Echoes of 1943 as Jewish Activists ask Congress to Bypass President

by Rafael Medoff 

A tried-and-true method for lobbyists whose cause is opposed by the president is to bypass the White House by going to Congress. It worked for Jewish activists in 1943. But will it work in the current battle over sanctions on Iran?

Seventy years ago this week, the Holocaust rescue activists known as the Bergson Group found themselves stymied by an administration that did not want to take action to save Jewish refugees from the Nazis. President Franklin Roosevelt and his aides insisted that rescue was not possible until the Nazis were defeated on the battlefield. The White House called its policy “rescue through victory” –a clever way of disguising what was, in reality, a policy of non-rescue.

The Bergson Group looked to Congress for help. In the autumn of 1943, just before Yom Kippur, the Bergsonites and an Orthodox rescue group, the Va’ad ha-Hatzala, brought 400 rabbis to Washington for an unprecedented march to Capitol Hill and the White House. The dramatic protest helped galvanize members of Congress to introduce a resolution calling on FDR to create a new government agency to rescue Jewish refugees.

Bergson understood the political importance of lining up supporters from both sides of the aisle. It was quite a coup that the leading sponsors of his resolution were Congress members from President Roosevelt’s own party: Senator Guy Gillette of Iowa and Rep. Will Rogers, Jr. of California.

Presidents don’t like when activists use Congress to advance a policy that the administration opposes. FDR didn’t like what Bergson was doing, and President Obama doesn’t like that some pro-Israel activists today are urging Congress to tighten sanctions on Iran. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has called the congressional sanctions effort “a march to war.”

In 1943, the Roosevelt administration’s allies in Congress tried to slow down the rescue resolution by insisting on full hearings before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Bergson arranged for an impressive array of public figures to testify in support of the resolution. Probably the most important was New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. The fact that he was a staunch supporter of President Roosevelt’s policies in general gave La Guardia credibility to challenge FDR on refugee policy.

In his testimony, La Guardia zeroed in on the fact that the administration had recently established a commission to rescue historic buildings and monuments in war torn Europe. (“Monuments Men,” a new George Clooney movie about that effort, will be released in February.) The mayor told the congressional hearing: “This very important problem…is not like the destruction of buildings or monuments, as terrible as that may be, because, after all, they may be rebuilt or even reproduced; but when a life is snuffed out, it is gone; it is gone forever.”

Unfortunately, American Jewish leaders were divided on the rescue resolution. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, head of the American Jewish Congress and a fervent supporter of President Roosevelt, testified that the Gillette-Rogers resolution was inadequate because it did not state that refugees should be brought to Palestine. (Bergson had deliberately omitted the contentious Palestine issue from the wording in order to gain the backing of more members of Congress.) This display of Jewish disunity nearly doomed the resolution.

Today, by contrast, there appears to be unity among the major Jewish organizations in support of congressional efforts to tighten sanctions on Iran. The Israeli daily Ha’aretz claimed in a November 1  news article that leaders of four Jewish groups agreed to a White House request to temporarily hold off on the sanctions effort. In response, two of the groups publicly reaffirmed their support for tighter sanctions. A third, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, did not indicate any change in its support for tighter sanctions. The fourth, the Anti-Defamation League, initially confirmed that it would refrain from urging more sanctions–but ten days later, the ADL issued a statement reversing that position.

Back to 1943: the Roosevelt administration countered Bergson and La Guardia by sending its top refugee policy expert, Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, to testify against the Gillette-Rogers resolution. But that move backfired when Long wildly exaggerated the number of refugees who had already been admitted to the United States. Now the mainstream Jewish organizations, while still hostile to the Bergson Group, nevertheless joined with Bergson in denouncing Long’s distortions. That made it harder for the Roosevelt administration to play divide-and-conquer.

President Roosevelt, faced with this rising tide of criticism from the Jewish community and Congress, reluctantly agreed to create a rescue agency. It was called the War Refugee Board. Although FDR gave it only token funding (90% of its budget came from Jewish organizations) and the State Department and War Department often failed to cooperate with its efforts, the Board played a key role in the rescue of some 200,000 Jews in the waning months of the war.

Jewish disunity nearly derailed the 1943 rescue resolution. If not for a twist of fate –Breckinridge Long’s preposterous testimony– the War Refugee Board might never have been created. Perhaps today’s Jewish leaders have learned a lesson from that experience.

November 2013