When Jewish Politics Trumped Holocaust Rescue

by Rafael Medoff

In view of recent discussions about ethical lapses among today’s American Jewish leaders, it’s worth recalling a troubling episode, 75 years ago this autumn when America’s foremost Jewish leader manipulated his colleagues in order to stymie criticism of the Roosevelt administration’s refugee policy.

Rabbi Stephen S. Wise dominated the American Jewish leadership from the 1920s through the 1940s. He was the leader of, or at least a central figure in, the American Jewish Congress, the World Jewish Congress, and the Zionist Organization of America, all while running his own rabbinical seminary and a prominent Manhattan synagogue, and serving as editor in chief of a monthly Jewish magazine.

Rabbi Wise was a devoted supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. In his private correspondence, Wise described FDR as “the Great Man” and “the All Highest.” Although the president declined to extend meaningful assistance to Jews fleeing Hitler, Wise assumed the role of shielding Roosevelt from Jewish criticism.

The confirmation, in 1942, that the Nazis were carrying out the systematic mass murder of Europe’s Jews put significant pressure on Rabbi Wise to set aside personal and political differences and work with rival Jewish organizations to promote the rescue of Jewish refugees.

In March 1943, eight American Jewish groups agreed to establish the Joint Emergency Committee for European Jewish Affairs, with Wise as co-chair along with American Jewish Committee president Joseph Proskauer. The willingness of Wise, a Zionist, to work with Proskauer, an anti-Zionist, augured well for the cause of Jewish unity.

To Wise’s horror, meetings of the Joint Emergency Committee became the setting for activist-minded Jewish representatives to urge protests against Roosevelt’s refugee policy. Carl Sherman, an official of Wise’s own AJCongress, urged “a forceful public campaign” to convince President Roosevelt to take rescue action. David Wertheim, of the Labor Zionists, called for a “march on Washington by leaders of various Jewish communities” to dramatize the need for rescue.

Lillie Shultz, the de-facto executive director the AJCongress, even suggested using the Jewish vote against the Roosevelt administration—something that was unheard of in an era of overwhelming Jewish electoral support for FDR.

“The time has come…to be critical of [the president’s] lack of action [on rescue],” Shultz declared, “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 communities 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.”

Wise complained bitterly to a colleague about the “wild people” in the Joint Emergency Committee who were “calling President Roosevelt and the State Department names.” Criticism of the president would be “morally and perhaps even physically suicidal,” Wise predicted, implying there might be a violent backlash against American Jews.

Wise’s co-chair, Joseph Proskauer, was delighted by Wise’s opposition to  the activists. “The spirit I encountered at the first meetings [of the committee] was to rely entirely on the mass meeting technique,” Proskauer confided to a friend. “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 public protests were inadvisable.

To defeat the activists in the Emergency Committee, Wise turned to the American Jewish Conference, an assembly of Jewish officials that he and his colleagues had convened in the summer of 1943. The Conference was primarily intended to solidify Wise’s preeminence as a communal leader. Almost as an afterthought, the Conference created its own Commission on Rescue, but it was an ad hoc group that initially had no staff or budget. Wise decided to use the Commission to nullify the Joint Emergency Committee.

At that point, the Emergency Committee consisted of eight member-organizations. Four were loyal to Wise or Proskauer; the other four favored activism. In September, Wise proposed that his close ally, Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization, be permitted to join the committee. The other groups could not reasonably object, since Hadassah, with more than 95,000 members, was the largest Jewish organization in the country.

The addition of Hadassah tipped the balance; now Wise and his likeminded colleagues in the Joint  Emergency Committee enjoyed a 5-4 majority. With the numbers in his favor, Wise began arguing that the establishment of the American Jewish Conference’s Commission on Rescue had rendered the Emergency Committee obsolete. In November 1943, at Wise’s initiative, the Emergency Committee voted, 5 to 4, to dissolve itself and turn over its functions to the American Jewish Conference.

Wise’s maneuvering gave him effective control over the mainstream Jewish community’s rescue agenda, ensuring that the positions of the established Jewish organizations on refugees would not challenge or contradict the positions of President Roosevelt.

Rabbi Wise’s determination to preserve his power, stymie dissident voices, and control the communal agenda dealt a blow to the cause of rescue. As the events that transpired 75 years ago this autumn demonstrate, the foremost Jewish leader in America was prepared to place his personal and political interests above the need for Jewish unity in the face of the Holocaust.

(December 2018)