American Jews and Saddam: A Lesson from the 1930s?

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Should American Jews support U.S. military action to remove Saddam Hussein from power? This question, which is the focus of so much discussion in the Jewish community today, echoes a dilemma that wracked American Jewry during the 1930s.

American public opinion during the 1930s strongly opposed any U.S. action against Nazi Germany. A 1937 poll found that 71% of Americans thought America was wrong to have entered World War I; many believed the U.S. had been tricked into the conflict by greedy weapons manufacturers. The hardships of the Great Depression further intensified the view that domestic concerns required America’s full attention, and that the country could not spare any resources for overseas matters.

While most Americans found Hitler’s totalitarian ways distasteful, they could not yet see any compelling reason to consider going to war against Nazi Germany, which seemed to be just one in a vast and ever-increasing array of unsavory regimes. Gallup polls during 1940-41 found only about one-tenth of Americans willing to go to war for any other reason than to fend off an invasion of the United States itself.

Many American Jews felt differently. They hoped the U.S. would take action against Hitler, not only because of the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews but because they realized that Hitler was a threat to the entire free world. But they feared being perceived as war-mongers.

Thus a leading Jewish organization, the American Jewish Committee, declined to sponsor a U.S. speaking tour by Winston Churchill in 1937, fearing that its involvement might be seen as evidence of a plot “to involve the United States in the European mess,” as one AJCommittee official put it.

Palestine Labor Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion, visiting the U.S. in 1940, was disappointed to find Jewish leaders reluctant to speak out. One told him: “If I stand up and demand American aid for Britain, people will say after the war that the dirty Jews got us into it, that it was a Jewish war, that it was for their sakes that our sons died in battle.” Ben-Gurion recalled: “This fear I found in almost all [American] Zionist circles.”

Trying to dispel the impression that Jews favored U.S. military action against Nazi Germany, Rabbi Stephen Wise, the foremost American Jewish leader of that era, wrote to a non-Jewish colleague in 1941: “[N]o Jew on earth has asked any nation to take up arms against Hitler.”

Wise’s statement was something of an exaggeration. While Jewish organizations, such as Wise’s American Jewish Congress, refrained from urging U.S. military action against the Nazis, a number of prominent Jewish individuals did speak out.

While the America First movement campaigned for isolationism, those favoring action against Hitler established the Fight for Freedom committee, which soon attracted the support of numerous prominent Americans. Fight for Freedom’s supporters included many Hollywood figures, such as Tallulah Bankhead, Helen Hayes, Burgess Meredith, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. –and such prominent Jews as Irving Berlin, Ethel Merman, Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Oscar Hammerstein (of Rodgers & Hammerstein fame), George Jessel, and Ben Hecht. New York governor Herbert Lehmann, one of the most prominent Jews in American politics, backed Fight for Freedom, as did James Warburg and Edward Warburg, of the famous banking family.

In fact, James Warburg was Fight for Freedom’s spokesman in a public debate in 1941 with the arch-isolationist Charles Lindbergh, which was held at Madison Square Garden and broadcast on radio nationwide. Refusing to be intimidated by accusations that Jews were dragging America into a conflict with Germany, Warburg bluntly told the aviation hero: “Jew or Gentile, an American can say only this to Charles Lindbergh: Your second non-stop flight has taken you to a strange destination.”

Still, Warburg and the other Jewish supporters of Fight for Freedom were a minority in the Jewish community. While many Jews privately sympathized with Fight for Freedom, not many were willing to do so publicly.

Perhaps it is not surprising that in the 1930s and early 1940s, many American Jews were unwilling to call for U.S. action against Hitler. It was a generation comprised largely of immigrants or children of immigrants. They were not yet fully comfortable in American society, and the prevalence of antisemitism during those years naturally intensified Jewish fears.

But much has changed in the past sixty years. The degree to which Jews and Judaism have become an accepted part of American culture and society is exemplified by the nomination of a Jew –and a self-described practicing Jew, at that– as the Democratic candidate for vice-president three years ago. Given this reality, one would not expect American Jews in 2003 to be cowed into silence by the fear of provoking accusations of “Jewish war-mongering.”

It remains to be seen to what extent American Jews will publicly support U.S. action to oust Saddam Hussein. Their decision will be colored, in part, by powerful historical memories — memories of how an earlier generation allowed itself to be intimidated, and how the world’s reluctance to confront Hitler helped pave the way for Nazi aggression, World War II, and the Holocaust.

January 2003