FDR's Jewish Problem
One of the supposed lessons of the Bergson story claimed by Medoff and others is that “unity” among American Jews during the 1930s and ’40s would have saved more Jewish lives. The implication is that today’s American Jews should not allow themselves to be divided on Israel. But Medoff’s framing ignores the legitimate disagreements at the time about the best way to combat the Nazi persecution of Jews, just as it ignores today’s disagreements among American Jews regarding the policies of the Israeli government. Actions such as a boycott of German goods and a proposal to ransom German Jews during the 1930s had their costs and benefits; well-meaning people were on both sides. Which policy should Jews have unified behind? And which policies should Jews unify behind today? Most American Jews support a two-state solution. Are right-wing supporters of Israel prepared to support a settlement freeze and a withdrawal from the West Bank for the sake of American Jewish unity?
Breitman and Lichtman make a persuasive case that Wise and Bergson unwittingly pursued a strategy that pressed FDR from inside and outside, and which accomplished more than unifying behind a single approach would have done. Perhaps that is true. We’ll never know.
And that is the point. By obscuring the context, the benefit of hindsight can actually make history harder to understand. During the 1930s, when immigration restrictions prevented more German refugees from entering the United States, Roosevelt couldn’t have known that the Nazis were later going to murder millions of Jews. But knowing what happened later, it is easy to portray him as callous. When he did learn about the murders of millions of Jews, he had no understanding of “the Holocaust,” which came later and is now so embedded in our consciousness that it is hard to imagine what it was like to live without such knowledge.
The stakes of this historical debate are high, because the myths that have been propagated about the actions of the United States during the Holocaust are being put to specific political uses today. In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cited the failure of the Roosevelt administration to bomb Auschwitz to support the case for an attack on Iran. “They say that a military confrontation with Iran would undermine the efforts already under way, that it would be ineffective, and that it would provoke even more vindictive action by Iran,” Netanyahu said. “I’ve heard these arguments before. In fact, I’ve read them before.” He then quoted from an exchange of letters in which the US War Department said that bombing Auschwitz “would be of such doubtful efficacy that it would not warrant the use of our resources.”
Leaving aside the fact that historians question whether a bombing would in fact have made a significant difference, the parallels here are so thin—one would be a pre-emptive strike in a time of peace, the other an attempt to disrupt a war crime in progress—that Netanyahu had to acknowledge in the next breath that “2012 is not 1944.” But by raising 1944 in the manner he did, the Israeli prime minister effectively equated the Jews of contemporary Israel with the victims of the Holocaust and telegraphed what many Israelis and American Jews have come to believe: that Israel faces annihilation, and that the last time millions of Jews were similarly threatened, America and its Jewish community let them down.
Israel is now sixty-five years old and a nuclear-armed regional superpower. It has many problems of its own making. Along the way, the United States has been a loyal ally. Telling a story that casts Israel’s Jews as perennial victims, and that purports to show that Jews must always go it alone, not only misrepresents the past; it also clouds our understanding of the present.
Jana Prikryl’s “As They Live” (April 29) tells how photographer Roman Vishniac’s images of Jews were liberated from the lachrymose history he imposed upon them.