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October 1, 2014 / 7 Tishri, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘Wyman Institute’

Bergson Group Continues To Win Belated Recognition

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

The campaign for recognition of the Bergson Group’s Holocaust rescue efforts took another step forward last week when a prominent historian who previously had been unsympathetic to the group publicly praised Bergson.

Prof. Richard Breitman, editor of the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s journal, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, made his remarks during a panel discussion at the Center of Jewish History. The discussion followed a screening of Pierre Sauvage’s new documentary film, “Not Idly By: The Bergson Group, America, and the Holocaust.”

Breitman told the audience that Bergson “did a lot of good” with his campaign of rallies, newspaper ads, and lobbying for rescue in 1943.

Prof. Laurel Leff of Northeastern University, who was on the panel with Breitman, noted that while established Jewish organizations were “involved with a whole variety of issues, only the Bergson Group was totally focused on the rescue issue.”

Breitman replied that Bergson “deserves a lot of credit for focusing exclusively on rescue.”

In his 1987 book American Refugee Policy and in other writings, Breitman had minimized the effectiveness of the Bergson efforts. But in his remarks at the Center for Jewish History, he said the Bergson Group “was extremely useful in building up support in Congress for rescue, in late 1943, which helped lead to President Roosevelt’s establishment of the War Refugee Board.”

Breitman said he still feels that behind-the-scenes pressure by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. was the largest factor leading to the creation of the Board but he added that Morgenthau and his aides themselves credited Bergson for building up the public pressure that made it possible for Morgenthau to influence FDR.

During 1944-1945, the War Refugee Board played a major role in the rescue of about 200,000 Jews, according to Prof. David S. Wyman, author of The Abandonment of the Jews.  It was the War Refugee Board that sent Raoul Wallenberg to Nazi-occupied Budapest and financed his rescue work there.

In response to a question from the audience, Breitman said that Wallenberg would not have been able to get to Hungary, with the official Swedish diplomatic credentials that made his work possible, if not for the intervention of War Refugee Board representative Ivor Olsen.

Thus, Breitman said, it is “probably” accurate to say “that Wallenberg would not have been able to do what he did in Budapest if Bergson had not done what he did in Washington.”

The Center for Jewish History is the latest in a series of prominent institutions that have held Bergson-related events. The U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington installed an exhibit about Bergson’s rescue campaign; Yad Vashem and the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies hosted a conference to mark the Bergson Group’s seventieth anniversary; and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York invited the Wyman Institute to conduct a teachers training workshop on how to teach about the Bergson Group and America’s response to the Holocaust.

FDR and the ‘Voyage of the Damned’

Monday, November 14th, 2011

Miami Beach was certainly a fitting choice as the site for this month’s reunion of passengers from the ill-fated SS St. Louis, the ship of Jewish refugees that sailed from Nazi Germany in May 1939. As children, they gazed at the lights of Miami as the St. Louis hovered off the Florida coast, hoping desperately for permission to land.

In the 70 years since that tragic voyage, the story of the St. Louis has been told and retold, taught and studied, researched and pondered. It has been to Hollywood, in the 1976 film “Voyage of the Damned,” starring Faye Dunaway. It was the subject of a U.S. Senate resolution expressing remorse over what happened. It was featured in a full-page political cartoon in the Washington Post (by Art Spiegelman of “Maus” fame and this author). It was the focus of a project by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to trace the fate of each of the more than 900 passengers.

And it continues to fascinate historians – including an Israeli scholar who has uncovered a new document that sheds light on President Franklin Roosevelt’s attitude toward the St. Louis.

The Saddest Ship Afloat

Hans Fisher, today a professor at Rutgers University, grew up in the German city of Breslau. He still vividly remembers the torments he and other Jewish children endured there in the early years of the Hitler regime.

“When my friends and I would come out of our school building, members of the Hitler Youth would be waiting nearby,” he recalls. “They would chase us, and if they caught us, they would beat us.”

His father, George Fisher, was one of the tens of thousands of Jewish men arrested during the November 1938 Kristallnacht program and sent to concentration camps. After nearly two months in Buchenwald, George was released on condition he leave the country within two weeks. He secured a visa to Cuba and immediately upon his arrival there began making arrangements for Hans, his sister Ruth, and their mother to join him. They purchased tickets to sail on the SS St. Louis in May 1939.

Hans’s grandparents, Wolf and Emma Gottheimer, chose to stay behind.

“My grandfather was convinced that since four of his sons had given their lives for Germany in World War I, the Nazis would never persecute him,” Hans explains. “In fact, my grandparents had gone to Palestine in 1935, but then returned to Germany, to the shock and amazement of their friends.”

Hans’s grandparents would eventually perish in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

The two-week voyage from Hamburg to Havana proceeded without incident. “I was young, I was happy that we were getting away from Nazi Germany, I certainly couldn’t appreciate how tenuous our position was,” Hans says.

“When we reached Havana, all of our suitcases were brought up to the deck as we got ready to disembark. It was a terrible shock to be standing there by the rail, our suitcases in hand, and told we could not get off the ship.”

All but thirty of the passengers held documents granting them entry to Cuba as tourists, which they had purchased in Germany, at the astronomical sum of $500 each, from an unscrupulous Cuban government official. Cuba’s authorities, furious at the backroom profiteering and sensitive to domestic anti-Semitism, refused to recognize the validity of the entry documents.

The St. Louis remained in the Havana port for several days as officials of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee negotiated with Cuban leaders. Meanwhile, relatives of the passengers rented small boats and rowed close to the St. Louis, hoping to catch a glimpse of their loved ones.

Evasion, Obstruction And Acquiescence

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

President Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust is a serious issue that merits careful consideration of the historical facts. Listing FDR’s Jewish acquaintances, or the number of Jews hired by his administration, tells us very little about his response to the Nazi genocide. A meaningful discussion of the issues needs to move beyond arguments along the lines of “some of his best friends were Jewish.” And name-calling likewise does little to enhance understanding of the issues.

Let’s briefly consider some of the steps FDR might have taken to aid Europe’s Jews – steps that were all proposed to the Roosevelt administration by Jewish organizations and other rescue advocates.

1. FDR could have spoken out. From the rise of Hitler in early 1933 to the Kristallnacht pogrom in late 1938, FDR held 430 press conferences. He never once raised the issue of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews.

2. The Roosevelt administration could have admitted more Jewish refugees to the United States. Not by asking Congress to liberalize the entire immigration system and not by starting a public debate over the contentious issue of immigration but rather by simply instructing the State Department to allow the existing quotas to be filled. With FDR’s knowledge and approval, the State Department set up a series of administrative obstacles that made it extremely difficult to qualify for a visa to the United States. As a result, from 1933 to 1945 the quotas from Germany and other Axis countries were almost always under-filled. More than 190,000 quota places from those countries sat unused – 190,000 lives that could have been saved if FDR had quietly given the word to his State Department.

Hence, what Mr. Garfunkel writes about how Congress opposed “the Sabath-Celler refugee bill to bring in basically 20,000 Jewish children” (he means the Wagner-Rogers bill) is irrelevant: FDR could have saved not 20,000 Jews but 190,000 Jews, without proposing any new bills.

3. Thousands of U.S. cargo ships, known as Liberty ships, brought supplies to Allied forces in Europe and North Africa, but when they were ready to return to the U.S., they were sometimes too light to sail, so they had to be filled with ballast – rocks and chunks of concrete – to give them added weight. Jewish refugees could have served the same purpose.

4. The president could have pressured the British to open Palestine to Jewish refugees.

5. If the administration had established the War Refugee Board in 1943 instead of fighting tooth and nail against its creation and establishing it in 1944, the WRB staff would have found ways to rescue more refugees. In addition, the Board should have been given appropriate funding by the U.S. government. Instead, 90 percent of its budget was supplied by private Jewish organizations.

6. Ransom overtures (through funds blocked until after the war) and other third-party negotiations with the Germans. Thus, for example, the Swiss were ready to accept thousands of French Jewish children but it took the State Department more than a year to provide the necessary guarantees, and the opportunity was missed.

7. The administration could have pressured neutrals near Axis countries (Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey) to open their borders to refugees and keep them in temporary shelters until after the war. The U.S. also could have pressured the neutrals, the Vatican, and the Red Cross to take diplomatic action to aid the Jews. There could have been many more Raoul Wallenbergs if neutral governments encouraged their diplomats to take humanitarian steps.

8. The State Department could have quickly approved requests by Jewish organizations to send funds into Axis Europe to shelter or ransom Jews, instead of dragging its feet and undermining such requests.

9. FDR could have agreed to set up numerous temporary shelters for Jewish refugees, instead of just the one token camp in Oswego, New York, where 982 refugees were housed. Roosevelt’s apologists cannot hide behind claims that the American public was hostile to giving temporary shelter to refugees; an April 1944 Gallup poll found that 70 percent of Americans agreed that “our government should offer now temporary protection and refuge to those people in Europe who have been persecuted by the Nazis.”

10. Beginning in June 1944, U.S. warplanes could have bombed the railway lines leading to Auschwitz or the gas chambers and crematoria in Auschwitz. How do we know this? Because during the summer and autumn of 1944, American and British planes repeatedly bombed German oil factories adjacent to Auschwitz, some of them less than five miles from the gas chambers. (For the recollections of George McGovern, who was one of the pilots in the 1944 raids on the oil factories, see www.wymaninstitute.org/articles/2005-01-mcgovern.php.)

No wonder the Goldberg Commission, in its final report, concluded: “In general, the policies of both [the U.S. and British] governments toward Jews fleeing from Hitler’s grasp…was one of evasion and obstruction” and “The attitude which such policies revealed…was aptly characterized in the title of a memorandum dated January 18, 1944, entitled ‘On the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of European Jews.’ ”

Evasion. Obstruction. Acquiescence. That sums up the Roosevelt administration’s response to the Holocaust.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author or editor of 14 books about Jewish history, Zionism, and the Holocaust.

Bergson Group Activists Recognized At Yad Vashem-Wyman Conference

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

The “Bergson Boys” have finally come home.

With an international conference at Yad Vashem, a reinterment ceremony in Israel, and the publication of a new book, the controversial Holocaust rescue activists last week took a major step forward in gaining the public recognition they were long denied.

Led by Hillel Kook (1913-2001), who used the pseudonym “Peter Bergson,” the group sponsored hundreds of full page newspaper ads, lobbied in Congress, and organized a march by 400 rabbis to the White House to plead for U.S. action to rescue Jews from the Nazis.

But the group also sparked its share of controversy. The Roosevelt administration, which resented the group’s pressure for rescue, used the FBI to spy on Bergson and tried to have him deported. Some mainstream Jewish leaders were also unhappy with Bergson. World Jewish Congress co-chair Nahum Goldmann told the State Department in 1944 that his colleague, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, considered Bergson “as dangerous as Hitler” because Bergson’s activities might “cause pogroms” in the United States.

The fact that the Bergson Group made so many enemies may help explain why resentment against it lingered for so long, and why it was only recently that its activism has been gaining recognition and appreciation.

Honoring a ‘Forgotten Hero’

This July 17 marked 70 years since the establishment of the Bergson Group. The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, based in Washington, D.C., which has led the campaign for recognition of the group, organized three events to coincide with the anniversary.

The first was the reinterment in Israel of the remains of Samuel Merlin, the number two man in the group. Merlin served in the First Knesset (1949-1952), so Knesset Honor Guards were on hand to place a wreath on the grave, at the Horshim cemetery near Kfar Saba.

Speakers at the ceremony included Dr. Becky Kook, daughter of Peter Bergson; Ruth Tamir, widow of Kastner Trial attorney Shmuel Tamir, a close friend of Merlin’s; Elisha Yalin-Mor, son of Stern Group leader Natan Yalin-Mor, another friend of Merlin’s; and former MK Yossi Ahimeir, director of the Jabotinsky Institute, which co-sponsored the ceremony.

Wyman Institute director Dr. Rafael Medoff described Merlin as “a forgotten hero.” Medoff is the editor of Merlin’s book, Millions of Jews to Rescue, which was published by the Wyman Institute to coincide with the reinterment and a conference last week at Yad Vashem, Israel’s central Holocaust museum and research agency.

Yad Vashem does not mention the Bergson Group in its museum exhibits. But in what Medoff called “a moment of healing and unity,” the Wyman Institute and Yad Vashem co-sponsored an international conference on “The Bergson Group and America’s Response to the Final Solution.” It was the first time Yad Vashem had hosted an event about the Bergsonites.

Abandoning the Jews

The keynote speaker at the conference was Prof. David S. Wyman, whose 1984 bestseller The Abandonment of the Jews first brought the Bergson Group to widespread public attention. Wyman said that “as a Christian, it was deeply saddening to find, in my research, that America’s churches did so little in response to the Holocaust – but at the same time, it was heartening to discover that prominent non-Jewish members of Congress, intellectuals, and Hollywood celebrities joined the Bergson Group’s campaign for rescue.”

Medoff, who in addition to serving as director of the Wyman Institute is the author of several books about the Bergson Group, discussed his research on the march by 400 rabbis to the White House, which Bergson organized just before Yom Kippur 1943. Medoff said it was the only rally for rescue held in Washington during the years of the Holocaust.

He was followed by Prof. Monty N. Penkower, author of The Jews Were Expendable and one of the first scholars to publish research on the Bergson Group. Penkower described Bergson’s pre-Holocaust campaign for a Jewish army, which helped lead to England’s belated creation of a Jewish Brigade that fought in World War II and later helped smuggle Jews from Europe to Mandatory Palestine.

An excerpt from the forthcoming documentary about the Bergson Group, “Not Idly By,” by Pierre Sauvage, was screened. It included previously unseen outtakes from an interview with Bergson that Claude Lanzmann originally intended to include in his film ‘Shoah.’ Sauvage previously directed an award-winning documentary about the French village of Chambon, where Jewish children were sheltered during the Holocaust.

The sessions were chaired by Dr. Robert Rozett, director of the Yad Vashem libraries, Dorit Novak, director of Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies, and Prof. Zohar Segev of Haifa University. Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev and chief historian Dr. Dan Michman made opening remarks.

Bergson’s daughter, Dr. Becky Kook of Ben-Gurion University, delivered the closing remarks. She called on museums and other Holocaust institutions around the world to examine the recent research about the Bergson Group and add material about the subject to their exhibits.

Spotlight on Stephen Wise

The only discordant note of the day came when a Yad Vashem spokesman read a statement from retired Holocaust historian Prof. Yehuda Bauer, who was unable to attend the conference in person. Bauer’s statement chided the conference speakers for criticizing Rabbi Wise’s failure to publicize a telegram he received from Europe in August 1942 about the mass killing. Bauer said Wise had no choice but to wait until the telegram’s contents were confirmed.
 
 
Former MK Yossi Ahimeir, director of the Jabotinsky Institute,
joins with two members of the Knesset Honor Guard
 in placing a wreath on Samuel Merlin’s grave
 

None of the speakers at the conference, however, had criticized Wise for doing so. Bauer, who had taken part in some public sparring in the early 1980s over the question of Wise and the telegram, had erroneously assumed that the same criticism would be leveled by speakers at last week’s conference. 

“It sounds as if Prof. Bauer is still fighting the battles of twenty-five years ago,” said conference panelist Dr. Judith Baumel-Schwartz, of Bar Ilan University. “It’s a shame he didn’t brush up on more recent scholarly debates about these issues before composing his statement.”

Bauer’s statement also drew a sharp rebuttal from former Israeli defense minister and foreign minister Moshe Arens, author of the recent book Flags Over the Warsaw Ghetto. Arens, a panelist at the conference, said Bauer’s focus on the telegram was misleading, because Wise received news about the mass killings from many other sources, yet still refrained from leading an activist campaign for rescue. He quoted a 1941 letter from Wise to the Geneva office of the World Jewish Congress, instructing that “not one more package” of food or other aid should be sent to the Jews in Warsaw, because that would violate the Allied blockade of Nazi-occupied countries.

Wise has in recent years come under criticism from many quarters for his response to the Holocaust. Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson, president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion said a recent Wyman Institute conference in New York City that Wise “failed miserably” in his response to the Holocaust. He said Wise’s “absolute and complete love for President Roosevelt” was to blame. Ellenson’s statement was especially noteworthy since Wise himself was a founder and president of the Jewish Institute of Religion.

Prof. Mark Raider of the University of Cincinnati, a scholar who is generally sympathetic to Wise, has said that Wise was “cautious and ineffective” in response to “the disgracefully slow response of the Allies” to the Holocaust. According to Raider, “Wise exchanged his [earlier] maverick independence for the illusory promises of the Roosevelt administration.”

Changing Attitudes

Medoff described the conference at Yad Vashem as “a major step forward in the process of the Bergson Group receiving appropriate recognition for its achievements.”

In 2008, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., added materials about the group to its permanent exhibit, following a long campaign by the Wyman Institute. Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel and then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi were among the notables who supported the Wyman Institute’s effort. Pelosi became involved after Wyman Institute researchers found that her father, at the time a Maryland congressman, had supported the Bergson Group in the 1940s.

The Bergson Group was also included in the exhibits of the recently expanded Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. The group was also included in the recent new edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica. The Brooklyn Holocaust Memorial Park also now has a plaque about the Bergsonites. The Bergson Group is now routinely found in history books, including Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East by Dr. Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States.

A number of prominent American Jewish leaders have in recent years criticized the wartime Jewish leadership and praised the Bergson Group, including Seymour Reich, former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations; Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, former chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum; and Michael S. Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York City. Miller’s father, the late Rabbi Israel Miller, took part in the 1943 march to the White House.

Explaining the reasons for the changing attitude toward Bergson, Medoff cited the new research by scholars about the group; the rise of a new generation of American Jews who were not involved in the bitter rivalries of the 1940s; and the fact that the adult children of Bergson Group activists are speaking out, which Medoff compared to the role of children of Holocaust survivors acting as a voice for the passing generation of survivors. 

“American Jewry is finally facing the skeletons in its closet,” Medoff said. “This will pave the way for a healthier understanding by U.S. Jews of America’s response to the Holocaust, the role of Jewish activism in American public life, and the tragedy of Jewish disunity in times of crisis.”

Netanyahu Follows Father’s Path In Amassing Bipartisan Support

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

The enthusiastic response Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received when he addressed Congress on May 24 came from both sides of the aisle. Democrats and Republicans both took part in the numerous standing ovations.

Afterward, Democrats and Republicans made statements criticizing President Obama’s positions and supporting Israel’s.

But perhaps it is not so surprising that the prime minister was able to attract such bipartisan support. His father accomplished something similar 67 years ago.

In the summer of 1944, 34-year-old Benzion Netanyahu was the executive director of the American wing of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionist movement.

One of Benzion Netanyahu’s tasks was to help mobilize support in Washington for free Jewish immigration to Palestine and the creation of a Jewish state. That was no small job at a time when the British opposed Jewish immigration and statehood, and the Roosevelt administration preferred not to intervene.

The Revisionists often used tactics that the mainstream Zionists considered too aggressive. For example, Netanyahu and his colleagues repeatedly placed large advertisements in The New York Times and other leading newspapers with headlines such as “The White Paper Must Be Smashed, if Millions of Jews Are to Be Saved!” and “Is America to Be a Party to the Palestine Betrayal?”

These challenges to Allied policy did not sit well with mainstream Jewish leaders such as Rabbi Stephen Wise, who was deeply loyal to President Roosevelt, the New Deal and the Democratic Party. In his private correspondence, Wise called the president “the All Highest” and “the Great Man.”

Much to the Jewish establishment’s chagrin, Netanyahu actively cultivated relationships with Republican members of Congress and party leaders. For Wise, building friendly relations with FDR’s political foes was inconceivable. For Netanyahu it was political common sense. Roosevelt had no incentive to address Jewish concerns if he believed Jewish votes were in his pocket.

Only if there were a credible threat of Jews voting Republican would FDR see a reason to reconsider his cold policy toward Jewish refugees and Zionism.

In the months leading up to the June 1944 Republican National Convention, Netanyahu and his colleagues undertook what they called “a systematic campaign of enlightenment.” They met repeatedly with former president Herbert Hoover, 1936 GOP presidential nominee Alf Landon and influential Republican members of Congress such as Rep. Clare Booth Luce (wife of the publisher of Time and Life).

At a Revisionist dinner that spring, Luce said Great Britain’s blockade of Jewish refugee ships bound for Palestine was to blame for the fact that “Jewish blood stains the blue Mediterranean red.”

In their meetings, the Revisionists asked the Republicans to include a pro-Zionist plank in their 1944 platform. Neither party had ever formally endorsed the cause of Jewish statehood, but the GOP leaders clearly were sympathetic. On the eve of the convention, Luce called Netanyahu and said, only half joking, “I’m going now to do your work at the convention.”

Meanwhile, an additional lobbying effort was undertaken by Abba Hillel Silver, the activist Cleveland rabbi who in 1943 had been elevated to the co-chairmanship of the American Zionist movement alongside Wise. Silver, who enjoyed a close relationship with Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio, lobbied Taft and other leading Republicans on the platform issue.

The GOP’s final platform not only endorsed Jewish statehood in Palestine, as Silver wanted, but also criticized Roosevelt, as Netanyahu wanted. It declared: “We condemn the failure of the President to insist that the mandatory of Palestine carry out the provisions of the Balfour Declaration and of the mandate while he pretends to support them.”

Furious and embarrassed, Wise dashed off a letter to Roosevelt declaring that he was “deeply ashamed” of the “utterly unjust” wording of the Republican plank. In the pages of the Revisionist journal Zionews, Netanyahu commented that “It seems that to Dr. Wise and his friends, partisan politics are more important than truth and the interests of their people and their country.”

The Republican Party’s move had an important consequence: It compelled the Democrats to compete for Jewish support and treat the Jewish vote as if it were up for grabs. The Democratic National Convention in July 1944 for the first time endorsed “unrestricted Jewish immigration and colonization” of Palestine and the establishment of “a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth.”

A History Lession From Netanyahu Senior

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

Israeli generals probably don’t cry very often. These are men of steel nerves, professional soldiers toughened by the rigors of battle and a lifetime devoted to strict military discipline.

But there was a moment during his recent swearing-in ceremony when the new chief of staff of the Israeli army, Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz, could not hold back his tears.

That moment came when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turned from the familiar generalities about army service to a very personal subject: the contrast between the suffering Gantz’s mother endured during the Holocaust and the national triumph her son’s career symbolizes.

What the audience did not know, however, was that there was also a personal element on Netanyahu’s side. Seventy years ago, his father, the scholar and Zionist activist professor Benzion Netanyahu, authored a stirring Passover eve proclamation likewise anchored in the themes of Jewish victory in the face of unbearable persecution and the ability of the Jews to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Prof. Netanyahu’s words offer one last lesson to take with us from this year’s Passover holiday.

“When your mother was liberated from Bergen-Belsen, she weighed just 28 kilograms [62 lbs.],” the prime minister noted. “I am certain that at the time, she never dreamed that 66 years later her son, yet to be born, would be the 20th chief of staff of the army of the State of Israel, the Jewish state. Perhaps she did not dream of such a thing, but it has come true before our eyes.”

Lt.-Gen. Gantz made it clear, in his remarks at the ceremony, that he appreciated the historical significance of the journey from Bergen-Belsen to Jerusalem, from Jewish weakness and homelessness to sovereignty and independence.

“I am the son of the Jewish people’s chain of generations,” he declared.

The Israeli army, after all, is not just any army, and its chief of staff is not just another general. They are intrinsically connected to the Jews’ unique national experience, both in exile and in their homeland.

Which is exactly the point Prof. Benzion Netanyahu made in his Passover 1941 message. At the time, Netanyahu served as executive director of the New Zionist Organization of America, the U.S. wing of the militant Revisionist Zionist movement. He was also editor of its biweekly publication, Zionews.

His lead editorial in each issue of Zionews typically dealt with the latest Palestine-related political developments and controversies, not something from the Jewish calendar. In fact, Netanyahu’s April 21, 1941 editorial was the only occasion in the journal’s five year-history that he devoted that premier space to a reflection on a Jewish holiday.

“For ages and generations we have assembled in our homes on the first and second evenings of Passover to commemorate the liberation of our forefathers from the slavery of Egypt,” he began.

“Thousands of years have passed since; new slavery, hatreds and persecutions followed our race into every corner of the world.”

He cited a number of examples of such persecutions, including, of course, the Jews being “burned on the fires of the Spanish Inquisition,” which was the subject of the Ph.D. dissertation he was then writing.

Netanyahu also recalled how the Jews were “uprooted [by the Romans] from free and independent Judea to be slaves.” They were “beaten and killed by the Cossacks of the Ukraine.” The “Russian pogromists shed our blood like water.” “The Arab effendis have proclaimed a holy war on us.” And “Hitler and Mussolini have started a march of extermination against us.”

Yet the suffering of the Jews could never separate them from their faith or extinguish their hopes:

“Through oceans of blood, our blood, through oceans of tears, our tears, hated, persecuted, beaten, wandering and homeless, we assemble at the Passover Seder to thank God for our liberation from Egypt, and to express once again the hope of the [Haggadah]: ‘This year we are still slaves – next year we shall be free men.’”

“It is a great hope,” Prof. Netanyahu concluded. “It is a great spirit of a great nation. Only a nation of our spiritual caliber could come through the ages of unparalleled sufferings with its spirit unbroken; still alive; still striving for liberty. Next year we shall be free men.”

Obama, Libya And The Holocaust

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

President Obama and his supporters have defended U.S. military action in Libya by invoking America’s failure to respond to mass murder in Rwanda, Bosnia and even the Holocaust. Do those experiences indeed offer useful lessons for the current crisis?

In his national address on March 28, the president pointed out that “when people were being brutalized in Bosnia in the 1990s, it took the international community more than a year to intervene with air power to protect civilians.”

White House Middle East adviser Dennis Ross reportedly said at a briefing for foreign policy experts on March 23 that there was a danger in Libya of a “Srebrenica on steroids” – referring to the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims by Serb militiamen.

National Security Council official Samantha Power, who reportedly played a major role in the U.S. decision to intervene in Libya, has described her unsuccessful attempt as a young journalist to alert the world about the imminent attack on Srebrenica as one of the formative events in her life.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen cited the Evian conference, in 1938, at which the United States and other countries refused to open their doors to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.

“Lives were clearly at stake [in Libya] and something had to be done,” Cohen wrote. “The world could not simply shove its hands in its pockets and stand by as some madman had his way with people in his grip – in spirit, a reprise of the Evian conference.”

“We learned a lot in the 1990s,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said in her comments on the Libya action, referring to the importance of not repeating the world’s slow response to the killings in Bosnia and Rwanda.

The people of Libya undoubtedly appreciate that they are the beneficiaries of the current administration’s effort to learn from America’s past mistakes. Of course, the people of Bahrain or Syria may be wondering what disqualifies them from U.S. military support.

Clinton’s explanation on “Face the Nation” that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, unlike Moammar Khaddafi, is “a reformer,” probably will not impress many of Assad’s victims. Chinese dissidents, for their part, have been questioning Clinton’s judgment ever since her assertion, during her February 2009 visit to China, that human rights issues “can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis” that she was discussing with Beijing’s leaders.

Still, there can be no denying the fact that America’s action in Libya constitutes a significant change from the policies of some previous presidents.

It was not so long ago, after all, that another secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, was telling the president that “if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern.”

And Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was president during the years when Jews from the (Nazi-occupied) Soviet Union were indeed put into gas chambers, likewise thought it was not an American concern.

Today, by contrast, America’s president has declared that the United States has “responsibilities to our fellow human beings.” That “preventing genocide” is “important to us” and one of our “core principles.” And that “some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries, [but] the United States of America is different.”

The people of Libya are not comparable to the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust. Neither are the people of Syria or Bahrain. There is no danger of genocide in those countries. On the other hand, based on the historical record in that part of the world, we know the possibility of a dictator massacring thousands of his own citizens is very real.

The fact that America’s current leaders recognize a role for historical lessons in shaping policy decisions is certainly a welcome change from the attitudes of some of their predecessors.

Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/obama-libya-and-the-holocaust/2011/04/06/

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