Dilemmas of a Jewish Congressman

by Rafael Medoff 

This week’s announcement by a Democratic congressman from Michigan that he will support the Iran deal attracted a great deal of news media attention, including sizable articles in the New York Times and Washington Post. This particular congressmember found himself in the spotlight not because he chairs an important committee (he doesn’t), or is a powerhouse on Capitol House (he isn’t), or is an expert on Iran or nuclear matters (far from it). What qualifies 83 year-old Representative Sander Levin for all the attention is his ethnicity. He’s Jewish. And Jewish Democrats who support the Obama administration on the Iran agreement are not easy to come by these days.

There are twelve Jews in the Senate, eleven Democrats plus Bernie Sanders. There are 22 Jews in the House of Representatives, 21 of them Democrats. Those who are the most unflinchingly loyal to President Obama (Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Jan Schakowsky, Barbara Boxer, Al Franken) quickly lined up in support of the agreement. But many others have been silent, and some have been openly critical. Rep. Elliot Engel, for example, this week pointed to the latest “Death to America” blasts from Iran’s leaders and asked: “How can we trust Iran when this type of thing happens?”

The administration seems to believe that the positions taken by the Jewish Democrats will influence the votes of other members of Congress. Apparently the thinking is that since they are Jews, they are perceived as knowing more than their non-Jewish colleagues about matters that affect Israel, and therefore some members will defer to them and follow their lead. Whether that is true remains to be seen. There are certainly more than a few non-Jewish congress members who are just as knowledgeable, and just as concerned about Israel, as their Jewish colleagues.

For the Jewish Democrats in Congress, this is a trying moment. The leader of their party is pulling them one way. Many of their constituents are pushing them the other way. And the fate of millions of Jews overseas could hang in the balance.

They are not the first Jews on Capitol Hill to face such a dilemma. Seven decades ago, the issue was the fate of Jews in Europe under Hitler; the dilemma for Jewish Congressmen was whether to break with President Franklin D. Roosevelt over Jewish refugee policy.

In December 1942, the Allies publicly confirmed that the Germans were carrying out a “bestial policy of cold-blooded exterminate” of Europe’s Jews, and “many hundreds of thousands” had already been “massacred in mass executions,” or starved to death. The State Department had watered down a stronger first draft–because it feared the Allies “would expose themselves to increased pressure from all sides to do something more specific in order to aid these people”–but the bigger problem was that the declaration did not pledge to aid the victims in any way. The only action proposed was to punish the killers after the war.

In the months to follow, American Jewish organizations began to criticize the administration’s refugee policy. This was no small matter for a constituency that had overwhelmingly supported the New Deal and Roosevelt’s re-election, with 85-90% of Jews casting their ballots for him in 1940 and 1944. But many American Jews had come to realize that FDR’s “rescue through victory” approach was untenable; there might be no Jews left to rescue by the time victory was achieved, they warned.

There were seven Jewish members of the House of Representatives at the time (no senators). Four of them–Daniel Ellison (R-Maryland), Arthur Klein (D-New York),  Adolph Sabath (D-Ilinois), and Samuel Weiss (D-Pennsylvania)–were more or less forgettable, unless one counts as memorable the fact that Weiss simultaneously served as a National Football League referee during four of his five years in Congress.

But the three other Jewish lawmakers, all of them New York Democrats, were men of significance. Sol Bloom chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Samuel Dickstein chaired the Immigration and Naturalization Committee. Emanuel Celler was the most vocal exponent of Jewish concerns, and especially Jewish immigrant rights, on Capitol Hill. They were well positioned to challenge FDR’s response to the Holocaust. But were they willing to?

Bloom, 73, was the elder statesman of the Jewish Congressmen. Elected to represent Manhattan’s Upper East Side “silk stocking” district, he remained loyal to the administration’s line, much to the disappointment of Jewish leaders. One characterized Bloom as “notoriously obsequious to the bidding of the State Department.” 

Bloom served as a member of the State Department’s delegation to the Anglo-American refugee conference in Bermuda, called by the British and American governments to give the impression of concern for the refugees even as they concluded that rescue was impossible. When Bloom declared himself “satisfied” with the conference results, he inadvertently confirmed both the State Department’s assessment of him as “easy to handle” and Jewish leaders’ description of him as “the State Department’s Jew.”

Dickstein, for his part, was a peculiar character, to put it charitably. Documents that have come to light in recent years show him to have been deeply corrupt, taking payoffs both for individual favors and for providing intelligence to foreign governments, including the Kremlin. Assessing Dickstein on the question of FDR and the Holocaust is complicated because it is hard to know which of his positions were manifestations of political courage, and which were motivated by some personal profit angle.

At least it may be said that, in and of themselves, Dickstein’s stances were not what one would expect from a liberal Democrat in 1943-1944. He strongly and repeatedly criticized the administration’s refugee policy, decried the U.S. position at Bermuda as “sterility, and in September 1943 even introduced a resolution calling for the temporary admission of all persecuted refugees until six months after the conclusion of the war. (The administration blocked it from coming up for a vote.)

The Congress member who really stands out, however, is Celler. He blasted Bermuda as “a blooming’ fiasco (a well-aimed slap at his colleague), introduced legislation to admit all refugees fleeing German-occupied France, and denounced FDR’s refugee immigration policy as “cold and cruel.” When reporters questioned the sharp-edged tone of his remarks, Celler did not “walk them back,” as pundits today like to call it. He told them: “I do not measure my words because the hangmen do not tarry.” 

Celler played a key role in exposing false testimony to Congress by a State Department official on the refugee issue, and also helped pre-empt a planned U.S.-British ban on public discussion of Palestine during World War II (an early attempt to appease jihadists). Most of all, he took to the floor of the House again and again to challenge Roosevelt’s hollow “rescue through victory” slogan. “Victory, the spokesmen say, is the only solution,” he declared in one particularly memorable speech. “After victory, the disembodied spirits will not present so difficult a problem; the dead no longer need food, drink and asylum.” 

For a liberal Jewish Democrat in Congress to so boldly defy his party and president was no small matter. All the more so because Celler passionately supported the New Deal and everything the Roosevelt administration stood for–except for its abandonment of the Jews. Which model today’s Jewish Congress members will follow–Sol Bloom or Emanuel Celler–remains to be seen.

July 2015