Israeli Population Surprise: FDR Said It Couldn’t Be Done

by Rafael Medoff

“You know there is not room in Palestine for many more people,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt told a prominent American Jewish leader in early 1938. “Perhaps another hundred or hundred and fifty thousand.” At the time, there were about 400,000 Jews in the Holy Land. Today, according to newly-released statistics, there are nearly seven million.

The annual population tally, recently issued by the Israeli government’s Central Bureau of Statistics, found that Israel has 9,391,000 residents, of whom 6.9 million (74%) are Jews. The population has increased 146,000, or 1.6%, since last Rosh Hashana.

There are an estimated 15.2 million Jews in the world, of whom more than 45% live in Israel. That’s quite a contrast with what the conventional wisdom expected in the 1930s.

The argument that there was no more room for Jews in Palestine was the primary excuse that the British government used to restrict Jewish immigration and land purchases during the Mandate years. London insisted that the country had no more “absorptive capacity.”

President Roosevelt’s chief adviser on population settlement issues, Isaiah Bowman, agreed. Bowman, who as president of Johns Hopkins University imposed a quota on the admission of Jewish students, claimed there were no countries anywhere, including Palestine, that could absorb “a large foreign immigrant group.” He advised FDR that it would be best to “keep the European elements within the framework of the Old World.”

Of course, there were other voices at the time, even within the Roosevelt administration. Agriculture Department official Walter Clay Lowdermilk insisted that with proper cultivation, Palestine could absorb at least several million immigrants.

But the president chose to side with Bowman. When FDR suspected that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was warming to Lowdermilk’s position, the president asked Bowman to have a talk with her. Annoyed that the “mischievous” Mrs. Roosevelt was meddling in “questions beyond her understanding,” Bowman lectured her on Palestine’s supposed inability to absorb more Jewish refugees.

  The president continued to echo Bowman’s line in meetings with Jewish leaders in the 1930s. The country had “reached the point of Jewish saturation,” FDR told Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. “Palestine possibilities are going to be exhausted….Your people [should] find some large areas [elsewhere in the world] as a second choice for the Jews.” (In the same conversation, Roosevelt also launched into a diatribe about how the real cause of antisemitism in Poland was Jewish domination of the economy.)

By the spring of 1938, David Ben-Gurion had heard enough private reports of these and other remarks by the president to conclude that for all practical purposes, FDR was “an anti-Zionist.”

President Roosevelt, who passed away in 1945, did not live to see how wrong he was about the Jews. By the time Israel was established in 1948, it had a population of 872,000—more than double the number at the time he had claimed it had reached its “saturation point.” Within seven years, it would more than double again. And today, with a population that has increased more than ten-fold since its founding, Israel is ready to absorb many more.

(As published in The Algemeiner – October 19, 2021)