.
He joined the investment house of Kuhn, Loeb & Company, eventually marrying Solomon Loeb’s daughter. Before 1900, he built his banking house into a power on Wall Street.
Schiff was unique for his philanthropic and political zeal, which equaled his financial drive. A Reform Jew who never became a fan of political Zionism, he nevertheless led New York’s German-Jewish elite in outreach to new Jewish immigrants. His charitable endeavors included Montefiore Hospital, the Hebrew Free Loan Society, and Lillian Wald’s Henry Street Settlement that had offshoots in African-American neighborhoods. He funded Hebrew Union College and the creation of the Jewish Theological Seminary, drawing the line at Jewish religious assimilation. He finessed whether or not Jews were a distinctive “race.”
But after 1900, his influence widened. He helped finance Japan during its 1905 war with Russia, despite official US neutrality. He broke with President Theodore Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, over a US-Russia commercial treaty. In the 1912 presidential election, he was friendly to both Roosevelt’s breakaway reform party and winning Democrat Woodrow Wilson, whom as president he lobbied to create the Federal Reserve banking system in 1913. But again, he demonstrated independence by criticizing the Wilson administration for segregating the Federal civil service.
Schiff was at his most controversial during World War I. He patriotically supported the US when it entered the war, but only after doing everything he could to undermine the Russian czarist regime. When the czar fell in 1917, he enthusiastically embraced the Kerensky regime. Then when Lenin toppled Kerensky, Schiff only reluctantly did business with the communist regime to protect Jews. Antisemites to this day slander Schiff as “the father of Russia’s Bolshevik revolution.”
Schiff late in life supported the Technion in Haifa without formally endorsing Jewish statehood. The Jewish masses showed their love for him at his 1920 funeral.
Schiff provided a model for later Jewish activist leaders. He financially supported the NAACP from its founding, and lobbied to ban the film The Birth of a Nation (1915), even producing a film to counter its racism. He attended Booker T. Washington’s funeral in 1915, and had been a major supporter of Washington’s Tuskegee Institute since 1899, when he spoke at a Madison Square rally. His support for African-Americans went back to the 1880s, when Schiff, serving on the City Board of Education, introduced the “Schiff resolution” calling for the “abolishment … of separate schools of different races.”
He’s a role model for us all to follow today.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).