Historians grapple over FDR’s legacy, with the future of Israel at stake

The debate over Roosevelt’s anti-Semitism has become hot topic for historians, some of whom believe there has been a glossing-over of history.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt inauguration 311 (photo credit: Library of Congress)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt inauguration 311
(photo credit: Library of Congress)
NEW YORK – The debate over US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s anti-Semitism has become a hot topic for some historians, some of whom believe there has been a glossing-over of history that could harm historical record.
The idea that the 32nd president of the United States was anti-Semitic is not new. Given societal factors at the time – casual anti-Semitism was commonplace among the upper echelons of mid-century American society – many of the historians who specialize in Roosevelt’s presidency accept the narrative of FDR-as-anti- Semite as somewhere in the continuum of probable to absolutely true.
But the debate over how anti-Semitic FDR was and how much he let those beliefs influence his policy, has become a hot topic for historians like Rafael Medoff, the founding director of The David Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. According to Medoff, there has been an altered perspective on the president’s term that could harm the historical record and our understanding of WWII. It could be an attempt to make an American president that was and still is beloved by many Jews look better than he was.
Prof. Allan Lichtman of American University, one of the authors of the book FDR and the Jews, has given a different explanation. He argued that the theory that FDR abandoned the Jews is propagation.
He said it was an attempt by the right-wing, pro-Israel factions to manufacture a historical precedent to create an excuse for Israel to ignore what the US has to say on foreign policy matters.
“There have been an accumulation of instances in which individual historians possessed documents showing anti-Semitic remarks made by the president and withheld those documents,” Medoff told The Jerusalem Post. “The public relies on historians to provide serious scholarships about past events. If historians distort the record by not acknowledging documented evidence of a president’s bigotry, that’s a problem.”
Medoff is a staunch defender of the theory that Roosevelt’s deep-seated anti-Semitism, possibly ingrained in him as a child, greatly influenced his actions toward Jews seeking asylum in the United States during WWII. He and other historians – such as Bat Ami Zucker of Bar Ilan University, Monty Penkower formerly of Touro College, Laurel Leff of Northeastern University and Stephen Norwood of the University of Oklahoma – support the hypothesis first proposed by Prof. David Wyman that FDR purposefully and knowingly abandoned the Jews during the War.
All the historians interviewed who agreed with Medoff and Wyman pointed to historical incidents such as the massively unfilled State Department quotas for Jews attempting to immigrate at the time, the administration’s failure to bomb Auschwitz, FDR’s avoidance of the Wagner-Roger’s bill of 1939 that would have provided asylum for German Jewish children and the tragedy of the St. Louis, the ship filled with Jewish refugees that was turned away from US ports and sent back to Germany.
But most telling, according to Medoff, are certain offhand comments FDR made to other world leaders throughout the various summits and meetings, during and after the war.
These comments form the basis of Medoff’s latest offense, aimed in part against Professors Richard Breitman and Lichtman over their 2013 book FDR and the Jews, now considered to be one of the definitive tomes on the relationship between the president and the American Jewish community during WWII, a relationship that Breitman and Lichtman, and many others, have characterized as generally warm and genial.
Breitman and Lichtman have won some high accolades, including the New York Times Editor’s Choice Book for 2013, a nomination for a Pulitzer, the Tikkun Olam award for Holocaust Studies from the Haiti Holocaust Survivors group and National Jewish Book award in American Jewish studies.
Medoff, however, published a stinging review of the book in Haaretz in June 2013. In an essay to be published on the Wyman Institute’s website, Medoff accused Breitman and Lichtman of attempting to gloss over episodes in FDR’s life that Medoff said clearly indicate the president’s anti-Semitic intentions.
Among other accusations Medoff made in his essay, such as downplaying the influence of FDR’s notably anti-Semitic mother Sara, Medoff takes particular issue with Breitman and Lichtman’s treatments of specific comments FDR was said to have made at Yalta to Stalin regarding Soviet Jewry.
This “off-hand comment... Concerning the Jews,” Breitman and Lichtman said, was an “ice breaker with Stalin.”
Medoff and others rejected this account, saying Breitman and Lichtman purposely explained this away so as not to disturb the legacy of FDR being a friend of the American Jewish community.
“The public perception of FDR in those years was wonderful,” Zucker, who reviewed FDR and the Jews, said.
“He was considered a hero in those days.” But, she added, a historian’s perception will often be colored by their personal politics. “Breitman is certainly biased.”
“I think that in trying to refurbish the Roosevelt image, they’re not giving the whole image,” said Penkower.
“It’s not an uncomplicated picture [of FDR],” said Leff, but nevertheless his alleged leanings toward anti-Semitism “should be part of the record and part of a way of understanding the Roosevelt administration’s response to the Holocaust.”
“It’s a disgrace that Breitman and Lichtman have advanced this type of argument,” said Norwood. “It’s sloppy research. But there will always be people who want to deny the existence of anti-Semitism.”
Medoff said that “if you’re writing a book about FDR and the Jews, and have in your hands a number of quotes or anecdotes, one of which is an anti-Semitic anecdote by FDR, and you only choose to quote something else that’s innocuous, then you’re misleading the public.”
“It’s a problem any time a historian crosses the line from reporting the facts of history into advocacy,” he added.
But advocacy is exactly what Medoff himself is being accused of.
And Lichtman and his supporters insist they’re not trying to refurbish, gloss over, color or manipulate anything or anyone.
“The Wyman Institute is dedicated to attacking anything positive published about FDR,” Lichtman told the Post. “Medoff has gone out of his way to attack us. He wants to bring down any work that has anything positive to say about FDR and the Jews, and he targeting our work because [its] gotten attention all over the world.”
Lichtman and his advocates in the community of historians insist that Medoff is politically motivated.
“Nobody in the professional world goes out of their way to attack another scholar like that,” Lichtman said. “He’s gone out of his way and into the press to attack our work without disclosing his interests. Of course we know FDR could speak loosely about the Jews but you have to look at the whole record. [Medoff] picks and chooses only those examples that attempt to prove his point.”
Breitman did not respond to a request for comment.
“Medoff is defending strongly the ‘abandonment of the Jews’ theory that was advanced by his mentor David Wyman, and a good deal of that theory is open to interpretation,” said Prof. Michael Berenbaum of American Jewish University.
“This issue has to do with several things, including contemporary politics, which have nothing to do with historical scholarship.”
“Medoff is pursuing a 2014 era set of questions rather than the questions of the day,” said Professor Michael Marrus of the University of Toronto. “I think, myself, that Breitman and Lichtman are making a serious effort to judge and assess FDR, and to evaluate him according to the standards of his day — his culture and his society and his context.”
What is Medoff’s motivation? The conservative wing of American politicians, who also happen to be more pro-Israel than the liberal wing, are trying to “take down the grandaddy of American Jews’ transformation into liberalism,” Berenbaum said.
Why? So that Israel has an excuse to point to America today and say “Look, we can’t trust America! Look how it abandoned the Jews in their hour of greatest need. We should go ahead and attack Iran.”
“That analysis is, in my view, correct and is sustained by other material,” Lichtman told the Post. This hypothesis has been supported by articles such as an August 2013 article in The Nation magazine that said “The caricature of FDR [as an anti-Semite] has been pushed by a small group of Israel supporters.”
Medoff, naturally, rejected this interpretation of his actions. “This is not a rightwing-versus-leftwing issue,” Medoff said, noting that he’s a registered Democrat and denying he was in the pocket of any political group.
“Neither I nor the Wyman Institute have ever urged Israel to attack Iran. What I have written is that it is valid to discuss historical issues when considering contemporary policy matters, including but not limited to Iran,” he said, adding that “I have praised the Obama administration for considering historical precedents when it attacked Libya, and I have praised Secretary Kerry for citing the St. Louis when he has discussed US policy toward Syria.”
“This is an issue of historians violating accepted academic standards by withholding evidence concerning presidents who made ugly remarks about Jews,” Medoff said.
Berenbaum and Marrus insisted that this issue is not, in fact, causing a huge rift in the society of historians and said that in the end, it’s important to remember that societal values in those days were extremely different.
“The important thing to understand is, I admonish my students, that we’re talking about another world here,” Marrus said. “The important thing is to understand this world, and not use our categories to judge.”