Obama, FDR and Zionism
Today it is more clear than ever why Niles doubted FDR genuinely supported Zionism.
Gloomy Obama 521 Photo: KEVIN LAMAR QUE / REUTERS
President Barack Obama has spoken of his deep admiration for Franklin Delano
Roosevelt and his desire to emulate FDR’s leadership style. But in the wake of
the discovery of new documents detailing FDR’s behind-the-scenes coldness
regarding the creation of a Jewish state, many Israelis will be hoping that
sentiment does not extend to Roosevelt’s views on Zionism.
Roosevelt declared his support for developing a Jewish national home in
In private, however, FDR expressed very
different views on the subject, according to the documents I found recently at
the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem.
The first is an account by
American Jewish leader Stephen S. Wise of a private meeting he had with the
president in January 1938. Wise was dismayed to hear FDR assert, “You know there
is not room in Palestine for many more people – perhaps another hundred or
hundred and fifty thousand.” Those figures apparently were provided by the
president’s close adviser, geographer Isaiah Bowman, who was strongly anti-
Rabbi Wise insisted there was room for at least another 1.5
million Jews in the Holy Land, but FDR would not budge. He urged Wise to come up
with “a second choice for the Jews... Palestine possibilities are going to be
exhausted. You ought to have another card up your sleeve.” Wise left the meeting
“surprised and shocked” by the president’s position.
Once World War Two
began, President Roosevelt’s attitude toward Zionism grew even
British officials claimed any wartime expression of support for
Zionism by the Allies would drive the Arab world into the arms of the Nazis.
Rabbi Wise countered that the Arabs already supported the Nazis
“The [pro-Nazi] rebellion in Iraq, the presence of the Mufti in
Berlin and Rome, [and] the failure of Egypt to live up to her treaty of alliance
[with England]” show that “the sacrifice of friends in the interest of appeasing
the unfriendly has repeatedly been proven to be in vain,” Wise argued.
Nonetheless, FDR sided with the British view, as another newly discovered
document makes plain.
The second document, from October 1941, records
Nahum Goldmann, co-chairman of the World Jewish Congress, briefing American
Zionist leaders on worrisome rumors that the British were holding secret
negotiations with the Arabs over the future of Palestine.
his request to the State Department for information about the talks had been
ignored because State “is very much influenced by the British Colonial
To make matters worse (Goldmann continued), “There are reasons
also to believe that even in higher quarters” – a reference to the Roosevelt
White House – “there are certain prejudices that have to be overcome in order to
get effective support from the administration for a Jewish Palestine.” (In a
similar vein, Rabbi Wise wrote to a colleague that FDR was “hopelessly and
completely under the domination of the English Foreign Office [and] the Colonial
Office.”) By 1942, FDR was so averse to being seen as pro- Zionist that he
rejected even a request to permit the Palestine (Jewish) Symphony Orchestra to
name one of its theaters the “Roosevelt Amphitheatre.”
A third new
document concerns an April 1943 meeting between FDR and a delegation of seven
Jewish congressmen. They urged the president to press the British to cancel the
White Paper policy of closing off Palestine to all but a handful of Jewish
“It was a very unsatisfactory interview,”Congressman Daniel
Ellison (R-Maryland) reported to Jewish leaders. “[We] asked the President about
refugees, the White Paper, etc. What he proposed to do about these things. [We]
made a number of suggestions to him as to what [we] thought he ought to do and
the answer to all of these suggestions was ‘No.’” The fourth document is a
transcript of Nahum Goldmann briefing David Ben-Gurion and other Jewish Agency
leaders, in 1944, about the political situation in Washington. According to
Goldmann, FDR’s support for Zionism was “tentative.”
He added: “It is
impossible to educate [President Roosevelt], because you get to see him only
once every six months, for thirty minutes, ten of which are spent by him telling
anecdotes, after which he expects to hear you tell him anecdotes, and then there
are only ten minutes left for a serious conversation – what can one accomplish
like this?” Goldmann’s description dovetails with Chaim Weizmann’s bitter
experience when he met with FDR at the White House in July 1942. The Zionist
leader wanted to speak about the Allies’ policy on Palestine, but the president
diverted the conversation into a long discussion about the production of
synthetic rubber. Roosevelt pushed aside Weizmann’s request to mobilize a Jewish
army to defend Palestine against a German invasion; FDR supported the British
view that such a move would antagonize the Egyptian Army. Weizmann argued that
the US-British position was like “trying to appease a rattlesnake,” but once
again, Roosevelt would not budge.
David Niles, a close adviser to FDR,
once remarked that if Roosevelt had lived (and thus Harry Truman remained vice
president), he probably would not have supported the creation of Israel, and as
a result the Jewish state might never have been established. Today it is more
clear than ever why Niles doubted FDR genuinely supported Zionism.
author is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust
Studies, in Washington, DC. His latest book is FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach