by Rafael Medoff
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not the first Jewish leader to endure severe insults from the White House. The rabbinical leaders who marched in Washington in 1943, to plead for the rescue of Europe’s Jews, were the targets of similar hostility, expressed by another president.
The Times of Israel reported on January 23 that “officials in Washington” said the obscenity used to describe Netanyahu by an unnamed White House official last October “was mild compared to the language used in the White House when news of Netanyahu’s planned speech [to Congress] came in.”
Now compare that to what happened when many of the nation’s most prominent rabbis marched to the White House in 1943, three days before Yom Kippur.
The 400 marchers, who were mobilized by the Bergson Group and the Orthodox rescue group Va’ad ha-Hatzala, included such rabbinic luminaries as Rabbis Israel Rosenberg and Eliezer Silver, co-presidents of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis; the Boyaner Rebbe, Rabbi Shlomo Friedman; Rabbi Bernard Levinthal, known as the chief rabbi of Philadelphia; and such soon-to-be leaders as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.
The rabbis were greeted on the steps of the Capitol by leading Members of Congress. Then they marched to the Lincoln Memorial, where they recited prayers for American soldiers fighting overseas and for the Jews being slaughtered by the Nazis. From there they went to the White House, where they hoped a small delegation would be permitted to present President Roosevelt with a petition urging steps to rescue Europe’s Jews.
The president, however, would not give them five minutes of his time. The rabbis were told that Roosevelt was unavailable. But FDR’s schedule is a matter of public record, so we know that he had no appointments in the early or mid afternoon that day. He easily could have met with the rabbis–except that he had decided to leave the White House through a rear exit, in order to avoid the marchers.
As protests go, the march had been remarkably quiet, dignified, and respectful. There were no picket signs, no shouting of slogans, no criticism of the president. It was, essentially, a plea for mercy. The problem was that the rabbis represented a cause that President Roosevelt preferred to ignore. They were a source of political discomfort.
A number of FDR’s biographers have noted how thin-skinned he was. Roosevelt’s private remark about wanting to “chloroform certain newspapermen” was obviously facetious, but his intervention to prevent the Republican publisher of Time magazine from receiving credentials as a war correspondent tells us something about the president’s inability to handle criticism.
So too with the rabbis. Several days after the march, Nahum Goldmann, cochairman of the World Jewish Congress, met with Samuel Rosenman, FDR’s closest Jewish adviser and speechwriter. Rosenman was one of those who regarded the marching rabbis as an embarrassment and had urged the president to avoid them.
But Roosevelt didn’t need Rosenman’s urging on that score, as he made clear afterwards. Rosenman revealed to Goldmann that “the President had been much displeased by the March of the Rabbis instigated by the notorious Bergson and had used language that morning while breakfasting which would have pleased Hitler himself.”
It is unclear what exactly Roosevelt said. But several other documents confirm that he made remarks in the spirit that Rosenman reported.
Briefing David Ben-Gurion and other members of the Jewish Agency Executive in Jerusalem the following year, Goldmann repeated what Rosenman told him about Roosevelt “speaking like Hitler,” according to the minutes of the meeting. Goldmann added that Rosenman was “crushed” by FDR’s remark.
In addition, American Zionist activist Meyer Weisgal, who was Chaim Weizmann’s righthand man, told a closed session of a Zionist conference in Cleveland in December 1943 that on a recent occasion, “in very high places, utterances were made” which, if his source had not known who was speaking, “he would have thought that Hitler was speaking.”
President Barack Obama has said on many occasions that he is a great admirer of President Roosevelt and tries to emulate him. Indeed, at the time of his first inauguration, Time published a cover image of Mr. Obama in a famous FDR pose, complete with his trademark cigarette holder. One can only hope that the latest vitriol aimed at Israel’s prime minister does not indicate that President Obama is following in Roosevelt’s footsteps in that area, as well.