Book Review: ‘The Jews Should Keep Quiet!’

While desperately wanting rescue of Europe’s Jews, Rabbi Stephen Wise also was concerned with keeping his access to FDR and leadership of the American Jewish community.

The Jews Should Keep Quiet: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust By Rafael Medoff (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Jews Should Keep Quiet: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust By Rafael Medoff
(photo credit: Courtesy)
American Jews’ adoring devotion to president Franklin Delano Roosevelt was misplaced, says historian Rafael Medoff. True, FDR’s work programs, minimum wage, Social Security and actions for workers’ rights improved life for millions of Americans.
But Medoff argues in The Jews Should Keep Quiet: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust that despite having Jewish advisers, Roosevelt seemed largely indifferent to Nazi slaughter of Europe’s Jews and even opposed rescue, both through action and inaction.
The book, however, focuses most on the dysfunctional faith in FDR of ardent supporter Rabbi Stephen Wise. Wise was founder of Reform’s Jewish Institute of Religion (now Hebrew Union College); Zionist Organization of America and American Jewish Conference president; United Palestine Appeal chairman and cofounder of the World Jewish Congress, American Civil Liberties Union and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Wise, rabbi of Manhattan’s Free Synagogue, was “an outspoken Zionist” and “gifted orator with an imposing presence and a deep, booming voice,” Medoff says. But Medoff portrays his efforts at Jewish rescue to the biblical divisions of Reuven, with “great resolves of heart” but little effective action.
While desperately wanting rescue of Europe’s Jews, Wise also was concerned with keeping his access to FDR and leadership of the American Jewish community. Beyond two Madison Square Garden rallies, he opposed public pressure for fear of increasing antisemitism. He considered massive demonstrations undignified.
He also stuck mostly with like-minded leaders, not building bipartisan congressional support as did Cleveland Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, who became seen as a leadership rival.
“Nowhere was Roosevelt’s ‘passion for manipulation’ on greater display than in the way he managed his relationship with Rabbi Wise,” says Medoff, founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.
Medoff says FDR used flattery, access and Wise’s first name to make him feel he was a personal friend. But Wise mistakenly believed that access meant influence, and it did not, Medoff says. Roosevelt repeatedly assured Wise that he sympathized, but he didn’t act, saying the only way to save European Jews was to win the war. Immigration quotas went unfilled.
Already in 1933, Wise was frustrated by FDR’s inaction. “We have had nothing but indifference and concern,” he wrote to close friend Julian Mack. A month later, he wrote another friend that Roosevelt was “immovable, incurable and even inaccessible except to those of his Jewish friends whom he can safely trust not to trouble him with any Jewish problems.”
In FDR’s 82 press conferences of 1933, “persecution of the Jews arose only once, and not at the president’s initiative,” Medoff says. Not for five years and 348 more press conferences would Roosevelt again say anything about Europe’s Jews, he adds.
Fervently supporting FDR’s domestic agenda, Wise allowed no public statement critical of Roosevelt, insisted that his approach was the best and squelched others’ attempts. Worse, he condemned and tried to undermine the activities of the organization effectively raising American public awareness of the slaughter, Peter Bergson’s Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe.
Bergson – whose name was actually Hillel Kook, nephew of the British Mandate’s chief rabbi – enlisted talented writer Ben Hecht to help produce more than 200 provocative ads in US newspapers, including full pages in The New York Times, demanding rescue of Jews and raising of a Jewish refugee army.
Hecht created “We Will Never Die,” a dramatic pageant playing to capacity crowds in New York, eliciting mention in Eleanor Roosevelt’s newspaper column, and taken to five other big cities.
“Wise and other Jewish leaders did not object to the content of ‘We Will Never Die’” but were rankled by Bergson’s ability to “enlist the endorsement of prominent individuals whose involvement led to significantly greater public and media attention” to Bergson’s cause, Medoff says. It elevated the group to a voice of the Jewish community; Wise considered himself that voice.
Wise’s worst time came after learning of the 1942 Gerhart Riegner report of Nazi death camps. Wise went to Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles, who asked him not to go public until the report could be confirmed.
“I am almost demented over my people’s grief,” Wise wrote in a letter. Medoff finds “no reason to doubt the sincerity of Wise’s expressions of grief. As the foremost Jewish leader in the Free World, he shouldered the enormous burden of forging a communal response to a Jewish catastrophe of unprecedented dimensions.”
After 81 days, Welles released Wise from public silence. Medoff says Wise could have spoken publicly about other reliable reports he had of mass killings.
In 1944, facing an election and great pressure – much of it from Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau – FDR created the War Refugee Board, which funded Raoul Wallenberg’s heroic rescue work in Budapest.

I’ve only hinted at the content of these 315 powerful, information-packed, easily read pages, documented in 46 pages of source notes and 21 pages of bibliography.
Contrary to my expectation, I did not find the title in a direct quote but rather in Medoff’s conclusion, that “Wise was not prepared to lead a campaign against the policies of a president who had made it clear on more than one occasion that he wanted the Jews to keep quiet.”

The writer is a Minneapolis writer and editor.
The Jews Should Keep Quiet: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust
By Rafael Medoff
Jewish Publication Society/University of Nebraska Press
387 pages, $29.99