Eleanor Roosevelt, The Jewish Plight, and the Founding of Israel: Q&A with John F. Sears

We talked to John F. Sears, the author of Refuge Must Be Given: Eleanor Roosevelt, the Jewish Plight, and the Founding of Israel, about his motivations for writing the book, some of the new subjects the books covers, and some other aspects of Eleanor Roosevelts legacy.

Refuge Must Be Given details the evolution of Eleanor Roosevelt from someone who harbored negative impressions of Jews to become a leading Gentile champion of Israel in the United States.

Q: What brought this part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s legacy to your attention, and what motivated you to write a book on it?

John F. Sears: When I was associate editor of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, I helped edit ER’s correspondence from the period 1945 through 1948. In letters she exchanged with President Harry Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall in 1948 about the Truman administration’s position on the future of Palestine, I was struck by how passionately she advocated on behalf of the plan adopted by the UN to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. ER strongly objected to the Truman administration’s plan in March to pursue the establishment of a UN trusteeship for Palestine when the British mandate came to an end in May rather than push immediately for the implementation of the partition plan. I wanted to know the origins of her commitment to partition and of her devotion to Israel once it was established.


Q: Though Eleanor Roosevelt is perhaps the most studied and popular first lady in American history, this part of her legacy has received little attention. Why do you think that is?

Sears: Good question. In the case of American refugee policy and the Holocaust, historians have focused extensively on FDR and the response of his administration. While they have noted (usually very briefly) that Eleanor Roosevelt advocated on behalf of refugees, she has been treated as a peripheral actor on this issue. In the case of the future of Palestine and Israel, liberals at the time were generally supportive, even enthusiastic about Israel’s founding and accomplishments. Politics have changed since the occupation of the West Bank, and many liberals today are critical of Israel. Perhaps that ER harbored stereotypes of Jews fairly late into her life, embraced Israel uncritically, and was unsympathetic to the Arab political stance on Israel are, for some people, jarring to her image as a great humanitarian. I myself found these topics challenging to deal with.


Decorative picture of book cover


Q: Eleanor Roosevelt certainly wasn’t always a champion of Judaism or Jewish people, as her views changed drastically over the course of her life. Why is understanding this evolution important in understanding her?

Sears: Eleanor Roosevelt grew up in an antisemitic society and absorbed the social antisemitism of her class. She gradually shed these attitudes as she worked closely with Jewish colleagues in addressing political and social issues. But even after she began campaigning against antisemitism, she continued to harbor stereotypes of Jews and to share the view that there was a “Jewish problem” that could be mitigated if Jews were distributed more widely geographically and among the professions. She does not appear to have completely shed this attitude until World War II or, perhaps, until the success of the Jews in establishing Israel created a different image of the Jew in American culture. But she firmly believed and repeatedly argued that everyone, whatever their religion, race, or ethnic background, was entitled to equal rights. She applied this principle to African Americans as well as to Jews.

ER was ahead of her time in many ways, including in her evolving attitude toward Jews. But it is important to understand that just as many Americans today have recently become more aware of how they continue to harbor racist stereotypes, despite their opposition to racism, ER’s rejection of antisemitism had not completely banished the old Jewish stereotypes from her consciousness. Prejudice is deeply embedded in our culture and not easily rooted out of our minds, even when we strive to do so.


Q: What are a few things that are being studied for the first time in this book?

Sears: Eleanor Roosevelt’s partnership with Clarence Pickett, executive director of the American Friends Service Committee, in advocating for the admission of more refugees, both Jewish and Christian, to the United States. The two of them also tried to educate the American public about the contributions refugees made to the country, and they sought to welcome refugees and care for them once they arrived in this country. As honorary chairman of the United States Committee for the Care of European Children, ER had a special concern for unaccompanied child refugees. She and Pickett also fought against antisemitism, which was rampant in the United States at the time.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s efforts to prod Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles to speed up the visa process and to facilitate the issuing of visas to applicants who were having difficulty obtaining one. Welles was widely seen as sympathetic to refugees, unlike most of his colleagues in the State Department, but he was captive to the bureaucratic system and to his own rigid personality. He failed to challenge his colleagues regarding the slowness of the visa process and insisted to ER that it was functioning well.

The evolution of Eleanor Roosevelt’s views on the future of Palestine and her ultimate commitment to the establishment of a Jewish state.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s attitude toward the Palestinian Arabs, who, she felt, had wrongly opposed the United Nations plan to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. ER sympathized with the Arab refugees and advocated for their care and resettlement. She regarded the Arab refusal to recognize Israel, negotiate a peace, and resettle the refugees in other Arab countries, however, as the principal cause of ongoing conflict.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s role as World Patron of Youth Aliyah, the organization that brought unaccompanied children to Palestine and later Israel and trained them to become productive citizens and nation builders. ER traveled to Israel four times and toured Youth Aliyah training centers and youth villages. She was fascinated by the various educational strategies employed by Youth Aliyah to integrate newly arrived child immigrants into a unified national culture. She also raised funds for Hadassah, Youth Aliyah’s major sponsor, and visited Hadassah medical facilities when she was in Israel.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s warm relationship with Israel and admiration for its leaders. ER regarded the energy and innovative way Israel approached its own development and the education of children as a model for other newly independent nations to emulate. “There is no country as exciting as Israel,” she said.


Q: In an ideal world, how would you like this book to affect ER’s legacy?

Sears: I hope readers will continue to admire Eleanor Roosevelt for the extraordinary leader she was, but gain a more complete and complex understanding of her views and achievements, including her shortcomings. Throughout her career, ER partnered with American Jews in addressing issues she cared deeply about, including refugees, religious tolerance, the civil rights of African Americans, child welfare, public health, and human rights. ER’s devotion to Israel was in many ways the culmination of that career. Yet many people, including Jews, are unaware of ER’s role during the founding of Israel and her ongoing relationship with the new nation. I hope Refuge Must Be Given will illuminate this important chapter in ER’s long and productive life.

Thank you to John! If you would like to know more about this book you can order your own copy or request it from your local library.

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