Monday, May 12, 2008

The New Deal reconsidered: The Holocaust crisis

Another important corrective to the hazy nostalgia in which the FDR years were later enveloped is a look at the reaction, or failure of reaction, of the US to the Holocaust. As David Wyman recounts in his essential book on the subject, the nature and scope of the genocide were known in the US by late 1942. For fear of appearing "pro-Jewish," the War and State Departments, respectively, refused and blocked any action to stop it. Until his death, FDR was indifferent to both the genocide itself and the refugees in flight from it. The State Department, under the influence of the British Foreign Office, was also hostile to Zionism and declined to press for Jewish refugees to be allowed into Palestine. The contrast with Churchill is striking. Once he knew of it, he spoke publicly about the genocide and devised schemes for getting weapons to resistance movements in continental Europe. His complaint about Anglo-Jewry was its timidity and lack of organization. In spite of his courageous and public statements and actions in connection with the Holocaust, there were sharp limits on how far he push the rest of the British government on the issue. But there was no question where he stood.

It wasn't supposed to turn out that way. FDR's presidency, and especially his landslide victory in 1936, cemented the love affair of American Jews with the Democratic party. There have been periods of erosion of that affair (Eisenhower in 1956, Nixon in 1972, and Reagan in 1984, all received close to half of the American Jewish vote), but never a real prospect of dissolution. Although anti-discrimination laws before the late 1950s were more limited in scope, applying only to government, the influence of the New Deal's public hiring practices, and later their application through much of the US economy during the war, essentially started the modern civil rights era. The 1930s was not only the most isolationist decade in US history, it was the most nativist, a period of strong intergroup tensions and bigotry. The Depression itself, of course, was the largest single cause. But the message emanating from Germany also exerted a distinct influence. American Jews looked to FDR as "King of the Jews," the "good czar" who would protect them. American Jewish leaders like Rabbi Stephen Wise and Sam Rosenman acted as American versions of "court Jews" familiar from Europe.

And it was "court Jew" politics that failed in the war years. This influential establishment of lay and rabbinical leaders, allied with FDR, were determined to maintain the palace-intrigue approach to Jewish issues. Far from being a help, they seriously harmed Jewish self-interest in those years: for all their backroom dealings, they came up empty on antisemitism, Zionism, or rescuing European Jews.

Eventually, a new, more American type of "bottom-up" politics emerged in response to the Holocaust. Its emergence was too late for most of Europe's Jews. But it led to a stunning breakthrough for America's. After the end of the war, it became clear that, for all his greatness as a leader, FDR and his "court Jews" were the ultimate obstacles to progress on these issues. While he repeatedly used popular anti-semitism as an excuse for inaction, the circumstances of the war itself rapidly changed American opinion, and FDR was left behind by change he himself had helped to instigate. Treasury Secretary Morgenthau's plan to rescue Jewish refugees was largely drawn up by non-Jews. Former president Herbert Hoover, who first made his name leading war relief efforts during and after the First World War, offered to head up a refugee commission. It did form but failed to accomplish much, because of State Department and White House resistance. Even the State Department itself, once the war was over, relented enough to negotiate a settlement of refugee property claims with the Swiss government.*

A critical mass of Jewish groups finally gave up on palace intrigue, organizing and protesting publicly in 1943 and 1944, making Zionism and the rescue of Europe's remaining Jews broadly accepted, nonpartisan issues. By the 1944 election, both parties endorsed this platform, and within a few years, rapid political change led to dramatic changes in American acceptance of Jews and the start of the sharp decline in antisemitism that marked the postwar decades. This decisive change occurred in a space of a few years. Contrast with the 1940 election, where in spite of the bipartisan support for intervention in the war, America First and important isolationist leaders like Lindbergh made discreet but effective use of social prejudice against Jews to bolster their case. The America we live in now was made in those few short years by people (some of them returning from the war) who abandoned the 1930s politics of fear. Given FDR's opposition to Zionism and his stubborn refusal to do anything about the genocide in Europe, it's almost a miracle.**
* Contrary to mythology pushed by the media in the 1990s, Switzerland had instituted the secret, numbered bank account system in the 1930s so that people fleeing Germany could move their assets to a safe place. It was generally less antisemitic than the rest of Europe and, in spite of the fact that much of its population was German-speaking, never fell for Hitler's Aryan vision. But most of the owners of the financial assets moved to Swiss banks perished, and several billions (in present dollars) were left unclaimed at the end of the war.

** Kenneth Levin's The Oslo Syndrome retraces Wyman's history in abbreviated form, then relates it to the return of Jewish self-ghettoization in the 1990s. Except that in a liberal democracy, self-ghettoization means self-defeat. "Court Jew" politics and palace intrigue don't work. While Clinton, unlike FDR, was not personally prejudiced against Jews, the political failure was similar, the Oslo "peace process" being the most damaging result.

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