Debating How to Fight Antisemitism, Then and Now

by Rafael Medoff

Which is the more effective way to fight antisemitism—focusing on attacks against Jews in particular, or broadening the response to encompass a wide range of aggrieved minority groups?

This question was dramatized in the recent controversy over whether the U.S. Congress should specifically condemn the anti-Jewish ‘dual loyalty’ accusations expressed by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), or denounce bigotry in all its various forms.

But this debate is not new. Seventy-five years ago this spring, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was confronted by a similar dilemma.

In early 1944, officials of the War Refugee Board began urging President Roosevelt to publicly warn civilians in Axis-occupied countries not to take part in atrocities against the Jews. The board was a small, underfunded U.S. government agency that was belatedly established after strong pressure on FDR by Congress and Jewish rescue advocates. The board’s leaders believed that a presidential declaration threatening consequences for anti-Jewish acts could deter potential Nazi collaborators.

The War Refugee Board’s leaders presented the White House with an eight-paragraph draft that began: “One of the blackest crimes in history, the systematic murder of the Jews of Europe, continues unabated….More than two million men, women and children already have been put to death solely because they were Jews.”

The proposed statement warned that “All who knowingly take part in the deportation of Jews to their death in Poland are equally guilty with the executioner.,” and “shall share the punishment.” It called on the public not merely to refrain from taking part in war crimes, but also to “hide these victims, help them to get over the borders, and do what [can be done] to save them from the Nazi hangman.”

For more than two weeks, the White House stalled on the draft. Finally, on March 8, War Refugee Board director John Pehle was informed that President Roosevelt regarded the draft as “too much for the Jews.” FDR and his aides prepared a drastically-revised version.

The original draft contained six references to the Jews. Roosevelt removed three of them. He also deleted a paragraph which acknowledged that the Jews were being slaughtered “solely because they were Jews.”

The president and his advisers added three paragraphs at the beginning of the statement about Japanese war crimes and the mistreatment by the Axis of “Poles, Czechs, Norwegians, Dutch, Danes, French, Greeks, Russians, Chinese Filipinos–and many others,” but not Jews. The first mention of the plight of the Jews was pushed all the way down to the fourth paragraph.

The original draft also had included a pledge to give refugees temporary haven in the United States. The White House watered that down to “We shall find havens of refuge for them,” without specifying the US as a haven.

Pehle and his colleagues at the War Refugee Board were furious at the changes. He told presidential adviser Samuel Rosenman that emphasizing the unique plight of the Jews was “singularly important in Germany where the people were led to believe that this country was not concerned at all about the atrocities against the Jews who were not particularly regarded as human beings.” But Pehle’s pleas fell on deaf ears.

Roosevelt’s rewriting of the 1944 statement was consistent with previous instances in which he or his representatives sought to universalize the plight of the Jews. In an August 1942 press conference, for instance, when FDR referred to “barbaric crimes against civilian populations,” the example he offered was “the shooting of French hostages [and] five or six very important citizens in The Netherlands” —even though evidence of the mass killings of Jews in German-occupied regions had been reaching Washington for nearly a year.

Likewise, in a July 1943 statement, Roosevelt spoke generally about “barbaric crimes in Europe and Asia,” and declined to be any more specific. A meeting of the American, British, and Soviet foreign ministers in Moscow in October 1943 concluded with a statement threatening postwar punishment for Nazi war crimes against conquered populations; it mentioned “French, Dutch, Belgian or Norwegian hostages…Cretan peasants…the people of Poland”—but not Europe’s Jews.

The persecution of the Jews was being “treated[ed] as a pornographical subject—you cannot discuss it in polite society,” the artist and activist Arthur Szyk remarked bitterly.

There was a specific reason behind the Roosevelt administration’s position. If information focusing on the slaughter of the Jews was widely publicized, senior State Department official R. Borden Reams explained to his colleagues, “the way will then be open for further pressure from interested groups for action,” such as opening America’s doors to more Jewish refugees—something President Roosevelt strongly opposed.

After several more weeks of foot-dragging, FDR’s watered-down statement finally was issued on March 24, 1944—more than a month after the board first submitted its draft.

  Some contemporary defenders of FDR’s Holocaust record have tried to rationalize the president’s long delay. According to Rebecca Erbelding of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the delay actually was “fortuitous” because in the meantime, “Nazi Germany invaded Hungary.”

No doubt the publication of the presidential statement shortly after the occupation of Hungary made it appear as if Roosevelt was deeply concerned and had responded swiftly. But Erbelding does not seem to have considered that FDR could have issued a statement when the board first requested it in February, and then followed up with another one when the crisis in Hungary unfolded a month later. Are good optics really more important than saving lives?

As for the contemporary implications of whether or not to highlight the fate of the Jews, Erbelding’s colleague Barry Trachtenberg argues, in his recent book on this topic, that it is “misguided” for Jews to take a “particularistic view of the Holocaust.” He contends that “the present moment” requires Jews to “link their fate to that of other oppressed peoples” and to emphasize “the similarities between Jews’ experience” and “the persecution faced by other oppressed peoples.”

Such an approach understandably would appeal to Congresswoman Omar and her allies. But perhaps the lessons of history also deserve consideration. Downplaying the plight of the Jews did not prove to be an effective strategy in Roosevelt’s time. Blurring the identity of the victims undermined efforts to promote the urgent need for rescuing Jews from their persecutors. Why should we expect a contemporary version of that approach would be any more effective?

(March 2019)