Last week Rolling Stone, Yahoo and other national publications ran a story about the public tension between me and my close friend, Dr. Mehmet Oz, a dual American and Turkish citizen who is running for a Senate seat in Pennsylvania, but who absolutely refuses to condemn the vicious antisemitism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who calls Jews “Nazis” and “Hitler,” and Erdogan’s brutal dictatorship, which has destroyed Turkish democracy.
The ultimate test as to whether Oz will act independently as an American senator or be bullied by the Turkish tyrant, Erdogan, is whether he publicly acknowledges the Armenian Genocide, where 1.5 million innocent men, women and children were massacred by the Ottoman Turks during the First World War.
My Republican friends were furious. “Shmuley, you’re going to cost the GOP the Senate!” My obvious response was that there are values issues that infinitely transcend politics and genocide denial is foremost among them.
The US lack of action during the Holocaust
Ken Burns, America’s greatest documentary filmmaker, has just released his damning new three-part series about how America failed to save Jews during the holocaust. It is difficult watching. But when it appeared, I was so excited that I forsook the glories of Italy, where I was on a research trip, and holed up in my hotel room to watch it.
Even in this age of billion-dollar streaming series on Amazon Prime or $200 million (NIS 707 m.) movies on Netflix, I always go to Burns’ content first. Indeed, the subscription I have to PBS streaming documentaries, most of which are made by Burns, is the best 5 bucks I spend every month. For the cost of a Starbucks latte, I gain access to some of the greatest information about history ever presented in the film.
But his series about the Holocaust and the dangers of genocide denial, especially as it affects American policy, is his crowning achievement.
In it we discover the minuscule efforts by the United States to rescue the Jews of Europe over the four years of the Holocaust, when the Germans were on average murdering 10,000 Jews a day. That’s three 9/11s a day for four years. Yes, the US with Franklin Roosevelt at the helm, with our British and Russian allies, ultimately stopped the Holocaust. And that was Roosevelt and the War Department’s argument throughout the genocide. No military resources should be diverted to bombing the train tracks to Auschwitz or even the death camp itself because ultimately the best way to stop the killing was to defeat the Germans.
But as the documentary makes clear, there are several problems with this argument.
First, what if there were precious few Jews left to save? By the time, for example, the United States launched D-Day on 6 June, 1944, more than five million Jews had already been murdered?
Second and much more relevant is why didn’t America allow in Jewish refugees during the Holocaust? OK, that’s not quite accurate. Burns’ estimates are that some 200,000 were allowed to emigrate to the US from the rise of Hitler, when Jews first faced barbarous persecution, to the time Hitler blew his evil brains out. That’s approximately 3% of all the Jews murdered by the Nazis. Now, consider the fact that in the first year of the Biden administration, 1.5 million illegal immigrants came into the US. Jewish immigrants during Hitler’s reign of terror averaged 17,000 per year.
Now, I realize that the situations are not comparable. Illegal and legal immigration are vastly different things. But one of the reasons that the southern border is not more secure is that a huge number of Americans believe that we should not be turning away those who are fleeing persecution and poverty in Central and South America. Illegal immigration, therefore, is a potent political debate, with whole cities and states declaring themselves sanctuaries because they oppose the federal government’s commitment to deport undocumented immigrants.
The question then becomes where was that groundswell of public opinion to welcome the Jews? The ship St. Louis sat outside my hometown of Miami, begging to allow just 1,000 Jews from Germany to alight on American soil. They were shipped back to Europe. More than a quarter would eventually be murdered by the Nazis.
Burns does an incredible job of demonstrating just how opposed to Jewish immigration America was at the time and how evil men like Charles Lindbergh, essentially an American Nazi, and Father Charles Coughlin, a wicked Catholic radio host, stoked American fears about Jews. Worst of all, of course, was the Under-Secretary of State for Immigration, Breckenridge Long, an out-of-control antisemite presiding over all visas to the US, who perhaps has more Jewish blood on his hands than any American during the Holocaust.
Why didn’t America save the Jews during the Holocaust?
Still, public opinion could have swayed the US administration to admit hundreds of thousands more Jews, and Burns portrays Roosevelt himself as being personally sympathetic to their immigration. So why didn’t America save the Jews during the Holocaust? It comes down, essentially, to two factors. The first is obvious: antisemitism and white supremacy. Too many people thought America was a land of Anglo-Saxons and whites, and that the scruffy Jews of Eastern Europe were Asiatic and racially undesirable.
But certainly, not all Americans were racist. Indeed, the war would show just how gallantly the US, once mobilized after the attack on Pearl Harbor, would fight to liberate Europe and rid the world of tyranny.
The second is the real reason. Americans simply could not believe that the Holocaust, a continent-wide genocide, was actually occurring. We’re all familiar with the accusations of how The New York Times and other publications buried news of the holocaust all the way in the back of their newspapers. Even when stories of the Holocaust actually hit the front papers, people read them incredulously. It simply could not be true that death factories using poison gas were murdering up to 40,000 people a day in Poland by the Germans.
Burns relates the story of Jan Karski, the heroic Polish emissary who smuggled himself into and out of Auschwitz, and brought first-hand reports of the death factory to Western leaders. After he met Roosevelt at the White House, the president told Karski to go to Felix Frankfurter, the Jewish Supreme Court justice, and meet with him. Frankfurter told Karski that he could not believe what he was being told. It simply could not be true. At this, the Polish ambassador-in-exile who had brought Karski to Frankfurter, jumped up and said, “Felix, how could you call this young man a liar?” And the justice responded, “I didn’t say he was a liar. I said that I can’t believe it.”
And the American inability to accept the truth about the holocaust had a direct bearing on our unwillingness to take in more Jewish refugees that might have saved millions of lives.
Indeed, only after reports about the holocaust began streaming in from nearly every source by the beginning of 1944 did Roosevelt, under pressure from his Jewish Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, agree to create the War Refugee Board, which would save some 250,000 Jews, mostly in Hungary.
Genocide is the red line
This brings us to the modern day and the upcoming midterm elections. As I have many friends who end up running for political office, I have often pondered what would make me ever criticize their candidacies in public. It was the main question bugging me about Senator Cory Booker, who had been a brother to me for 25 years and then, under withering political pressure, betrayed all his values and morals by voting for the Iran deal in 2015. I decided that my red line is genocide.
Any politician who does not speak out against genocide, who does not actively work to prevent genocide or who denies genocide would even be criticized by a friend. After the Armenian, Rwandan and Cambodian genocides, as well as in Kosovo and Srebrenica, the Uighurs in China, and of course, the Holocaust, we have not learned to hold our elected representatives accountable for their cowardice or broken moral compass, then we have learned nothing.
Cory refused and continues to refuse to ever condemn Iran for their genocidal promises against Israel, and Oz refuses to acknowledge the Armenian genocide, even though it’s the law of the US, lest he angers Erdogan.
I doubt my criticism of my friend, Oz, has any power to cost the GOP the elections but I do know that the six million Jews who were murdered – including my wife’s family - are looking down at me at every moment, seeing if I am using the freedoms and liberties granted to me by God in the US to ensure that “never again” is more than just an empty slogan.
Oz should acknowledge the Armenian genocide or he is unworthy of being a US senator and should withdraw from the race.
The writer, whom The Washington Post calls the most famous Rabbi in America, is the author of Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @RabbiShmuley.