Latest update: April 29th, 2013
THE JEWISH VOTE, THE HOLOCAUST AND ISRAEL
A conference sponsored by the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies Fordham U. Law School
140 West 62 St. (between Columbus Ave. & Amsterdam Ave.)
Sunday, September 23 – 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
featuring Mayor Ed Koch, Prof. David Wyman and other prominent speakers
Info: 202-434-8994 or www.WymanInstitute.org
* * * * *
Bob Weintraub chuckled appreciatively the first time he heard that Barack Obama described his job before he went into politics as “community organizer.”
Bob knows a thing or two about community organizing: during the late 1940s, he helped organize a series of remarkable grassroots election campaigns in New York City that sent a powerful warning to President Harry Truman about the Jewish community’s unhappiness over his administration’s waffling on Zionism.
The story of Jewish activists who used local elections to influence America’s Mideast policy in the 1940s resonates strongly this election season – especially after Jewish voters in New York played such a crucial role in the unprecedented election of a Republican to fill Congressman Anthony Weiner’s old seat last September.
Weintraub grew up in Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood and attended Thomas Jefferson High School during the politically tumultuous 1930s. “It was like a yeshiva in those days – 95 percent Jewish,” he told me in a recent interview. “But most of the Jewish kids had very little interest in Zionism or other Jewish concerns.”
As a result, a handful of students affiliated with the pro-Communist American Student Union and led by future historian Howard Zinn exercised disproportionate influence on campus. “Our teachers sometimes organized debates on issues of the day, such as disarmament, or the role of the federal government,” Weintraub recalled. “Usually Howard represented one side, and I represented the other.”
The events of the Hitler years convinced Weintraub that a Jewish state was the only solution for the Jews. “I was struck by photos in the newspapers of bearded, elderly Jews being forced to scrub the streets of Vienna, while crowds laughed and cheered,” he remembered. “I realized these kinds of outrages would never end unless the Jews had their own country.”
Most of his fellow students were “apathetic,” he said. “Even when news of the mass killings started reaching us, not many people seemed terribly concerned.”
“My parents were immigrants from Galicia,” he noted. “They corresponded regularly with their parents and siblings, who were still in Europe. As the years wore on, the letters from Europe told of things getting worse and worse for the Jews. And then at a certain point, the letters stopped coming.”
Eventually he learned that his father’s and his grandmother’s brothers and sisters, along with their spouses and children, were all murdered by the Germans and their Ukrainian collaborators.
Drafted in 1943, Weintraub was sent by the U.S. Army to Mississippi for infantry training before eventually being shipped out to Germany following the Battle of the Bulge.
* * * * *
When Weintraub returned home to East New York in the spring of 1946, he found a Jewish community engulfed in political turmoil.
The press was filled with stories about the plight of the hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors in European Displaced Persons camps, waiting for permission to go to Eretz Yisrael. U.S. envoy Earl Harrison had recently returned from a visit to the camps and reported that the DPs suffered from inadequate medical care, shelter, food, and clothing. Some had nothing to wear but German SS uniforms. Conditions were so poor, Harrison asserted, “we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them.”
The overwhelming majority of the DPs wanted to go to Israel, but the British White Paper of 1939 had shut the country’s gates to all but a handful of Jews, and London showed no signs of relenting.
American Jews, Weintraub found, were deeply shaken as they came to grips with the full extent of the Holocaust. “People watched the newsreel footage in the movie houses of Allied troops liberating the death camps,” he pointed out. “They saw the piles of dead bodies. They were in anguish over what they were seeing. And more than a few felt guilty – and rightly so – that they had voted 90% percent for Roosevelt in 1944 as if nothing had happened.”
The Jewish community wanted President Truman to demand that the British open the doors of Palestine. But the administration waffled, afraid to clash with the British or anger the Arab world.
“I sensed this was the moment to put some real pressure on Truman and the Democrats over Palestine,” he told me. “I mean electoral pressure. The Democrats couldn’t afford to lose Jewish votes in the midterm congressional elections in November 1946 – or in the 1948 presidential race, which wasn’t far off.”
The White House was already worried about Jews leaving their traditional political home, the Democratic Party. In the autumn of 1945, the British proposed the creation of a joint Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine. Truman agreed in principle but his advisers feared Jewish voters would be angry and might turn against the Democrats in the upcoming hotly contested New York City mayoral race. The fact that the Republican nominee, Judge Jonah Goldstein, was Jewish and that the Liberal Party was also endorsing Goldstein only intensified the Democrats’ worries.
Much to London’s annoyance, Secretary of State James Byrnes insisted on postponing establishment of the committee. Citing the “intense and growing agitation about the Palestine problem in the New York electoral campaign,” Byrnes informed the British that announcement of the committee would have to wait until after the November 6 vote, lest it “inflame” New York’s Jews against the Democratic candidate. The British had no choice but to wait.
The election results seemed to confirm the wisdom of the administration’s strategy: Goldstein was handily defeated by the incumbent Democratic mayor, William O’Dwyer.
Ironically, Goldstein was the author of the famous quip about Jewish support for FDR and the Democrats: “The Jews have three veltn (worlds): di velt (this world), yene velt(the next world), and Roosevelt.”
* * * * *
By the spring of 1946, when Weintraub began his political work, the midterm congressional elections were shaping up as a referendum on the Truman administration. And the role of the Jewish vote loomed larger than ever.
The British had begun pushing for a scheme known as the Morrison-Grady Plan, which would divide Palestine into Jewish and Arab provinces under continued British rule. The State Department supported it. President Truman personally considered Morrison-Grady “really fair,” according to Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace. But there were other factors: New York State Democratic chairman Paul Fitzpatrick told the president that “If this plan goes into effect it would be useless for the Democrats to nominate a state ticket this fall.”
Wallace described in his diary how at the July 30 cabinet session, the president displayed “a sheaf of telegrams about four inches thick” that he had received from pro-Zionist protesters.
“Jesus Christ couldn’t please them when he was here on earth, so how could anyone expect that I would have any luck?” Truman complained. (Years later, historians would discover many other unflattering remarks about Jews in Truman’s diary and private correspondence.)
The cabinet session concluded with the president opting to reject the plan, in deference to Wallace’s warning that Morrison-Grady was “political dynamite.” Wallace noted in his diary: “I emphasized the political angle because that is the one angle of Palestine which has a really deep interest for Truman.”
The president later complained to Senator Elbert Thomas of Utah that “I thought we had the [Palestine] matter settled” via the Morrison-Grady plan, but “the New York Jews knocked that out…”
That same day, Democratic Party powerhouse Ed Flynn, who often advised President Truman on election matters, wrote Truman that if the administration took an anti-Zionist line, “the effects will be severely felt in November.”
Secretary Byrnes complained to Navy Secretary James Forrestal that White House aides had turned Truman against Morrison-Grady by warning that Democratic congressional candidates would lose in New York State if Truman backed down on Palestine. And New York, with 47 electoral votes, would be crucial to winning the 1948 presidential race as well.
* * * * *
Bob Weintraub had no political experience, just good instincts. “They were many people in the old neighborhood who were fighting mad about the Palestine situation,” he said. “They just weren’t sure what to do.” One by one, he convinced old friends and neighbors to be part of a grassroots effort to challenge the incumbent New York State assemblyman for their district, Anthony J. Travia, a Democrat.
“We had nothing against Travia,” Weintraub recalled. “And of course, the Palestine issue had nothing to do with an election in Brooklyn for New York State Assemblyman. But we were determined to make it into an election issue – to send a message to President Truman that if he abandoned Zionism, we were going to abandon the Democrats.”
“One of our people visited the offices of the local of Board of Elections and obtained lists of all registered voters in the 22nd Assembly district,” he said.
It was publicly available information – just not the kind of information ordinary citizens usually sought. Weintraub and his friends singled out all the Jewish-sounding names on the list. And then they went door to door, day after day, personally urging thousands of voters to send a message to the White House about Palestine by supporting the Republican candidate, Joseph Soviero.
The Soviero candidacy was a long shot, to say the least. Incumbent Travia had the backing of the powerful Democratic Party machine. Travia was also a rising political star – he would eventually serve as Speaker of the Assembly. Moreover, the 22nd district was as solidly Democratic an area as one could imagine – the only time in the district’s history a Republican had been elected to the state assembly was more than twenty years earlier, and then only because the GOP candidate ran unopposed. Soviero himself had run twice before, once against Travia, both times without success.
But there was a wild card in the political mix: the American Labor Party.
As election day approached in the autumn of 1946, the White House was feeling the heat. From assembly races such as the one in Brooklyn to congressional races in New York and elsewhere, there were troubling signs of a shift in the Jewish vote. And adding to the president’s worries was the emergence of the American Labor Party (ALP) as a factor on the political scene.
Corruption scandals involving the New York Democratic Party in the 1930s had alienated some Jewish voters from the party, but they still wanted to vote for Roosevelt. The American Labor Party (ALP) was created to give Jews the opportunity to cast their ballots for FDR without having to vote Democratic.
Dean Alfange, who chaired the ALP from 1937 to 1939 and was its candidate for governor of New York in 1942, was a prominent supporter of the Bergson Group, Jewish activists who lobbied for the rescue of European Jewry and creation of a Jewish state. In part because of Alfange’s influence, the ALP strongly supported the Zionist cause.
“By 1946, the American Labor Party was becoming more pro-Soviet,” Weintraub explained. “And the Soviets supported creating a Jewish state, as way of pushing the British out of the Middle East.” As a result, Weintraub became active in the party. “I had no interest in the ALP’s positions on various domestic issues,” he explained. “But they supported a Jewish state and I supported a Jewish state, so we made common cause.” He did volunteer work, distributed ALP literature on street corners, gathered signatures for ALP candidates to get on the ballot – “whatever they asked, I did.”
To Weintraub’s delight, the ALP threw a monkey wrench into the Democratic Party’s expectation of another easy victory in the 22nd District Assembly race by endorsing the Republican challenger Soviero over the Democratic incumbent Travia.
Although it was a relatively minor race in the broader scheme of things, even smaller races could be seen as omens of what could happen in congressional and gubernatorial races. The ALP’s role in the East New York race became yet another political headache for the embattled Truman administration.
Matters reached a critical point in early October 1946. White House adviser David Niles informed the president that New York Governor Thomas Dewey, the likely Republican presidential nominee in 1948, planned to deliver a strongly pro-Zionist speech to a Jewish gathering on October 6. Niles urged Truman to act first, since “the Jewish vote in New York is going to be crucial.”
On October 4, the eve of Yom Kippur, barely a month before the 1946 midterm congressional elections, Truman issued a statement in which, for the first time, he expressed support for creation of a Jewish state, although its size and other details were left undefined.
The “Yom Kippur statement” did not, however, produce the desired results. Dewey overwhelmingly defeated Democratic U.S. Senator James Mead in the New York gubernatorial race. New York’s Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, Irving Ives, easily beat his Democratic opponent, Jewish ex-governor Herbert Lehman.
And in East New York, Joseph Soviero became the first Republican in more than two decades to be elected to the State Assembly. Not only did he win, he won big – 55 percent to 45 percent – over the shocked incumbent. More than one-fourth of the Republican challenger’s votes came on the American Labor Party line.
Bob Weintraub and his friends celebrated a stunning victory. It was a small local election – but it sent a big message to the White House as President Truman began planning for his 1948 election campaign.
Editor’s Note: The author will have more on this subject on page 6 in next week’s issue.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and coauthor, with Prof. Sonja Schoepf Wentling, of the new book “Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the ‘Jewish Vote’ and Bipartisan Support for Israel.”
About the Author: Dr. Rafael Medoff is the founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and coeditor of the Online Encyclopedia of America's Response to the Holocaust.
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