The Damascus Affair

President Martin Van Buren

Credit:Mathew Brady/Metropolitan Museum of Art

Perhaps you’re wondering about the identity of the handsome looking man in the old-fashioned photograph (taken by famed 19th century photographer Mathew Brady) above.

If you guessed it’s the only American president whose first language was not English, you’d be correct.

If you guessed it’s the first American president to be born after the U.S. declared its independence, you’d be correct, as well.

Even if you guessed that it’s Martin Van Buren, namesake for one of the better episodes of the classic TV sitcom Seinfeld, you’d still be correct.

The man above is Martin Van Buren, 8th President of the United States of America. Born on this day in 1782 (yes, he was the first president to be born in an America free from English rule), Van Buren was raised in a Dutch family (they were patriots, of course, with his father fighting for America during the Revolutionary War) and only learned English once he went to school. But it was his involvement in an international scandal known as the Damascus Affair that brings this most international of presidents to our attention.

In 1840, the final year of Van Buren’s presidency, a French friar named Father Thomas disappeared in Damascus, Syria. With the city under Muslim Ottoman rule at the time, its Egyptian governor hoped to court French Christian favor by falsely blaming this Christian’s death on Jews (yet another instance in the millennia-long practice of blood libel).

The accusation did its job, sparking animosity in the Holy Land. Jews were tortured to death. A synagogue was burned.

But around the world, both Jewish communities and those who stood with them spoke out against the disgrace. And one of the loudest supporters of the Jews of Damascus was President Martin Van Buren, who made an official protest and showed that he was truly a bridge builder ahead of his time and a friend of the Jewish people.

Tags: Blood Libel Damascus Affair History Judaism Martin Van Buren presidents Syria United States

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