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Posts Tagged ‘Sonja Schoepf Wentling’

The Jewish Vote And The 1948 Election

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

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.”

Honoring The Memory Of Jan Karski

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

By the time he was 26, Jan Karski had been imprisoned by the Soviets, tortured by the Gestapo, and nearly drowned while escaping from a hospital in German-occupied Slovakia.

Had he chosen then to end his service in the World War II-era Polish underground, few would have challenged his decision. Instead, he to chose to risk his life again, to bring news about Hitler’s mass murder of European Jewry to the outside world.

At a White House ceremony on May 29, Karski was awarded, posthumously, a Presidential Medal of Freedom for his courage and sacrifice, and taking action when, as President Obama recently said, “so many others stood silent.”

Karski, a Polish Catholic, was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, as the Nazis were deporting hundreds of thousands of Warsaw’s Jews to the gas chambers of Treblinka. Walking through the ghetto, he saw corpses piled in the gutter, emaciated children clothed in rags, dazed men and women slumped against decrepit buildings.

At one point, gunfire erupted and Karski’s comrades pulled him into a nearby apartment. He saw two uniformed teenagers with pistols in the street. “They are here for the ‘Jew hunt,’ ” Karski was told. For sport, Hitler Youth members would venture into the Jewish part of the city and shoot people at random.

Days later, Karski and a compatriot, disguised as Ukrainian militiamen, took a six-hour train ride to a site in southeastern Poland called Izbica. It was a “sorting station”; when Jews were shipped to a death camp, Karski learned, the Germans would first take them to Izbica, rob them of their last belongings, and then send them off to the gas chambers.

Having seen hell on earth, Kaski now was determined to alert the world to what he had witnessed. His life in danger at every step, he traveled by train across occupied Belgium, Germany, and France. Thanks to an injection from a sympathetic dentist that swelled his jaw, Karski was able to avoid conversation that might have revealed his Polish identity. He hiked across the Pyrenees into Spain, and from there traveled to London.

Karski was able to secure a meeting with British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden, but Eden showed little interest in Karski’s account of the slaughter of the Jews. The prime minister, Winston Churchill, was said to be too busy to see him at all. Karski did succeed in generating a number of sympathetic reports in the British press and on BBC Radio.

The enterprising young Pole arrived in the United States in July 1943. One of his first meetings was with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Karski described the Warsaw Ghetto, the Izbica transit station, and the systematic annihilation of European Jewry. Frankfurter’s response: “I am unable to believe you.”

On July 28, the young Polish courier met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the Oval Office, for more than an hour. Karski began by describing the activities of the Polish underground. The president listened with fascination, asked questions and offered unsolicited advice, some of it a bit eccentric – such as his idea of putting skis on small airplanes to fly underground messengers between England and Poland during the winter. But when Karski related details of the mass killings of the Jews, Roosevelt had nothing to say. The president was, as Karski politely put it, “rather noncommittal.”

Roosevelt seemed to view the suffering of the Jews as just another unfortunate aspect of what civilians suffer in every war. He did not believe it was justified for the U.S. to use its resources to rescue Jews from the Nazis. And he did not want hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees on his hands, clamoring to be admitted to the United States.

Although disheartened by his encounter with the president, Karski did not give up. He authored a harrowing first-person account of the situation in Hitler’s Europe, “Story of a Secret State,” and spent much of 1945 delivering hundreds of lectures around the United States about his experiences.

In the waning days of World War II, Karski was called upon for one last mission – this time, for Herbert Hoover.

The former president feared the new Soviet-backed regimes in Eastern Europe would confiscate, alter, or destroy documents relating to the activities of the governments-in-exile that had fled to London when the Nazis invaded. The Kremlin had every incentive to delegitimize the regimes they had supplanted. Hoover recognized that the documents would be a crucial source of information about the exiles’ wartime efforts, including their attempts to publicize the plight of the Jews and promote rescue. So he enlisted Karski to save the historical record.

Benzion Netanyahu’s Role In American Politics

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

Benzion Netanyahu – historian, one-time political activist and father of Israel’s prime minister – died Monday in Jerusalem at 102. An accomplished scholar and the patriarch of one of Israel’s most important political families, he also played a surprising and little-known role in American political history.

Netanyahu was born in Poland in 1910 to a family deeply immersed in the world of religious Zionism. His father, Rabbi Nathan Mileikowsky, a popular Zionist preacher, brought the family to British-ruled Palestine in 1920. He Hebraicized the family name to Netanyahu.

In the wake of the Palestinian Arab riots of 1929, Netanyahu was attracted to the militant wing of the Zionist movement, Revisionist Zionism, headed by Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky. His literary talents were recognized early on, and he served as editor-in-chief of the Revisionist newspaper HaYarden in the 1930s.

In 1940, Jabotinsky sent several of his leading disciples, including Netanyahu and future Knesset member Hillel Kook (better known as Peter Bergson), to the United States to seek funds and public support for the rescue of Europe’s Jews and creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.

“It was a brand new world for us,” Netanyahu told me in one of my interviews with him. “I had never been to America. But I had to learn quickly – there was no time. The world of European Jewry was going up in flames.”

Netanyahu became executive director of the U.S. wing of the Revisionist Zionist movement and editor of its magazine, Zionews. His essays were notable for their passion, political insights and high level of fluency in a language he only recently had mastered. One 1944 editorial criticized mainstream Jewish leaders as “too cautious, too appeasing, and too ready to swallow the meaningless statements of sympathy that [are] issued from high places.”

Bergson and Netanyahu employed tactics not commonly used by the American Jewish community at the time, including placing full-page advertisements in The New York Times and other newspapers. Some of the ads challenged the Roosevelt administration’s stance on refugees. Others took aim at the British government’s White Paper policy of closing Palestine to Jewish immigration. One that Netanyahu authored was headlined “The White Paper Must Be Smashed, if Millions of Jews are to be Saved!”

Netanyahu divided his time between Revisionist headquarters in New York City and Capitol Hill, where he sought to mobilize congressional backing for the Zionist cause. At the time, mainstream Jewish leaders such as Rabbi Stephen S. Wise were strong supporters of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and stayed away from the Republicans. Netanyahu, by contrast, actively cultivated ties to prominent Republicans such as former president Herbert Hoover, as well as dissident Democrats such as Sen. Elbert Thomas of Utah, a Mormon.

In 1944, Netanyahu sought to have the Republican Party endorse Jewish rescue and statehood.

In the months leading up to that year’s Republican national convention, the Revisionists undertook what they called “a systematic campaign of enlightenment” about Palestine among GOP leaders such as Hoover, Sen. Robert Taft, who chaired the convention’s resolutions committee, and Rep. Clare Booth Luce, wife of the publisher of Time and Life magazines.

The GOP adopted an unprecedented plank demanding “refuge for millions of distressed Jewish men, women, and children driven from their homes by tyranny” and the establishment of a “free and democratic” Jewish state. The Republicans’ move compelled the Democrats to compete for Jewish support and treat the Jewish vote as if it were up for grabs. The Democratic National Convention, which was held the following month in Chicago, for the first time endorsed “unrestricted Jewish immigration and colonization” of Palestine and the establishment of “a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth.”

These events helped ensure that support for Zionism and later Israel would become a permanent part of American political culture. Every subsequent Republican and Democratic convention has adopted a similar plank. To do less became politically inconceivable.

In recent years, pundits have speculated on the extent to which Benzion Netanyahu may have influenced his son’s actions as prime minister. While it is difficult to draw a direct connection between father and son on specific policy matters, there is a parallel in their efforts to cultivate support for Israel on both sides of the political aisle.

While working as a political activist in the 1940s, Benzion Netanyahu also managed to complete a doctorate in medieval Jewish history at Dropsie College in Philadelphia. He later taught Jewish history at Dropsie, and then at the University of Denver and Cornell University. Netanyahu’s magisterial study, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain, widely considered a groundbreaking work in his field, was published in 1995. He spent time in both Israel and the United States over the years, returning to Israel permanently in 1976, the same year his son Yoni was killed while leading the Entebbe rescue operation.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/benzion-netanyahus-role-in-american-politics/2012/05/02/

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