Franklin Roosevelt, Founder of Israel?

by Rafael Medoff 

Move over, Theodor Herzl, David Ben-Gurion, and Menachem Begin: it turns out that the man most responsible for the founding of Israel was, in fact, Franklin D. Roosevelt. This  astonishing claim is being circulated by FDR partisans in a new effort to rescue their hero’s reputation in the Jewish world.

The depiction of Roosevelt as a Zionist hero, first presented in the 2006 book Saving the Jews, by divorce lawyer Robert Rosen, has recently been resurrected by Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman in their new book, FDR and the Jews. Both works emphasize the president’s rhetoric rather than his policies. Boilerplate pro-Zionist messages sent by Roosevelt to Jewish organizational events serve their narratives better then his actual policies regarding Palestine and Zionism.

The case made by Breitman and Lichtman also relies heavily on bit of curious reasoning: since a German conquest of Palestine would have resulted in the destruction of the Jewish community there, and since U.S. military equipment played a significant role in the Allied defeat of the Nazis in North Africa, thus stopping the Germans from reaching Palestine, therefore FDR’s approval of the transfer of that equipment means that if not for Roosevelt, there would have been “no Jewish state, no Israel,” as they put it.

At about the same time the Breitman-Lichtman book came out earlier this year, I happened to be doing some research at the Central Zionist Archives, in Jerusalem. There I came across new documents that illustrate the contrast between FDR’s public expressions of sympathy for Zionism and his behind-the-scenes coldness on the subject.

One of the documents is an account by a prominent American Jewish leader, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, of a private meeting he had with President Roosevelt in January 1938. Wise was dismayed to hear FDR assert, “You know there is not room in Palestine for many more people–perhaps another hundred or hundred and fifty thousand.” Those figures apparently were provided by the president’s close adviser, geographer Isaiah Bowman, who was strongly anti-Zionist.

Rabbi Wise insisted there was room for at least another 1.5-million Jews in the Holy Land, but FDR would not budge. He urged Wise to come up with “a second choice for the Jews…Palestine possibilities are going to be exhausted. You ought to have another card up your sleeve.” Wise left the meeting “surprised and shocked” by the president’s position.

Once World War Two began, President Roosevelt’s attitude toward Zionism grew even chillier, as the second document I found indicates.

Dated October 1941, it records Nahum Goldmann, cochairman of the World Jewish Congress, briefing American Zionist leaders on worrisome rumors that the British were holding secret negotiations with the Arabs over the future of Palestine. Goldmann said his request to the State Department for information about the talks had been ignored because State “is very much influenced by the British Colonial Office.”

To make matters worse (Goldmann continued), “There are reasons also to believe that even in higher quarters” –a reference to the Roosevelt White House– “there are certain prejudices that have to be overcome in order to get effective support from the administration for a Jewish Palestine.” (In a similar vein, Rabbi Wise wrote to a colleague that FDR was “hopelessly and completely under the domination of the English Foreign Office [and] the Colonial Office.”)

By 1942, FDR was so averse to being seen as pro-Zionist that he rejected even a request to permit the Palestine (Jewish) Symphony Orchestra to name one of its theaters the “Roosevelt Amphitheatre.”  

World Zionist Organization president Chaim Weizmann experienced a taste of this attitude when he met with Roosevelt at the White House in July 1942. The Zionist leader wanted to speak about the Allies’ policy regarding Palestine, but the president diverted the conversation into a long discussion about the production of synthetic rubber. Roosevelt pushed aside Weizmann’s request to mobilize a Jewish army to defend Palestine against a German invasion; FDR supported the British view that such a move would antagonize the Egyptian Army. Weizmann argued that the U.S.-British position was like “trying to appease a rattlesnake,” but once again, Roosevelt would not budge.

A third new document concerns an April 1943 meeting between FDR and a delegation of seven Jewish congressmen. They urged the president to press the British to cancel the White Paper policy of closing off Palestine to all but a handful of Jewish refugees. “It was a very unsatisfactory interview,” Congressman Daniel Ellison (R-Maryland) reported to Jewish leaders. “[We] asked the President about refugees, the White Paper, etc. What he proposed to do about these things. [We] made a number of suggestions to him as to what [we] thought he ought to do and the answer to all of these suggestions was ‘No’.”

The Congressmen did not know that behind the scenes, the president and his aides were finalizing a plan that would have dealt a harsh blow to Zionism. A presidential envoy to the Middle East, Lt. Col. Harold Hoskins, had recently returned with a report claiming “world-wide [Zionist] propaganda” and “Arab fear of American support for political Zionism” would would lead to Arab violence that would force the Allies to send troops to the region. Hoskins urged the Allies to declare that all “public discussions and activities of a political nature relating to Palestine” were endangering “the war effort” and should “cease.”

Secretary of State Cordell Hull endorsed the Hoskins plan and submitted it to the White House on May 7. The president jotted “OK – FDR” on the proposal and returned it to the State Department for implementation. Seventy years ago this week, Washington and London put their finishing touches on the scheme. FDR gave his final approval on July 19, and a July 27 release was planned for the declaration.

Rumors about an impending Allied statement on Palestine sent a dumbfounded Rabbi Wise hurrying to the White House on July 22 to ask the president himself if the Allies really intended to issue a proclamation “enjoining silence with respect to Jewish claims to Palestine.” FDR looked him in the eye–and lied. “The Chief seemed completely in the dark with respect to such [a] statement,” Wise wrote to a colleague the next day.

Incredibly, however, here’s how Allan Lichtman, coauthor of FDR and the Jews, described this episode when he spoke at a Jewish organizational event in Washington, D.C., in April: “Rabbi Wise worked with FDR to squelch a State Department plan to suppress all discussion of Zionism during the war.”  

No mention of FDR’s approval of the plan. No mention of how the president deceived Wise. And no explanation as to the real reason the plan was “squelched.”

What actually happened was that a range of prominent Jews vigorously objected to the plan–and not all for the expected reasons. Naturally Rabbi Wise and other Zionists were outraged. But Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., a non-Zionist, likewise was “inexpressibly shocked,” as he put it, to hear of this attempt “to deprive U.S. citizens of their constitutional liberties.” Presidential speechwriter Samuel Rosenman, an anti-Zionist, also weighed in against the proposed declaration; his fear was that the Zionists would simply ignore the Anglo-American statement and thereby provoke antisemitism by making Jews appear unpatriotic.

Other Jews in FDR’s inner circle, including Ben Cohen, David Niles, and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, raised similar concerns. Then Washington Post columnist Drew Pearson broke the story, and opposition intensified. Congressman Emanuel Celler charged on the floor of the House that “the joint statement will, with its ‘Silence, please’ drown the clamor of the tortured Nazi victims pleading for a haven of refuge.”

Secretary of War Henry Stimson conceded that Hoskins’s predictions of violence in Palestine were “alarmist.” With the story in the press, his Jewish advisers clamoring against it, and even the War Department keeping its distance, FDR backed down. But the episode revealed a great deal about Roosevelt’s true feelings concerning Palestine and Zionism.

David Niles, a close adviser to FDR, once remarked that if Roosevelt had lived longer (and thus Harry Truman remained vice president), he probably would not have supported the creation of Israel, and as a result the Jewish state might never have been established. Today it is more clear than ever why Niles doubted that FDR genuinely supported Zionism.

August 2013

Published on the web site of the Louis D. Brandeis Society –