The Simon Wiesenthal center recently produced a thoroughly courageous film that documents the story of what happened in the United States during the Holocaust.
The film entitled Against the Tide addresses the attitudes of President Roosevelt and his senior advisors, who used the pretext of winning the war against the Nazis to block any Jewish immigration to the U.S. Attempts to take specific steps to save Jews or to slow the Nazi death machine were also dismissed by the Roosevelt administration.
Another major theme of the film and perhaps even more troubling was the position taken by mainstream American Jewish leaders especially Rabbi Stephen Wise who was undoubtedly the most influential of that period.
Rabbi Wise was a personal friend of President Roosevelt who turned to him for advice on issues concerning the Jewish community in the United States. This relationship meant that of all people Wise was positioned to have real influence and impact on the President to take steps that could have saved many hundreds of thousands and even millions of Jewish lives.
Instead, Wise allowed himself to be used as a pawn by Roosevelt to quell and falsely allay concerns of the American Jewish public over their brethren in Europe. By the end of the war he was investing more energy and resources into attempting to silence those who were campaigning against Roosevelt’s policies, such as the Bergson group, than for anything that was of Jewish interest.
It seems Wise’s leadership was more an exercise in social advancement than a commitment to his people to represent them in the halls of power and fight for their very existence, to the extent than he would not jeopardize his status even to save many Jewish lives.
Since 1945 many millions of Jewish dollars have been plowed into Holocaust memorials and museums, preserving vast archives of historical documentation for posterity. But what is this all for? Why is it important to invest so much in remembrance and monuments? This can be justified if the memorial doesn’t only act as a remembrance of the life that was, but also as an indispensible guide for the future, so that humanity can learn from the lessons of history never to repeat the same mistakes again. So what can be learned from this sad chapter in American Jewish history?
Today’s physical threats to Jews focus largely around Israel’s security, and American Jewish leaders once again play a pivotal role in influencing the policies of their government in favor of Jewish interests.
Indeed on Monday July 13th a group of American Jewry’s most influential leaders met with president Obama in the White House, in an effort to address growing concerns among the Jewish public about the current administrations foreign policies with regard to Israel. The concern is that not only are the policies unbalanced in the demands made of Israel as opposed to others in the region, but actually detrimental to Israeli security.
This concern was further highlighted by the following report of exchanges during the meeting, President Obama said public disagreements between the U.S. government and Israel are useful in the pursuit of Middle East peace, several participants reported.
The president’s remarks, surprising to some in the room, came as he was questioned about a perceived distance between his administration and Israel -- specifically in his insistence that Israel halt all settlement construction in the West Bank.
Obama, according to participants, said his approach would build more credibility with Arabs, and he criticized the Bush administration policy of unwavering agreement with Israel as ineffective.
“He said, ‘The United States and Israel were very, very close for eight years, and it produced very little’” said Abraham Foxman of the Anti Defamation League.
The story of Rabbi Wise should serve as a stark reminder to Jewish leaders to never lose track of the mandate that has been bestowed on them by their constituents, to represent Jewish causes to the White House whether or not they are inside or outside, invited or uninvited, and if the President is pursuing positions that are not in Jewish or Israeli interests, they should make it clear how the Jew on the street feels. Jewish leaders in this country are in their positions as our representatives fighting for Jews and Jewish causes, they are not in their positions as White House proxies that can be called upon to “allay Jewish fears” when there is genuine and legitimate concern on the street.
If America’s Jewish leadership truly appreciate the responsibility that rests on their shoulders and appreciate the need to act selflessly as agents on behalf of the safety and security of their brethren, they would do well to heed the lessons of the past learned through the spilled blood of millions.