Were U.S. Jews Powerless During the Holocaust: Another View

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Were American Jews powerless to bring about the rescue of more Jews from Hitler, as Prof. Henry Feingold contends? (NJJNews, Oct.27)

Prof. Feingold is certainly correct that American Jews “were much better during the Soviet Jewry case than during the German Jewry case.”  But there is much evidence to counter his assertion that during the Hitler years, “we didn’t have the power to do anything about it.”

Melvin Urofsky, biographer of the most prominent Jewish leader of that era, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, describes an important instance in which Wise took action–and got results.  Hearing, in 1936, that England was planning to restrict Jewish immigration to Palestine, Wise asked President Franklin Roosevelt to intervene.  The fact that it was an election year gave Wise some political leverage; Roosevelt, “alert to the potential political benefits” (a chance to impress Jewish voters at no cost), let London know the U.S. would be unhappy if Palestine’s doors were shut.  The British, anxious to preserve relations with Washington, backed down.

It was a significant accomplishment.  Three years later, the British would impose stringent restrictions on Jewish immigration, “but in the intervening years (1936-1939),” Prof. Urofsky points out, “more than 50,000 Jews, mostly from Germany and Austria were able to [enter Palestine]–men, women, and children who would undoubtedly have perished had the 1939 White Paper been issued three years earlier.”

Sadly, Rabbi Wise’s willingness to take action in 1936 proved to be the exception, not the rule.  As England edged closer to war against Germany in 1939, Wise tempered his criticism of British policy in Palestine.  Wise refused to take part in what he called “anti-British propaganda,” insisting that the American public should be urged to “march shoulder to shoulder with England in the war against fascism, even if the Zionist cause suffered.”

Palestine Labor Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion was deeply disappointed to encounter this attitude among Wise and other American Zionists, during his visit to the United States in 1940.  Ben-Gurion had hoped to persuade American Jewish leaders to organize “unrelenting demonstrations” against England’s Palestine policy, and to support immigration in defiance of British restrictions.  But he found few takers, even after the November 1940 sinking of the S.S. Patria, a ship with two thousand would-be immigrants who had been intercepted by the British.  Ben-Gurion drafted a statement of condemnation that he wanted American Zionist leaders to issue; Wise prevented its distribution on the grounds that it would “create further difficulties for Britain.”

Nobody can know for certain what would have been achieved had American Jewish leaders adopted the activist policy Ben-Gurion advocated.  What is clear is that the main problem was not that Jewish leaders such as Wise were “powerless”; the problem was that Wise chose not to exercise the political leverage that the American Jewish community possessed.

The most telling example of American Jews successfully exercising political power during the Holocaust came in 1943. Stepping into the vacuum left by mainstream Jewish leaders, a maverick activist group called the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe (better known as the Bergson Group) launched a nationwide campaign to pressure the Roosevelt administration to rescue Jews from Hitler.  The Bergson Group sponsored more than two hundred newspaper advertisements, lobbied Congress, and organized public rallies, including a march by 400 rabbis to the White House shortly before Yom Kippur–the only such Jewish protest in the nation’s capitol during the Holocaust.

This campaign culminated in the introduction of a Congressional resolution urging creation of a U.S. government agency to rescue refugees.  The Roosevelt administration opposed the resolution, as did some Jewish leaders; Rabbi Wise even testified against it.

Just as the resolution was making its way through Congress, aides to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. discovered evidence that the State Department had been sabotaging opportunities to rescue refugees and blocking the transmission of Holocaust-related information to the United States.

Morgenthau decided to go directly to FDR, to convince him 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 Roosevelt needed was an embarrassing public scandal over the State Department’s actions on the refugee issue.  Within days,  the president issued an executive order creating the War Refugee Board.

Although underfinanced and understaffed, the War Refugee Board played a key role in rescuing some 200,000 Jews, in part by facilitating and financing the life-saving work of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest.  The Board’s accomplishments demolished the administration’s longstanding claim that rescue was unfeasible.

The creation of the Board also demonstrated that American Jews were far from powerless.  Through its energy, creativity, and p.r. savvy, the Bergson Group overcame the political obstacles that some contemporary analysts wrongly assume were insurmountable.

(As published in the New Jersey Jewish News, November 10, 2005)

November 2005