Tuesday, May 01, 2018

FDR – The Paradox – Part 5

A Jewish congregation was arguing over whether one should stand or sit during the Shema Yisroel. Half of the congregation said one should sit, the other half insisted one should stand. Every time the Shema was recited they shouted at each other, “Sit down!” and “Stand up!”  The argument became so heated that the congregation was split in two, each half contending that they knew best the tradition in that synagogue.

Finally, the rabbi decided to visit a one hundred year old member of the synagogue who was living in a nursing home. He took a delegation from each of the arguing sides with him to see the oldest member of the “shul”.  “Now, tell us,” said the rabbi, “what is our tradition?” “Should we stand during the Shema?”  “No,” said the old man. “That is not our tradition.”  “Well, then,” said the rabbi, “should we sit during the Shema?” “No,” the old man, “that is not our tradition.”  “But we need to know what to do,” said the rabbi, “because our congregation members are fighting among each other.”  “That,” said the oldest member of the congregation, ‘that is our tradition.’”

In 2015, the Jewish Review of Books printed an article by Leon Wieseltier titled “The Argumentative Jew.” It states in part, “The most sophisticated and most robust home [for the case for arguments] is in Judaism, from its beginnings in ancient rabbinical literature all the way to the present day. The Jewish tradition—the tradition of the argumentative Jew—is a long and great challenge to the consensualist mentality. It repudiates, sometimes in theory, always in practice, the cult of unanimity.”

It is universally accepted, both historically and theologically, that argumentation is at the heart of the Jewish experience. As a consequence, it is not surprising (despite FDR’s association with numerous Jews, and the reverence bestowed on him by Jews) that there are some, including non-Jews, who present the argument that President Roosevelt did not do enough to save Jews from the Holocaust, and as a consequence this was one of the worst failures of his administration––this argument counteracts his success in mitigating the effect of the worst depression in the country’s history and also illustrates the paradoxical nature of his presidency.

On the other side of the argument is William D. Rubenstein, a historian, the author of the well-known controversial work, The Myth of Rescue (1997), which argues that the allies could not have saved more Jews during the Holocaust. In the first chapter of his book he writes, “There can be few subjects in the whole range of modern history on which contemporary opinion differed so sharply from the views of later historians and authors than the topic of the rescue of Jews by the democracies during the Nazi Holocaust.”

He starts by quoting as follows:  “Commenting upon ‘the strange turn in the attitude of American Jews towards Franklin D. Roosevelt in the recent past’, the famous historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. noted that: ‘For a long time [Roosevelt] was a hero. No president had appointed so many Jews to public office. No president had surrounded himself with so many Jewish advisers. No president had condemned anti-Semitism with such eloquence and persistence. Jews were mostly liberals in those faraway days, and a vast majority [up to 90%] voted four times for FDR.’”

He then continues to depict the arguments that characterize those portrayed by Roosevelt’s critics. “This great and profound change in the perception of the Allies and their leaders arose fairly abruptly between the late 1960s and the mid-1980s, wholly as a result of a near-universal perception that the Allies did virtually nothing to rescue Europe's Jews during the Holocaust. By the late 1980s, every examination of the Allied response to the Holocaust was compelled to take into account the belief, by then virtually universal, that the democracies ‘did nothing’ during Hitler's ‘Final Solution,’ and were--to many--guilty of being virtual accomplices in the Holocaust.

“The list of alleged Allied failures is long, ranging from closing their doors to Jewish refugee emigration prior to and during the Holocaust, forestalling the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine when this was most necessary as a place of refuge, failing to bomb Auschwitz or any other death camp, failing to engage in negotiations with the Nazis with the aim of bartering for Jewish life and failing, until early 1944, to create any specialized government agency to save Jewish lives, oblivious to the fact that Hitler was engaged in a ‘war against the Jews.’

“The alleged reasons for these failings were also manifold, including strong and pervasive anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism among both the American and British opinion-makers and masses, ignorance of Nazi intentions, bureaucratic inertia and an inability to internalize the unbelievable horrors of the Holocaust during the war itself. As well, it is widely suggested that the Jewish communities of the democracies were, by later standards, extraordinarily supine during Jewry's hour of greatest need, deeply divided and afraid to become overly visible or demonstrative during a world war.”

However, thirty-four years ago a book review in the New York Times stated, “We are still benumbed by the sheer scale and demonic irrationality of the Nazi war against the Jews, still incapable of grasping what actually occurred; we cannot understand why the cries for help had so little resonance in a world that subscribed in large part to decencies commonly assumed for centuries. While the murderers systematically went about their vast enterprise, undeflected by logistical problems or even imminent military defeat, where were we?” Where were we, indeed?

The larger and more critical question is, “Where was the President of the United States?” That was the question that the book, The Abandonment of the Jews, mentioned above, attempted to resolve––with a blistering denunciation of FDR. Wikipedia describes the author as follows:

“The grandson of two Protestant ministers, David S. Wyman, was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, in 1929, and raised in Auburndale, Massachusetts. He graduated from Boston University with a bachelor’s degree in history, and from Harvard University with a Ph.D. in history.  From 1966 until his retirement in 1991, Prof. Wyman taught at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he was the Josiah E. DuBois, Jr. Professor of History and twice served as chairman of the Judaic studies program.”

Prior to the publication of The Abandonment of the Jews, the widespread assumption among the American public was that there was little or nothing the Roosevelt administration could have done to save Jews from the Holocaust. Prof. Wyman’s meticulous research demonstrated that there were, in fact, many ways the U.S. could have aided European Jewish refugees, without interfering with the war effort or undermining America’s immigration laws.

He documented how President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his State Department suppressed news about the Holocaust and ignored opportunities to rescue refugees.

The Abandonment of the Jews quickly rose to the New York Times best-seller list, and reviewers were nearly unanimous in their acclaim. “We will not see a better book on this subject in our lifetime,” Prof. Leonard Dinnerstein concluded. Prof. Hasia Diner wrote that Abandonment “systematically demolishes often repeated excuses for inaction.” Thirty-four years later, The Abandonment of the Jews is still the gold standard in its field.

The Abandonment of the Jews won the Bernath Prize of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, the Saloutos Award of the Immigration History Society, the Ansfield-Wolf Award, and the National Jewish Book Award, among other accolades. It went through seven hardcover printings and multiple paperback editions, as well as editions in German, French, Hebrew, and Polish.

The New York Times was adulatory in its review of the book, essentially agreeing with its basic premise related to Roosevelt. Mr. Wyman summarizes his principal findings in the Preface (presented below in edited précis):
  1. The American State Department and the British Foreign Office had no intention of rescuing large number of European Jews. On the contrary, they continually feared that Germany or other Axis nations might release tens of thousands of Jews into Allied hands. Any such exodus would have placed intense pressure on Britain to open Palestine and the United States to take in more Jewish refugees ... Consequently, their policies were aimed at obstructing rescue possibilities ...
  2. Authenticated information that the Nazis were systematically exterminating European Jewry was made public ... in November 1942. President Roosevelt did nothing ... for fourteen months, then moved only because ... political pressures ...
  3. The War Refugee Board ... received little power, almost no cooperation ... and grossly inadequate funding. (Contributions from Jewish organizations .... covered 90 percent of the WRB's costs)... save approximately 200,000 Jews and at least 20,000 non-Jews.
  4. ... State Department ... policies, only 21,000 refugees were allowed to enter ... during ... war with Germany ... 10 percent of the number who could have been legally admitted ...
  5. .... factors hampered (rescue) ... anti-Semitism and anti-immigration attitudes, ... entrenched in Congress; the mass media’s failure ... near silence of the Christian churches and almost all of their leadership (with notable exceptions, e.g. the Archbishop of Canterbury, or New York's Archbishop Francis Spellman); indifference ... President's failure ....
  6. American Jewish leaders ... failure to assign top priority to the rescue issue.
  7. In 1944 the United States ... rejected several appeals to bomb the Auschwitz gas chambers and railroads ... in the very months that ... numerous massive American bombing raids were taking place with fifty miles of Auschwitz. Twice ... bombers struck ... not five miles from the gas chambers.
  8. ... much more could have been done to rescue the Jews, if a real effort had been made .... the reasons repeatedly invoked by government official for not being able to rescue Jews could be put aside when it came to other Europeans who needed help.
  9. ... Roosevelt's indifference ... the worst failure of his presidency.
  10. ... the American rescue record was better than that of Great Britain, Russia, or the other Allied nations ... because of the work of the War Refugee Board ... American Jewish organizations ... provide most of the War Recovery Board's funding, and the overseas rescue operations of several Jewish organizations.
Despite the fact that Mr. Wyman’s book was an uncompromising diatribe focused on FDR’s and other’s insufficiencies related to undertaking aggressive action to alleviate the plight of the enormous number of Jews caught up in the Holocaust, few critics could fault its accuracy. The basic problem however is that if all of the criticisms were resolved satisfactorily, it would have required a perfect world for that to have happened.  If ever there was an unimaginably imperfect world, it was the years just before and during World War II.

Author’s Note:  This article was originally planned to be the last of the FDR series. However, to fully understand the details and ramifications of the ten incriminations listed above, it will be necessary to cover them in next month’s article.


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