U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaking at a town meeting at the Phoenix Convention Centre in Arizona in July 2015. While a Jewish American president would be a first, many other countries have had Jewish leaders. (photo from Flickr user Gage Skidmore via commons.wikimedia.org)
U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is the first Jew to win a presidential primary and, given that he is only one of two Democratic hopefuls in the race, there is the possibility of a Jewish president after this fall’s election.
But this milestone isn’t such a milestone when one looks around the world, and the United States – with its approximately seven-million-strong Jewish population (including children) – could be considered behind the curve. After all, Italy, France, New Zealand, Panama, Peru and Russia all have had multiple Jewish heads of state or heads of government in the past century or so. Such places as El Salvador, Honduras, Guyana, the Dominican Republic and Norway, with relatively few Jews, have all had Jewish heads of state.
We know some of the stories of antiquity, with Jewish leaders of lands other than Israel. The most famous are Joseph, as viceroy of Egypt; Moses, the prince of Egypt; and, in the fifth-century BCE, Queen Esther in Persia. Among others are:
- In the early first century, Queen Julia Bernice II, married the Cilician king, Polemon II of Pontus.
- Queen Shushandukht ruled Persia (and some of Mesopotamia) in the fifth century.
- Beginning around the fourth century, Jewish kings and queens reigned in Ethiopia for about a millennia.
- King Abu Karib ruled Yemen in the fifth century and, a hundred years later, King Dhu Nowas.
- Queen Dahiya Kahina reigned in Algeria in the early eighth century.
In modernity, there are/were dozens of Jewish prime ministers, presidents and vice-presidents outside of Israel. As best as we can figure, with some latitude for converts, those born Jewish but raised in another religion, high-ranking officials that were a heartbeat (or two) from becoming head of state, and those who came close, there have been roughly three dozen Jewish leaders outside Israel, with about a dozen “almosts.”
Great Britain/United Kingdom
- Benjamin Disraeli, prime minister in 1868 and 1874-80 (converted to Anglicanism)
- Rufus Isaacs, 1st Marquess of Reading, viceroy of India, 1921-26
- Almost: Ed Miliband, opposition leader of Great Britain, 2010-15; and Prime Minister David Cameron, elected in 2010, who in a speech to the Knesset, said his great-great-grandfather was a German Jew
- Ruth Dreifuss, president, 1999
- Leon Blum, prime minister, 1936-37, 1938, 1946-47
- René Mayer, prime minister, 1953
- Pierre Mendès France, prime minister, 1954-55
- Michel Debré, prime minister, 1959-62 (convert to Catholicism)
- Laurent Fabius, prime minister, 1984-86 (raised Roman Catholic)
- Nicolas Sarkozy, president, 2007-12 (born to a Jewish father)
- Juan Álvarez Mendizábal, prime minister, 1835-36 (raised Roman Catholic)
- Alessandro Fortis, prime minister, 1905-06
- Sidney Sonnino, prime minister, in 1906 and 1909-10 (raised Anglican)
- Luigi Luzzatti, prime minister, 1910-11
- Kurt Eisner, president of Bavaria, 1918-19
- Paul Hirsch, president of Prussia, 1918-20
- Zigfrids Anna Meierovics, prime minister of Latvia, 1921-24
- Petre Roman, prime minister of Romania, 1989-91 (raised Romanian Orthodox)
- Jan Fischer, prime minister of Czech Republic, 2009-10
- Jo Benkow, president of Norway, 1985-93
- Dorrit Moussaieff, first lady of Iceland since she married President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson in 2003
- Yevgeny Primakov, prime minister of Russia, 1999
- Mikhail Fradkov, prime minister, 2004-07 (Russian Orthodox)
- Sir Julius Vogel, premier, 1873-76
- Sir Francis Bell, prime minister, 1925 (raised Anglican)
- John Key, prime minister since 2008
- Sir Roy Welensky, prime minister of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (Zimbabwe), 1956-63 (raised Anglican)
Central/South America (one-offs)
- Francisco Henríquez y Carvajal, president of the Dominican Republic, 1916
- Janet Jagan, president of Guyana, 1997-99
- Mike Eman, prime minister of Aruba since 2009
- Nicolás Maduro, president of Venezuela (raised Roman Catholic) since 2013
- Juan Lindo y Zelaya, president of El Salvador, 1841-42; and president of Honduras, 1847-52 (raised Roman Catholic)
- Ricardo Maduro, president of Honduras, 2002-06 (raised Roman Catholic)
- Max Delvalle, president, for one week in April 1967, because the National Guard General did not approve of his succeeding his predecessor
- Eric Arturo Delvalle, president, 1985-88 (in 1988, he attempted to remove Manuel Noriega as the de facto military dictator, but instead Noriega overthrew him; Delvalle fled to the United States and died in Cleveland at age 78)
- Efraín Goldenberg Schreiber, prime minister, 1994-95
- Yehude Simon Munaro, prime minister, 2008-09
- Salomón Lerner Ghitis, prime minister, 2011
Costa Rica (almosts)
- Rebeca Grynspan Mayufis, vice-president of Costa Rica, 1994-98
- Saul Weisleder, president of Costa Rica’s Legislative Assembly, 1997-98
- Luis Liberman Ginsburg, vice-president of Costa Rica, 2010-14 (the grandson of the first mohel of Costa Rica’s Jewish community)
North America (almosts)
- Barry Goldwater, GOP presidential candidate, 1964 (Jewish father)
- Henry Kissinger, as secretary of state (fourth in line of succession), 1973-77
- Madeleine Albright, as secretary of state, 1997-2001
- Joe Lieberman, 257 votes away from U.S. vice-president in 2000
- Eric Cantor, former speaker of the House (third in line to the presidency), 2011-14
- Herb Gray, deputy prime minister of Canada, 1997-2002 (Canada’s first Jewish federal cabinet minister, one of only a few conferred the title “right honorable” who were not prime ministers, and the longest continuously serving member of Parliament in Canadian history)
Dave Gordon is a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work can be found in more than 100 publications globally. His is managing editor of landmarkreport.com.