US Envoy James McDonald meets with prime minister David Ben-Gurion in 1949.
(photo credit: COURTESY MCDONALD FAMILY)
At a conference in France eighty years ago this month, US diplomat James G. McDonald watched in frustration as representatives of governments from around the world essentially decided to do nothing to help Europe’s Jews on the eve of the Holocaust.
Seventy years ago this month, the same McDonald arrived in Tel Aviv as the first US envoy to the newborn State of Israel that had arisen from the ashes of the Shoah. The two anniversaries serve as fitting bookends to the most consequential decade in modern Jewish history.
McDonald, a Catholic from the Midwest, was a foreign policy scholar and journalist with no particular interest in Jewish affairs. That all changed when McDonald secured an interview with new chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler in 1933.
McDonald was the first American to hear Hitler explicitly vow to destroy the Jews.
In the years to follow, McDonald devoted himself to the cause of Europe’s Jewish refugees. In 1933, he was appointed as the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Coming from Germany. But he resigned just two years later over the refusal of the international community to open its doors to Jewish refugees.
One of the sources of his frustration was president Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he asked for a US contribution of $10,000 to support the commission’s work. It was a small token sum that McDonald hoped would encourage other countries to contribute. FDR promised to give the funds, but never came through with them.
The brutal persecution of Jews in Austria following the German annexation of Austria in March 1938 led to an outpouring of calls from Congress and journalists for US intervention. In response, President Roosevelt invited thirty-three countries to send delegates to a conference in Evian, France, to discuss the refugee crisis. McDonald was appointed as a member of the American delegation.
FDR made it clear even before the conference opened that “no nation would be expected or asked to receive a greater number of emigrants than is permitted by its existing legislation,” and that the US was not ready to take any special steps, either. “We knew that inevitably Evian would create bitter disappointment,” McDonald remarked soon after the conference.
And so it did. Delegate after delegate declared that their countries would not admit more Jews.
The Australian representative announced that “as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.”
Golda Meir, who attended Evian as an observer, said afterwards that “nothing was accomplished at Evian except phraseology... There is only one thing I hope to see before I die, and that is that my people should not need expressions of sympathy any more.”
Beginning in the spring of 1938, McDonald also served as chairman of the President’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees. FDR told McDonald he would consider seeking a $150 million Congressional appropriation to resettle Jewish refugees.
Once again, Roosevelt broke his promise; he never requested those funds.
Although the president usually ignored the committee’s advice, and the administration’s severe immigration policy made their work extremely difficult, McDonald and his colleagues helped bring over 2,000 Jewish refugees to safety in the United States during those years.
Oddly, McDonald’s heroic efforts are not mentioned at all in the new exhibit on “Americans and the Holocaust” that recently opened at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C. The curators say there wasn’t enough room in the 5,400-square foot exhibit to mention McDonald.
That’s hard to believe.
Many people suspect – with justification, I think – that the real reason the Museum curators omitted McDonald is because his story reflects poorly on President Roosevelt’s record. A major theme of the exhibit is that FDR did his best to help the Jews, but not much could be done. McDonald’s diaries prove otherwise. They were donated to the US Holocaust Museum by his daughters and published in four volumes from 2007 to 2017. Maybe the curators should have consulted the diaries when they were preparing the exhibit.
McDonald arrived in Tel Aviv in July 1948, as the first US government representative to the new Jewish State. At crucial stages during the War of Independence, he intervened with president Harry Truman to avert sanctions that the State Department wanted to impose because Israel refused to surrender the Negev.
In February 1949, President Truman appointed James McDonald the first United States Ambassador to Israel.
After his years of bitter experience trying to stand up against the world’s abandonment of the Jews, McDonald keenly understood the need for the Jewish state to have a defensible southern border, so that the fate of the Jewish people would never again be subject to the mercies of the international community. This month’s anniversaries of the Evian conference and McDonald’s service in Israel offer poignant reminders of that powerful historical lesson.
The writer is an Israeli-American filmmaker who has produced and directed critically acclaimed documentaries about Jewish women in sports, Israeli-Palestinian women peacemaking efforts, and the Holocaust.
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