Aug 16, 2011

The Failures (& Successes) Of The American Jewish Establishment, Past And Present



No one seriously doubts anymore that European Jewry was abandoned by the U.S. and England during World War II. The British national unity government under Churchill did not want the problems with the Arabs which would be caused by permitting Jewish immigration to Palestine. The American government under Roosevelt was not willing to have European Jewish refugees come to the U.S. Even the visa quotas permitted by the draconian Immigration Laws were never filled during the war. U.S. Consuls were instructed to place every obstacle before would be immigrants, even those whose parents, brothers or sisters were U.S. citizens. Consuls who nevertheless issued visas did so at the risk of their careers.

The Nazi death camps were not bombed by the U.S. or Britain, even though targets a few miles away were repeatedly bombed. Churchill said that when he met with Dr. Weizmann, the Zionist leader, he couldn’t sleep at night. He solved the problem by not meeting Dr. Weizmann again. The countries of the world were divided into two groups, those (the Nazis and their allies) who were killing the Jews, and those (the U.S., England and their allies) who didn’t want to take in any Jews to their own countries or places under their control.

The official U.S. and British policy was that only the defeat of the Nazis and the end of the war could save Jewish lives. Any rescue attempts before then would impede the war effort. The official Jewish and Zionist leadership cooperated with this policy. The Zionist leaders in Palestine led by Ben Gurion and Moshe Shertok (later Sharett) and the Jewish leadership in the U.S. led by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, hushed up the news of the holocaust, cooperated fully with the U.S. and Britain, and attacked any Jews who tried to do otherwise, such as the Irgun and Stern group in Palestine and the groups led by Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook) in the U.S., for example, “The Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe”.

The Jewish establishment, worshipped Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) first for bringing American out of the great depression and then as the great war leader. His picture graced the walls of many Jewish homes. The leaders were unwilling to think or hear anything bad about him. The foremost leader of American Jewry, (reform) Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, was a close friend and ardent supporter of FDR. He denied all news of extermination of Jews and constantly attacked the Bergson Group for revealing it.

When 400 (mainly Orthodox) Rabbis marched on Washington to seek FDR’s help to save Jews, Wise advised Roosevelt not to meet with them and FDR slipped out of a side door of the White House, so as not to be at home when they came.

400 mostly Orthodox rabbis march to the White House on October 6, 1943. Roosevelt avoided meeting with them.

Nor surprisingly the Bergson group found its main political supporters among non-Jews; the most prominent among them was Sen. Guy M. Gillette. Only in 1944 did Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury prevail on FDR to set up the War Refugee Board, which succeeded very late in the war to rescue some Jews. How many more could have been saved if it had been done earlier?


The response of the American Jewish community and Israel to the plight of Soviet Jewry was very different, much more proactive and eventually successful in rescuing the Russian Jews. It was far from the dismal record in WWII.

A number of factors contributed to this difference. Books can, have and will be written about this, but I will briefly list several of these factors.

1. The American Jewish Community was larger, stronger and less fearful of anti-Semitism than in WWII.

2. Experience in public protest had been gained from the Black voting rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement.

3. Israel’s lightning victory in the Six Day War in June 1967 had empowered Jewish activists in the U.S., the USSR, England and other countries.

4. There was a guilt feeling about the failure of rescue in WWII and anger at the establishment of that period.

5. The Israel government encouraged activism up to a point. Many activists were willing to go beyond that point.

The movement to free Soviet Jewry began in the 1960’s among sporadic groups such as SSSJ (Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry) on campuses, led by Jacob Birnbaum and Glen Richter, and the Councils which sprang up all over the U.S. and joined together in the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry.

Betarim and Revisionists, being activists took readily to this effort and the American League for Russian Jews, Inc. headed by Morris Brafman, a Revisionist leader, was established. Rabbi Meir Kahane and his Jewish Defense League (JDL) joined the effort years later, but their dramatic protests succeeded in Rabbi Kahane’s expressed goal of bringing the issue from page 23 to page 1 of the New York Times.

The mainstream organizations were still cautious, lest the Soviets take revenge on the Jews there. This was a hard argument to answer until eventually the Jews in Russia themselves said that activism and publicity were their only protection against the regime.

A group of former Betarim and other activist lawyers including Moshe Brodetzky, Morty Dolinsky, Yitzhak Heimowitz, Mel Stein and Judah Harris joined forces with SSSJ to set up the “Center for Russian Jewry” chaired by the movie mogul Spiros Skouras with a suite of offices in the Empire State Building. At its dedication the keynote speaker was Congressman (later President) Gerald Ford.

In June 1967 when Premier Kosigin came to the U.S. to try to gain for the Arabs what they lost in the war, American Jews protested non-stop at the Soviet Mission to the U.S. I broadcast an editorial reply on WCBS-TV explaining why.

The Israel government representatives who dealt with Russian Jewry matters in the U.S. were Nehemia Levanon in Washington and Meir Rosenne in New York. They were listed as Consuls, but were connected with the Prime Minister’s office. They used the Center as a lever to push the mainstream Jewish organizations into greater activity. These organizations established the National Conference on Soviet Jewry as part of the National Community Relations Advisory Council (NCRAC). Once this happened, support for the Center was reduced or terminated.

By 1973, when I was sent from Israel to the U.S. on a mission to deliver a Petition of 17,000 Russian Jewish Olim in Israel to Sen. Jackson and Rep. Vanick,

the National Conference was a strong presence. I remember participating in their rally of 10,000 people on the steps of the Capitol, at which Yehezkel Pularevitch, Chairman of the Organization of Former Prisoners of Zion in the USSR, presented the petition to Sen. Jackson.

On a prior mission to the U.S. in June 1970 I had quoted the language of the leaders whom Moses sent from the desert to spy out the Land of Canaan, “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:33) I applied this to our struggle. If we thought we were powerless, we could never overcome the mighty USSR, but if we believed in our ability, no matter how far-fetched, we could eventually rescue Russian Jewry. The Yiddish proverb says, “If G-d wishes it, a broom can shoot.” and Russian Jewry was rescued. (NUMBERS 13:33)


Fast forward to today. Which way will the American Jewish establishment go this time?

Our sages said that since the Temple was destroyed, the power of prophecy was limited to women, children and fools. I don’t see myself as fitting into any of these categories, but nevertheless I will try to point out a few salient factors which may give some indication of trends.

1. Will the American Jewish establishment follow Obama blindly as the establishment followed FDR during WW II? J Street certainly will, since they are marching in the same direction toward “peace now”! AIPAC, the President’s Conference and other organizations will probably not follow him as the mesmerized crowd followed the Pied Piper of Hamlin.

2. Will they believe Ahmadinijad’s threats to wipe Israel off the map while killing all the Jews, unlike the 1930’s leaders who disbelieved Hitler’s blueprint in “Mein Kampf”? Most likely most of them will believe him, athough there will still be some “useful idiots” who will not.

3. Will they be active, as in the “Let my People Go” struggle or passive like the World War II leaders? Most likely many will be active, having learned the lesson. A minority will probably refuse to recognize the facts because their minds are made up in advance.

I fear Obama will never do enough to prevent a nuclear missile armed Iran, so if that is to be accomplished he will have to be a one term president.

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