Germany’s total war against the Jews targeted Jewish culture, too. When the Nazi catastrophe ended, as the survivors started rebuilding their lives, a few Americans serving with General Dwight D. Eisenhower sought to restore Europe’s Jewish civilization. Through the kind of pluck and luck that has sustained Jews for millennia, one Eisenhower officer was a trained archivist and a Jewish scholar, a learned man, orphaned by Ukrainian pogromists when a toddler, fluent in Hebrew and Yiddish and blessed with a beautiful Jewish soul.
Being the right person in the right place at the right time – like Queen Esther during Purim -- Major Pomrenze became one of the legendary Monuments Men, part of the U.S. Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives division cataloguing and when possible restoring looted books, manuscripts, paintings and ritual objects to their original owners. Ultimately overseeing 200 people – including Germans drafted for the job at Eisenhower’s orders – Pomrenze became the first director of the Offenbach Archival Depot in 1946. He realized, his son Jay Pomrenze – my friend and neighbor -- tells me proudly, that if he restored millions of Jewish documents and ritual objects to Lithuania, Poland and other countries then under Communist rule, the cultural devastation would continue. “So,” Jay says, “he declared the YIVO Library in New York the ‘rightful owners’ of vast libraries from Vilna and other centers of Jewish learning.”
When I heard this story – and the Monuments Men will soon be a George Clooney movie – I got goosebumps. How many trained archivists with a Jewish scholarly background served with Eisenhower? This happy historic coincidence epitomizes the extraordinary, exalted love story between Jews and America.
It is worth contemplating this deep bond because Jay Pomrenze is scheduled to accept a posthumous honor this week from the Center for Jewish History in New York for his father, who died in 2011 having achieved the rank of Colonel. And it is worth contemplating as we end a close, intense presidential campaign, which has roiled America’s Jewish community. One Orthodox rabbi reported that the AIPAC poster hanging in his synagogue was defaced twice, because it showed America’s president addressing AIPAC, and some congregants consider Barack Obama “anti-Israel.” Others have reported that just like many liberal Jews do not talk about Israel because it is too “divisive,” many Jews avoid talking about American politics to avoid unpleasantness.
But in the spirit of that miraculous collaboration between General Dwight Eisenhower and Major Seymour Pomrenze, let’s note the campaign’s good news. The ugliness has been between us – not against us. In the third debate each candidate competed over who supported Israel more, with no discernible anti-Semitic backlash. American Jews have been leading figures in both camps, adding new chapters to the impressive American Jewish success story.
And, on Election Day, American Jews will vote as Americans. Most American Jews, like most Americans, will cast their votes based on domestic concerns, reflecting tremendous American Jewish comfort in the society. While as a Jewish and Zionist activist, I regret that most American Jews are more pro-choice than pro-Israel, I do not regret the profound, well-deserved American Jewish patriotic attachment to the US. I believe that being pro-Israel is being pro-American, those values converge. The more pro-choice than pro-Israel phenomenon reveals an underlying shift from collective concerns to individual ones, from national and religious identities to gender and sexual identities.
Similarly, those American Jews who will be voting mostly on the Israel issue will be voting as Americans, too. Single-issue voting is a hallowed American pastime. African-Americans, Catholic-Americans, Irish-Americans, women, gays, evangelicals, pro-choice, pro-life, Americans have long voted on one major issue. Only Jews, however, agonize about it.
This year there are compelling reasons for pro-Israel voters to vote solely on the Israel issue. Structurally, whoever wins will be hemmed in on many domestic issues – the dysfunctional Congress will constrain tax and budget choices, while the Supreme Court will keep abortion legal. However, presidents enjoy great latitude on foreign policy – and there is a dramatic difference in tone and warmth between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama on Israel and its current leadership. Obama is not anti-Israel, and has supported Israel militarily and diplomatically. But he has a terrible relationship with Bibi Netanyahu, he initially sought distance with Israel, and he is more prone to pressure Israel on the Palestinian issue, seeing Israel as the obstacle to peace. Obama warmed up to Israel when re-election loomed. Obama not running for re-election, and probably “running” to be considered the youngest one of “The Elders,” hoping to globetrot with Jimmy Carter, Mary Robinson and Desmond Tutu, may bully Israel to charm these self-appointed, self-righteous scolds, who are indeed anti-Israel.
I am surprised that there has not been a movement, in clearly Democratic states like New York and California, to get pro-Israel voters to vote “no” on Obama, by voting for every position but president. Somehow, pro-israel Obama supports must convey to Obama and the Democratic Party that there will be a political price to pay if Obama reverts to his first-half of the first term, blame-Israel-but-not-the-Palestinians, visit-Cairo-but-not-Jerusalem approach. Similarly, there are pro-Israel leftists who may vote for Obama precisely because they think Israel needs his “tough-love” rather than Romney’s enabling.
As American Jews vote in this monumental election, we should remain grateful to monumental men like Seymour Pomrenze and so many other pioneering heroes. Our rights, our comforts, our natural all-Americanness, and our natural Jewishness, are precious legacies, carefully cultivated, preserved, protected and expanded over the decades. How lucky we have been to have heroes like Colonel Pomrenze, who, his son Jay reminds us, expressed both his Jewish and American identities as one when he helped save our heritage – with “our” meaning Jewish, American, Western, and democratic.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published next month.