October 22, 2020

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Roosevelt and the Jews


My grandparents adored Franklin D. Roosevelt. If he had lived to run, they would have voted for a fifth term. They came to America from Russia around 1910, and worked as sewing machine operators in the NY garment district. My grandmother was 17 when she arrived, and could not read or write, but she was the fastest operator in the shop. A tiny picture of my grandfather appeared in the “Forverts” when he was elected secretary of his union local. They judged politicians by two criteria: are they for the workers or the bosses? And are they good for the Jews? Roosevelt, they believed, passed both of those tests with flying colors. He had gotten the country through the Depression, and he had stopped Hitler.

My parents inherited this attitude. Their politics were similar to most other secular first-generation American Jews. They always voted the straight Democratic ticket for the same reasons, although at some point (after I left home!) my father joined the ranks of “the bosses.” And they always spoke warmly about FDR.

But for some time questions have been raised about whether the US could have done more to rescue Jewish refugees from Europe before and during the war, especially by mid-1942 when the truth about the mass murder being perpetrated by the Germans became undeniable. Why didn’t we bomb the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz, or the railroad tracks that fed them? To what extent was Roosevelt, who had almost dictatorial power during the war, responsible for the almost total failure to take any action to save the Jews of Europe, including the brothers and sisters of my grandparents that remained there?

These questions are no longer difficult. The answers can be found in a recent (2019) book by historian Rafael Medoff, The Jews Should Keep Quiet: Franklin Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust. And they are damning.

Medoff’s book covers the period from Hitler’s accession to power in 1933 to Roosevelt’s death in 1945. It is meticulously documented with 47 pages of notes, a 10 page bibliography, and a comprehensive index. It is a sober historical analysis based on primary sources, not a polemic. And what it establishes, beyond reasonable doubt, is that Roosevelt was well-informed about the persecution, and then the mass murder, of European Jews; he had the means to rescue a great number of them without paying a political price or impacting the war effort; and he chose not to do so.

Not only did Roosevelt fail to do anything, he deflected appeals to act by dissembling, inventing difficulties that did not exist, failing to keep promises, blaming others, temporizing, handing off decisions to the antisemitic State Department, and manipulating the leadership of American Jewry – particularly Rabbi Stephen S. Wise – to damp down protests and demands for action from the community.

Although there were tens of thousands of unfilled slots in immigration quotas before the war, State Department officials put administrative hurdles in the path of Jewish immigrants. Medoff notes that in 1934, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins proposed a system to guarantee support for refugee immigrants to simplify the process, but when State opposed it, FDR took their side.

Later, Roosevelt claimed that there were no ships to carry refugees from Europe, when Liberty Ships that transported troops and material there were returning empty, and indeed had difficulty finding ballast for their return trips. Portuguese passenger ships traveled regularly from Lisbon to New York, and there were other neutral ships available. Ships were found to transport “tens of thousands of Polish refugees to Iran, Uganda, and Mexico” in 1943 but none could take Jewish refugees. The Allies even took 20,000 Muslims from Egypt to Arabia for the Haj in 1944. American immigration quotas from the relevant countries went unfilled year after year, while Jews were first persecuted, and then murdered en masse. Although it might have been possible to argue that antisemitism and anti-immigrant feeling in the US might have put a political price on rescuing Jews during the 1930s, by 1943 public opinion in the US strongly favored helping them.

The most egregious example of Roosevelt’s resistance to doing anything to save Jews was his saying ‘no’ to numerous requests to bomb Auschwitz in 1944, when the Germans were preparing to deport and murder the 800,000 Jews of Hungary. Although planes were found for a strategically worthless (but politically advantageous) air drop of supplies to the Polish underground, nothing could be done about Auschwitz, despite the fact that the Allies had total air superiority in the region, and were bombing oil installations a few miles from Auschwitz! Indeed, Medoff notes that Elie Wiesel, a member of a slave labor battalion near the camp, witnessed such an attack.

What was Roosevelt’s motivation? Medoff examines his documented attitudes toward Jews and race in general, and finds both the antisemitism that was common in the American upper classes at the time, plus a belief in the superiority of the “Aryan” races (yes, Roosevelt used that word). He believed that the US should be primarily a white, protestant nation and that the numbers of Jews (and Catholics) should be kept low, and that they should be “diluted” geographically so that they would be more quickly assimilated. He said that Asians were inferior and “not capable of assimilation” and that “the mingling of Asiatic blood with European or American blood produces…the most unfortunate results.”

Roosevelt was also anti-Zionist, probably because of Arab oil reserves discovered in the 1930s which were beginning to be developed. And he didn’t want trouble with his British allies, who were adamant that no additional Jew should be allowed to enter Palestine under any circumstances. He made only the mildest objection to the White Paper of 1939, which closed the doors of Palestine to Jews.

Rabbi Stephen S. Wise was the most august personage of American Jewry, the head of several major Jewish and Zionist organizations, and represented the community before the President. He was, in other words, a shtadlan, or – an unflattering term – a “court Jew.” Although a brilliant man, Wise was far inferior to Roosevelt in his understanding of practical psychology, and he was manipulated by Roosevelt time and again. Awed to the point of sycophancy by the man he called “The Chief,” and hungry for the crumbs of friendship Roosevelt threw in his direction, he always put the best possible interpretation on Roosevelt’s ambiguous statements and vague promises. He allowed himself to be used to prevent protests, intemperate newspaper advertisements, expressions of dissatisfaction with the administration, and – most of all – possible defections from the Democratic party, by Jews upset about the refusal of the US to do anything to help the Jews of Europe. Thus the title of the book.

In contrast to his obsequious behavior toward Roosevelt, Wise aggressively fought his rivals like Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, and upstarts like Hillel Kook (known as Peter Bergson) who didn’t share his admiration for Roosevelt. Medoff notes that sometimes Wise invested so much energy into his intramural struggles, that he neglected his main job of trying to influence the administration. Wise has been severely criticized. But although his personality made him the wrong man for the job, it’s not clear that any Jew could have done significantly better.

Medoff, an academic historian, writes with an even tone. Although the facts he presents leave no doubt about the judgment history should render on Roosevelt, he is more polite than I need to be:

Franklin D. Roosevelt was an antisemite and a racist. His actions, especially his refusal to bomb Auschwitz, make it clear that he preferred for Jews to be murdered, rather than to come to the US. His motivations were not political or strategic; they were primarily antisemitic.

So why did my family and so many other Jews venerate him? The answer is complicated. Roosevelt often publicly expressed sympathy for the European Jews, even while in practice he did nothing to help them. He relied on antisemitic subordinates like Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long and Secretary of War Henry Stimson to take the heat for unpopular decisions, though he made no attempt to influence them. Rabbi Wise was his best publicist, deflecting criticism and hiding his own frustration. Most important, as is the case today, left-leaning Jews consumed left-leaning media, where criticism of Roosevelt was unthinkable.

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