June 09, 2004
Stephen S. Wise, the most prominent leader of the American Jewish community during the 1930s and 1940s, was “cautious and ineffective” in his response to news of the Holocaust, according to scholars at a recent conference held in the Library of Congress.
The conference was sponsored in June by the American Jewish Historical Society, to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the beginning of the American Jewish community. Some sessions of the conference were held at American University, while others, including the panel focusing on U.S. Jews and the Holocaust, took place in the James Madison building of the Library of Congress.
Panel chairman Dr. Rafael Medoff, director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, said in his introduction that the response of American Jewish leaders to the Nazi genocide is “one of the most complex and sensitive issues in the history of American Jewry.” He noted that Rabbi Wise, as leader of two of the most important Jewish organizations, the American Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Congress, “is inevitably at the center of any discussion of American Jews and the Holocaust.”
Dr. Medoff quoted from the recently published memoirs of Saadia Gelb, a Labor Zionist activist who was a student at Wise’s Reform rabbinical seminary, the Jewish Institute of Religion, in the 1940s. Gelb recalled confronting Wise for trusting President Roosevelt’s assurances that the U.S. was doing everything possible to help Europe’s Jews. “He’s conning you with soapy words,” Gelb told Wise. “The problem is not whether you have access to him, but what he’ll do about it.”
The first speaker on the panel was Prof. Mark Raider, chairman of Judaic Studies at the University at Albany (SUNY). He described Wise as “cautious and ineffective” in response to “the disgracefully slow response of the Allies” to the Nazi persecution of European Jewry.
Prof. Raider said that in his younger days, Wise was known as a maverick, for embracing Zionism when most of his Reform colleagues were anti-Zionist and establishing his own synagogue so that he could speak his mind. But during the Holocaust years, Raider said, “Wise exchanged his maverick independence for the illusory promises of the Roosevelt administration.”
Raider suggested that additional reasons for Wise’s ineffective response to the Holocaust were his declining health and his involvement in a wide range of organizations and causes, which took up much of Wise’s time and energy.
Raider was followed by Dr. Zohar Segev of Haifa University, who surveyed the record of Wise and Nahum Goldmann as co-chairs of the World Jewish Congress. Segev said that Wise and Goldmann “worked actively to tone down any Jewish criticism of the Roosevelt administration.” He said that grassroots American Jews, including some within the World Jewish Congress, supported a more activist stance by the Jewish community in response to the Holocaust, but “Wise and Goldmann used their influence to restrain, limit, and control any efforts towards greater activism.”
Dr. Segev cited three factors that motivated the approach taken by Wise and Goldmann. He said they feared that aggressive protests would stimulate domestic antisemitism; they were worried that public Jewish criticism of the Allies’ failure to rescue European Jews would undermine Jewish leaders’ relationship with the Roosevelt administration; and they were concerned that more activist elements, such as Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, might usurp their positions of leadership in the community.
The panelists also discussed the impact of efforts by some Jewish activists in America to press the Roosevelt administration on the rescue issue. Those efforts culminated in the creation of a U.S. government rescue agency, the War Refugee Board in 1944. Prof. Raider remarked that “while every life is precious, and saving even one life is like saving an entire world,” given the scope of the Nazi genocide, the achievements of those who promoted rescue must be regarded as comparatively minor. Dr. Medoff commented that the War Refugee Board’s central role in rescuing an estimated 200,000 Jews and 20,000 non-Jews, while relatively small compared to the number of people murdererd by the Nazis, should not be considered inconsequential.