by Rafael Medoff
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has just wrapped up a week-long coast-to-coast public relations blitz in the United States, designed to persuade political leaders and potential business partners that the heir to the Saudi throne is a moderate, a reformer, and an all-around swell guy.
The “extravagant ambition” of the prince’s undertaking was reminiscent, the New York Times reported, of the time two Saudi princes visited the U.S. in 1943 to woo President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Another connection between the two visits, although not mentioned by the Times, is an important family tie: one of the two visitors in 1943 was Faisal, half-brother of Prince Mohammed’s father, King Salman.
The princes, then and now, did not face serious questioning about Saudi human rights violations or other policies that would not play well with American audiences. Nor has Prince Mohammed been pressed on what the Times called “the efforts of Saudi Arabian clerics to export extremist Islamist ideology, beliefs that underpin terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.”
The friendly meetings that Crown Prince Mohammed has held in recent days with some members of Congress and leaders of American Jewish organizations contrast sharply with the controversy that enveloped the 1943 visit, and the attempts by the Roosevelt administration to shut down any Jewish criticism of its Saudi visitors.
“THE JEWS SHOULD STAY IN EUROPE”
The first word of an impending Saudi visit in 1943 came when Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the foremost leader of American Jewry, met with President Roosevelt at the White House on July 22 of that year. The president told Wise (according to the rabbi’s account) “that after having arranged to help Saudi Arabia in certain respects, he had invited the Heir Apparent of the Old Man to come to this country and that he would be here soon.”
FDR was alluding to his recent decision to declare Saudi Arabia eligible for Lend-Lease aid and his approval of the construction of a new Arabian oil pipeline. The “Old Man” to whom Wise referred was Saudi king Ibn Saud; the “Heir Apparent” was his son and foreign minister, Faisal.
Recalling Ibn Saud’s recent statement to Life magazine that Jews had no right to live in Palestine and should stay “in Europe or America,” Wise told the president “how very, very bad it would be if the Heir Apparent were to make any statement in this country with regard to Jews in Palestine, for such statement would be certain to evoke most acrimonious and unwholesome discussion…”
Although there is no transcript of the Wise-FDR conversation, Wise’s co-leader of the World Jewish Congress, Nahum Goldmann, said at the time that the president indicated to Rabbi Wise “that he expected no attacks would be made by the Zionists” on the royal Saudi visitor.
Such an expression would have been consistent with President Roosevelt’s relationship with the Wise-led American Jewish leadership. On numerous occasions in the 1930s and 1940s, the president or his senior aides pressed Jewish leaders to refrain from publicly demanding the rescue of Europe’s Jews or creation of a Jewish state.
KEEPING THE JEWS QUIET
The administration also was concerned that some Jewish members of Congress, such as Rep. Emanuel Celler (D-New York), might publicly challenge Foreign Minister Feisal. To quell such potential critics, the State Department turned to Congressman Sol Bloom, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. A devoted supporter of the Roosevelt administration, Bloom was “easy to handle” and “terribly ambitious,” Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long noted in his diary.
At the State Department’s request, Bloom convened a group of Jewish congressmen and informed them that Faisal, accompanied by his brother, Crown Prince Khalid, would arrive on April 3 and “the State Department had expressed the confident hope that Ibn Saud’s son[s] would not be publicly attacked by any Jewish or Zionist group.”
All of the congressmen acquiesced to the administration’s request—except for Emanuel Celler.
Celler, who represented Brooklyn’s heavily-Jewish 10th District, was the most outspoken congressional critic of the Roosevelt administration’s policies regarding Jewish refugees and Palestine.
According to Bloom’s account, Celler told the meeting that “he planned to attack Ibn Saud and his son in a radio broadcast.” All of Bloom’s efforts “to dissuade Mr. Celler not to do this were in vain.”
So Congressman Bloom asked Nahum Goldmann to intervene, both with Celler and with the Jewish news media. Bloom feared that some Jewish journalists “might attack Ibn Saud’s son[s], which would also make a bad impression.”
Goldmann told Bloom he agreed that “it would certainly be bad taste and bad politics to attack a man who comes here as a guest of the President.” He assured Bloom that Rabbi Wise would “discuss the matter with Mr. Celler and warn him not to make any public attack.” Goldmann also promised to “discuss the matter with the editors of the Yiddish and Anglo-Jewish press and request them to refrain from making any attacks.”
At the same time, Goldmann cautioned Bloom that if the Saudis made any “anti-Zionist statements” during their visit, “the Zionists would have to issue a counter-statement.” Likewise, Rabbi Wise told the president’s chief Jewish adviser, Samuel Rosenman, that if the Saudi visitors spoke out against Jewish statehood, “it would evoke very unpleasant Zionist repercussions and that, of course, would be undesirable from every point of view.”
Bloom assured Goldmann he would “make it clear to the State Department that no such statements should be made” by the Saudis. It appeared that the Jewish leaders and the administration had a deal: the Jews would keep quiet, and the Saudis would say nothing about Palestine.
A “UNITED STATES OF ARABIA” ?
Extant documents do not reveal exactly what Wise said to Celler, or what Goldmann said to Jewish newspaper editors. But it certainly seems that the Jews kept their side of the bargain.
The major Jewish and Zionist organizations did not issue any statements about the Saudis’ visit. Congressman Celler, in his radio address, mentioned the visiting princes but did not directly criticize them. Instead, he merely expressed hope that President Roosevelt would explain to the Saudis why Jewish development of Palestine was beneficial to the Middle East.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, for its part, optimistically reported: “It is understood that the Arabian delegation is not expected to make any anti-Zionist statements during its stay in the United States.”
Even Zionews, the Revisionist Zionist journal edited by Benzion Netanyahu (father of Israel’s current prime minister), took a soft line. Its coverage consisted only of quoting Rep. Celler’s hope that the royal visit “would help to bring about better understanding of the Jewish problem and of the benefits which the Palestinian Arabs have reaped from Jewish colonization.”
Ibn Saud’s sons, however, were not so diplomatic. Prince Faisal told the Washington press corps that British Mandatory Palestine should become an Arab state and join a “United States of Arabia” that would include Egypt, Iraq, and Syria.
Evidently Faisal’s remark did not trouble the Roosevelt administration, because Ibn Saud’s sons left Washington with an agreement for a badly-needed U.S. loan, to be followed soon afterwards by U.S. military equipment via the Lend-Lease program.
American Jewish leaders, fearful of crossing the president, did not publicly respond to Faisal’s statement about Palestine. They watched in silent frustration as the administration failed to fulfill its promise to keep the prince from raising the Palestine issue. That pattern of disappointment would repeat itself many times during the Roosevelt years.
The White House, first its part, got exactly what it wanted: an uneventful visit from Ibn Saud’s sons, a closer relationship with the Saudi royal family, and the muzzling of Jewish and congressional critics—not unlike last week’s royal visit, one might say.
(As published in the Jerusalem Post – April 12, 2018)