Rabbi Stephen Wise ‘failed miserably’ during Shoah, HUC president Says

By Etgar Lefkovits

Rabbi Stephen Wise, the most prominent US Jewish leader during World War II, failed miserably in his response to the Holocaust, according to the president of Reform Judaism’s Hebrew Union College in Manhattan.

Rabbi David Ellenson was the latest of several prominent American Jewish leaders who have censured the Jewish leadership of the 1940s, but his remarks were especially significant in that they took aim at Wise, who founded the Jewish Institute of Religion to train rabbis in Reform Judaism. It was merged into the Hebrew Union College a year after his death in 1949.

“In the 1930s, it was Wise who led the rallies against Hitler, so why did he fail so horribly in the 1940s?” Ellenson asked at a Holocaust conference organized by the Washington-based David S. Wyman Institute at Fordham University Law School in Manhattan on Sunday.

He said part of the explanation lies in Wise’s “absolute and complete love” for president Franklin D. Roosevelt, as well as his antipathy toward the Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and toward the Bergson Group, whose leaders were followers of Jabotinsky, something that “helped blind him” to the need for more activism.

Ellenson said concerns of provoking an anti-Semitic backlash should not have thwarted the American Jewish leadership from actively working to prevent the extermination of six million Jews.

“Jewish leaders have an obligation to be sufficiently flexible and imaginative to deal with unprecedented situations,” he said.

He said he hoped that today’s leaders would respond more effectively to contemporary dangers facing the Jewish people, such as the Iranian nuclear threat.

“Stephen Wise spent too much time trying to protect FDR from criticism, and not enough time focusing on how to convince Roosevelt to help rescue Jews from Europe,” said Wyman Institute director Dr. Rafael Medoff. “Rabbi David Ellenson is to be commended for acknowledging the mistakes of his predecessor and trying to ensure that the failures of the 1940s will not be repeated.”

New York Jewish Community Relations Council head Michael Miller and two-time Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations chairman Seymour Reich have strongly criticized the 1940s American Jewish leadership for undermining the work of the independent Bergson Group.