How Theodore Roosevelt Embarrassed an Anti-Semite While Protecting His Freedom of Speech

November 4, 2022 | Dovi Safier and Yehuda Geberer
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In 1892, Hermann Ahlwardt was elected to the German parliament on an explicitly anti-Semitic platform. Three years later he broke off from his party to found the “Anti-Semitic People’s Party.” Dovi Safier and Yehuda Geberer tell the story of his brief tour of United States in the same year, in which he was feted by the newly formed Anti-Semitic Society of America. At the time, Theodore Roosevelt was New York City’s police commissioner. Safier and Geberer cite the future president’s description of what followed:

“While I was Police Commissioner of New York City, an anti-Semitic preacher from Berlin, Rector Ahlwardt, came to New York to preach a crusade against the Jews. Many Jews were much excited and asked me to prevent him from speaking and not to give him police protection. This, I told them, was impossible; and, if possible, would have been undesirable, because it would make him a martyr. The proper thing to do was to make him ridiculous. Accordingly, I sent a detail of police under a Jewish sergeant, and the Jew-baiter made his harangue under the active protection of some 40 police, every one of them a Jew.”

Safier and Geberer add:

As a result, his U.S. tour wasn’t overly successful, and the American press was full of derision for his stated mission. When he arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey to deliver an address at the local anti-Semitic society, he was berated and beaten by the young Jewish crowd, causing him to draw his (illegally obtained) pistol and wave it at the crowd. This act landed him in prison for disorderly conduct and carrying a concealed weapon. Borrowing a page from Commissioner Roosevelt’s playbook, the authorities in Hoboken placed him in a cell together with his assailants—who surely didn’t file a complaint about overcrowding.

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