Sheldon Adelson and the Raoul Wallenberg Precedent

by Rafael Medoff

Questions have been raised about the reported offer by philanthropist and businessman Sheldon Adelson to pay a portion of the cost of opening an American embassy in Jerusalem.

The head of one small American Zionist organization has criticized the possible donation, saying, “I don’t want people to be able to say it was Jewish money.” One would have thought that in this day and age, Jewish officials would no longer make their policy recommendations on the basis of “What will the anti-Semites say?”

Ironically, those who are worried about how anti-Semites will react evidently have not paused to consider what bigots might say if Jewish “leaders” demand that the U.S. government foot the entire bill—said to amount to $500-million—at a time when Americans are facing so many economic problems.

According to the Associated Press, “it’s not clear if there is any precedent” for what it calls Adelson’s “unconventional offer.” 

Perhaps the AP should have looked a little harder. Former Undersecretary of Management Patrick Kennedy told the New York Times that “donors in the past had contributed millions of dollars to refurbish the palatial United States ambassadors’ residence in London, Paris, Rome and Tokyo.”

A particularly interesting precedent for private individuals contributing to government projects comes from the Holocaust era, and concerns the funding that enabled the work of rescue hero Raoul Wallenberg.

In early 1944, pressure from Jewish groups, the Treasury Department, and members of Congress convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to establish a government agency to rescue Jews from the Nazis. It was called the War Refugee Board.

FDR’s decision appears to have been influenced, at least in part, by concerns among some prominent Democrats that Jewish support for the president’s upcoming re-election bid might be affected by the Roosevelt administration’s refusal to aid Europe’s Jews, and its failure to challenge the British White Paper policy of keeping Jewish refugees out of Palestine.

Much to the Democrats’ chagrin, the likely contenders for the Republican nomination, such as previous nominee Wendell Wilkie and New York governor Thomas Dewey, already were making a pitch for Jewish votes. Vice President Henry Wallace fretted in his diary about “how vigorously Willkie is going to town for Palestine.”

Democrat congressman Emanuel Celler warned presidential aide Marvin McIntyre 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, he would steal the show right from under our noses…”

And Nahum Goldmann, of the World Jewish Congress, spoke to Samuel Rosenman, the president’s seniors speechwriter and adviser on Jewish matters, in late 1943 about “the developing resentment among the Jews of America to the negative attitude of our Government…a resentment which is bound to make itself felt during the coming year.”

Sheldon Adelson, who is well known for his efforts to seek Jewish votes for Republican presidential candidates, might regard some of this history as a kind of precursor to his own political activities. But it’s the funding question which is most relevant for this discussion.

Because President Roosevelt intended the Board as little more than a political gesture, he gave the new agency only token financial support. More than 90% of the board’s funds were provided by three private organizations—most of it came from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, with additional donations by the Va’ad ha-Hatzala (an Orthodox rescue group) and the World Jewish Congress. Private contributions to the board totaled approximately $20-million—the equivalent of more than $280-million in today’s dollars.

The funds were used to finance various rescue initiatives in Europe during the waning months of the war. Some of the money was used by Raoul Wallenberg to rent dozens of buildings in Nazi-occupied Budapest, in which he sheltered an estimated 10,000 Jews, and to produce Swedish identity documents, or “protective passports,” which he gave to Jews to shield them from deportation.

The War Refugee Board’s director, John Pehle, later assessed the board’s work as

“late and little.” Many more lives could have been saved if the Roosevelt administration had established the board just a few months earlier, instead of fighting against the congressional efforts to bring it about. Nonetheless, the board deserves credit for playing a major role in the rescue of more than 200,000 Jews during the final fifteen months of the war.

The point of this story is not to compare the work of the War Refugee Board to the Jerusalem embassy controversy—obviously there is no analogy there—nor to recommend any particular method of funding, but simply to note that there is ample precedent for the idea of private donors stepping in, if a president is unwilling to allocate the necessary funding for a particular project.

(As published in the Jerusalem Post – February 27, 2018)