A Purim Lesson: Lobbying Against Genocide, Then and Now

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

The holiday of Purim celebrates the successful effort by prominent Jews in the capitol of ancient Persia to prevent genocide against the Jewish people. What is not well known is that a comparable lobbying effort took place in modern times–in Washington, D.C., at the peak of the Holocaust.

In late 1942, the Roosevelt administration publicly confirmed that Hitler had embarked on a campaign to murder all of Europe’s Jews, and that at least two million were already dead. But FDR was not prepared to go beyond a verbal denunciation of the genocide. He did not want to upset the British by pressing them to open Palestine to refugees. He would not even permit immigration to the U.S. to the full extent of the existing quotas. The quotas from Axis-controlled countries were 90% unfilled during the period from late 1941 through early 1945–190,000 quota places that could have saved lives were left unused. The man whom FDR had hand-picked to handle refugee matters, Breckinridge Long, instructed U.S. consular officials abroad to “postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.”

In ancient Persia, a Jewish activist named Mordechai responded to Haman’s genocide decree by staging a protest demonstration. Donning sackcloth and ashes, he “went out into the midst of [the capitol city, Shushan] and cried loudly and bitterly.” (Esther 4:1) He then marched right up to “the front of the King’s gate” –not exactly the sort of polite behavior in which Persian Jews normally engaged.

In the United States during the Holocaust, there was a Mordechai of sorts: a young Zionist emissary from Jerusalem, Peter Bergson (real name: Hillel Kook) led a series of protest campaigns to bring about U.S. rescue of Jews from Hitler. The Bergson group’s newspaper ads and public rallies roused public awareness of the Holocaust–particularly when it organized over 400 rabbis to march to the front gate of the White House just before Yom Kippur in 1943.

But protests from the outside were not sufficient, by themselves, to change the policies of either President Roosevelt or King Ahashverosh. An insider was needed as well.

In Persia, there was one Jew with access to the King. Esther, Mordechai’s adopted daughter, had been chosen to become the king’s wife. Keeping her Jewish identity a secret, Esther found herself elevated to First Lady of Persia precisely at the moment that her people needed her most. But her first reaction was one of caution– “greatly distressed” by the spectacle of Mordechai’s boisterous protest, she tried to persuade him to remove the sackcloth. When Mordechai urged her to go to the king and plead for revocation of the genocide decree, Esther hesitated, pointing out that to go without being summoned would violate the palace rules and possibly result in her execution.

The Esther in 1940s Washington was Henry Morgenthau, Jr., a wealthy, assimilated Jew of German descent who (as his son later put it) was anxious to be regarded as a “one hundred percent American.” Downplaying his Jewishness, Morgenthau gradually rose from being FDR’s friend and adviser to his Treasury Secretary. In late 1943, just as the Bergson activist campaign was reaching its peak, several of Morgenthau’s senior aides discovered that State Department officials had been secretly obstructing rescue opportunities and blocking transmission of Holocaust-related information to the U.S. The State Department did not want them to be rescued, because that would increase pressure on the Allies to give them shelter.

Although his aides urged Morgenthau to take the matter directly to the president, he hesitated, hoping that polite appeals to the Secretary of State might suffice to change U.S. policy toward Europe’s Jews. Mordechai’s pressure finally convinced Esther to go to the king; the pressure of Morgenthau’s aides finally convinced him to go to the president, armed with a stinging 18-page report that they titled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews.”

Esther’s lobbying succeeded. Ahashverosh canceled the genocide decree and executed Haman and his henchmen. Morgenthau’s lobbying also succeeded. A Bergson-initiated Congressional resolution calling for U.S. rescue action quickly passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee–enabling Morgenthau to tell FDR that “you have either got to move very fast, or the Congress of the United States will do it for you.” Ten months before election day, the last thing FDR wanted was an embarrassing public scandal over the refugee issue. Within days, Roosevelt did what the Congressional resolution sought–he issued an executive order creating the War Refugee Board, a U.S. government agency to rescue refugees from Hitler.

Here, unfortunately, is where the parallels end. While Esther triumphed before Haman could harm her people, Morgenthau’s intervention came very late, after millions of Jews had been murdered. Still, there is no gainsaying the fact that the War Refugee Board played a key role in the rescue of some 200,000 Jews and 20,000 non-Jews, in part by facilitating and financing the life-saving work of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest. The claim that nothing could be done to help Europe’s Jews had been demolished by Jews who shook off their fears and spoke up for their people–in ancient Persia and in modern Washington.

March 2004