1887: U.S. Names Jewish Minister to Ottoman Empire

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Oscar Straus, envoy to the Ottoman Empire and 3rd United States Secretary of Commerce and Labor: Shown seated.
Oscar Straus, envoy to the Ottoman Empire and 3rd United States Secretary of Commerce and Labor.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On March 24, 1887, Oscar Straus was nominated by U.S. President Grover Cleveland to be the country’s minister – at the time the top-ranked title for an American diplomatic emissary -- to the Ottoman Empire. He was the second Jew to reach such a vaunted position (the first having been August Belmont, who was posted to the Netherlands in 1854).

In 1906, Straus became the first Jew to be appointed to a cabinet position, when President Theodore Roosevelt named him secretary of commerce and labor.

Selling to, then buying Macy's

Oscar Solomon Straus was from a family that in general, left its mark on the United States and on the Jewish people. The youngest of the five children of Lazaraus Straus and his second wife, Sara Straus (a cousin), Oscar was born on December 23, 1850, in Otterberg, in the Rhenish Palatinate.

In 1852, Lazarus sailed to America, and settled in Talbotton, Georgia, where his family joined him two years later. There he opened a dry-goods store. Shortly after the end of the Civil War, in 1865, the family moved north to New York City, where Lazarus imported crockery and glassware.

When Oscar’s brothers, Isidore and Nathan, joined the business, they began selling their wares at the R.H. Macy emporium, which they eventually bought, turning it into one of America’s best-known retail stores. (Isidore died in 1912 on the Titanic; the Israeli city of Netanya is named for Nathan, an important philanthropist.)

Oscar was the brother who didn’t devote his life to business, although he did give some years to it, after undergraduate studies and law school, at Columbia University, and eight years of law practice in New York, between 1873 and 1881. But while working with the family company, Straus began to become involved in reformist politics, at both the municipal level and then, in working for the election of Grover Cleveland as president, in 1884.

As a reward, Cleveland named him U.S. minister to Constantinople in 1887, a position he held until 1889, when Cleveland left the White House. He held the position again under William McKinley, 1898-1900, and then was ambassador from 1909-10.

Starting with Straus, and for the next three decades, through the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, after which the Ottoman Empire was dismantled, it became a tradition for a Jew to serve in the position. American Jews, who were becoming increasingly concerned about the situation of their brethren in Palestine, felt the practice was highly important. 

In the Ottoman capital, Straus was held in high regard, and in 1887 he was asked by both the sultan and Jewish-French businessman Emile de Hirsch to arbitrate a dispute between them regarding a railroad laid by Hirsch from Turkey to Europe. Straus resolved the problem, while turning down the honorarium of 1 million francs the two men offered him for his help.  

Member of the Hague

In that same spirit, in 1902 Straus was named a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, a position he held until 1924. Not a court at all, the body serves on an ad hoc basis to help states and international organizations resolve disputes between them by peaceful means. According to his biographer Naomi Cohen, he held this position in higher esteem than all his other lofty appointments.

President Theodore Roosevelt, said Straus, told him he selected him to be commerce secretary, in 1906, because “I want to show Russia [where violent anti-Jewish activity was rampant] and some other countries what we think of Jews in this country.” Nonetheless, as the country’s first Jewish cabinet secretary, the appointment of Straus was nothing to take for granted. It was an occasion both for expressions of anti-Semitism, but also for much of the press to look at the contributions made by Jews to American society.

Oscar Straus had a scholarly side, which was reflected in the four books he wrote and published, one of them a biography of Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island as a bastion of religious freedom, another a history of American’s republican form of government. He would die on May 3, 1926, in New York.