Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer
Cover of the official program for the historic March 9, 1943 pageant at Madison Square Garden featuring Szyk’s We Will Never Die.

*Editor’s Note: This is part XVIII in a series. You can read Part XVII, here  

With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 2021, the US was “catapulted” into World War II. American Jews responded by pledging their unqualified support and loyalty to President Roosevelt in America’s struggle against Hitler. They expressed confidence that America would prevail through difficult times to absolute victory. They conveyed this message in the press including The New York Times, JTA, The National Jewish Monthly, Congress Weekly, Der Tog, The Call, and the Contemporary Jewish Record.

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Jonah B. Wise, rabbi of the Central Synagogue in Manhattan, a founder of the United Jewish Appeal (UJA), and for many years a leader of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), saw America’ entry into the war as “the most important opportunity that Judaism has had as a spiritual force since the days of the Maccabees. Never before has Israel found itself so staunchly and so completely allied with its fellow-citizens of other faiths as it does in this war. Every American Jew now has a chance for which he has longed, to fight face to face and on equal terms, in the defense of those who have been his friends in times of trial and for the preservation of those ideals by which his friends and he can hope to live in peace.”

The Labor Zionists urged American Jews voluntarily to enlist in the armed forces before they were called by their draft boards. In this way, American Jews could express their sense of outrage and transfer their “indignation, anguish, and hope for a free world” into “effective action. Our dignity as human beings demands no less,” they asserted. After all, “we are no longer impotent—the sense of helplessness…which paralyzed us for so long is over.” The Forward noted the inability of the Jews of Palestine to participate as a people in the fight against the Axis powers became another factor why the Labor Zionists wanted American Jewry to enlist.

Another way American Jewry could strengthen the forces resisting the Nazis was by giving to the United Jewish Appeal. Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, one of the most prominent Zionist leaders, and Rabbi Jonah B. Wise, National Chairman of the UJA, declared the war had greatly increased the need for Jewish rescue and rehabilitation in Europe, Palestine, and the US, and called American Jews to increase its support.

In a report published in The New York Times, Edward M.M. Warburg, chairman of the JDC, assured American Jewry the JDC would continue its overseas relief work on a war time basis. It would also organize aid for Polish Jews in Russia and increase its relief activities for Jews living in Central and South America. A number of individual Jewish organizations responded by purchasing war bonds and contributing to the Red Cross. On December 21, the Jewish War Veterans launched a “victory program” to enlist 250,00 veterans to join the war effort, by helping to purchase six pursuit aircraft and selling $25,000 in US defense bonds. On December 22, the Jewish War Veterans initiated a drive to register its members for civilian defense.

Prayers for a speedy victory were delivered in synagogues throughout the US on January 1, 1942. President Roosevelt proclaimed it as a day of prayer, forgiveness, dedication to the present tasks, and asking for G-d’s help in the trying times ahead.

“Onward Christian Soldiers”

The American Jewish Year Book (AJY) noted American Jewry’s public support for bolstering America’s defenses came at a price. Any support for defense measures “although entirely in line with the nation’s adopted policies, was labelled warmongering and further tagged as ‘Jewish’ to impute a special interest apart from that of the nation as a whole.” These attempts to mislead public opinion were coupled with Germany’s technique of branding all adversaries of National Socialism and Fascism as Jews, irrespective of their real identity.

The slanderous lies against the Jews were used by opponents of the administration, including Senator Burton K. Wheeler (D) and Charles A. Lindberg, the celebrated aviator esteemed for making the first nonstop flight from New York City to Paris in 1927. By virtue of their status, their opposition gave the attacks an air of respectability and legitimacy.

As a prominent advocate for nonintervention, Lindbergh asserted the Jews were the dominant power behind the campaign to have America enter the war. One widespread taunt among the isolationist crowd was “Onward Christian Soldiers,” according to historian Theodore S. Hamerow. Lindberg’s speech on September 11, 1941 in Des Moines Iowa garnered the most attention and elicited the loudest debate Hamerow said. “The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt administration…. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.” Lest he be accused of espousing classic antisemitic canards, he quickly added, “I am not attacking either the Jewish or British people.” Still, he warned “We cannot allow the natural passions and prejudices of other people to lead our country to destruction.”

In a speech on April 23, 1941, Lindberg said the formation of the America First Committee (AFC), the leading US isolationist pressure group against American entry into World War II, was formed “to give voice to the people who have no newspaper, or newsreel, or radio station at their command.”

The AJY concluded the year 1940-1941 has confirmed Hitler’s declaration that a lie, repeated often enough, will be accepted by some as fact. This year saw in reality what Hitler told Hermann Rauschning, the former governor of Danzig: “Many Jews are a valuable hostage given to me by the democracies. Anti-Semitic propaganda in all countries is an almost indispensable medium for the extension of our political campaign. You will see how little time we shall need in order to upset the ideals and criteria of the whole world, simply and purely by attacking Judaism.”

Roosevelt and the Jews

Even before the war began, the Congress Weekly indicated most American Jews recognized the future of all Jews depended on loyal support of Roosevelt. Not that he was so involved in the concerns of the Jewish people, he had not even mentioned the massacre of Jews in Poland and Russia. Yet, he alone, among all the major political figures truly understood the danger Hitler represented and fought with all his power “to stem the advancing columns of barbarism.”

Much has been written about Roosevelt’s attitude toward the Jews. Two telling incidents explain how Roosevelt felt about how Jews should conduct themselves in American society, which are recounted in historian Ted Morgan’s FDR: A Biography. The persecution of the Jews outraged Roosevelt Morgan said, and he had the “humane reaction that something must be done.” Yet the residue of social antisemitism he inherited from his mother and other family members found expression in unflattering references to

Jews, particularly when he thought they needed to be restrained in specific areas. He believed, for example, Jews should consent to a quota system at Harvard. “Some years ago,” he told Henry Morgenthau, Jr., the United States Secretary of the Treasury, “a third of the entering class at Harvard were Jews and the question came up as to how it should be handled.” Roosevelt, who served on the board of overseers, helped fashion the decision “that over a period of years the number of Jews should be reduced 1 or 2 percent a year until it was down to 15 percent.”

At lunch with the president in January 1942, Leo T. Crowley, a Catholic economist and alien property custodian, responsible for property in the US belonging to enemies of the U. S., said he was shocked when the president, for no discernable reason, launched into a tirade: “Leo, you know this is a Protestant country, and the Catholics and Jews are here on sufferance. It is up to you [Crowley and Morgenthau, Jr.] to go along with anything that I want at this time.”

When Crowley informed Morgenthau about the president’s s offensive outburst, he responded, “What am I killing myself for at this desk if we are just here by sufferance?”

Morgan summarized Roosevelt’s views toward his “Negro,” Irish and Jewish constituents, whom he had “in the palm of his hand,” when he said: “all blacks are just ‘niggers,’ the Irish Catholics were unworthy of the highest office and Jews were not true Americans., in the way that the old families of English and Dutch ancestry were.”

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Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.