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FDR's Jewish Problem | The Nation

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FDR's Jewish Problem

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The most recent flare-up in the debate over FDR and the Holocaust, which has been smoldering since the 1960s, surrounded the publication in March of FDR and the Jews, a new book by Breitman and co-author Allan J. Lichtman. Both are historians at American University, and Breitman is also the editor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, the leading academic journal in the field. Their study shows that when it comes to assessing Roosevelt’s role during the Holocaust, it is easy to find evidence to support the case that he made the best of a bad hand and just as easy to cite examples of his apathy. 

About the Author

Laurence Zuckerman
Laurence Zuckerman, a former New York Times reporter, is an adjunct professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of...

Over the course of his twelve years in office, Roosevelt swayed back and forth as the country veered from Depression-era isolationism to reluctant British ally to a nation at war. During that time, many in Congress and the powerful labor movement (including Jewish labor leaders) opposed immigration at a moment of record high unemployment. Though the State Department made it difficult for Jews to obtain visas, about 132,000, or nearly a quarter of all German Jews, found refuge in the United States—far more than were taken in by any other country. That same State Department also suppressed news of the Holocaust and frustrated rescue efforts, but it was ultimately overruled by FDR himself. Breitman and Lichtman write that Roosevelt “had to make difficult and painful trade-offs, and he adapted over time to shifting circumstances.” They conclude that he can reasonably be credited with saving hundreds of thousands of Jews. 

If Roosevelt’s scholarly critics acknowledge this achievement, they do so only grudgingly, and they argue he could have and should have done more. But so-called righteous gentiles—non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, such as Oskar Schindler, whose famous “list” contained the names of 1,098 people—are not normally criticized for how many more Jews they could have saved. Instead, they are celebrated for those they did save in the face of the cruel and relentless determination of the Nazis to murder Jews. The question is why FDR’s list is now more often noted for the names it left out than for those it included. 

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The flip side of the new anti-Roosevelt orthodoxy is the apotheosis of the Bergson Group, the aforementioned band of right-wing Zionists who worked to raise public awareness of the Nazi extermination campaign. Named after their leader, Peter Bergson, these activists have been transformed from a historical footnote into the stars of a counterfactual history in which the Jews of Europe might have been saved if only the Jewish establishment and the Roosevelt administration had listened to them.

The Bergson Group has been the subject of several approving documentaries and books and even an admiring 2007 play by former New York Times reporter Bernard Weinraub titled The Accomplices, in which Bergson is portrayed as a prophet and Roosevelt appears as a conniving, two-faced anti-Semite. 

By far Bergson’s greatest modern champion is Rafael Medoff, a prolific historian, activist and ardent Zionist who has dedicated decades to the cause of pushing the Bergson story into the spotlight. Medoff is the founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which is named after the author of The Abandonment of the Jews, a 1984 book about America and the Holocaust that became a surprise bestseller. 

In a blizzard of op-ed articles in The Jerusalem Post, the Forward and other publications, along with books, conferences and letters to the editor, Medoff has been at once a relentless critic of Roosevelt and a tireless promoter of the Bergson story. Through his efforts, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington added a mention of Bergson to its permanent exhibit in 2008, and Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial, held its first symposium about the group in 2011. In February of this year, Medoff published a blistering attack called FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith, which appeared a month before Breitman and Lichtman’s more balanced assessment. 

For Medoff, the causes of promoting Bergson, supporting Israel and attacking Roosevelt are inextricably linked. Many of his columns draw on events during the 1930s and ’40s to illustrate why Israel should be supported today. For example, in a 2011 piece that appeared in several Jewish publications titled “Why Recognizing the Bergson Group Matters,” he wrote: “Jewish political activists in Washington can learn a great deal from the activities of the Bergson Group, which was arguably the first ‘Jewish lobby’ in the nation’s capital.” (Incidentally, during the congressional hearings before his confirmation as defense secretary, Chuck Hagel was accused of anti-Semitism by right-wing supporters of Israel for having used the very same phrase.)

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