The Volokh Conspiracy

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When in Doubt, Consult the Bible? [UPDATE: Added Response from Amity Shlaes]


Writer Amity Shlaes had an interesting review of Ken Burns's The U.S. and the Holocaust in City Journal; I have no informed opinion on the review generally, but I was puzzled by one item:

It is in the second episode that the filmmakers turn to Franklin Roosevelt, the only president forced to contend with the Third Reich while in office. Roosevelt himself was capable of bigotry. During his first election campaign, Roosevelt allowed himself a kind of casual but nasty xenophobia, as in a San Francisco speech in which he assailed the Chicago electricity magnate Samuel Insull, who was taking his employees down with him as his firm failed. Roosevelt spoke against "the Ishmael or Insull, whose hand is against every man's," a line so creepy one can only ask, "What does that mean?" In his March 1933 inaugural address, just weeks before Hitler opened his first concentration camp, Roosevelt channeled Henry Ford on international capital, claiming that "the rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed" and that "practices of the unscrupulous money changers"—code for Jewish Wall Street—"stand indicted." Burns covers none of this.

Roosevelt apparently did hold some anti-Semitic sentiments (which were of course quite common at the time). And the line about "the Ishmael or Insull" might indeed yield a "What does that mean?" reaction. But a bit of quick Googling led even Bible-ignorant me to Genesis 16:11-12:

11 And the angel of the Lord said unto her, Behold, thou art with child and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the Lord hath heard thy affliction.

12 And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.

This seems to fit with the Roosevelt sentence that the review was quoting:

Whenever in the pursuit of this objective the lone wolf, the unethical competitor, the reckless promoter, the Ishmael or Insull whose hand is against every man's, declines to join in achieving an end recognized as being for the public welfare, and threatens to drag the industry back to a state of anarchy, the Government may properly be asked to apply restraint.

The theory is that Insull (who was apparently not Jewish, but the son of a lay preacher) was just out for himself, rather than working harmoniously with others, which connects to Ishmael, whose "hand" was "against every man, and every man's hand against him." And my guess is that Roosevelt's 1932 audience knew the Bible enough not to react with "What does that mean?," or view the line as "creepy."

In any case, I thought I'd pass this along. Perhaps I myself am mistaken on this; again, I'm no history writer (while Shlaes is one) and certainly no Bible expert. Still, I wonder whether this item is an illustration of how easy it is for people to miss the extent to which Biblical references have been common in Western life.

UPDATE 3/3/2023: I had reached out to Shlaes before posting this, but hadn't heard from her in time. She has since gotten back to me, and wrote,

Ishmael is an important figure in the Bible. Abraham loved him. It was not the name Ishmael but the particular description of Ishmael that Roosevelt selected to make a comparison to Insull that caught my attention: Genesis 16:12, " And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man…" Sam Insull was the innovator who wired Chicago. He could be a rogue, but he was hardly evil. By the choice of that line from Scripture FDR appeared to make clear that he would not hesitate to smear his targets and escalate class war. To the public the comparison was doubtless disconcerting.