Over the years, I had the opportunity to conduct a number of lengthy interviews
with Prof. Benzion Netanyahu, who passed away early Monday, concerning his
activities in the United States in the 1940s, when he was executive director of
the American wing of the Revisionist Zionist movement.
unpublished interview below took place in June 2009, as I was working on my
book, Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the “Jewish Vote” and
Bipartisan Support for Israel (coauthored with Prof. Sonja Schoepf
Wentling), which was published last month.
In your view, why were
American Jewish leaders so cautious during the 1940s?
Part of the problem was
how they saw themselves. In their contacts with president Roosevelt, Jewish
leaders thought of themselves as weak or helpless. Take, for example,
Rabbi Stephen Wise – leader of the American Zionist movement, the American
Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Congress. He thought of himself as a
servant of president Roosevelt.
He referred to Roosevelt as “chief,” and
he really meant it that way – Roosevelt as was the chief, and Wise was the
servant. Wise was happy to just follow along with whatever Roosevelt
wanted. He was content as long as FDR just remembered his name or gave him a few
minutes of his time every once in a while.
What about the Jewish advisers
within Roosevelt’s inner circle?
FDR used Jews if they served some purpose that
he needed. Samuel Rosenman was useful to him as a
speechwriter. Henry Morgenthau Jr. was useful to him as secretary of the
Treasury. Only a certain kind of a Jew could reach that position in
Roosevelt’s administration – the kind of Jew who would not talk about Jewish
issues or problems.
FDR used the Jews, but there was no room in his heart
for the plight of the Jewish people. In his mind, the suffering of
Europe’s Jews was not included in the “Four Freedoms,” the four great principles
for which America was fighting in World War II. Roosevelt had no time for the
problems of the Jews.
(Prof. Netanyahu’s assessment was privately shared,
at the time, even by many within the Jewish
establishment. Coincidentally, on the morning of our conversation, I
spent some time doing research at the Central Zionist Archives, and came upon
the transcript of a meeting in 1944 between Nahum Goldmann and the Jewish Agency
Executive, including David Ben-Gurion.
Goldmann, who was cochairman of
the World Jewish Congress as well as the agency’s representative in Washington,
had come to Jerusalem to brief the agency’s leaders on the political situation
in the US capital.
Goldmann told them Roosevelt was only “superficially
sympathetic” to the suffering of European Jewry. He said, “It is impossible to
educate the president, because he will only let you see him once every six
months, for 30 minutes, and he spends the first 10 minutes chatting and telling
Just before Yom Kippur in 1943, the Bergson Group (led by activist
Hillel Kook, who was known as Peter Bergson) and the Vaad Hahatzalah (an
Orthodox rescue committee based in New York City) mobilized more than 400 rabbis
to march to the White House to plead for rescue. The president refused to
meet with a delegation of their leaders.
Later, a columnist for one of
the Yiddish newspapers wrote that if 400 priests had come to the White House,
the president would not have refused to see them. Was there indeed a double
standard applied to Jewish concerns?
To answer that question, just consider how
the international community would have responded if millions of Englishmen or
Frenchmen were the ones who were being annihilated, rather than millions of
Jews. Would the world have just stood by, quietly?
Would you have needed to have
protest groups organizing marches and taking out newspaper ads in order to wake
up the world’s conscience? No. The nations of the world would have immediately
risen in angry protest, without any prompting. They would never would have
allowed such a thing to continue. But when the Jews were the victims, it was a
different story. It was as if the Jews were untouchables. It was as if the
nations did not want to besmirch their hands by touching the Jews.
could American Jewish leaders have done to change Roosevelt’s position?
Roosevelt understood the language of political power. Jewish leaders
should have done, and could have done, what my colleagues and I did – we went to
the Republicans. And then Roosevelt got the message. We built
relationships with Republican members of Congress, and leaders of the Republican
Party such as [former president Herbert] Hoover and [1936 presidential nominee
Alf] Landon, and we lobbied them before the Republican Convention in 1944. They
put a plank in their party platform that year calling for “unrestricted
immigration and land ownership” for Jews in Palestine and it called for making
Palestine a “free and democratic commonwealth” for the Jewish people. That was
the first time one of America’s political parties took such a
Stephen Wise said he was deeply embarrassed that the
Republicans were trying, in his view, to upstage the president on
But the Democrats responded by putting language in their
platform – this is the first time they did this – supporting “unrestricted
Jewish immigration and colonization” and establishment of a “free and democratic
Was Congressman Emanuel Celler the key figure in
convincing the Democratic Party to do that?
Some of the Jewish congressmen were
very good. Some were not. Celler was one of the best.
I had many meetings
with Celler during those years. He was very friendly and
Sometimes when we discussed with him an idea for a newspaper
ad, or a resolution in Congress, he would want to use language even stronger
than we proposed. He was not afraid to criticize the president on Jewish issues,
even though he and Roosevelt were from the same party. Celler was a courageous
How would you characterize Sol Bloom, the chairman of the House
Foreign Affairs Committee, who was the most powerful Jew in Congress?
a very small man, a narrow-minded politician.
He was worried about
keeping his powerful position. He stayed close to the State Department and
Roosevelt, and did what they wanted, so he could keep his position.
you say there was a certain similarity between Bloom’s attitude and that of
Jewish leaders such as Rabbi Wise?
They were both in a position to push the
administration, but they were both afraid to do so. If American Jews had
pressured FDR with regard to opening Palestine, he could have compelled the
British to put aside the White Paper so Jews could escape from Europe to
(In his biography of Wise, Prof. Melvin Urofsky describes one
of the rare instances in which Wise pressed FDR – and got results. Hearing, in
1936, that Britain was planning to restrict Jewish immigration to Palestine,
Wise asked Roosevelt to intervene. The fact that it was an election year gave
Wise some implicit political leverage.
Urofsky explains that Roosevelt,
“alert to the potential political benefits” (meaning, a chance to impress Jewish
voters at no cost), let London know he would be unhappy if Palestine’s doors
were shut. The British, anxious to preserve relations with Washington,
backed down. It was a very significant accomplishment. Three years later,
the British would impose the White Paper, “but in the intervening years (1936-
1939),” Urofsky points out, “more than 50,000 Jews, mostly from Germany and
Austria, were able to [enter Palestine] –men, women, and children who would
undoubtedly have perished had the 1939 White Paper been issued three years
What was the response of grassroots American Jews to the news from
Europe, as compared to the response of the leadership?
Certainly the grassroots
Jews responded in a more heartfelt way than the leaders. And the lower they were
on the economic ladder, the more they seemed to care. Our work had the support
of the poor people, the little newspaper vendor on the corner, or the kosher
butcher or the school teacher.
Those who were better off were more
assimilated, and they paid very little attention to what was happening. They
slept soundly at night, because they closed their eyes to the Jewish
This is something I could never understand. How could they just
turn away and continue to go about their business as they usually did? How could
they still eat in the finest restaurants, when the Jews in the ghettos were
starving? How could they sleep at night? There were times I literally could not
sleep at night because of what was happening in Europe, and I could not
understand how anyone else could.
Was that also true of Jewish leaders?
Jewish leaders, too, were going about their business, and involved in all kinds
of issues. And they probably were sleeping soundly at night. They did not
understand the full urgency of the situation.
And they had other
problems, such as the problem of their big egos, especially in the case of
someone like Stephen Wise. I had a meeting with him in 1940, shortly after I
first arrived in the United States. He knew my father, Rabbi Nathan Mileikowsky,
who was a prominent speaker for the Keren Hayesod and other Zionist causes. When
I sat down with Wise, I began speaking in Hebrew. I looked upon him as if he was
the chief rabbi of America, so I assumed that of course he would know how to
He answered me in English – he said, “As a matter of
principle, I do not speak Hebrew in private conversation.”
In fact, as I
later discovered, he could not speak Hebrew at all – he just could not stand the
idea that anybody might think that he could not speak Hebrew. He was a bluffer.
A man who was so shallow and petty was not suited to be a Jewish leader,
especially one who had the responsibility to lead American Jewry in responding
to the Holocaust.
It is a mark of the poverty of the Jewish people that
these were its leaders in those terrible times.
Rafael Medoff is founding
director of The David Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.