Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Forget About Obama As The 'First Jewish President'--How About Janet Jagan!

My thanks to Cindy, who pointed this interesting trivia fact in a comment to another post.

Alan Solow, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations may refer to Obama as "The First Jewish President," but that title rightfully belongs to someone else: Janet Rosenberg Jagan--who was also from Chicago.

Jagan was president of Guyana and holds the distinction of being one of 3 Jewish women to have served as leaders of a nation in modern times--the other two being Golda Meir of Israel and Ruth Dreifuss. Dreifuss was a member of the Swiss Federal Council representing Geneva and held the rotating presidency of the Swiss Confederation from January 1 to December 31, 1999.

Apparently that is not Jagan's only distinction.

According to The Forward:
Jagan (rhymes with Reagan) is remembered, too, as the first woman — Jewish or otherwise — ever freely elected as president of a South American country (as distinguished from various wives of Argentine dictator Juan Peron). She was the first white person ever elected to lead Guyana, and was the country’s longest-serving legislator. And she was probably the only American Jew ever chased out of public office by both the British marines and the American CIA.
Janet and her husband were Marxists, which made the British and the US nervous.

This was in 1953--after her husband Cheddi was elected chief minister of Guyana and his wife deputy speaker of the parliament. The the Jagans survived both incidences, though they ended up serving only 133 days--and strikes and riots in the country were funded by the CIA. The New York Times reports that President Kennedy was preoccupied with Guyana:
According to long-classified documents, President John F. Kennedy ordered the Central Intelligence Agency in 1961 to destabilize the Jagan government. The C.I.A. covertly financed a campaign of labor unrest, false information and sabotage that led to race riots and, eventually, the ascension of Forbes Burnham, a black, London-educated lawyer and a leader of the People’s Progressive Party who had become a rival of the Jagans. He became president and prime minister in 1966.
But they were back in 1957 and 1961 when they won the elections--and though Jagan was a secular Jew, there is even an Israel connection, when Jagan's husband Cheddi visited Israel in 1961 and Prime Minister Golda Meir argued his case to the British--until the State Department warned Israel that it was running the risk of being "regarded by the U.S. public as strengthening militarily" a communist regime.

In 1963 Jagan was called "The most controversial woman in South American politics since Evita Peron" by Time Magazine, which claimed
British Guiana's husband and wife team has brought little besides economic stagnation and political upheaval to the country.
There were even false rumors claiming she was related to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed for spying for Russia.

On the other hand, Janet Jagan received the Order of Excellence--Guyana's highest honor, the Woman of Achievement award from the University of Guyana, and in 1997 the Gandhi Gold Medal for Peace--from UNESCO.

In 1997, after her husband Cheddi died, Janet Jagan was named prime minister and later that year was named president--a position she helf for 2 years until she was forced to step down after suffering a heart attack.

Not bad, for the first Jewish president.

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