Antisemitism in the ’44 Election – and Today

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Jewish government officials secretly manipulating the president?  That accusation, heard recently in connection with the decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein, was also raised sixty years ago, in the heat of the 1944 presidential race.

The lightning rod for criticism in 1944 was Sidney Hillman, a prominent labor leader and aide to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  On the eve of the Democratic convention, Vice President Henry Wallace warned Hillman that Time magazine was planning to print “a very Semitic likeness” of him on its cover in order to “make it appear that Jewish labor is runnning the Democratic party.”

A rumor from the convention claimed that in considering the choice of Senator Harry Truman as his running mate, FDR had told his advisers to “clear it with Sidney.”  Some opponents of the administration seized upon that phrase to make it appear that Hillman, a Lituhianian-born Jewish socialist, had secret veto power over all of Roosevelt’s policies.  A full-page ad in the Stamford (CT) Advocate called him “the power behind the throne” and pleaded with voters to “Stop Hillmanism.”  An editorial in the New York Daily News referred to what it claimed was Hillman’s “rabbinical educational.”  Some Republicans in Pittsburgh reportedly put up posters headlined “This is your country. Why let Sidney Hillman run it?”

Democratic National Committee chairman Robert Hannegan protested what he called a pattern of Republican campaign speakers singling out Hillman and emphasizing that he was “foreign born.”  Hannegan called the tactic “a clear injection of racial prejudice” into the election campaign.

In our own times, a similar tactic was employed by Pat Buchanan in an article opposing the Gulf War of 1991.  He named four prominent supporters of war with Jewish-sounding names as being part of “the Israeli Defense Ministry’s amen corner in the United States,” and accused them of planning to send “kids with names like McAllister, Murphy, Gonzales and Leroy Brown” to do the fighting.

The tactic was revived this year, coincidentally just in time for the 2004 presidential election season.  Some opponents of the current administration began singling out Jewish government officials and accusing them of tricking America into war against Saddam Hussein in order to help Israel. Although these pundits typically labeled their targets “neocons” rather than Jews, their message seemed clear enough.  As New York Times columnist David Brooks commented, “con is short for ‘conservative’ and neo is short for ‘ Jewish’.”

Former U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart described these villainous Bush advisers as “ideologues” who are unable to distinguish between their loyalty “to their original homelands” (guess which one) and loyalty “to America and its national interests.”  President Bush never intended to go to war against Saddam, according to historian Athur Schlesinger Jr.   So, “who got us into this mess anyway? …. Who persuaded him to change his mind?”  He claims it was the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, long a favorite pin-cushion of overheated  conspiracy theorists.  In Schlesinger’s view,  Bush “honestly believed the tall tales” about Saddam because he was fed “phony intelligence” about Iraq by the Mossad, which is “sure that the U.S., for internal political reasons” –a common code word for ‘American Jews’– would never withdraw support from the Jewish State.

The Israelis have made Bush their “virtual prisoner” in order to  bring about U.S. policies that are “pertinent to the imperial dreams, and delusions, of the Straussians [and their] neocon vision…,” Schlesinger wrote.  ‘Straussian’ has become another codeword, following press reports depicting Jewish conservatives in the administration as secret disciples of the late philosopher Leo Strauss.

Not everyone settles for using codewords.  The Vancouver-based radical journal Adbusters, which earlier this year ran an editorial titled “Why Won’t Anyone Say They’re Jewish?”  Alongside the editorial was a list of fifty “influential neocons,” with a black dot in the margin next to those whom the editors believe are Jewish.

There is good reason to be concerned about these kinds of statements, which are painfully reminiscent of the kinds of antisemitic allegations traditionally used to rouse violent antisemitism.   The notion of Jews secretly controlling governments is the theme of the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forgery from Czarist Russia that featured prominently in Nazi propaganda. Prof. Norman Cohn’s study of the Protocols, appropriately titled “Warrant for Genocide,” concludes that it “helped to prepare the way for the Holocaust.”  It seems as if the Protocols circulates anew in each generation–it was for sale even on the web site of Wal-Mart until protests compelled its withdrawal from the site a few weeks ago.

Not everyone who criticized Sidney Hillman in 1944 was antisemitic. Neither is everyone who criticizes President Bush’s Jewish advisers today.  But there is good reason to suspect antisemitism when someone focuses an adviser named Hillman (then) or Wolfowitz (now) and ignores equally influential advisers whose names do not sound Jewish.  In such cases, it is important that the major political parties condemn the incendiary statements and clearly disown the authors.  Failure to call antisemitism by its name lowers the standards of acceptable discourse and wrongly treats the culprits as legitimate participants in the mainstream political culture, a status they surely do not deserve.

October 2004