Eighty years ago, in January 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. Barely a month later Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated president of the United States. For the next twelve years, until their deaths eighteen days apart in April 1945, they personified the horrors of dictatorship and the blessings of democracy.
Hitler remains the incarnation of evil. But it is no small irony that Roosevelt, renowned for the humane vision expressed in his “Four Freedoms” address to Congress, has come under increasing scrutiny – and criticism – for his abandonment of those chosen by Hitler for annihilation.
The ghastly horrors of the “Final Solution” have been extensively documented. Its six million Jewish victims are widely memorialized in death as their fate was everywhere ignored while they were alive.
We know, for example, that news of the Holocaust was “Buried by The Times,” (the title of Laurel Leff’s piercing account of the determination of New York Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger to exclude the systematic slaughter of Jews from news that was “fit to print” in his newspaper).
There is continuing, often acrimonious, debate among historians over the acquiescence of State Department officials, Roosevelt’s Jewish advisers, and the president himself in obstructing the rescue of desperate Jewish refugees. Among the more disturbing questions that still requires exploration, as painful as it might be, is the acquiescence of American Jews in Roosevelt’s indifference to the plight of millions of persecuted, imperiled, then relentlessly slaughtered, Jews in Europe.
The two great waves of Jewish immigration to the United States – from Germany in the mid-19th century and Eastern Europe around the turn of the 20th century – accounted for nearly five million American Jews by 1940. They hardly comprised a single unified bloc – religious, social, or cultural. But despite their internal differences and disagreements they shared the fierce determination to demonstrate their loyalty as Americans to the United States and to its elected leaders. That would determine their response, or failure to respond, to what historian David Wyman aptly labeled “the abandonment of the Jews” by the president and his government between 1933 and 1945.
The formative proclamation of American Jewish loyalty came from Louis D. Brandeis, long revered as the American Isaiah. Too Jewish for the Boston Brahmins among whom he practiced law, he was viewed by the respected banker and philanthropist Jacob Schiff as insufficiently Jewish for a position in Woodrow Wilson’s Cabinet. Brandeis acknowledged he had been “to a great extent separated from Jews. I am very ignorant in things Jewish.” It was his stature as a liberal reformer that qualified him for Jewish leadership. His opportunity came when World War I severely impeded the work of the European Zionist movement.
In his memorable definition of Zionism as Americanism, Brandeis proclaimed: “To be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.” Bridging the gap between Jewish and American loyalties, his non sequitur enabled Brandeis to become the revered leader of American Zionism. He unerringly identified, and instantly obliterated, the conflict of divided loyalty that tormented American Jews then and has continued to do so ever since.
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Among those who were inspired by Brandeis’s synthesis was the Budapest-born Reform rabbi and progressive reformer Stephen S. Wise, who eventually became tortured by competing claims on his loyalty. Like Brandeis, he was determined to fuse Zionism and Americanism. He embraced Zionism as the modern national affirmation of the striving for social justice proclaimed by the ancient Hebrew prophets and as the Jewish expression of American liberal values. In time, however, Wise came to personify the American Jewish dilemma of divided loyalty.
Wise was instantly attentive to the menace of Nazism. Urging a Jewish boycott of Nazi Germany in 1933, he declared: “The time for prudence and caution is past. We must speak up like men.” But he had his doubts about the new president. After Roosevelt’s nomination Wise had complained to Felix Frankfurter: “There are no deep-seated convictions…. He is all clay and no granite.” The more concerned that Wise became over the Nazi danger to German Jews, the more he despaired over Roosevelt’s failure to respond to it.
Wise realized that Roosevelt’s Jewish advisers could be “safely trust[ed] not to trouble him with any Jewish problems.” He also knew, by the mid-1930s, that the president – “immovable, incurable and even inaccessible” to those who pressed him to respond to the increasing plight of Jews – “has not lifted a finger on behalf of the Jews of Germany.”
On the advice of Brandeis and Frankfurter, he hesitated to add to Roosevelt’s “terrible cares” by troubling the president “with our, in a sense, lesser problems.” But Wise knew that despite stringently restrictive immigration quotas that had been in place since the 1920s, German Jews were purposely excluded by the Roosevelt administration even when their admission was still permitted under law.
The conflict between Jewish identity and American loyalty tormented Wise. But his deference to Roosevelt, whom he came to identify as the “All Highest,” deepened as he became Roosevelt’s most devoted Jewish enabler. His flattery of the president was unrestrained. Attempting in vain to secure Roosevelt’s opposition to the British White Paper that excluded desperately fleeing Jewish refugees from Palestine, he told the president that rarely in history had Jews “turned to the head of a great government with the confidence with which you have given us fullest reason to turn to you.” The president did nothing.
Wise continued to believe that American Jews loved Roosevelt “as an exemplar of that truly just and American spirit which abhors intolerance and feels that Jews have their rightful place of service and honor within the American polity.” He compared their attachment to “a feeling of Jewish homage before a sovereign and liberating spirit.” Yet by 1943 he lamented: “If only he [FDR] would do something for my people.”
“I wonder how much we have gained,” Wise finally asked, “by walking warily, by being afraid to be ourselves, by constantly looking over our shoulders to see what impression we make upon others.” He predicted: “If we are done in the end, it will not merely be because of the effectiveness of our foes but because of the timidity and cowardice of ourselves.”
But Wise would not go public with his concerns. Indeed, even with reliable information about the slaughter of European Jews, he kept it secret. He finally realized that “silence is acquiescence. We must speak out.” Apologizing to Roosevelt for his disclosure, he claimed that “I do not wish to add an atom to the awful burden which you are bearing with magic.” Wise pleaded for “a word which may bring solace…to millions of Jews who mourn.” But he asked for nothing to try to rescue those whose lives might still be saved.
In a belated moment of anguished self-insight (in a letter to Justice Frankfurter late in the war), Wise wondered “whether I am getting to be a Hofjude” [court Jew]. By then, however, the leader and public voice of American Zionism had long since become Roosevelt’s devoted enabler. Wise would relegate Jewish issues to the sideline to protect the president, his own access to the White House, and his leadership role in the American Jewish community.
Historian Henry Feingold, author of The Politics of Rescue, has claimed that any indictment of Wise or American Jews for their failure to exert pressure on Roosevelt to help beleaguered European Jews “cannot produce authentic history.” To be sure, American Jews were powerless to save Jews in Europe. But why was it unreasonable to expect American Jewish leaders to speak out rather than remain silent, to urge action by the president and to protest his silence? They were too cowed into silence even to support the tiny handful of right-wing activists from Palestine, led by Peter Bergson, who organized rallies across the United States and a protest march to the White House by four hundred rabbis.
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Such was, and remains, the American Jewish dilemma. The core bargain of acculturation – the repeatedly asserted compatibility of Judaism, Zionism and Americanism – paralyzed American Jews before and during World War II and the Holocaust, and arguably still does. During the worst catastrophe in Jewish history since the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the loss of national sovereignty that ensued, American Jewish leaders and their followers, to their everlasting shame, remained silent.
American Jews made their choice clear: they would stand with their president, who provided them with passports to American respectability even as besieged European Jews were denied entry to the United States and condemned to horrific death. They hoped to demonstrate – to anyone (and there were many) who might doubt their loyalty to their true promised land – that they were genuine Americans.
American Jewish intellectuals, prisoners of their own lofty universalism, also remained conspicuously silent. As Saul Bellow subsequently noted, they ignored “the central event of their time, the destruction of European Jewry…. We should have reckoned more deeply with it.”
In some American Jewish circles indifference to the plight of European Jews eventually morphed into anxiety lest a Jewish state compromise the loyalty of American Jews to the United States. American Jewish Committee president Joseph M. Proskauer, an outspoken anti-Zionist during the war and postwar years, worried incessantly lest American Jews be accused of “political schizophrenia.”
It might be argued that American Jews finally learned the lesson of indifference to their besieged fellow Jews elsewhere. They have proudly proclaimed that “We Are One” with Israel. But how far does this affirmation really extend? Enthusiasm has quickly subsided whenever Israelis have elected a right-wing government that declined to take dictation from the White House. Then a discernible undercurrent of anxiety emerges lest Israel act in ways that challenge their liberal principles and forces them to choose between their Jewish and American loyalties.
Their “oneness” surely does not include religious Zionists, who ever since the Six-Day War have built new communities in the biblical homeland of the Jewish people. Israeli settlers who fuse Judaism and Zionism (rather than Judaism and liberalism) are routinely vilified by diaspora Jews (and secular Israelis) as misguided fundamentalist zealots who will drag Israel into a calamitous holy war over “Palestinian” land.
Given their loyalty vulnerability and liberal values, most American Jews prefer a Jewish state that closely resembles the United States. Replete with malls and discos rather than settlements, focusing more on gay rights than the internationally guaranteed right of Jews to live in Judea and Samaria, Israel could then live in two-state peaceful bliss with its Palestinian neighbors. Even before the arrival of the Messiah, haredi lions and feminist lambs, wrapped in tallitot and tefillin, would dance together at the Western Wall.
“The liberal betrayal of the Jews,” as Harvard professor Ruth R. Wisse trenchantly observed two decades ago, has now refocused on Israel. American Jews who define themselves as “liberal Zionists,” even if they reside six thousand miles from Israel, remain trapped within the dilemma that once paralyzed and silenced Rabbi Wise.
Journalist Peter Beinert’s recent analysis in The Crisis of Zionism exemplifies the abandonment of Israel by American Jews to preserve their liberal credentials. Barack Obama has replaced Franklin D. Roosevelt as the liberal exemplar whom Beinert worships as Rabbi Wise did his Democratic predecessor. Indeed, Wise is Beinert’s heroic model for elevating liberal values above such parochial interests as Jewish survival.
But what if the survival of six million Jews living in the state of Israel is imperiled by an impending Iranian nuclear attack while another American president leads from behind? Will American Jews once again cower in fearful silence lest they be accused of compromising their loyalty to the United States? As Sol Stern, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, noted in his appropriately scathing review of Beinert’s book, “There is no Zionism worthy of its name without the priority of rescuing Jews in mortal danger and distress.”
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A new generation of American Jews – the very cohort whose spokesman Beinert and J Street wish to be – may yet confront the identical loyalty dilemma that tortured their predecessors during the 1930s and 1940s. The fawning deference of American Jews to Roosevelt was an American Jewish tragedy. Their complicity in the abandonment of the people, their own people, chosen by Hitler for annihilation was grounded in their yearning for acceptance as loyal Americans.
American Jews have tended to be fickle defenders of Israel, which must pass liberal muster for their approval. Yet, as Professor Wisse astutely observed in If I Am Not For Myself, “Jews have more concurrent rights to their land than any other people on this earth can claim: aboriginal rights, divine rights, legal rights, internationally granted rights, pioneering rights, and the rights of that perennial arbiter, war.”
Against this compelling array of justifications, it is not hard – except for liberal Jews – to make the case for Israel, with or without settlements. But like Rabbi Wise, they are inclined to serve as Court Jews, determined to demonstrate their allegiance to the United States lest they confront allegations of divided loyalty.
The continuing debate among historians over Roosevelt’s abandonment of European Jews to Hitler’s fanatical determination to exterminate them retains far more than academic interest. The complicity of American Jewish leaders – and their followers – was driven by the paralyzing fear that their loyalty would be questioned if they challenged the president.
Nearly seventy years after the end of World War II and the birth of Israel, American Jewish liberals still show little regard for the timeless biblical admonition (Devarim 25): “Zachor – Remember what Amalek did to you.”
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