Woodrow Wilson’s Racism & His Support For Zionism

Lawrence Davidson says the flaws of the 28th president must lead Jews to reconsider policies toward the Palestinians. 

Woodrow Wilson accepting Democratic Party nomination, 1916. (Wikimedia Commons)

By Lawrence Davidson 

Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) was born in Staunton, Virginia, to Christian fundamentalist parents — his father was a Presbyterian minister — who supported the Confederacy during the Civil War. Thus, Wilson grew up and was educated in the segregated American South. This upbringing imbued him with both a literal interpretation of the Bible and a lifelong racist outlook which he brought with him to every position, every office he ever held. For instance, while he served as president of Princeton University (1902-1908), he refused to allow the university to admit African Americans.

Official presidential portrait of Woodrow Wilson, 1913, by Frank Graham Cootes. (Wikimedia Commons)

Despite his racist orientation, Princeton subsequently named a school of public policy and international affairs, sub-colleges and buildings for Wilson. Today, in the wake of uprisings against not only police brutality toward African Americans and other minorities, but also America’s racist legacy, Princeton has removed Wilson’s name from these institutions and buildings.

Wilson went on to become the 28th president of the United States (1913-1921). He led the United States into World War I, was instrumental in the founding of the League of Nations, appointed the first Jewish member of the Supreme Court and, notably, facilitated the eventual establishment of a “Jewish national home” in Palestine through his support for the Balfour Declaration (1917).

At the time he remarked, “To think that I, son of the manse [minister’s house], should be able to help restore the Holy Land to its people.” Subsequently, this decision made him as much a hero to Zionists, and American Zionists in particular, as he was a villain to African Americans.

The Zionist Dilemma

Given today’s reaction against the country’s historical racism, American Jews’ understanding of Wilson’s legacy is being debated. The challenge for Zionists is to save Wilson’s heroic image without totally disregarding his racist record. An attempt to do just that came in an essay, published on July 2, in the American Jewish newspaper The ForwardThe essay is entitled “Woodrow Wilson was a hero to Jews. What should we do with his racism?” and was written by Jonathan D. Sarna, a Brandeis University professor of American Jewish history.

Protesters emblazoned Robert E. Lee statue with with guerrilla light projection messages, Dec. 7, 2017. (Richmond DSA, Flickr)

Sarna notes both facets of Wilson’s career. On the one hand “The Jews of his day considered Wilson a hero and a savior, a man of principle and ethical uprightness.” On the other, African Americans “learn a totally different narrative” wherein “Wilson … staunchly defended segregation and characterized Blacks as an ‘ignorant and inferior race.’” 

Sarna seeks to square this circle by retreating to a frankly banal apologia: ”Many a flawed hero accomplished great deeds and changed the institutions and nations they led for the better. … They remind us that good people can do very bad things — and vice versa.” This is poor consolation for African Americans. It also turns out to be a shaky basis for Jewish admiration of Wilson. This is so because the alleged good Woodrow Wilson did for the Jews — his support for the Balfour Declaration — was based on the same racist foundation shaping his behavior toward African Americans.  

Supports Balfour Declaration

What is the connection between Wilson’s racism and his support for the Balfour Declaration? The president was a European race supremacist, or what today would be called a “white supremacist.” As he saw it, African Americans were not the only “ignorant and inferior race” out there. All the non-European peoples, such as those of the Ottoman Empire, including Palestinians, qualified for this designation.

Balfour Declaration as published in The Times, Nov. 9, 1917. (The Times of London, Wikimedia Commons)

On Jan. 8, 1918, in the run-up to America’s entrance into World War I, Wilson announced his “Fourteen Points.” These were the nation’s war aims — notions around which to rally the American people. A major theme that runs throughout these “points” is the promise of self-determination for peoples then under the rule of the enemy Central Powers: Germany, Austria and the Ottoman Empire. Referring specifically to the last-mentioned, point No. 12 reads, “The Turkish portion of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development.”

Such a promise, of course, included the Arabs of the Ottoman province of Greater Syria, which in turn included Palestine and its indigenous population. This pledge might seem to conflict with Wilson’s racist outlook, but one has to keep in mind that point No. 12 was meant as a propaganda piece in support of the broader claim that America was joining a war to make the world safe for democracy. As a vehicle for arousing the enthusiasm of the American people, it was effective. However, it transformed itself into something problematic as soon as Wilson got to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. U.S. allies Britain and France wanted to incorporate most of the Ottoman lands, which they considered the spoils of war, into their own existing empires, and so objected to point No. 12. 

“Mr. President, why not make America safe for democracy?” Caption of this political cartoon about the East St. Louis massacre of blacks by whites in 1917 refers to Wilson’s catch-phrase “The world must be made safe for democracy.” (William Charles Morris, New York Evening Mail, Wikimedia Commons)

Because of his European supremacist point of view, Wilson really had no deep objections to this expansion. The question was how to go along with his allies’ wishes while still appearing to honor the “Fourteen Points.” He achieved this goal in a way that also meshed with his racist worldview. He and his allies established the Mandate System.

Real self-determination was now to be reserved for the European peoples previously belonging to the German, Austrian and Russian empires. For instance, Poland and Serbia, among others, were to be “accorded the freest opportunity for autonomous development.”

Non-European peoples were viewed as unprepared for this reward. They were to be placed under the tutelage of a “mandatory power,” which in the case of most of the Arab lands meant either Britain or France. Such imperial powers, in turn, were to instruct these inferior peoples in the art of self-government.

It should come as no surprise that Palestine was given over to the British as a “mandate territory.” Indeed, the Balfour Declaration was incorporated into the preamble and second article of the mandate document for Palestine.  

Back to Sarna’s Suggestion

Woodrow Wilson supported the Balfour Declaration because he was a Christian fundamentalist who believed that God desired the Jews, whom Wilson understood to have been civilized through long residence in the West, to “return to their ancient home.” The instruments for that return were the Balfour Declaration and the British mandate. The Palestinians were not even relevant to the issue for Wilson.

Council of Four at the WWI Paris peace conference, May 27, 1919: left to right, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Italian Premier Vittorio Orlando; French Premier Georges Clemenceau, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. (Edward N. Jackson, U.S. Signal Corps, Wikimedia Commons)

Given this history, what do we learn when, as Sarna suggests, we “probe more deeply into [our hero’s] flaws”?

—It is now recognized that Wilson’s major flaw was his racist worldview and the behavior that flowed from it.

—This racism was the basis of his mistreatment of African Americans.

—As it turns out, that same racist outlook was part of the basis for his support of the Balfour Declaration — the very act that makes Wilson a hero for both past and present Zionists. 

Now we come to the second part of Sarna’s suggestion, that an examination of the hero’s flaws “invites us to think harder about our own flaws.” What are the resulting implications of such a self-examination for today’s Zionists?

—What sort of flaw in ourselves should an examination of Woodrow Wilson bring Zionist Jews to consider?

—The fact is that contemporary Israeli Jewish and Zionist attitudes toward the Palestinians in many ways mimic those of Woodrow Wilson toward African Americans. 

—If we are to consider Wilson’s racism a flaw from which Jews too can learn, the consequence must be a reconsideration of the inherently racist Zionist attitudes and policies toward the Palestinians.

I do not know if Jonathan Sarna really meant to inspire a serious assessment of Israel’s and Zionism’s flaws through the reexamination of those of their champion, Woodrow Wilson. However, such an assessment would certainly reveal a shared racism. Wilson never ceased to be a racist and, at least since 1917, the Zionists have been following his “heroic” model. How many of them can be counted upon to take up Sarna’s suggestion and look into this shared historical mirror in any honest way?

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history emeritus at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He has been publishing his analyses of topics in U.S. domestic and foreign policy, international and humanitarian law and Israel/Zionist practices and policies since 2010.

This article is from his site, TothePointAnalysis.com.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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14 comments for “Woodrow Wilson’s Racism & His Support For Zionism

  1. robert e williamson jr
    July 16, 2020 at 20:07

    Back to Sarna’s Suggestion

    Woodrow Wilson supported the Jews because he was a Christian fundamentalist who believed that God desired the Jews , whom Wilson understood so have been civilized through long residence in the West, to return to their ancient home.”

    “So believing he was doing the work of God he stuck his nose in where it did not belong.” Could have been the next line. Which could then have been followed by, “So here we are after a hundred years still dealing with the mess he helped to create.”

    The Church according to the constitution is supposed to be separate from the state and a hundred years after Wilson we still having politicians, deranged as they may be, calling some shots for God.

    I guess if you feel that God calls all the shots, you need to be in church on Sunday but running for elected office is maybe something you should avoid, especially if you are thinking that your office should be used to further His teaching or interfere in His work. Like I said the constitution does not green light including God’s work into one’s official duties while in office,

    What the hell do these people think, that Jesus and God could be racist? Absolutely baffling.

    Is this why J.J. Angelton turned his head and looked away when the USAEC somehow managed to deliver highly enriched U-235 to Zalmon Shapiro’s NUMEC which in turn turned a large amount of it over to the Israelis. Bad things happened, very bad things!

    I’m sure the reason this seemed OK to whom ever because God wanted it that way. Maybe if Israel didn’t have thermonuclear weapons the U.S. might not fear them so much.

    I personally, have had enough of these pompous assed, self-righteous fools to last two lifetimes, them and people like Hitler are the true crushers of souls. The current POTUS makes it official, people who think like the Mango Mussolini should never be allowed to run for the highest office in the land.

    Now if we could figure out just how to wrestle the DOJ from the likes of uncover CIA operative Billy P. Barr.

  2. Cadogan Parry
    July 16, 2020 at 14:25

    The essay by Jonathan Sarna includes the historical revisionist charge that American Black leader W. E. B. Du Bois “reviled Jews”.

    Such “anti-Semitic” calumnies aimed at Du Bois narrowly emphasize a few objectionable references to Jews in The Souls of Black Folk (1903).

    In fact, Du Bois was a long-time enthusiastic supporter of Jewish self-determination whose views were featured in numerous Jewish publications, including The Forward’s predecessor, The Jewish Daily Forward.

    In “W. E. B. Du Bois and Jews: A Lifetime of Opposing Anti-Semitism” (Journal of African American History, 2002), Benjamin Sevitch observes that from 1903 until his death in 1963, Du Bois’ references to Jews were “unambiguously positive”. In 1936, Du Bois described German persecution of Jews as “an attack on civilization, comparable only to such horrors as the Spanish Inquisition and the African slave trade.”

    In “Re-reading W. E. B. Du Bois: the global dimensions of the US civil rights struggle” (Journal of Global History, 2012). Eve Darian-Smith notes that the Nazi Holocaust “affirmed Du Bois’ thinking that the same forces that created the oppression of African peoples in the colonial margins could also create oppression and genocide at the centres of Western imperial states, most notably the United States.”

    Du Bois’ call for blacks to be equally treated developed into a more nuanced understanding of racism as a globally interconnected system of oppression. However, his active support of the principle of universal human rights was contradicted by his uncritical endorsement of the Jewish settler colonial project in Palestine. He and many other American Black leaders firmly supported the creation of a Jewish state in 1948, but this support was increasingly untenable as the racist realities of Israeli government oppression of Palestinian people became more widely known.

    Sarna’s slander against Du Bois is inexcusable.

  3. Priscilla Rich
    July 15, 2020 at 17:46

    The elimination of the name Woodrow Wilson on the School of Public Policy on the Princeton campus is coming at a fitting time, especially with the recent NYTimes publication of Dimitry Shumsky’s op-ed on the new for a post-Nation-State in Israel. He joins Ali Abunimah, in stating that a binational state in Israel/Palestine is the only path forward. He published a book on the subject, like Abunimah did. Our world narrative is getting us to this as the only solution. It would pass Einstein’s test for Israel too, that it treat its neighbors well.

  4. Susan Siens
    July 15, 2020 at 13:35

    It never seems to occur to people that support for the creation of Israel can easily be interpreted as support for getting Jewish people the hell out of “our country.” I would assume that Wilson’s white supremacy saw Jews as non-whites as they are by white supremacists today, and thought “our country” would be purer without them. Then you get to mask this anti-Semitism in a cloak of deep concern for a “Jewish homeland.” If you think my hypothesis is crazy, why didn’t the U.S. offer asylum to all Jews fleeing fascist Europe? I wish the dude who wrote the article for The Forward would spend a few minutes pondering Woodrow Wilson’s actual attitude towards Jewish people.

    • Barbara
      July 15, 2020 at 15:19

      FDR was not pro Jew. He refused to allow Jews from the German ship MS St. Louis. FDR excuse was it would inflame difficulties. After a month in Havana harbor it returned to Europe. Belgium, France, England would take the passengers. There

      July 15, 2020 at 15:33

      You make a strong point.

      Not a lot of Americans appreciate just how anti-Semitic the America of Wilson’s day was.

      Ivy League schools had strict quotas. That fact was part of the impulse for the founding of Brandeis University in the late 1940s.

      Private clubs and many organizations of every description had bans or quotas.

      And not only did America offer no refuge to Jews fleeing Europe before WWII, it turned away boatloads of them.

      Hitler’s early tactic for “the Jewish problem” was to send Jews abroad.

      When countries like the United States sent boatloads of them back home, he said it only confirmed his view that nobody wanted them.

      His sincerity in the effort is not known, whether he was just playing a nasty game and emphasizing that it wasn’t just he that hated Jews.

      But the US response is well known.

    • Jeffrey Blankfort
      July 16, 2020 at 01:19

      One may well ask were their no demands on the part of the major Jewish organizations for the government to offer Jews fleeing Europe asylum in the US? It wasn’t that Jewish organizations had ever been shy about making demands on the government and, after all, at a major meeting at Madison Square Garden in March, 1933, they had called on the world to boycott Germany, despite entreaties on the part of the German Jewish leadership not do so for reasons that were painfully obvious. Only the American Jewish Com. and B’nai B’rith followed their lead and opposed it. The next day newspapers around the world carried the headline, “Jews Declare War on Germany!” The worst fears of the German Jews, only a minority of whom were Zionists had come to pass.

      So why were the major Jewish organizations silent less than decade later when Europe’s Jews were looking to escape? For the Zionists in Israel, as expressed by David Ben-Gurion, if the Jews were allowed to go anywhere but Palestine, the dream of Zionism would be dead which is why the Zionists sabotaged international refugee efforts that were being made by other countries. In the US, there were Jews who feared a rise in antisemitism if Jews from Poland’s ghettos were allowed to settle in the US, reflecting an internal form of antisemitism that became obvious when Israel’s Ashkenazi Jews brought in Jews from the Middle East and No. Africa to replace the Palestinians who they had ethnically cleansed as a source of cheap labor.

    • pmaklad
      July 17, 2020 at 07:51

      Exactly, Susan Siens, Zionism is antisemitic . It infers that Jews are unable to live in a multi culture and must therefore be roped off on their own .

  5. Gregory Herr
    July 14, 2020 at 19:32

    “Wilson never ceased to be a racist and, at least since 1917, the Zionists have been following his “heroic” model. How many of them can be counted upon to take up Sarna’s suggestion and look into this shared historical mirror in any honest way?”
    Interesting article and good suggestion. But the answer to this question is none, nada, zilch. Sometimes a racist attitude can be overcome by a change of heart—but the results of Zionism have gone far beyond “attitude”, culminating in a barbaric and systematic oppression marked by regular and sustained atrocities against fellow human beings. They won’t hold that mirror up—the capacity for fair-minded reflection (at least and certainly within the ranks of “policymakers”) is too far gone.

  6. montag2
    July 14, 2020 at 19:28

    “On Jan. 8, 1918, in the run-up to America’s entrance into World War I, Wilson announced his “Fourteen Points.”

    Umm, no. War had already been declared by the United States against Germany on April 6, 1917. Even the U.S.’s declaration of war against the Austrian-Hungarian empire was made December 17, 1917. The U.S. was well-involved in that bloody mess of a war for eight months before Wilson’s announcement.

    • July 14, 2020 at 22:15

      Wilson was the worst American president because of his deception to the public about joining World War I. America’s entry prolonged the war by two more years, killing millions more, and led to the revolution in Russia and World War II.

      Watch “The Genocide Called World War I” see: youtube.com/watch?v=psXYMiBM1JE

    • DW Bartoo
      July 15, 2020 at 13:01

      Congress did declare war on Germany on April, 06, 1917, montag2.

      However, U$ troops did not arrive in Europe until the Summer of 1918.

      It was many months from the declaration of war to actual deployment of troops, at least fourteen which, very likely (a phrase forever, now, bound to the evidence free assertions of Russiagate), explains the author’s suggestion that war efforts were still abuilding in early 1918.

  7. R N Dalton
    July 14, 2020 at 19:14

    Excellent article written with clear basic undeniable ` supported facts `one can find by closely scrutinizing this subject matter even further with the vast array of research available on the internet,however,deliberately and intentionally ignored at the highest level.
    One sure hopes that the currently ` righteous protest against Zionist Jews racism ` will further advance the Palestinians human rights.

    • Linda Furr
      July 15, 2020 at 13:08

      Ya got it! Who can deny US support of racism in its support of Israel no matter what Israel does to Palestinians?

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