Dark and overpowering gets attention, especially when the historical reputation of an American icon is being taken down a peg. Subtle and complex may have more long term appeal but can prove dissatisfying, especially to Jews, whose experiences in the mid-20th century were anything but subtle.
FDR and the Jews divides FDR into four different shape-shifting presidents. In his first term, FDR was a “bystander to Nazi persecution” of the Jews while he dealt with the Great Depression. The second, more empathetic FDR emerged after his 1936 reelection when he eased immigration barriers, supported the resettlement of European Jews in other countries, and “publicly backed a Jewish homeland in Palestine.” But after the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, a third FDR “put internal security, foreign policy and military concerns” ahead of Jewish issues. The fourth and final FDR took shape in early 1944, when he created the War Refugee Board and denounced anti-Semitism as “an integral part of Hitler’s brutal attempt to rule Europe and the Western World.”
Fair enough. But as far as European Jews were concerned, wasn’t the most critical FDR the third one? In that period the Nazis implemented a plan to murder every Jewish man, woman and child on the European continent within their grasp using every 20th century industrial and scientific means at their disposal. By the time the fourth FDR emerged to create the War Refugee Board, the Nazis had already killed millions of Jews. As these historians acknowledge, “The president and his administration did not forthrightly inform the American public of Hitler’s grisly ‘Final Solution’ or respond decisively to his crimes.”
The FDR critics would hardly disagree. At its core, then, the dispute among these historians is not over what FDR objectively did or did not do. What they really disagree about is understanding and forgiveness.
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The critics cut FDR no slack – of course he had other concerns on his mind but he could have found the time to do more to save Jews. FDR and the Jews is all about context and understanding; for example, explaining that the first FDR paid little, if any, attention to the Nazis’ persecution of German Jews because he was grappling in his first term with the crisis of the Great Depression.
“Much like Lincoln facing the political need to hold the Union together while wrestling with the humanitarian imperative to abolish slavery,” FDR in his first term refused to jeopardize his domestic agenda by stoking domestic “ethnic antagonism,” i.e., anti-Semitism, over the Third Reich’s Jewish policies.
But in at least one crucial sense, the third Roosevelt was responding “decisively” to Hitler’s crimes by devoting every human and physical resource at his command to Hitler’s destruction. In July 1942, while the battle for North Africa between British and German armies hung in the balance, a German force called Einsatzkommando Egypt was assembled in Athens, awaiting word that Cairo had fallen. In that event, the Einsatzkommando Egypt – effectively, a mobile Auschwitz – would land and start slaughtering Jews in Egypt and Palestine, where 500,000 Jews lived.
That the Einsatzkommando Egypt did not wipe out the Jews of Palestine (and dynamite any physical evidence, especially the Western Wall, that the Jewish people ever existed there), was, according to FDR and the Jews, due in part to FDR, who diverted American A-20 bombers and 300 Sherman tanks to the British armies, which may have tipped the balance at the crucial November 1942 battle of El Alamein.
FDR and the Jews doesn’t directly mention the reason the British were able to fight at all in North Africa – FDR’s Lend-Lease policy, which he single-handedly conceived in late 1940 when Britain stood alone against Germany and had run out of cash to buy American arms.
FDR didn’t create Lend-Lease or ship Sherman tanks to North Africa to save the Yishuv. He did it to remove a mortal threat to the United States. But unquestionably his wartime leadership saved the Palestinian Jews, the seed of the state of Israel. FDR and the Jews argues that FDR did “more good for the Jews there [in North Africa and Palestine] than his inconsistency and dissembling did harm.” By this logic, FDR – and the 400,000 American soldiers who died in the war – saved the approximately two million Jews in Europe still alive when Germany surrendered.