by Rafael Medoff
Although American presidents do not enjoy being criticized, they usually have a healthy respect for their opponents’ right to dissent. Usually—but not always. Seventy-five years ago this summer, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was poised to use the power of his office to silence American Jewish critics of his policies regarding Zionism and the Holocaust.
In late 1942, President Roosevelt decided to send a personal envoy to the Middle East to canvass wartime Arab opinion, especially regarding the Palestine conflict. The emissary he chose was Lt. Col. Harold Hoskins of the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the CIA), the Beirut-born son of American Protestant missionaries.
Hoskins delivered his report to the president the following spring. The primary threat to the stability of the region, he concluded, was “world-wide [Zionist] propaganda.” Hoskins predicted that “if the issues of a Jewish political state and of a Jewish army continue to be pressed [by Zionist groups] at this time,” the Arabs would respond by instigating “a very bloody conflict” and would drag the Allies into it. This would plant “the seeds of a possible third World War.”
One of Hoskins’s supporters was Major-General George V. Strong, head of the U.S. War Department’s G-2 intelligence division. Strong claimed that any perceived American backing for Jewish statehood, for letting Jews enter Palestine, or even for just temporarily housing European Jewish refugees in North Africa, would provoke a Muslim “Holy War” that would “result in the death and destruction of several hundred thousand American soldiers.”
Lt. Col. Hoskins advised the president that the only way to head off such a catastrophe was for the Allied leaders to issue a declaration that all “public discussions and activities of a political nature relating to Palestine” were endangering the war effort and therefore should “cease.”
The U.S. government has no legal means of enforcing a ban on certain types of speech. But an imperious president knows how to throw his weight around. Roosevelt understood that the practical impact of such an announcement would be to tar all public expressions of Zionism as undermining the war effort—and that would intimidate most American Jews into silence.
The president jotted “OK – FDR” on the State Department’s draft of the declaration. The British quickly gave their approval; they were anxious to muzzle Zionist protests and keep all but a handful of Jews out of Palestine. A date was chosen for the release of the decree: July 27, 1943.
Not many secrets remain secret very long in Washington. Prominent American Jews soon caught wind of the planned declaration and were furious. Millions of Jews were being slaughtered in Europe–by this time, the news of the Holocaust had been confirmed–and now the Allies were about to close off any hope that Palestine might yet be opened to those fleeing the Nazis. Congressman Emanuel Celler charged that “the joint statement will, with its ‘Silence, please,’ drown the clamor of the tortured Nazi victims pleading for a haven of refuge.”
Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, leader of the American Jewish Congress and the U.S. Zionist movement, hurried to the White House on July 22 to ask the president directly if the Allies really intended to issue a proclamation “enjoining silence with respect to Jewish claims to Palestine.” FDR looked him in the eye–and lied. “The Chief seemed completely in the dark with respect to such [a] statement,” Wise reported to Chaim Weizmann the next day.
Many of the Jews closest to FDR were not Zionists, but they, too, vigorously objected to the planned Palestine declaration. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., a non-Zionist, said he was “inexpressibly shocked” to learn of the plan “to deprive U.S. citizens of their constitutional liberties.”
Presidential speechwriter Samuel Rosenman, an anti-Zionist, feared that if the statement were issued, “the Zionists would inevitably issue a shriek, a public controversy involving Senators, etc., would follow, which would ultimately give the Jews, whether Zionists or not, dangerous publicity as playing politics in a time of crisis.” In other words, Jews would be accused of being unpatriotic.
Even Secretary of War Henry Stimson, no great friend of Jewish causes, conceded that Hoskins’s predictions of violence in Palestine were “alarmist.” With the story starting to come out in the press, his Jewish advisers clamoring against the plan, and even the War Department keeping its distance, FDR realized the scheme had become too much of a hot potato. He quietly scrapped the declaration.
The story of the never-issued Palestine statement defies the conventional wisdom concerning both the Allied leaders and American Jews.
Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill presented themselves to the public as stalwart champions of liberal democracy and all that it represents. Yet they were willing to trample on the cherished principle of free speech in order to advance their narrow political goals.
The Jews in FDR’s inner circle were notoriously afraid to raise Jewish concerns with the president. Yet in this instance, they found the courage to protest, even if for somewhat convoluted reasons.
Most of all, this episode points to a phenomenon in American Jewish life that is not limited to the 1940s. Jewish leaders frequently argue that they are unable to influence this or that policy, either because of high levels of antisemitism or fear of straining relations with the president or other officials. But the story of the declaration that never was suggests that such Jewish fears can be exaggerated. At the end of the day, government officials respond to political pressure. When Jewish leaders apply it, they often get results.
(As published in the Jerusalem Post – July 7, 2018)