(July 13, 2020 / JNS) With the decision by the Museum of Natural History in New York City, in conjunction with Mayor Bill de Blasio, to remove the equestrian statue of former President Theodore Roosevelt, it’s time to revisit the life of this exceptional human being.
As the 26th president of the United States (1901-09), he combined his life as a crusader for truth, outdoorsman, naturalist, police commissioner, soldier, assistant secretary of the Navy and vice president into one spectacular synthesis and tapestry. The reason his monument stood from 1940 until now in front of the museum is that he did more for wildlife preservation than any other president.
Unlike his modern-day critics, he was a true progressive. In 1901, he was the first president to invite a black leader to dine with him at the White House. By hosting Booker T. Washington, Roosevelt was heavily criticized, but he stood his ground and did it anyway.
On Feb. 13, 1905, speaking to the New York City Republican Club, he warned that the debasement of the blacks would, in the end, carry with it the debasement of the whites. His famous line—“A rising tide raises all ships”—was said at that time.
Roosevelt also had a good relationship with the Jewish people. He was the first president ever to appoint a Jew to a Cabinet post. He made Oscar Solomon Strauss secretary of Commerce and Labor. Strauss’s brothers co-owned R.H. Macy and Company. One died on The Titanic.
Roosevelt’s Calvary regiment, known as the “Rough Riders,” in the Spanish-American War of 1898, had a significant number of Jews. The first to die among his “Rough Riders” was Jacob Wilbusky, a 16-year-old cowboy from Texas.
As president, he opposed labeling Jews as a separate race on their passports. He said, “I should no more have a man entered on a passport as a Hebrew than as an Episcopalian, or a Baptist or a Roman Catholic.”
In 1903, he issued a strong rebuke to the Russian czar after the murder of 49 Jews in the Kishinev Pogrom.
In 1906, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the mediation of the Russo-Japanese War. He donated a portion of his prize to the National Jewish Welfare Board. My grandfather, Samuel Frager, of blessed memory, fought in the Russo-Japanese War. President Roosevelt’s efforts to end the war might well have saved my grandfather’s life. In addition, my grandfather was able to come to America soon after the war because of Roosevelt’s immigration policies. So I personally have a lot to thank Roosevelt for.
In addition, Roosevelt in 1873, at age 15, visited Israel and stopped at a building that now belongs to Ateret Cohanim (I have been associated with this organization since 1985) in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem, which was previously known as the “Mediterranean Hotel.”
In 1918, after the Balfour Declaration, his overwhelming support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine was evident when he said, “It seems to me that it is entirely proper to start a Zionist state around Jerusalem.”
Roosevelt passed away 101 years ago at age 60, but his memory and legacy will last forever. It is a shame and a disgrace that the Museum of Natural History in New York caved to the “cancel culture.”
He deserved better.
Dr. Joseph Frager is first vice president of the National Council of Young Israel.
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