One hundred years ago this week, an unsung champion of the Zionist cause who has not received his due won a landslide victory in the race for the White House. And since his important contribution to the eventual establishment of the modern State of Israel has largely been overlooked, now would seem to be a fitting time to recall with gratitude what Warren G. Harding did for the Jewish people.
On November 2, 1920, Harding, a Republican, garnered 60.2% of the popular vote and a whopping 404 electoral votes to be elected the 29th president of the United States. He took office on March 4, 1921, (only in 1937 was the presidential inauguration switched to January 20), and died on August 2, 1923, barely half-way through his first and only term. Nonetheless, in that brief period, Harding did a great deal to lay the groundwork for future US support of the yet-to-be reborn Jewish state.
To begin with, following in the footsteps of his predecessor Woodrow Wilson, Harding did not hesitate publicly to express sympathy for Zionism and its lofty aims. On June 1, 1921, less than three months after taking the oath of office, Harding presciently noted, "It is impossible for one who has studied at all the service of the Hebrew people to avoid the faith that they will one day be restored to their historic national home and there enter on a new and yet greater phase of their contribution to the advance of humanity." Subsequently, on January 13, 1922, Harding hosted Nahum Sokolow, the president of the Executive Committee of the World Zionist Congress, at the White House for nearly an hour and expressed "sympathy for Zionism" while also promising "the further support of the United States government." The meeting gave Sokolow and his delegation an important boost in their efforts to drum up American support for a Jewish state.
Several months later, on May 11, 1922, in a letter to a Zionist committee, the president wrote, "I am very glad to express my approval and hearty sympathy for the effort of the Palestine Foundation fund in behalf of the restoration of Palestine as a homeland for the Jewish people. I have always viewed with an interest, which I think is quite as much practical as sentimental, the proposal for the rehabilitation of Palestine and the restoration of a real Jewish nationality, and I hope the efforts now being carried on in this and other countries in this behalf may meet the fullest measure of success." Similarly, in a missive sent to the Zionist Organization of America on June 25 of that year, he exclaimed even more forcefully, "A long-time interest, both sentimental and practical, in the Zionist movement causes me to wish that I might meet the members of the organization and express the esteem which I feel in behalf of the great movement".
BUT HARDING did not limit himself merely to speaking out in support of Zionism, the national-liberation movement of the Jewish people. He also deployed his presidential pen to make Zionist history.
On September 21, 1922, Harding signed the Lodge-Fish Resolution, a joint resolution passed unanimously by both houses of Congress that endorsed the 1917 Balfour Declaration in which the British government had expressed its support for the creation of a Jewish national home in the Land of Israel.
The resolution had been introduced in June 1922 by two Republicans, Rep. Hamilton Fish III and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, but quickly gained widespread bipartisan approval. Indeed, Congressman James A. Gallivan (D-MA) said that he hoped it would "be a source of encouragement to the Jewish people in their struggle to repatriate themselves to the land from which they were exiled by force." Not surprisingly, both the US State Department and The New York Times opposed the resolution, but the president ignored their protestations and insisted on giving it his seal of approval.
By adding his signature, Harding conferred official US backing upon the aims of the Zionist movement, further legitimizing it in the eyes of many Americans as well as many Jews, some of whom had been wary of openly espousing Zionism for fear of what their non-Jewish neighbors might think, but the bipartisan vote, together with the president's imprimatur, helped to allay those fears. Moreover, it set the stage for subsequent US administrations to support Israel both in 1948 when it was established and beyond.
The signing of the resolution epitomized Harding's deeply-held conviction that the Jewish people would inevitably return to the land of their ancestors. Just a few weeks prior, on August 21, 1922, when he sent out New Year's greetings to American Jewry, Harding movingly wrote, "The commemoration this year of Rosh Hashanah, the New Year day of the Jewish people, will mark the end of a year peculiarly notable in Jewish annals. It has seemed the definite assurance to the Jewish people that their long aspiration for re-establishment of Jewish nationality in the homeland of this great people is to be definitely realized. This is an event of notable significance, not only to the Jewish people but to their friends and well-wishers everywhere, among whom the American nation has always been proud to be numbered." Less than a year later, Harding died suddenly at the age of 57. Although he was extremely popular at the time, his reputation suffered a terrible blow when a series of scandals and extramarital affairs came to light after his death. Indeed, among historians, he has long been ranked as one of the worst presidents in American history. Nevertheless, the Jewish people owe Harding a debt of gratitude for promoting Zionism and giving the cause of Jewish statehood an important lift, particularly in the aftermath of the Balfour Declaration. In doing so, he took a principled stand, defying the critics and setting a precedent for his successors, one that lives on until today.
And for that, the Jewish people can and should always be grateful.