by Dr. Rafael Medoff
Members of Congress and Jewish organizations are urging U.S. action against antisemitism abroad, but the State Department objects to “affording special status to one group,” that is, the Jews. Sound familiar? It happened during the Holocaust. It’s happening again today.
In response to the rising tide of often-violent antisemitism in Europe and the Middle East, the U.S. Senate in May unanimously passed the Global Anti-Semitism Review Act.
Initiated by Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH), it requires the State Department to compile an annual report on antisemitism around the world. But the House version of the bill, sponsored by Rep.Tom Lantos (D-CA), a Holocaust survivor, has run into opposition from the State Department, which does not want the Jews to receive “special” attention.
The State Department’s position is especially troubling in view of the strong statements made by Secretary of State Colin Powell at the Berlin conference on antisemitism in June. Was it naive to expect his words to be translated into policy?
These developments carry troubling echoes of the past. During the Holocaust, the State Department and other Roosevelt administration agencies did their best to downplay the Jewish identity of Hitler’s victims–even though the Nazi regime had clearly singled out Jews for annihilation. “The refugee problem should not be considered as being confined to persons of any particular race or faith,” the State Department declared in planning the Bermuda refugee conference of 1943, at which the U.S. and Britain feigned interest in the problem but offered no meaningful assistance.
FDR’s Office of War Information instructed its staff to avoid mentioning that Jews were the primary victims of Nazi atrocities. Coverage of the Nazi mass-murders would be “confused and misleading if it appears to be simply affecting the Jewish people,” they were told. The Jews were not even mentioned in President Roosevelt’s 1944 message commemorating the first anniversary of the Jewish revolt against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto.
A meeting of the American, British, and Soviet foreign ministers in Moscow in October 1943 issued a statement threatening postwar punishment for Nazi war crimes against conquered populations. It mentioned “French, Dutch, Belgian or Norwegian hostages …Cretan peasants … the people of Poland”–but not Europe’s Jews.
Ben Hecht, the Hollywood screenwriter-turned-rescue activist, responded in a biting full-page newspaper ad, sponsored by the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe. Hecht depicted the ghost of a Jew murdered by the Nazis sitting by the window sills of the Allied leaders after the Moscow conference, and saying: “In the Kremlin in Moscow, in the White House in Washington, in the Downing Street Building in London where I have sat on the window sills, I have never heard our name. The people who live in those buildings–Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill–do not speak of us … The Germans will think that when they kill Jews, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill pretend nothing is happening.”
Arthur Szyk, the world famous artist who worked alongside Hecht in promoting rescue, remarked bitterly that the persecution of Europe’s Jews was being “treated[ed] as a pornographical subject–you cannot discuss it in polite society.”
Why were Allied leaders so reluctant to acknowledge that Jews were the primary victims of the Nazi mass-murder machine? First, because FDR feared he would be accused of fighting World War II for the sake of the Jews. Instead of consistently standing firm against domestic antisemites, Roosevelt tailored some of his policies to avoid antagonizing them.
Second, Allied leaders knew that calling attention to the plight of the Jews would increase public pressure to help them. At a White House meeting with British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden in 1943, the idea of rescuing 60,000 Jews from Bulgaria was raised. Eden replied: “If we do that, then the Jews of the world will be wanting us to make similar offers in Poland and Germany.” Nobody at the meeting dissented. An internal State Department memo later that year referred to “the danger that the German government might agree to turn over the United States and to Great Britain a large number of Jewish refugees.” Allied leaders did not want large numbers of Jews rescued, because it would put pressure on the Allied countries to take them in.
Today’s antisemitic violence in Europe and antisemitic propaganda in the Arab media cannot be compared to the annihilation of six million Jews by the Nazis. Nor will the actions of today’s State Department regarding antisemitism result in consequences similar to those suffered by Jews because of the State Department’s actions during the Holocaust. Yet is it possible that certain core attitudes have remained entrenched in Foggy Bottom all these years? In attempting to block reporting on antisemitism because it would “afford special status” to the Jews, the State Department today invites speculation that, both in 1944 and 2004, the State Department does afford a special status to Jews–as a people whose suffering deserves no special attention, even when they are being singled out for persecution.