Using Democracy to Stifle Jewish Dissidents

by Rafael Medoff

The debate over dissent in the American Jewish community has returned to the spotlight in recent weeks. At one end of the spectrum, Jewish students in the “Open Hillel” movement are claiming it’s unfair to prevent them from bringing anti-Israel speakers to their campuses. At the other end, Jewish Voices for Peace members shouted down Israeli speakers at a recent LGBTQ conference in Chicago.

Battles over dissent are not new to American Jewry. In the 1940s, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the most prominent Jewish leader of the era, went to considerable lengths to stifle Jewish critics of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, from pressuring newspapers to reject their advertisements, to urging the Justice Department to “draft or deport” their leaders.

Perhaps Wise’s most memorable initiative was the day that he maneuvered Jewish organizations to actually vote FDR’s critics out of business.

Wise served as head of, or a major force in, the American Jewish Congress, the American Zionist Emergency Council, and several other Jewish organizations and institutions. When Jewish groups established the Joint Emergency Committee for European Jewish Affairs, in March 1943, Wise was chosen as co-chairman along with American Jewish Committee president Joseph Proskauer.

Proskauer, a staunch anti-Zionist, and Wise, a devoted Zionist, at first must have seemed like an odd couple. But they shared a common desire to prevent Jewish dissidents from criticizing President Roosevelt. Wise, a passionate New Deal Democrat, sought to protect FDR as an act of political loyalty; Proskauer for his part, mainly feared that Jewish criticism of the president would provoke antisemitism.

“The spirit I encountered at the first meetings [of the Joint Emergency Committee] was to rely entirely on the mass meeting technique,” Proskauer reported to a colleague. “I am glad to say that in conference I have changed all this…despite the fact that Dr. Stephen Wise and I have disagreed sharply on many issues, we have agreed a hundred percent” that backstairs diplomacy was preferable to public protests.

Frustrated by the Roosevelt administration’s refusal to aid European Jewish refugees, delegates to Joint Emergency Committee meetings began putting forward suggestions for vocal protests. At the April 2 meeting, AJCongress representative Carl Sherman suggested launching “a forceful public campaign” against Roosevelt’s non-rescue policy. Another AJCongress delegate, Lillie Shultz, agreed: “The President must be shown that the country is aroused.”   

Rabbi Wise was worried by this growing pressure for public protests. President Roosevelt “is still our friend, even though he does not move as expeditiously as we would wish,” Wise insisted in a note to a college on April 22. Wise said he was determined to prevent “wild people” in the Joint Emergency Committee from “calling President Roosevelt and the State Department names.” Such public criticism of the president would be “morally and perhaps even physically suicidal,” Wise asserted.

During the months to follow, meetings of the Joint Emergency Committee frequently became the scene of strong criticism of the Jewish leadership. A visiting Keren HaYesod emissary, Leib Jaffe, implored the delegates: “We cannot be silent. Jewish history will never forgive it. The blood of our brethren cries out to us.” According to Jaffe, Wise “reacted emotionally to the extent of being frightened,” understanding Jaffe’s remarks “as a rebuke directed towards him.”

Meyer Weisgal (a Jewish Agency representative and right-hand man to Chaim Weizmann) proposed “a demonstration in the streets of New York.” David Wertheim of the Labor Zionists called for a “march on Washington by leaders of various Jewish communities” to dramatize the demand for rescue. Lillie Shultz, representing Wise’s own AJCongress, argued that “the time has come to be critical of lack of action and in view of the fact that this is the eve of a presidential election year, ways can be found to indicate to the administration, and possibly through the political parties that the large and influential Jewish communit[y] will find a way of registering its dissatisfaction over the failure of the administration to take any effective steps to save the Jews of Europe.” Judge Morris Rothenberg, of the United Palestine Appeal, seconded Shultz’s proposal.

Rabbi Wise, in the meantime, had been chosen as chairman of the American Jewish Conference, a new umbrella organization for the major Jewish groups. This created an opportunity to squash the dissidents within the Joint Emergency Committee. Wise maneuvered to have his close ally, Hadassah (the women’s Zionist organization), join the emergency committee–thus giving him and his allies a one-vote majority. He then proposed that the committee should dissolve itself and turn over its functions to the Wise-controlled AJConference. Wise’s opponents vigorously protested, but to no avail. In early November 1943–at the very peak of the Holocaust–the Joint Emergency Committee voted 5-4 to go out of business. The activists were suppressed.

It was democracy in the service of squashing democracy. Then, as now, Jewish organizations seldom conducted democratic elections for their leadership positions. Activists had very few means to press for a different Jewish agenda. And when they tried to raise their voices in the meetings of the Joint Emergency Committee–Rabbi Wise employed a ‘democratic’ vote to shut down the committee and ensure that the dissidents’ voices would not be heard.

February 2016