Friday, September 26, 2008

Partisanship and Protest

First published on

Those American Jewish groups and individuals who pushed for disinviting Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin from a rally protesting Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s appearance at the UN effectively put partisan considerations above the effort to demonstrate wide and substantive American condemnation of the Holocaust-denying, genocide-promoting Iranian leader and his regime.

This blot on a segment of the American Jewish community unfortunately has a pedigree: earlier instances, including during the Holocaust, in which some community leaders have, at critical junctures, given greater weight to party allegiances than to countering genocidal regimes pursuing the annihilation of Jews.

It was hardly unreasonable that the Jewish organizations putting together the anti-Ahmadinejad rally would want to have leading figures from both major political parties speak at the event. But their plan went awry when Senator Hilary Clinton, on learning that Governor Palin would also be attending, withdrew from participation.

Whatever Clinton’s reasons, her spokesperson’s claim that she took the step because the rally had become "a partisan political event" was perplexing, to say the least. The intent of the organizers, consistent with the arrangements prior to Clinton’s withdrawal, was clearly for a show of bi-partisan agreement regarding Ahmadinejad - in this instance, by the presence of the most prominent woman in each major party.

But stranger still than the explanation offered by Senator Clinton’s office was the response of some American Jewish organizations. Perhaps one should not be surprised that the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), an entity that exists to promote Jewish support for the Democrat Party, defended Clinton’s position. But, given the gravity of the issue at hand - protesting the leader of a regime that openly calls for the destruction of Israel, a regime that has in recent decades been the chief sponsor of anti-Jewish terror worldwide, and is aggressively pursuing the means to annihilate the Jewish state - the NJDC might at least be expected to do nothing to undermine the anti-Ahmadinejad rally. This would include not compromising the organizers seeking high-profile bi-partisan representation.

The NJDC, using its excellent party connections, could have urged that another leading Democrat attend, perhaps even the presidential or vice-presidential candidate. Instead, in a statement released by its chairman, Marc R. Stanley, the NJDC called upon the rally organizers to "withdraw the invitation to Governor Sarah Palin," essentially giving priority to a partisan agenda - blocking the participation of the Republican vice-presidential candidate - over the goal of presenting the strongest possible statement of condemnation regarding a genocidal regime.

A number of other Jewish organizational figures echoed the NJDC’s demands and the rally sponsors bowed to their pressure and acquiesced in disinviting Governor Palin and abandoning the goal of prominent bi-partisan participation.

Earlier precedents, even during War World II, for the warped priorities demonstrated by the NJDC and those other groups and individuals have sadly been all too common.

In November, 1942, information was released to the American media that some two million European Jews had been killed by the Nazis in what appeared to be a plan of total annihilation. American Jewish leaders sought to publicize the catastrophe and, with the help of prominent non-Jews, urged the government to take a number of steps that, if implemented, could have saved at least hundreds of thousands lives. But the government, in particular the State Department, consistently rejected and obstructed all rescue plans, and appeals to President Roosevelt to reverse Administration policy and initiate rescue efforts were to no avail.

The Jewish leadership continued to lobby the government for a change of direction but refrained from strong public condemnations of Administration policy. In part, this reflected fear of triggering an anti-Semitic backlash, at a time when anti-Semitism was a ubiquitous fact of life in America. But the leadership’s reticence also reflected the loyalty of many Jewish leaders to Roosevelt and an unwillingness to confront publicly his refusal to aid Europe’s Jews.

Government obstruction did not only entail refusing entry of Jews to America. State also blocked efforts to get Jews out of Europe to safe havens elsewhere.

The most obvious place of refuge would have been Mandate Palestine, which, after World War I and dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, was controlled by Britain under a League of Nations Mandate calling for recreation of a Jewish homeland in the Jews’ ancestral home.

Britain, from its receipt of the Mandate, repeatedly sought to undermine its provisions, most notably by blocking Jewish immigration. In the late 1930's, as Jews were desperate to leave Europe, Britain imposed even more draconian limits on Jewish access to the Mandate.

The attitude of the British Foreign Office towards Europe’s Jews, even after learning of the Nazi extermination program, was reflected in communications with the State Department opposing rescue efforts and referring repeatedly to, in the words of one memo, "the difficulties of disposing of any considerable number of Jews should they be rescued."

State Department policy converged with that of the Foreign Office, and appeals to Roosevelt continued to fall on deaf ears. When some leading figures in the Treasury Department, all non-Jews, learned of State’s policies of obstructing rescue, they were so appalled that they prepared for the Treasury Secretary a monograph entitled, "Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews," and urged his confronting the President with the report.

Roosevelt finally took some positive steps when faced with movement in Congress towards passage of a bi-partisan Rescue Resolution that would establish a rescue commission and support its operation in North Africa and neutral European nations. The Congressional measure was inspired by efforts of a group of Jews working outside the mainstream leadership, more aggressively publicizing Administration obstruction and actively seeking bi-partisan Congressional backing.

With Congressional action looming, Roosevelt, in early 1944, created the War Refugee Board (WRB) to pursue rescue measures. While the Administration essentially refused to fund the Board - it operated mainly with private funding - and impeded its work in other ways, the dedicated staffs of the Board’s offices succeeded in facilitating the rescue of some 200,000 Jews.

But many in the mainstream Jewish leadership opposed the more aggressive confronting of the Administration that led to creation of the Board. They did so, again, both out of fear of stimulating anti-Semitism and out of misplaced partisan loyalties.

A notable example of the latter occurred in June, 1944. The Republican National Convention, meeting that month, included a strong pro-Zionist plank in its platform for the upcoming election and criticized Roosevelt for not pressing Britain to open Mandate Palestine to Jewish refugees.

Rabbi Stephen Wise, the preeminent figure in the American Jewish leadership, had led mainstream efforts to promote rescue and had seen first-hand both the endless and pervasive obstructionism of the State Department and Roosevelt’s indifference and refusal to intervene. He could have used the Republican stance as an opportunity to press Roosevelt to match the Republican position and forge a bi-partisan policy of pushing Britain, then totally dependent on the United States, for a change in policy.

Instead, Wise wrote to Roosevelt condemning as "unjust" the "reference to you in the Palestine Resolution by the Republican National Convention" and assuring him American Jews would share his view. Even in the face of the annihilation of European Jews, Wise could not put the desperate need to focus on all possible avenues of rescue above his partisan allegiance to the President.

Today, the president of Iran at once insists the Holocaust never happened and promotes perpetration of another Holocaust through the destruction of Israel. That, despite Ahmadinejad's declarations and the policies of his government, some Jewish leaders, out of partisan considerations, still undermine efforts to confront in the strongest possible ways a regime promising a new genocide, is beyond shameful.