FDR’s Retreat on Zionism–and What it Means Today

by Rafael Medoff

A frequent accusation against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the weeks preceding his address to Congress in February was that he was “turning Israel into a partisan issue.” By accepting an invitation from the Republicans without consulting the Democratic president, Netanyahu was–so the critics charged–provoking the Democrats to adopt an antagonistic posture towards Israel.

It was a particularly unsettling moment for American Zionist organizations, which have always vigorously pursued the principle of bipartisan support for Israel. Securing the backing of Republicans and Democrats alike traditionally has provided a cushion against the occasional period of tension between Israel and a president from one party or the other. It has also provided American Jews with a sense of assurance that their concerns are a fully accepted part of American political culture.

The efforts to make Zionism bipartisan go back nearly a century. Pre-World War Two American Zionists secured endorsements of the 1917 Balfour Declaration from every president from Wilson to Hoover, not to mention a unanimous pro-Zionist joint resolution by Congress in 1922. It was during the third term of Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, that the notion of bipartisan support for Jewish statehood would face its greatest test. With its election-year tensions, vigorous competition for Jewish votes, and conflicts between the White House and American Jewry, the little-known story of FDR’s retreat on Zionism is a political drama that speaks to our own times in more ways than one.

* * *

In the early and mid 1930s, President Roosevelt showed little interest in Palestine, issuing only boiler-plate expressions of sympathy regarding Jewish development there. With relative quiet prevailing in the Holy Land during this period, there was no reason for the matter to command the president’s attention. There was an important exception in the autumn of 1936, when President Roosevelt, acting at the request of American Zionist leaders, persuaded the British government to postpone a planned shutdown of Jewish immigration to Palestine. Saying a few words to the British in private cost Roosevelt nothing and scored points among American Jewish voters just weeks before a presidential election.

By early 1939, British leaders were ready to discard their 1917 pledge to facilitate creation of a Jewish national home in the face of Arab opposition. War with Germany seemed increasingly likely, and the British were looking for a way to appease the Arab world and bring the Palestinian Arab revolt to an end. The Chamberlain government invited Jewish and Arab representatives to take part in a conference, at the St. James Palace, ostensibly to find a solution acceptable to both sides–but really to pave the way for the scrapping of the Balfour Declaration.

American Zionist leader Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, preparing to lead a U.S. Jewish delegation to St. James, feared “we are going to be bamboozled–I know that England is going to fool us to the top of her bent.” Wise sought an appointment with President Roosevelt, hoping a few words from the White House would strengthen the Zionists’ position at the conference. FDR refused to see him. War in Europe seemed imminent. Isolationist sentiment in the United States was strong. Roosevelt did not want to be perceived as interfering in England’s affairs or taking sides in the Arab-Jewish conflict. David Ben-Gurion got it exactly right in his description, to a colleague, of Roosevelt’s attitude: “[Roosevelt] is not prepared to put pressure on a friendly state in such time of trial, as we would like him to do.”

The inevitable failure of St. James set the stage for London’s White Paper of May 1939, which would severely limit Jewish immigration to Palestine for five years and then make further immigration contingent on Arab approval. American Zionist leaders caught wind of the plan and repeatedly sought President Roosevelt’s intervention. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter called the president and asked him to do something. FDR expressed sympathy and suggested he draft a letter from him (Roosevelt) to Prime Minister Chamberlain, urging him keep Palestine open. Frankfurter wrote the letter. FDR never sent it. Justice Louis Brandeis, too, sent a note to the White House, asking FDR to intervene. After two weeks without a response, Brandeis asked if the president could at least spare “a few minutes” to see a Zionist leader. Roosevelt’s response:  “Can’t see him.”

On the eve of the White Paper, FDR went through the motions. He instructed the State Department to inform London that the U.S. hoped “no drastic changes” were intended. And in a private memo to Secretary of State Cordell Hull on the day the White Paper was issued, FDR called the new policy “something that we cannot give approval to.” At the same time, however, he instructed the U.S. ambassador in London, Joseph Kennedy, to limit his criticism of the White Paper to unofficial conversations. There were to be no official U.S. protests, no White House statements criticizing the White Paper, not a single substantive step that might influence London on the issue. Noting Roosevelt’s minimalist response, the British dug in their heels on Palestine without fear of any real consequences. The White Paper became policy without any substantive opposition from England’s most important ally.


Once the United States entered World War Two, a new factor, all too familiar today, intruded upon Roosevelt’s considerations concerning Palestine: fear that U.S. support for Zionism would antagonize the Arabs. Thus he rebuffed a request from World Zionist Organization president Chaim Weizmann in 1942 to mobilize a Jewish army in defense of Palestine against a German invasion; such a move would antagonize the Egyptians, FDR insisted. A frustrated Weizmann compared Roosevelt’s approach to “trying to appease a rattlesnake.” FDR even rejected a request to permit the Palestine (Jewish) Symphony Orchestra to name one of its theaters the “Roosevelt Amphitheatre”; he was afraid it would link him too closely with the Zionist endeavor.

In late 1942, Roosevelt dispatched a personal envoy, Lt. Col. Harold Hoskins, to assess the mood in the Arab world. Hoskins returned in early 1943 with some unabashedly anti-Zionist advice for the president: “If the issues of a Jewish political state and of a Jewish army continue to be pressed at this time,” the Arabs would instigate “a very bloody conflict” and drag the Allies into it. This would plant “the seeds of a possible third World War.” In response, the State Department proposed issuing an Allied ban on all public discussion of Palestine until the end of the war.

President Roosevelt concurred; he jotted “OK – FDR” on the proposal for an Allied decree banning all public discussion of Palestine. A date (in July 1943) was selected to announce the ban, but in a peculiar twist, several of the president’s top Jewish aides, who ordinarily never raised Jewish issues with FDR, decided to intervene. Although far from sympathetic to Zionism, they opposed the ban because they feared Zionist activists would simply ignore the decree and thereby provoke antisemitism by making Jews appear unpatriotic. Meanwhile, leaks to the media opened the door to criticism from congressmen such as Emanuel Celler (D-New York), who charged that the ban would “drown the clamor of the tortured Nazi victims pleading for a haven of refuge.” In the face of this and other criticism, Roosevelt decided the plan was too much of a hot potato, and dropped it.

The episode illustrated how fear of Arab violence had come to dominate Roosevelt’s approach to Palestine during World War II. At the Anglo-American refugee conference in Bermuda in April 1943, for example, delegates raised the issue of sending a few thousand refugees to Allied-occupied portions of North Africa. The War Department , in response, warned that allowing any Jews “into the Moslem countr[ies] of North Africa” would “stimulate the religious situation there [and] might result in the death and destruction of several hundred thousand American soldiers…” President Roosevelt agreed that no more than a handful of Jewish refugees should be given haven in that region. “I know, in fact, that there is plenty of room for them in North Africa but I raise the question of sending large numbers of Jews there,” FDR instructed the State Department. “That would be extremely unwise.”

Roosevelt made a similar argument when he was approached in March 1944 by American Zionist leaders who urged him to press the British on Palestine immigration. If he did so, FDR told Rabbi Wise and Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, “enraged Arabs” would attack American GIs in the Middle East. “Do you want to be responsible by your action for the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives?” he asked Wise and Silver. “Do you want to start a Holy Jihad?” FDR made the same claim when Senator Robert Taft (R-Ohio) in 1944 introduced a resolution affirming U.S. support for creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine. Roosevelt told his cabinet the resolution would be “responsible for the death of a hundred thousand men.” As a result of the administration’s opposition, the resolution was temporarily shelved. A year later, though, Congress passed it–and yet no Arab rioting ensued.

Golda Meir, incidentally, confronted this question in her 1975 autobiography. “[W]hat would have happened,” she asked, if the Allies had firmly supported Zionism and rescue? “A few Arab leaders might have made threatening speeches. Perhaps there would have been a protest march or two. Maybe there would even have been an additional act of pro-Nazi sabotage somewhere in the Middle East….But thousands more of the Six Million might have survived. Thousands more of the ghetto fighters and Jewish partisans might have been armed.  And the civilized world might then have been freed of the terrible accusation that not a finger was lifted to help the Jews in their torment.”


By the autumn of 1943, there was growing concern among some prominent Democrats that the likely contenders for the Republican nomination, previous nominee Wendell Willkie and New York Governor Thomas Dewey, would target Jewish voters in the next year’s presidential election. Vice President Henry Wallace, in his diary, worried about “how vigorously Willkie is going to town for Palestine.”

Congressman Celler was particularly concerned about Dewey. He was, after all, the popular governor of the state with by far the most electoral votes (47; next largest was Pennsylvania, with 35) and a large Jewish voting bloc–about 14% of the electorate. In a memo to presidential secretary Marvin McIntyre, Celler warned that “the Jews in New York and other areas like Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Sanfrancisco [sic], [and] Cleveland are greatly exercised over the failure of our Administration to condemn the MacDonald White Paper….It would not surprise me in the least to have Governor Dewey make a pronouncement in the not too distant future to the effect that Palestine cannot be liquidated as a homeland for the Jews and that the MacDonald White Paper must be abrogated…as far as the race of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is concerned [Dewey] would steal the show right from under our noses…”

Rabbi Wise wrote to Roosevelt’s liaison to the Jewish community, David Niles, that he was “very much disturbed by the things that Dewey is saying about Palestine. We must talk it over carefully.” Not that Wise had any illusions regarding FDR’s position on Palestine. He confided to a colleague (in November 1943) that Roosevelt was “hopelessly and completely under the domination of the English Foreign Office [and] the Colonial Office.” But Wise was a devout supporter of FDR and the New Deal, and took upon himself the task of protecting the president from Jewish critics–and from pro-Zionist Republicans.

Wise’s mission was complicated by an unexpected source–by a Netanyahu, in fact. Benzion Netanyahu, scholar and activist (and father of the current prime minister) arrived in the United States in 1940 as an emissary of Revisionist Zionism, the militant wing of the Zionist movement, headed by Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Netanyahu organized rallies and authored full-page newspaper advertisements challenging the Roosevelt administration for abandoning European Jewry and the Zionist cause.

Netanyahu also spent part of his time on Capitol Hill. In an interview with this author, Netanyahu recalled the political landscape he encountered in the nation’s capital:  “Most of the Jewish and Zionist leaders, led by Rabbi Stephen Wise, were devoted Democrats and supporters of President Roosevelt. The idea of having friendly relationships with Republicans was inconceivable to them.” In the months prior to the June 1944 Republican National Convention, Netanyahu did the inconceivable–he  took his case to GOP leaders, including former president Herbert Hoover; Senator Robert Taft, who was chairing the convention’s resolutions committee; and the influential Connecticut congresswoman Clare Booth Luce, who was slated to deliver the keynote address at the convention and would also serve on the resolutions committee. Netanyahu’s goal was to have the GOP platform include a plank supporting Jewish statehood in Palestine. Neither party had ever before taken such a stand.

At the same time, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver was leading a parallel lobbying effort aimed at the Republicans. Silver was Stephen Wise’s arch-rival, even as he uneasily co-chaired the American Zionist Emergency Council alongside Wise. Silver’s close relationship with Senator Taft led to an invitation to Silver to deliver the benediction at the 1944 convention. It also gave Silver an opportunity to speak with Republican leaders about the platform.

This lobbying resulted in the GOP’s adoption of the plank that Netanyahu and Silver sought–and then some: “In order to give refuge to millions of distressed Jewish men, women and children driven from their homes by tyranny,” it declared, “we call for the opening of Palestine to their unrestricted immigration and land ownership, so that in accordance with the full intent and purpose of the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the resolution of a Republican Congress in 1922, Palestine may be reconstituted as a free and democratic commonwealth. We condemn the failure of the President to insist that the Palestine Mandatory carry out the provisions of the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate while he pretends to support them.”

Had the Republican plank referred merely to Palestine and Jewish refugees, without mentioning FDR by name, Rabbi Wise could not have objected. But the GOP’s criticism of Roosevelt–the president whom Wise revered as “the All Highest” and “the Great Man” in his private correspondence–was too much for him. Wise hurried to inform the president that he was “deeply ashamed” of the plank’s wording, and issued a press release criticizing the GOP for casting “an unjust aspersion” on Roosevelt.

Yet even as the Republican plank infuriated Wise, it galvanized him. “Though I [originally] refused to go to Chicago as a delegate to the [Democratic] Convention,” he wrote to his close colleague, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, “I now think I shall go there in order to be certain that the Resolution on Palestine which must now be adopted shall more than neutralize the damage done by the Silver-inspired attack upon the Chief.”


Silver, for his part, was delighted that–as he wrote to a colleague–“for the first time, our [Zionist] Movement finds itself in the fortunate position where both major political parties are competing for its approval. He counseled Wise to use the GOP plank “as a lever to put through a similar and, if possible, a better plank in the Democratic platforms.” But at the same time, he cautioned his rival that the State Department, which was known to be hostile to Zionism, “will bring pressure to bear…to have a watered-down, meaningless plank on Palestine” in the Democrats’ platform.

Thus, Silver wrote to Wise, “You might have to go to the very top to force through a strong resolution,” referring to President Roosevelt. As much as he resented Silver, Wise evidently realized that in this instance his arch-enemy had a point. In the days preceding the Democratic convention, Wise repeatedly asked White House aides for a meeting with FDR to secure his “personal and administration support of [the] Zionist program” and “affirmation of his desire to bring about “maximum rescue [of] Jewish civilians.” Wise’s request was denied. It was not the first time that Wise’s reputed access to the White House did not live up to its reputation; Roosevelt had a tendency to duck the rabbi if Wise’s agenda included demands he preferred to evade.

Arriving at the convention, Wise was distressed to find himself shut out of the deliberations over the resolutions. “It’s all so confusing and distressing,” he complained to a friend. “I can’t break through a cordon of bell boys.” In a note to President Roosevelt that went unanswered, Wise reported: “My information is that either no plank concerning Palestine is to be adopted or that the Platform will include a plank which is utterly in adequate.” Wise heard through the grapevine that presidential speechwriter Samuel Rosenman–a Jewish opponent of Zionism–was pushing for a Palestine resolution so weak that it would constitute, as Wise put it, “a great gift to [Republican presidential nominee] Tom D[ewey].” Wise did secure permission to address a public hearing before the Committee on Resolutions–only to find that Rabbi Morris Lazaron, of the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism, was given equal time to testify against a Palestine plank.

Despite these problems, Wise ultimately triumphed. The Democrats agreed to a plank endorsing “unrestricted Jewish immigration and colonization” of Palestine and the establishment of “a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth.” Although the plank failed to match the Republicans’ statement about European Jewry, it was almost identical with regard to Palestine.

What was the secret of Wise’s success? “My personal friendships with many leaders of the Party gave us the resolution that we finally got despite those who would have denied us,” he wrote to a friend. Synagogue Council of America president Israel Goldstein, who accompanied Wise at the convention, later described how they positioned themselves near a revolving door directly downstairs from the room where the platform was being discussed, “so that every politician that came in would be bound to bump into Wise…He knew most of them by their first names….And he collared every one of these politicians and I was standing there at his side as a kind of junior assistant and the two of us together would indoctrinate that person in the two or three minutes that were available, and that person was on his way to the meeting of the Platform Committee which was upstairs. So by the time he got to his meeting, he had already had some indoctrination at the hands of Wise plus Goldstein—mostly Wise.”

Personal connections can be facilitators–when a substantive argument is being made. Behind closed doors, Wise played hardball, to judge from an entry in the diary of a Roosevelt administration official at the convention, assistant attorney general Norman Littell. He described being buttonholed by Wise, who was frantic that some members of the platform committee seemed unresponsive to his appeals. “It will hurt the president,” Wise warned Littell. “It will lose the President 400,000 or 500,000 votes.” The Republicans had adopted “a satisfactory plank” on Palestine, he reminded Littell; the Democrats needed to match it. Littell supported Wise’s efforts; so did Congressman Celler, who was a member of the Resolutions Committee and was not shy about pointing to the possible electoral consequences of a Democratic retreat from Zionism.

For anybody who needed an additional reminder, Netanyahu’s Revisionist Zionists placed a large advertisement in the Chicago Daily News, reminding the Democratic delegates of the GOP’s pro-Zionist plank, and pressing them to likewise support “immediate and effective action on behalf of a Jewish Palestine.”

In the end, political reality won the day. Wise summed up what was achieved: “With the plank in both platforms the thing is lifted above partisanship.” The adoption of the two party planks ensured that support for Zionism, and later Israel, would become a permanent part of American political culture. No subsequent Republican or Democratic convention could go back on it without significant electoral ramifications.

The raucous episode at the 2012 Democratic convention vividly illustrated how the spirit of the 1944 platform has withstood the test of time. The question at stake in that instance was not support for Israel, but rather longstanding platform language pledging to recognize undivided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Although an apparent majority of the delegates raised in their hands in support of dropping the Jerusalem reference from the platform, the party’s leadership, alive to the ramifications of such a move, ran roughshod over the assembly and in effect forced continued acceptance of the original language.


Back to 1944. The State Department, keenly sensitive to Arab opinion, was predictably chagrined by what Wise et al were able to achieve in Chicago, and deeply concerned as to what might follow. Immediately after the Democratic convention, Secretary of State Cordell Hull alerted the president that Arab leaders were justifiably worried that American Zionists had “take[n] advantage of the political situation in this country to commit both major parties to a course which would not be in accord with the war aims of the United Nations [the Allies].” Hull urged Roosevelt to “refrain from making statements on Palestine during the campaign that might tend to arouse the Arabs or upset the precarious balance of forces in Palestine itself.” A few weeks later he again complained to the president that “the susceptibilities [sic] of the Arabs have been aroused” by the two parties’ platforms.

Hull was right to worry. By the early fall, rumors that Governor Dewey planned to issue a pro-Zionist statement prodded Rabbi Wise and his colleagues at the American Zionist Emergency Council (AZEC) colleagues to seek a public affirmation by President Roosevelt of his support for the Democrats’ party plank. In writing to the president to request a meeting, Wise did not hesitate to allude to the electoral implications of the matter. “I would not press this if I did not know how important it was from certain points of view to see you now,” he wrote to Roosevelt. “There are things afoot which I do not like, designed to hurt you. These must not be permitted. Nearly everything can be done to avoid them if we can talk to you and have from you a word which shall be your personal affirmation of the Palestine plank in the Chicago platform of the Party. Easy enough for the Republican candidate to make the broadest and most reckless of promises, as indeed he is doing in many directions.”

Senior adviser and speechwriter Samuel Rosenman concurred. In a September 16 memo to the president, Rosenman warned that Dewey “is going to make quite a play” on Palestine. He suggested that FDR raise the issue of Palestine immigration during a meeting with Winston Churchill later that day “so that action might be taken later [after Churchill’s visit] in such a way that it will appear that you initiated it.” But Roosevelt resisted. In a memo back to Rosenman later that day, the president reported that after discussing it with Churchill, he found the prime minister “is against taking any action now.” Therefore the most FDR was willing to offer Rosenman was that in one of his upcoming speeches, he “could say something about preparations being necessary [in Palestine] because I do not want to see an immediate mass influx before the country is ready for it.” That, of course, would hardly serve Rosenman’s goal of preventing Jewish defections to Dewey.

Wise was worried, and he let Rosenman know it. In a September 26 note, the rabbi was emphatic:

“I may say to you in confidence that it would be definitely helpful to THE cause if we could see the Chief with the least possible delay, and get from him a statement that would be little more than one of assent to the plank in the Democratic platform, together with some word that would indicate that either in this or his next term of office he will do what he can to translate that platform declaration into action together with the British Government. Believe me, dear Judge [Rosenman’s pre-White House position], that I would not press this as I do if I did not have reason to fear that fullest advantage might be taken of the Chief’s failure to speak on this at an early date. It would be a mistake to let that word come just before the elections; the sooner the better, as you well understand.”

Poring over the minutes of Jewish Agency Executive meetings (stored at the Central Zionist Archives, in Jerusalem), I recently found further evidence of Wise’s strategy. Briefing and other Agency leaders on September 28, Nahum Goldmann–Wise’s co-chairman at the World Jewish Congress–tipped them off as to Wise’s plan: “Wise will tell [Roosevelt] that this declaration could secure for him 200,000 additional votes in New York, and there is a chance that at the end of October the president will perhaps issue the declaration.” For all his personal and political loyalty to FDR, Wise had come to realize that only an appeal to cold, hard political considerations might move a president who was (as Wise had privately put it) “hopelessly” under the sway of the anti-Zionists in the British Foreign Office.

Receiving no response from the White House to their request for an Oval Office meeting, Wise and Silver embarked upon a new strategy. Senator Robert Wagner, a pro-Zionist New York Democrat, had let them know he was looking for a way to impress his state’s Jewish voters before election day. They decided to have Wagner ask Roosevelt to meet with Wise and Silver for the purpose of preparing a presidential statement on Zionism that Wagner could read aloud at the Zionist Organization of America’s annual convention, which Wagner was scheduled to address in mid-October. Perhaps pressure from a senator could move the president where the rabbis could not.

After repeated inquiries by phone and telegram from Wagner, Wise, and Silver, Roosevelt at last agreed to see Wise (but not Silver) on October 11. The only public statement Wise made after the meeting was a joke to reporters that he was not sure whether he would vote “for the President or for the Democratic candidate.” As for what transpired between Wise and Roosevelt, Wise’s colleague Herman Shulman, speaking on Wise’s behalf at a session of the AZEC (because Wise was home sick), reported that FDR affirmed “that the Palestine plank in the Democratic Party platform had [the president’s] full support,” and that the president discussed with Wise the proposal for Roosevelt to “send a message to Senator Wagner.”

Shulman made it clear that Wise believed electoral considerations were the decisive factor in moving Roosevelt. It seems likely that Wise said something to the president along the lines of what he said to Norman Littell at the Democratic convention, and what Nahum Goldmann had told the Jewish Agency Wise was planning to say Roosevelt. “There was a reference to the [election] campaign,” Shulman told the AZEC group. “There was no doubt that the question of the campaign for Senator’s [sic] Wagner’s re-election in New York in particular and the problems of the political campaign in general had been an important factor in the whole matter.”

The day after the White House meeting, the Republicans in effect threw down the gauntlet. Dewey announced his endorsement of the GOP’s Palestine plan. “I am for the reconstitution of Palestine as a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth in accordance with the Balfour Declaration of 1917,” the Republican nominee declared. “I have also stated to Dr. Silver that in order to give refuge to millions of distressed Jews driven from their homes by tyranny, I favor the opening of Palestine to their unlimited immigration and land ownership….The Republican Party has at all times been the traditional friend of this movement. As President I would use my best offices to have our Government working together with Great Britain to achieve this great objective for a people that have suffered so much and deserve so much at the hands of mankind.”


FDR needed to move quickly to counter the attention Dewey was attracting with his pro-Zionist announcement. Either just before or after the October 11 White House meeting, Wise had presented Samuel Rosenman with a draft of the proposed presidential message to Wagner. Rosenman gave Wise’s draft to the president, with a cover note commenting that the draft “takes you out very far in favor of a Jewish Commonwealth–too far.” That sentiment is no surprise, given Rosenman’s personal antipathy for Zionism. During the course of the ensuing twenty-four hours, the draft was altered in a number of significant ways. It is impossible to determine precisely which of the changes were suggested by Rosenman and which were the president’s idea, but in all such matters, the president assumes responsibility for the final version that he approves.

At this point, our story veers into a troubling twilight zone where the historical narrative reaches the desks of historians whose political bias trumps their scholarly sensibilities. What at first might have seemed to be little more than a dusty curiosity, suddenly begins to offer important lessons concerning  issues such as the relationship between the White House and American Jewry, the role of the Jewish vote in American politics, and the ways in which the public can be misled by historians with agendas.

President Roosevelt’s changes to the Wagner draft first came to light in the book Decision on Palestine Deferred: America, Britain and Wartime Diplomacy 1939-1945, by Prof. Monty N. Penkower, published in 2002 by Frank Cass. By far the most exhaustively researched and skillfully constructed study of Allied policy towards Palestine during World War Two, Decision is the gold standard in its field. After noting that the delegates at the ZOA convention cheered wildly when Wagner read FDR’s message, Penkower wrote: “Few [in the ZOA audience] knew that the President had dropped the words ‘an undivided’ before ‘Palestine’ in Wagner’s draft for the announcement, and substituted ‘help’ for ‘do all in my power.’ “

Penkower based his account on four documents. The first draft that Wise gave Rosenman is located at the Central Zionist Archives, in Jerusalem. At the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, NY, there is a copy of the first draft that contains two handwritten changes, although the original typing is still clearly visible under the hand markings. Then there is a telegram from Wagner, asking Roosevelt to add one more passage, and there is a reply from the president, making two changes in Wagner’s additional passage.

All four changes backtracked on Roosevelt’s commitment to the Zionist cause. After endorsing the goal of a Jewish commonwealth, the original draft stated: “Ways and means of effectuating this policy must and will be settled as soon as practicable.” This was an explicit pledge to take concrete action. FDR diluted it to a vaguer promise that “efforts” would be made “to find appropriate ways and means” of effectuating the policy; and the phrase “must and will be settled” was deleted entirely.

After receiving FDR’s watered-down version, Wagner –or Wagner acting at Wise’s behest– cabled the White House, asking the president to add this passage: “I know how long and ardently the Jewish people have worked and prayed for the establishment of an undivided Palestine as a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth. I am convinced that the American people give their support to this aim and I shall do all in my power to bring about its realization.” FDR agreed to the request, but made the two additional changes to which Prof. Penkower had referred: he deleted “undivided,” and he weakened “I shall do all in my power” to just “I shall help to bring about.”

Roosevelt did not want to explicitly commit to facilitating creation of a Jewish state. Nor did he want to rule out the possibility that Jews would be given just a small portion of Palestine. This waffling helps explain why FDR’s liaison to the Jewish community, David Niles, later remarked, “There are serious doubts in my mind that Israel would have come into being if Roosevelt had lived.”

In 2013, a remarkable revisionist version of this episode appeared in the book FDR and the Jews, by Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman. “On October 11, Wise met with FDR in the White House and apparently gave the president a letter drafted by Senator Wagner,” they reported. “This draft is not in the president’s files…” An odd formulation, to put it mildly. As noted above, the draft is indeed in the president’s files, in the President’s Personal File #601. It is titled “DRAFT OF LETTER TO SENATOR WAGNER.” Although it contains the aforementioned handwritten changes, they do not obscure the typing. And–for the record–the unmarked copy of the draft is just an email away, in the Stephen S. Wise Papers at the Central Zionist Archives, which is the obvious second source for such a document. Why would Breitman and Lichtman want to give the impression that the original draft is nowhere to be found?

The answer becomes clear in their next paragraph. They explain that Wagner proposed adding another passage to strengthen the statement. Then they write: “Sitting up in his bedroom the night before the [ZOA] convention opened, Roosevelt told Rosenman that he approved of the new version, and Wagner read it to the convention on October 15. Delegates responded with a sustained ovation.”

Breitman and Lichtman give no hint that Roosevelt had weakened the Wise-Wagner draft in any way–and since the draft is supposedly “not in the files,” there is no reason for anyone to suspect otherwise, and no way for anyone to check if they were suspicious. There is also no suggestion from Breitman and Lichtman that FDR had any election-related motives for issuing the statement at all. Instead, the reader is presented with a dramatic portrait of the president “sitting up in his bedroom” (it is not clear how they determined his posture), as if he was ill and bedridden but somehow mustered the wherewithal to sit upright and demonstrate what a committed Zionist he was.

Under ordinary circumstances, a sloppily researched or politically biased account in a single history book would not necessarily merit attention. After all, sloppy or biased books come and go. The Breitman-Lichtman book, however, has enjoyed an unusually charmed life, which has catapulted it into wide popular discourse. The fact that its lead author is a legitimate Holocaust scholar, and that it was published by a major academic press (Harvard University Press) has given the book the patina of respectability needed for it to been taken seriously as a bona fide alternative to the conventional view that FDR abandoned the Jews. Breitman and Lichtman have been basking in widespread positive news media attention, invitations to speak at presidential libraries and other distinguished venues, and even several awards.

What these trappings of success do not reveal, however, is how FDR and the Jews managed to elude analysis by scholars in the field. Consider, for example, the selection of reviewers it enjoyed. The Journal of American History assigned it to the official “Resident Historian” at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library. The New York Review of Books assigned FDR and the Jews to a professor who authored one of the blurbs on the book’s dustjacket. How likely is it that either reviewer could be truly objective? (Incidentally, four book review editors for scholarly journals whom I contacted replied that they would automatically disqualify a reviewer who had authored a blurb for the book in question.) Not one of the reviewers in major American periodicals was a scholar who has done original research on the topic. Thus the final word on the quality of the book was left in the hands of reviewers who were unable to recognize either the flaws in Breitman and Lichtman’s research methodology, their misrepresentation and even alteration of documents, or their omission of important historical evidence.*  

* [For details, see the monograph “Breaking the Rules: Violations of Academic Standards in the Debate Over FDR’s Response to the Holocaust,” by Rafael Medoff and Bat-Ami Zucker, published in 2015 by The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.]


To make matters worse, Breitman and Lichtman injected a sharp note of politicization into what should be a nonpartisan, scholarly discussion about Roosevelt’s record on Jewish concerns. In the conclusion of FDR and the Jews, they singled out George W. Bush and Benjamin Netanyahu as examples of those who “use history for political purposes” –because Bush and Netanyahu have criticized the Roosevelt administration’s refusal to bomb Auschwitz.

By singling out two political conservatives for scorn, while pointedly refraining from mentioning prominent political liberals who publicly criticized FDR’s abandonment of the Jews–among them George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Bill Clinton–Breitman and Lichtman made it clear with which side they identify. Lichtman’s subsequent allegation (to the Jerusalem Post) that critics of FDR’s Holocaust record are secretly motivated by a desire to bomb Iran attempted to further drag historical issues into the mud of contemporary politics. In fact, that line was repeatedly invoked by defenders of the Breitman-Lichtman book. The Nation’s review of FDR and the Jews, for example, dismissed critics of FDR’s Holocaust record as just “a small group of Israel supporters” seeking to promote the notion that Israel “cannot count on anyone for help–even the United States” and “Jews must always go it alone.”

The ability to acknowledge flaws in an admired leader separates mature political analysis from childish hero-worship. In a 2004 interview with filmmaker Stuart Erdheim, Senator McGovern said, “Franklin Roosevelt was a great man and he was my political hero. But I think he made two great mistakes in World War Two.” One of those mistakes, McGovern explained, was the internment of Japanese-Americans; the other was the Roosevelt administration’s decision “not to go after Auschwitz….God forgive us for that tragic miscalculation.” McGovern’s statements reflected the sentiment of an important portion of the liberal camp, where Roosevelt is admired but not worshipped.

There is also, however, a more thin-skinned segment, for whom almost any criticism of Roosevelt is regarded as an intolerable assault on liberal values in general. Bruce Warshal, a Reform rabbi in Florida who describes himself as “on the left of the Democratic Party,” claims that challenges to FDR’s Holocaust record are part of a nefarious “campaign” by “neo-conservatives” to “turn Jewish Democrats into Republicans.” The same attitude is at the heart of books such as FDR and the Jews, which, after all is said and done, amounts to little more than a defense attorney’s brief in the guise of a history text. Excusing Roosevelt’s abandonment of European Jewry and covering up his weak position on Zionism thus serves a political purpose. It is historical revisionism at its worst, a fresh portrayal of historical events that is based not on fresh research but on a desire to protect a the image of a president from his perceived political enemies.

This is precisely where Roosevelt’s defenders err most egregiously. They fail to see that support for Zionism–and an honest reckoning of those presidents who were not particularly supportive of it–has been a genuinely bipartisan phenomenon since that fateful summer of 1944. That is not to say that there have not been rocky periods. Franklin Roosevelt was hardly the first president to give Zionism or Israel a cold shoulder. Dwight Eisenhower threatened David Ben-Gurion with sanctions if Israel did not surrender the Sinai peninsula to Nasser. Gerald Ford suspended all U.S. arms deliveries to Israel in order to force Yitzhak Rabin to make concessions to Egypt. George H.W. Bush and James Baker engineered an ugly clash with Israel over loan guarantees. On the other side of the aisle, recall Truman’s embargo on weapons to Israel during the 1948 War of Independence, Lyndon Johnson’s refusal to intervene against the Arab encirclement of Israel on the eve of the 1967 war, and Jimmy Carter’s harsh treatment of Israel on multiple occasions. Historians likely will add Barack Obama to the list of presidents whose polices toward Israel were characterized more by acrimony than sympathy.

Through it all, most Americans of all political persuasions have sided with Israel. Even today, when there are signs that support for Israel is diminishing among Democrats, it is important to note where the majority stand. Fifty-five Democratic members of Congress boycotted Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech; but for all the media noise about the boycotters, fully 77% of congressional Democrats refused to boycott.

The annual Gallup Poll of Americans’ feelings about Israel has in recent years registered a decrease in Democrats’ support for the Jewish State. Still, the February 2015 survey found 60% of Democrats view Israel favorably, as opposed to just 26% who see the Palestinian Authority favorably. Moreover, while the Gallup poll found only 48% of Democrats sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians (as opposed to 83% of Republicans), that figure is more than ten points higher than the number of pro-Israel Democrats in Gallup’s surveys from 1994 to 2001.

Meanwhile, a YouGov/Huffington Post poll found that even though most Democrats were critical of Netanyahu’s plan to speak to Congress, they also felt, by a 53%-26% margin, that President Obama should meet with the Israeli leader–a decisive repudiation of the president’s intentions. And an April 2015 Quinnipac University poll found that by 56% to 27%, Democrats  believe that “the President of the United States should be a strong supporter of Israel. Once again, the numbers among Republicans are much better–87% to 7% but among Democrats, a substantial majority come down on Israel’s side.

While it would be comforting if those numbers were higher, they should be considered in the context of the current political environment. Pro-Israel Democrats must swim against a current driven by unfriendliness toward Israel among many in the Democrat-leaning news media, as well as a steady stream of harsh expressions about Israel by the Obama White House.

At least for now, the bipartisan consensus of 1944 still stands. It took hold despite the efforts of a Democratic president to undermine it, and it has remained steady during periods when one president or another, or one party or another, leaned more toward the Arabs than Israel. The bedrock values shared by Israelis and Americans of both parties have remain unchanged; thus the consensus that anchors their friendship and alliance remains unshaken.

May 2015