by Rafael Medoff
Writing in The Forward on Oct. 21, 2011, former district attorney Robert Morgenthau and law professor Frank Tuerkheimer claim to have discovered that President Franklin D. Roosevelt “saved the Jews of North Africa and the future State of Israel” by invading Axis-occupied North Africa.
It was a stroke of good fortune that the Allied victory in North Africa in 1942 happened to stop the Nazis from, among other things, massacring the Jews of Palestine. But for Morgenthau and Tuerkheimer to suggest that it was Roosevelt’s intention to rescue those Jews is misleading, to put it mildly. It would be like saying that Stalin “saved the Jews of Moscow” when the Soviets stopped the advance of the German Army at Stalingrad, or that Churchill “saved the Jews of London” when the German attack on England was repulsed.
But what makes the Morgenthau-Tuerkheimer thesis especially ironic is that it fails to mention the explosive controversy over the anti-Jewish policies that FDR permitted in Allied-liberated North Africa.
On November 8, 1942, American and British forces invaded Nazi-occupied Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia and, in eight days, defeated the Germans and their Vichy French partners.
For the 330,000 Jews of North Africa, the Allied conquest was heaven-sent–or so it seemed. The Vichy regime that had ruled since the summer of 1940 had stripped the region’s Jews of their civil rights (originally granted back in 1870), severely restricted their entrance to schools and some professions, confiscated Jewish property, and tolerated sporadic pogroms against Jews by local Muslims. In addition, thousands of Jewish men were hauled away to forced-labor camps.
President Roosevelt, in his victory announcement, pledged “the abrogation of all laws and decrees inspired by Nazi governments or Nazi ideologists.”
Or so he said.
Behind the scenes, Roosevelt had cut a deal with Admiral Francois Darlan, a senior Vichy official who happened to be Algiers at the time of the Allied invasion. In exchange for persuading some of the local forces to surrender, Darlan was named High Commissioner for North Africa. Nearly all of the top officials of the local Vichy regime were permitted to remain in the new government. The Vichy “Office of Jewish Affairs” continued to operate, as did the forced labor camps in which thousands of Jews were imprisoned.
Charles de Gaulle and the anti-Nazi French resistance were of course outraged. And so were many prominent Americans. Mr. Morgenthau’s father, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., was “apoplectic,” FDR biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin reports. She quotes Secretary of War Henry Stimson’s observation: “Poor Henry was sunk. He was almost for giving up the war which he said had lost all interest for him.” An editorial in The New Republic urged its readers to imagine how they would feel if the Germans had occupied part of the United States, and then when the British liberated the area, they permitted Father Coughlin and Charles Lindbergh to run the government.
Darlan and company claimed that rescinding the anti-Jewish laws would cause local Arabs to riot. Secretary of State Cordell Hull agreed. So did General George Patton, who warned from Morocco that “local Jews” would “try to take the lead here,” thus angering the Arabs.
President Roosevelt, too, seemed to subscribe to Patton’s “pushy Jews” theory. FDR discussed the question of rights for North African Jewry at a January 17, 1943 meeting in Casablanca with officials of the new “non-Vichy” regime. According to the official U.S. government transcript of the conversation, Roosevelt said: “The number of Jews engaged in the practice of the professions (law, medicine, etc) should be definitely limited to the percentage that the Jewish population in North Africa bears to the whole of the North African population…The President stated that his plan would further eliminate the specific and understandable complaints which the Germans bore toward the Jews in Germany, namely, that while they represented a small part of the population, over fifty percent of the lawyers, doctors, school teachers, college professors, etc., in Germany, were Jews.” (It is not clear how FDR came up with that wildly exaggerated statistic.)
American Jewish leaders did not know of FDR’s private comments about Jewish professionals. Undoubtedly they would have been shocked and horrified if word had leaked out. (The transcript was not made public until 1968.) But they did know that the promised restoration of the rights of North African Jewry had not taken place, and as the weeks turned into months, they started wondering why.
Although reluctant to take issue with the Roosevelt administration, by the spring of 1943, Jewish leaders began speaking out. The American Jewish Congress and World Jewish Congress charged that “the anti-Jewish legacy of the Nazis remains intact in North Africa” and urged FDR to eliminate the Vichy laws. Leaders of the American Jewish Committee met with Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles to press for abrogation.
“The spirit of the Swastika hovers over the Stars and Stripes,” Benzion Netanyahu, director of the U.S. wing of the Revisionist Zionists (and father of Israel’s current prime minister) charged. I.F. Stone wrote a series of stinging articles in the New York City newspaper PM accusing the State Department of “holding up repeal of the Nuremberg Laws in North Africa.”
After months of protests, the Roosevelt administration finally gave in and made it clear to the local authorities that the anti-Jewish measures needed to be repealed.
The repeal process, however, was painfully slow. In April 1943, the forced labor camps that the Vichyites had established in North Africa were officially shut down, but some of them continued operating well into the summer. The Jewish quotas in schools and professions were gradually phased out. In May, the racial laws in Tunisia were abolished. Two hundred Italian Jewish men who had been taken to a Tunisian forced labor camp –not by the Nazis or their Vichy collaborators but by the Allies, because the men were citizens of an Axis country– were finally released after several months. And finally, on October 20, 1943, nearly a year after the Allied liberation, the civil rights of North Africa’s Jews were fully reinstated.