Are American Jewish leaders repeating the same tragic mistakes of the Nazi era? One need only look at the current news headlines to see the similarities.
By Atara Beck
Senior Writer, United with Israel
World War II-era American Jewish leaders failed in the challenge of the day, namely, to fight tooth and nail for the lives of their brethren trapped in Nazi Europe. Today, as the Jewish State faces an existential threat from Iran, their disciples are emulating that behavior.
To recognize the profound similarities, it is important to understand the politics that transpired in that era.
When news of the mass murder of European Jewry was confirmed by the Allies, in late 1942, the small grassroots “Bergson Group” – named for its leader, Hillel Kook, who used the alias Peter Bergson – focused on the rescue of Jews and created the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, which challenged the Roosevelt administration’s refusal to come to their aid until the war was over.
As documented by the Washington-based Wyman Institute of Holocaust Studies, despite initial success in raising awareness of the plight of European Jewry, “the Bergson Group’s activities angered the American Jewish establishment leaders. They feared the group’s successes were upstaging their own positions of leadership, and worried that boisterous Jewish protests might provoke anti-Semitism.”
Like Father, Like Son?
None other than Prof. Benzion Netanyahu, the now-deceased father of the Israeli prime minister, had served as executive director of the U.S. wing of the Revisionist Zionists, who were also maligned by the mainstream establishment.
Dr. Raphael Medoff, historian and founding director of the Wyman Institute, in an article in Midstream Magazine dated April-May 2005, wrote:
“In an editorial in the New York-based Revisionist journal Zionews in 1944, [Benzion] Netanyahu sharply challenged Jewish leaders: ‘They cannot claim, with a clear conscience, to have done everything within their power to save those condemned people,’ he wrote. ‘They have been too cautious, too appeasing, and too ready to swallow the meaningless statements of sympathy that were issued from high places.’
“The passage of time has not altered his analysis. ‘Most American Jews would have supported an activist response to the news of the massacres in Europe,’ Prof. Netanyahu told me in a recent interview. ‘When our small organization held rallies or placed advertisements in the newspapers, we received a very strong, enthusiastic response from the grassroots. But the major Jewish groups, which had the funds and the ability to organize nationwide protests, did not do so – they were afraid of risking their positions, afraid to seem too controversial.’”
Rabbis’ March to Plead for Rescue Sabotaged
In 1985, in a memoir titled The Scared and the Doomed (referring to the “scared” American Jews and the “doomed” Jews of Europe) by late journalist M.J. Nurenberger, a member of the Bergson Group, the author described, among other events, the Rabbis’ March of Oct. 7, 1943, organized by the Emergency Committee, in which approximately 500 Orthodox rabbis, many of them prominent intellectuals, marched from Union Station to Capitol Hill.
The president, as Time Magazine reported, had “no time” to meet with the rabbis, although only a few days earlier, Nurenberger wrote, “the two main foes of the Jewish idea had been feted, dined, greeted and generally given the full red-carpet treatment. The foes, Prince Feisal, Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, and his younger brother, Prince Khalid. For these people, FDR had ample time.”
(Coincidentally, U.S. President Obama chose to go to Saudi Arabia recently instead of joining a rally against terror in Paris following the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the murder of four Jews in a kosher supermarket.)
The president, the author continued, providing documented sources, had initially intended to greet the rabbis, among them several elderly, but he was persuaded by Judge Samuel I. Rosenman, FDR’s speechwriter, and Stephen S. Wise, the most famous Reform rabbi in the U.S. at the time and a confidant of Roosevelt, not to greet that “horde.”
Roosevelt did not lift a finger to save a single Jewish life, yet he remained revered by mainstream American Jews.
“Jewish politics, as strong today as ever, has been dictated by the fear of the goy (non-Jew),” Nurenberger commented four decades later. “What will the goy say if I fight in order to live? Will I still be a ‘nice Jew’ who will receive a greeting from the president on the Jewish New Year, stressing the historic contribution of the Jew to Judeo-Christian civilization? Will the politicians still continue to put on yarmulkas at political meetings in order to impress the Jews that they recognize the socalled Hebrew contribution to their civilized society?”
American Jewish Leaders ‘Failed Miserably’
As documented by the Wyman Institute, Rabbi Stephen Wise and other American Jewish leaders “failed miserably” in their response to the Holocaust, Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson, then president of Reform Judaism’s Hebrew Union College, acknowledged at a Wyman Institute national conference in New York City in September 2009.
“His statement about Rabbi Wise was particularly significant because Wise was the founder and longtime leader of Hebrew Union College,” the Wyman Institute notes.
“Rabbi Ellenson said that while it was ‘understandable’ that many American Jews were afraid of provoking an anti-Semitic backlash, ‘Jewish leaders have an obligation to be sufficiently flexible and imaginative to deal with unprecedented situations.’”
Ellenson, the article continues, “added that Wise’s antipathy toward Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky and the Bergson Group, whose leaders were followers of [Vladimir Ze’ev] Jabotinsky, also ‘helped blind him’ to the need for more activism.”
Today, as well, antipathy towards Israel’s prime minister and party politics – including an upcoming national election, during which his opponents are smearing his decision to address Congress – is relevant.
One need only look at the current news headlines to see the similarities today.
Jewish Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein, for example, in an interview on CNN, stressed that the “arrogant” Netanyahu, who went to Washington to plead his case on behalf of the Jewish state against making a deal with the Islamic Republic, does not represent her.
Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry publicly questioned the Israeli leader’s judgment of the Iranian threat. National Security Advisor Susan Rice slammed Netanyahu for accepting the invitation to address Congress, saying that such action would destroy the fabric of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Over the weekend, pro-Israel activist Rabbi Shmuley Boteach placed a full-page ad in The New York Times, castigating Rice for what he termed her “blind spot against genocide” – citing lack of action against the Rwanda genocide and, last week, for attacking “the democratically elected leader of the Jewish state for objecting to being treated like Czechoslovakia in 1938.”
American Jewish organizations – including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Orthodox Union, the Jewish Federations of North America, America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Israel Project – rushed to denounce Boteach for daring to insult Rice. (There were few exceptions, such as the Zionist Organization of America and American Friends for a Safe Israel.)
Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs, calling Boteach’s ad “grotesque” and abhorrent,” declared that at the AIPAC convention this week, “we will express loudly our appreciation for Susan Rice’s leadership on behalf of the United States of America and the State of Israel.”
The Meaning of Never Again
While each person has the right to his or her opinion, just imagine if powerful American Jewish leaders would instead line up to demand that the Obama administration cease negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Imagine if all that energy and all those vast resources were used to defend the State of Israel – and the Free World – instead of castigating Boteach, who believes, as he states in the ad and as he named an upcoming debate (supported by Holocaust survivor, celebrated author and political activist Elie Wiesel): “The Meaning of Never Again: Guarding Against a Nuclear Iran.”
(Atara Beck is a daughter of M.J. Nurenberger)