Taking the politics out of Holocaust history

Spectacle of peacenik blogger taking on one of best known academic figures has David vs Goliath feel.

Roosevelt and Churchill (photo credit: Reuters)
Roosevelt and Churchill
(photo credit: Reuters)
A prominent Jewish historian who claims that criticism of president Franklin Roosevelt is all the handiwork of disgruntled Likudniks is being challenged by, of all people, a longtime supporter of Israel’s left-wing Meretz party.
The spectacle of a peacenik blogger taking on one of the best known academic figures in the Jewish community has a kind of David vs Goliath feel to it which makes it inherently interesting.
But more than that, the clash between Ralph Seliger and Prof. Deborah Lipstadt sheds important light on the broader problem of the politicization of the Holocaust.
Seliger, 62, has been a lifelong activist on the American Zionist Left. For many years, he was editor of Israel Horizons, the US publication of Meretz, the Israeli party led by Shulamit Aloni and Yossi Sarid. Nowadays he blogs for Michael Lerner’s Tikkun magazine, among other venues. On March 6, Seliger went to hear Prof. Lipstadt speak at Manhattan’s Temple Emanu-El. He was more than a little surprised by what he heard.
Seliger, writing on his Tikkun blog, reports that Lipstadt accused some critics of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust of being “too harsh.” Lipstadt said, according to Seliger, “that it’s not by accident that the critics of FDR and the American Jewish establishment during the Nazi era emerged after Menachem Begin’s Likud broke the Laborite monopoly on power in Israel, with its electoral victories in 1977 and in the 1980s.” In other words, criticism of FDR is something akin to a vast right-wing Jewish conspiracy.
There’s just one little problem with Lipstadt’s theory. Actually, not so little.
“The first such book” blasting FDR’s response to the Holocaust, Seliger points out, “was written by Arthur D. Morse in 1967.” Morse’s While Six Million Died was published 10 years before Begin was elected prime minister. And that’s not all. Seliger continues: “I also don’t see how an ideological backlash to Labor’s decades in power would explain the biting examination by the non-Jewish American historian David S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews.”
In other words, since Prof. Wyman is the author of the definitive history of Roosevelt’s indifference to the Holocaust, and Wyman is not even Jewish, much less a Likudnik, where does that leave Lipstadt’s theory? Ironically, back in 1985 Lipstadt wrote that Wyman was her “teacher” and described him as “one of the zadekai umot ha’olam,” a term usually reserved for a non-Jew who personally rescued Jews from the Nazis. It’s not clear how he went, in Lipstadt’s eyes, from being on the level of Raoul Wallenberg to being part of a right-wing Jewish assault on Roosevelt.
Seliger could have cited many additional examples that leave Lipstadt’s thesis in tatters. After all, the entire first wave of scholarship critical of FDR long preceded Begin’s rise in 1977. Prof.
Wyman’s first book on the subject, Paper Walls, was published in 1968.
That same year, a prominent Israeli historian of the Holocaust, well known as a man of the Left, not only criticized the Roosevelt administration’s response to the Holocaust but added, “[I]t is somewhat difficult to put all the blame for complacency on British or American statesmen, some of whom could not exactly be described as friends of the Jews, when Jewish leaders made no visible attempt to put pressure on their governments for any active policy of rescue.” So wrote Prof. Yehuda Bauer, in the pages of Midstream magazine.
Next came Henry Feingold, in 1970, with The Politics of Rescue. He concluded that “European Jewry was ground to dust between the twin millstones of a murderous Nazi intent and a callous Allied indifference.” Prof. Feingold was for many years chairman of the Labor Zionists of America, so he doesn’t fit Lipstadt’s it’s-all-a-Likud-plot theory very well. In fact, one might say that his Laborite credentials turn her theory on its head.
There was plenty of criticism of FDR in the years following Begin’s election. But it came from the Left as often as it came from the Right.
For example, Martin Gilbert, who has described himself as “a supporter of the [Israeli] Labor Party,” wrote in his 1981 book Auschwitz and the Allies that the Roosevelt and Churchill administrations were guilty of “failures of imagination, of response, of intelligence, of piecing together and evaluating what was known, of co-ordination, of initiative, and even at times of sympathy.”
Arthur Hertzberg, the historian, Jewish leader, and outspoken critic of Begin, wrote in 1984 that the Roosevelt administration and the other Allies “were well and currently informed about the tragic fate of the Jews, certainly by 1942, and did little to mitigate it.”
The Israeli Holocaust education group Lapid, which is far from the Likud on the political spectrum, staged a mock trial in 1990, in which the Allies were found by the presiding judge to have abdicated both their “legal obligation” and their “moral obligation” to bomb the death camps. The judge was Labor MK Shimon Sheetrit.
The list goes on and on, with plenty of examples from both sides of the political spectrum. Which is why Prof. Lipstadt’s attempt to politicize the debate over FDR’s Holocaust record is so regrettable. Indeed, it could be argued that America’s response to the Holocaust is one of the few genuine consensus issues in the Jewish community today. So thank you, Ralph Seliger, for trying to take the politics out of Holocaust history, and for reminding us that sometimes, even famous professors make mistakes.
The writer is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, DC, and author or editor of 14 books on the Holocaust Zionism, and American Jewish history.