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FDR's Jewish Problem | The Nation

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FDR's Jewish Problem

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In reality, Bergson is a minor figure in the history of the Holocaust. The accomplishments claimed by his champions are disputed by reputable historians, and the lessons of his actions are unclear. Born Hillel Kook, Bergson came to New York from Palestine in 1940 at the age of 25 as the representative of right-wing Revisionist Zionism, the bitter rival of the more mainstream leftist Labor Zionism and the antecedent to Israel’s ruling Likud party of today. After news of the Holocaust was officially made public in November 1942, Bergson and his colleagues took out full-page ads in The New York Times assailing Roosevelt and demanding that he do more to save the Jews. They put on a pageant featuring Hollywood stars called “We Will Never Die.” And they organized a 1943 march on the White House by 400 Orthodox rabbis. 

About the Author

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

Bergson clashed with mainstream American Jewish leaders, most notably Rabbi Stephen Wise, a dedicated liberal social activist and pillar of American Jewry, whose many posts included leader of the US Zionist movement. Wise was close to FDR and regarded Bergson’s attacks on the president as politically reckless. Like many American Jews at the time, Wise saw Roosevelt as an ally—an implacable foe of Hitler and a bulwark against American anti-Semitism, which was not insignificant in the 1930s and ’40s. Republican alternatives to FDR were not anywhere near as attractive. Wise was also active behind the scenes, lobbying the president to allow more refugees into the United States and to pressure the British to allow more into Palestine. (Wise’s disagreement with Bergson was magnified by the fact that they represented competing Zionist factions, a bitter rivalry that has for decades fueled attacks on mainstream Zionism both in Israel and the United States for its handling of the Holocaust.)

To Medoff and other Bergson champions, the group’s story provides a powerful counterfactual narrative. Had American Jewish leaders, including Roosevelt’s closest Jewish advisers, united with Bergson, they argue, Roosevelt would have been forced to mount a more serious rescue campaign earlier and tens of thousands more Jews would have been saved. 

(It’s a claim that they believe has direct relevance today. When Rabbi Haskel Lookstein visited the White House last June as part of a delegation of Modern Orthodox Jewish leaders, he handed a copy of his book Were We Our Brothers’ Keepers?, a critique of American Jewry’s response to the Holocaust, to Jack Lew, President Obama’s then chief of staff. Inside Lookstein inscribed the book to Lew, who is Jewish, “June 5, 2012; 45 years to the day when the Six Day War began. To Jack Lew: May you, unlike American Jewish leaders during the Holocaust, speak truth to power when the opportunity presents itself.”)

The Bergson Group did show that American Jews had less to fear from going public with their demands than they thought. It successfully put together a coalition of non-Jewish senators and congressmen that pressured Roosevelt to act. But the Bergson Group was never directly responsible for rescuing a single Jew from Europe. 

Yet thanks to the efforts of Medoff and others, journalists now routinely exaggerate Bergson’s accomplishments, placing him at the center of the rescue efforts, while diminishing the good works of the wider American Jewish community. In an interview last year with Pierre Sauvage, the director of the most recent hagiographic Bergson documentary, Not Idly By, David Samuels, writing in Tablet magazine, described the Bergson Group as having “mounted the most sustained and effective effort to save the Jews of Europe in the face of widespread communal apathy, and against the fierce opposition of the leadership of the American Jewish community.” 

This is simply untrue. Historians agree that the most sustained and effective rescue effort to save Europe’s Jews was mounted by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which was an instrument of American Jewish communal concern, not apathy. (Disclosure: my grandfather was a leader of the Joint from 1940 until his death in 1965.) 

According to its supporters, the Bergson Group’s greatest accomplishment was contributing to the constellation of events that led to the creation of the War Refugee Board in January 1944. The WRB was an interdepartmental government agency devoted solely to rescue that was created by an executive order from the president. It came into existence near the end of the Holocaust, but it cut through some of the red tape that had hampered previous rescue efforts to save as many as 200,000 lives.

Breitman and Lichtman give the Bergson Group little credit for the creation of the WRB, a position also held by the late Holocaust historian Lucy Dawidowicz and others. But even if you believe the accounts of their greatest champions, the Bergsonites at most succeeded in softening up Roosevelt so that when Henry Morgenthau Jr., the president’s good friend and treasury secretary, confronted him with evidence that the State Department was blocking rescue efforts, the president immediately signed off on the idea of the WRB and issued an executive order creating it. 

In other words, the Bergson Group’s biggest feat is something that President Roosevelt created. He should have done it earlier and it could have been more effective, but doesn’t he deserve some of the credit for the 200,000 Jewish lives the WRB saved? Not in Medoff’s opinion. In the May 30 Washington Jewish Week, he wrote a column refuting this very idea headlined Jews were saved—but not by FDR. 

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