The rabbis of the Talmud blamed the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. on “groundless hatred” among the Jews. The enigmatic phrase presumably refers to political and religious differences that split the Jewish community at that time and set one faction against another. In the nearly two thousand years since then, the penchant for self-castigation has remained as constant among Jews as the divisions the rabbis alluded to.
Among American Jews, the latest example of groundless hatred born of divisiveness has been the exploitation of the Holocaust by some with old political scores to settle within the Jewish community. Charging that American Jews could have rescued the European Jews during the Holocaust, these accusers have created a new staple of propaganda which has already been seized upon by enemies of the Jews, especially on the Left. The present agitation has been sparked mainly by the so-called American Jewish Commission on the Holocaust, whose birth, death, and resurrection have been chronicled on the front pages of the New York Times. It has been sustained by the release of a self-styled documentary film, Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die?, which deals with the role of American Jews during World War II. Both the commission and the film have much in common besides subject matter.
The public life of the American Jewish Commission on the Holocaust began in August 1981, when Arthur J. Goldberg, former Justice of the Supreme Court and former U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, wrote to several dozen persons, including me, inviting them to join this body of which he had accepted the chairmanship. He did not say from whom he had received his appointment.
The commission, wrote Goldberg, was to consist of “outstanding American Jews”; once again he did not say by whom they were chosen, or by what criteria. The commission’s task was to “embark on a searching inquiry into the actions and attitudes of American Jews and others in our country during the Holocaust.” The purpose of the inquiry was “to learn and publicize the lessons to be learned from what occurred,” with the hope that the commission’s findings would “perhaps” help to insure that “such a Holocaust” would never happen again.
Goldberg advised the prospective members that the working papers for the commission would be prepared by a research team at the Jack P. Eisner Institute for Holocaust Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). The research team was to be headed by Professor S.M. Finger, who had been in the U.S. foreign service and had also once been Goldberg’s deputy at the UN. Finger, a political scientist, directs CUNY’s Ralph Bunche Institute; he has no connection with CUNY’s Institute for Holocaust Studies, or any record of research into any aspect of the Holocaust.
Goldberg’s letter arrived just as I was going abroad and I had no time to respond. Had I done so, I would have focused on the list of ten questions included with the invitation, concerning the “actions and attitudes of American Jews” to which the commission inquiry would address itself. Question No. 4 read: “Why were so many American Jews passive or relatively unconcerned about the plight of European Jews?” In other words, even though the commission was not yet constituted, it had already found American Jews guilty. By what authority, I would have asked, had Goldberg and Finger undertaken to sit in judgment on American Jews, and what competence did they or CUNY’s Graduate Center have to conduct such a pseudo-judicial proceeding?
Commonly a government creates a commission, authorizing it to inquire into a specific event or situation, with a view to some remedial action, usually in the form of legislation, or, in an investigation of wrongdoing, to determine responsibility for that wrongdoing. For example, in 1980 the United States Congress established the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to review the facts about how American government agencies, civilian and military, handled Japanese Americans during World War II and to recommend appropriate remedies. It consisted of nine members (Goldberg was one), a Special Counsel, and thirty-three staff members.
Another example is the Commission of Inquiry into the Events at the Refugee Camps in Beirut 1983, which the government of Israel established on September 28, 1983, to inquire into “the atrocity carried out by a unit of the Lebanese forces against the civilian population in the Shatilla and Sabra camps.” The three-man commission—the president of Israel’s Supreme Court, a justice of that court, and a major-general—had the full authority of the government behind it to gather information and conduct hearings.1
In terms of empowerment, authority, purpose, and personnel, these commissions contrast sharply with the American Jewish Commission on the Holocaust, which, despite its grandiose title, had no mandate from any responsible institution.
Upon my return home two months later, I found that even though I had not replied to the invitation I was listed as a commission member and was getting its mail. I wrote a note to Finger asking that my name be removed from his list. But the commission materials in my mail absorbed my attention like a sore, and the sore was aggravated by a memorandum prepared for the first meeting, September 23, 1981, stating to the members that “much of the background research has already been done, notably by scholars at the Jack P. Eisner Institute for Holocaust Studies and at other institutes in the U.S. and Israel.” This was surely a record for speedy research unsurpassed in the annals of historical scholarship. Then, four days after the meeting itself, a front-page story about the commission appeared in the New York Times (September 27, 1981), in which the reporter faithfully transmitted hints and innuendos about “potentially embarrassing” findings and referred darkly to “neglected opportunities” which American Jews had failed to seize, thereby dooming their European brothers.
On November 2, however, Finger sent out another communication, which indicated that something had gone wrong, though he did not say what. He did say that, at the suggestion of some commission members, an academic-review committee would be set up “to screen the work of the research staff.” What had happened?
Here we must revert to the prehistory of the commission, which I have had (without other corroboration) from Finger himself. The idea had originated with Jack Eisner, a Holocaust survivor who has prospered in the United States and who largely funds the institute at CUNY that bears his name. Eisner had proposed to underwrite an inquiry into the role of American Jews during the years of the Holocaust, and the president of CUNY’s Graduate Center asked Finger to develop this proposal. Finger turned the task over to an old friend, not associated with CUNY; in due course the friend’s proposal was presented to Eisner, who endorsed it enthusiastically and agreed to fund it. That is how the American Jewish Commission on the Holocaust came into existence.
Finger’s friend, who prepared the proposal and who was subsequently entrusted with the commission’s central and most sensitive task—the preparation of its report—was Samuel Merlin, himself a key actor in events on the American Jewish scene in the 1940’s. In those days Merlin was an ardent member of the militant Irgun (about which more below). Although he no longer has the same politics he did then, having apparently moved leftward on questions concerning Israel and the Arabs, he still retains undiminished a forty-year-old hostility to the mainstream Zionist movement and to American Jewish communal institutions.
That Merlin accepted the commission’s assignment was extraordinary. Usually a person who has been personally or institutionally involved in events under investigation is expected to disqualify himself as a judge. Yet here Merlin was not only judge, but had become the chief architect of the commission’s inquiry. Small wonder, then, that from the day the commission first met until its dissolution in August 1982, a year later, the attention of the members was occupied by the Merlin question.
Born in Kishenev in 1910, Samuel Merlin lived there until 1931, when he moved to Paris. There he studied modern history at the Sorbonne, though without receiving a degree. He joined the militant Revisionist wing of the Zionist movement led by Zev Jabotinsky and moved up fast, becoming secretary of the Revisionist World Executive in 1934. In 1935 he and the Executive moved to Warsaw.
In those years differences over goals, tactics, and strategies created ugly strife between the Revisionists and mainstream Zionists in Palestine and in Jewish communities abroad. A major issue of conflict centered on the military posture of the Palestinian Jewish settlement. The Haganah, an arm of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, whose objective was to protect Jews from Arab assault, was committed to a mainly defensive policy. A group within the Haganah advocating a more aggressive posture, including the use of terror in response to Arab terror, broke away and formed the Irgun Zevai Leumi (National Military Organization). Thenceforth, until Israel was established, the Haganah and the Irgun were bitter antagonists (though also sometimes joining under unified commands).
In mid-1938 Merlin became an Irgunist and an editor of the Irgun’s Yiddish newspaper. He managed to leave Warsaw just before the German invasion of Poland and early in 1940 arrived in New York, where he stayed through the war years. There, together with other comrades whom the war had stranded in New York, Merlin began anew to work for the Irgun cause.
Since the Irgun was a military organization, the group’s leadership fell to whoever held the highest military rank. In New York that was Hillel Kook, who operated under the assumed name of Peter Bergson so as to spare his family in Palestine (which in the previous generation had included the chief rabbi, Abraham Isaac Kook) embarrassment over his political activities. A few years younger than Merlin, he had migrated with his parents from Lithuania to Palestine. In 1930 he joined the Haganah and then left it for the Irgun. By 1937 he was a member of the Irgun’s high command.
A handful of young men, these Irgunists in New York were without a constituency, and in the conduct of their operations free of institutional constraint. (Jabotinsky, the charismatic Revisionist leader, had died in August 1940.) Their charm and the aura of glamor and mystery attached to their undertakings won them access to circles on Park Avenue and in the entertainment world.
In their first incarnation, 1941-42, the Irgunists emerged as the Committee for a Jewish Army (also known as the Committee for an Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews), which so dissembled its connections that to most people it appeared indistinguishable from the general Zionist campaign for a Palestinian Jewish brigade to fight in the war. In their next incarnation, which lasted only from late 1942 until early 1944, they changed their letterhead to the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, but kept the names of the celebrated supporters they had attracted to their first cause. Now they collided with the larger Zionist movement and also with all the American Jewish organizations, into whose work the Irgunists abruptly jumped—without, for the most part, identifying themselves for what they were. In their final incarnation in 1944, the Irgunists represented themselves as the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation. The Jewish Agency for Palestine branded this committee “an unscrupulous piece of political charlatanism.”
After the war, the Irgun cohort in New York continued to compete with the Haganah in efforts to raise funds for the defense of the Palestinian Jewish settlement. Finally, when the new state of Israel was proclaimed, the Irgun agreed to halt its independent arms purchases and to integrate its members into the army of the new state. But in June 1948, during a short cease-fire in the War of Independence, the Altalena, an Irgun ship in whose outfitting Bergson and Merlin had played a major role, arrived on Israel’s shores carrying immigrants, machine guns, rifles, and ammunition. (Merlin was said to have been on the ship.) In the battle that ensued the ship was sunk by government artillery. It was an ugly incident, but it established the authority of the state and the national army.
In 1948 Merlin and Bergson were among the founders of the Herut party, which (under the leadership of the Irgun’s commander Menachem Begin) merged the military organization of the Irgun and the political organization of the Revisionists. They were both elected to Israel’s first Knesset, but within a very few years, each broke with Begin. Bergson returned to New York in 1951, became a commodity broker and then an investment banker. He retired from business in 1968. As for Merlin, he returned to New York in 1956 and the following year established the Institute for Mediterranean Affairs, which he describes as an independent educational institution (and which, when I visited it last year, consisted of two rooms with a kitchen in a rundown Manhattan tenement). Merlin has been its executive director and Peter Bergson a trustee, vice-chairman of the board, and presumed underwriter. S.M. Finger has been its president since 1971. In its quarter-century existence, Merlin’s institute has had a meager record of accomplishment: a short-lived journal; one small book on the Palestine refugee problem (1958), another on Cyprus (1967), and two colloquia on the Middle East (1967 and 1973), the proceedings of the latter edited by Finger.
It was this institute which was being used as a research arm for the American Jewish Commission on the Holocaust. To compound the indiscretion of assigning Merlin to write the report, the commission had also hired as its principal researcher a young Israeli then studying for his doctorate at CUNY’s Graduate Center. He happened to be a disciple of Merlin. Like his mentor, the young man had already found American Jews guilty of failure to rescue the European Jews, and had even published a few articles to that effect. As for CUNY’s Institute for Holocaust Studies, at no point did it prepare any research for the commission.
When it became clear to the commission members that Merlin could not or would not produce a balanced report, the academic-review committee mentioned above was formed to screen the document Merlin was to prepare. The review committee consisted of some four or five professors, nearly all of whom had written on one or another aspect of the Holocaust, though only one—a non-Jew—had ever dealt with the role of American Jews. (I was invited to join the academic review committee, but declined.)
The review committee studied Merlin’s first draft and at a meeting in March 1982, with Merlin present, picked it apart. Some changes were consequently made. On May 17, 1982, the edited version, a 76-page typescript entitled “Introduction and (Preliminary) Overview,” was sent out to the commission members. The report’s preface declared that the draft had been prepared by a “Research Group,” not further identified but consisting presumably of Finger, Merlin, and the Israeli graduate student (who in the meantime had withdrawn from CUNY’s doctoral program and whose contract with the commission had been terminated).
Despite the editing, the report was in essence a reiteration of the old Irgun attacks on the main-stream Zionist movement and American Jewish organizations, and an effort to insure the Irgun’s place in history as the sole defender of the Jewish people in its darkest hour. The thesis, in brief, was that the European Jews could have been saved, had not the “Jewish establishment” interfered with the efforts of the Irgunists to do so. Thus on page 25, to take one illustration, the report stated that “the leadership of major Jewish organizations . . . knew enough to act or rather counteract, had there been enough compassion and a will.” (By “counteract” Merlin perhaps meant that Jewish organizations could have outfitted ships, as he and Bergson did in 1948, and sent them out against the armed forces of the Third Reich.) The report contained no new documents, no new data, no analyses, no historical evaluation of evidence.
On June 2, 1982, the commission met to consider Merlin’s typescript. It was reportedly a stormy meeting, with members vehemently protesting the undocumented charges against the Jewish community. In the wake of the uproar, during which he complained he was insulted, Merlin resigned.
As a consequence, Eisner (who, it turned out, was a strong Merlin partisan) stopped the flow of money. On August 19, 1982, using the letterhead of CUNY’s Ralph Bunche Institute, Goldberg informed the commission members that since the necessary funds had not been remitted, he had no alternative but to terminate the commission’s work.
There seemed to have been few mourners after the commission’s demise. But Merlin was not yet done. Months later, he leaked the story of the commission’s dissolution to a New York Times reporter, and it was his version of the events in question that appeared in yet another front-page story in the Times (January 4, 1983), complete with spicy accusations against the American Jewish leadership taken from Merlin’s original text.
Eisner, for his part, denied that his failure to provide the funds was what brought on the commission’s dissolution. He charged that “the vestiges of the old establishment were fighting to protect its name” and that Goldberg had given in to the “pressure” of “old-timers of established groups,” who “were determined to hold back the truth.” With the help of the Times, Eisner and Merlin thus managed to salvage something from the wreckage of the commission. If they could not convict the Jewish organizations by commission, at least they had succeeded in broadcasting their accusations to a large audience.
Goldberg rose to the challenge. To demonstrate his independence, he announced that he would resuscitate the commission and personally provide or raise the funds necessary for its operations. Finger was quoted as saying that Goldberg resented “any implication that he gave way to anybody’s pressure.” On January 20, 1983, the Times accorded the same front-page treatment which it had lavished upon Merlin’s account of the commission’s demise to the story of its resurrection.
Only two voices, neither of them reported in the Times, spoke to the real issue. One was that of Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief of the New Republic and a member of the commission, who said that the selection of Merlin to write the report was “appalling,” and that Merlin, as someone with “a lifelong grudge against the Zionist leadership,” was using the commission “to wreak vengeance on the established Jewish leadership.” The other voice was that of Gerhart Riegner of the World Jewish Congress in Switzerland. Riegner was the man who, in August 1942, had provided the British Foreign Office and the United States Department of State with the information that Hitler planned the total destruction of European Jews, and who was a central mover in the efforts of the American and world Jewish organizations to succor the European Jews. He branded Merlin’s charges “absurd.” In an interview in the Washington Post (February 5, 1983), Riegner asserted that the commission was “ideologically fueled by people determined to rewrite history.”
On February 1, again on the letterhead of CUNY’s Ralph Bunche Institute, Finger sent the commission members a lengthy recapitulation of events since the previous June. He also informed them that, with his assistance, Goldberg had prepared a draft report to be considered at a meeting on February 9. Yet on that very morning commission members, some of whom had not yet received their copies of this draft, were astonished to read in the New York Times a story about the report and extensive citations from it. Merlin, though he too had not seen the document, volunteered an opinion: he “knew,” he told the Times reporter, that its purpose was to “whitewash the responsibility and guilt of the Jewish leadership of that time.”
Finger’s report was, in fact, little more than a sanitized version of Merlin’s draft. Most of the accusations against American Jews had been excised, but the tendentiousness remained. Some material was added, consisting mostly of photocopied pages from books published long before. The rush for publicity was never explained.
The CUNY Graduate Center has now severed its tenuous connection with the commission. Finger was informed that his own association with it thenceforth was to be only in a personal capacity. As for the commission itself, now that it has been cut off from its original source, it is like the debris of a misguided missile, adrift in space, its mission aborted, beyond recall.
Though Merlin lost the battle with the commission, he and Peter Bergson are the stars of the ninety-minute “documentary” film entitled Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die?, produced and directed by Laurence Jarvik, a former graduate student in philosophy at Berkeley, now in his mid-twenties. Purporting to be “the story of what happened in the United States during the extermination of the Jews in Europe,” the film is a pastiche of news clips and interviews. Interviewed are thirteen persons who participated in events of that time and an unidentified group of Jewish survivors now living in the United States. The subject matter of the film is divided into three main parts: a critique of America’s restrictive immigration policy before the outbreak of the war; an indictment of the Roosevelt administration, the Zionist movement, and the American Jewish organizations for their alleged indifference to the fate of the European Jews and their reluctance to rescue them; and an account of the origin and activities of the War Refugee Board.
Bergson and Merlin are identified in the film with the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, but the viewer is never told exactly what that committee was. Nor is there a clue that Bergson and Merlin have been adversaries of the organized Jewish community for forty years.
As spokesmen for the “Jewish establishment,” Jarvik presents Nahum Goldmann and Gerhart Riegner. They are not given nearly as much time as is allotted to Bergson and Merlin, and it is curious, to say the least, that “the story of what happened in the United States” with regard to the Jewish organizations should be told by non-Americans. Goldmann and Riegner, both with the World Jewish Congress, were refugees from Germany who in the 1930’s moved to Switzerland. Goldmann came to the United States shortly after the outbreak of the war to establish an office of the Jewish Agency for Palestine in Washington. Riegner was never in the United States in those days.
There is no one at all in the film who speaks out of his own direct experience about the work of the American Jewish organizations during the war. Failing that, there is no one even to read the heartrending letters that Rabbi Stephen Wise, the president of both the American and the World Jewish Congress, wrote to Roosevelt, Frankfurter, and other people in high places. To be sure, Jarvik presents former Congressman Emanuel Celler, who in his day vigorously fought for a more liberal immigation policy and for programs to rescue European Jews. Celler could have said a great deal about the persistent efforts which the American Jewish organizations made all through the 1930’s to get Congress to enact special or emergency legislation to admit Jewish refugees, so as to bypass the restrictions of the quota system. But nothing of this sort appears in the film.
Jarvik claims to have spent three years in research and in interviewing. Yet not only did he fail to come up with any authentic participant-witness to speak for American Jews, he failed utterly to offer a trustworthy account of the subject he undertook to document. There is nothing in this film of the public activities in which the American Jewish organizations engaged during the war years—nothing of the mass meetings (with one distorted exception), nothing of the demonstrations, fast days, radio programs, nothing of the formal appeals to the United States government, to other governments, to international organizations, to the Red Cross. There is nothing of the masses of information about the fate of the European Jews with which Jewish organizations deluged America’s newspapers and news agencies, its periodicals and radio stations, and which was distributed to private agencies across the country. Nothing of the work done among Catholic and Protestant church leaders, in the labor movement, and among America’s ethnic and racial groups to rally public opinion against the Third Reich and its treatment of the Jews long before America’s entry into the war. Nothing of the efforts to cultivate allies in educational institutions and civic agencies to come to the aid of the Jews.
Nor does Jarvik even give his viewers any hint of the private, off-the-record activities of American Jewish organizations and their leaders. His narrative tells nothing of the countless intercessions with dozens and dozens of government officials in the White House entourage, in the State Department, in Treasury, in Commerce. Nothing of the meetings with Congressmen and Senators. Nothing of the money and supplies sent via direct and indirect channels to the beleaguered Jews of Europe. Nothing of the endless stream of letters, memoranda, documents which American Jewish organizations produced. Nothing of the meetings at which Jewish leaders sat day and night.
Jarvik has accused the Jewish organizations of refusing to give him access to their files. But at the American Jewish Congress, a staff member spent several days briefing him. The library of the American Jewish Committee, which keeps records of its visitors and requests for information, has none to indicate that he ever wrote, called, or came. Nor did he visit the National Archives in Washington or the Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, both indispensable sources for documenting the activities of the Jewish organizations.
When one sees the film, one understands why: Jarvik had the answers before he even knew what questions to ask. In the film’s leading roles, Bergson and Merlin expatiate on the perfidy of their fellow Jews, while puffing themselves. Thus the one reference in the film to a mass meeting—which took place at Madison Square Garden in March 1943 under the sponsorship of all the Jewish organizations—is alleged by Merlin to have come about only under pressure from the Irgun. There is no one in the film to challenge this falsehood.
Two undertakings indisputably organized by the Irgun are, however, shown in the film. One is the Ben Hecht pageant, We Will Never Die, put on in 1943; the other is the “pilgrimage” of 500 Orthodox rabbis to Washington later in the same year. The rabbis’ march was an impressively stage-managed event. These venerable gentlemen were to present President Roosevelt with a petition containing a seven-point plan to rescue the European Jews. The plan had originated at a rally of the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe in July; it was an Irgunist counterpart of an earlier and more substantial rescue program which the American Jewish organizations in concert had worked out early in 1943 and which they had submitted to top American and British officials in advance of the Bermuda Conference on refugees in April 1943. (Not the slightest inkling of that feverish activity appears in the film.) But the rabbis had no appointment with Roosevelt, because the White House staff had learned that the group behind the petition was “not representative of the most thoughtful elements in Jewry.” And in truth, this was not an ungenerous way of describing them.
In one of the film’s sequences, Peter Bergson tells how he first learned about the mass murder of the Jews. “It changed my life,” he says. The story goes like this: in November 1942, Bergson read in the Washington Post of Hitler’s plan to murder all the European Jews (this was the Riegner report, whose release the State Department had finally permitted). In shock and sorrow, Bergson canceled his appointments and went to the State Department to see if the news were really true. When it was confirmed, he understood that the only thing to do was to start a rescue operation. That is when he decided to revamp the Committee for a Jewish Army into an Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe.
Bergson told me the same story two years ago when I interviewed him in connection with an article I was preparing on American Jews and the Holocaust. I believed then, and I still believe, that he and Merlin both cared about the Jews and were motivated to act by the terrible plight of their people, even if they could not, and still do not, believe that Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion cared at least as much as they did. Yet a big question remains.
After June 1942, when the first reports gave a figure of 700,000 European Jews murdered, the estimates of the mass Nazi killings kept skyrocketing. In July, the American Jewish organizations called a mass meeting in New York’s Madison Square Garden. President Roosevelt sent a message declaring that the American people would “hold the perpetrators of these crimes to strict accountability in a day of reckoning which will surely come.” Across the country—more meetings, memorial services, fast days. One might speak of a frenzy of activity despite the shock of the news.
Every Anglo-Jewish journal and Yiddish newspaper—there were three Yiddish dailies then—carried columns of news about the murder of the European Jews. Even the New York Times, which did not publish much on this subject, carried reports. Other New York papers were better. How is it that Bergson did not realize the extent of the Jewish catastrophe until November 1942, or had not heard the clamor raised by the Jewish organizations? Where was he?
What the Irgunists were doing in those six months between June and November 1942 I do not know. But I think it is possible that they had decided to abort the Committee for a Jewish Army, whose public-relations work since Pearl Harbor, when the United States entered the war, must have collapsed anyway. Even if the committee had been just a front for gun-running across continents and oceans, the war would have brought that activity to a standstill as well. To fill the vacuum left by the Committee for a Jewish Army, then, they may have decided to launch an operation to rescue the European Jews from the Third Reich.
On screen, Bergson indulges himself in a tirade against American Jews and their leaders. If they had been less cowardly and self-centered, he thunders, it would not have been difficult in those early days for them to convince the American government to make the rescue of the European Jews a primary goal of the war. This absurd claim, delivered histrionically, almost drowns out the more sober assessment of John Pehle, an official in the Treasury Department under Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and later head of the War Refugee Board, who further on in the film tries to explain that winning the war and defeating the Axis were Roosevelt’s topmost priority.
Let us recall just a few facts about the progress of the war in November 1942, at the time Peter Bergson had his great revelation. About six million American men and women were then in the U.S. Army, nearly four million in the Navy, and over a half-million in the Marines. At home, defense plants were working three shifts to produce the weaponry which the Americans, the British, the Russians, and the Chinese desperately needed. Everywhere the war was going badly. In the Pacific the United States had just launched its offensive against the Japanese, and had finally succeeded in retaking the Solomon Islands, the westernmost outpost of the Japanese advance. (Earlier that year, after the Japanese had scored a series of striking victories in the Pacific, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson had persuaded Roosevelt to sign the executive order which removed Japanese Americans to the notorious relocation centers.) On the European front, the situation was touch-and-go. The Americans had just landed in North Africa to join the British against Rommel’s army. The Germans had meanwhile seized Vichy France, to protect their southern flank against a possible Allied invasion. In the East, Leningrad was still under siege. At Stalingrad the slaughter was estimated in the hundreds of thousands.
Against this background of a desperate global war, Bergson fatuously insists that if American Jews had only had the will, they could have convinced the American public and Roosevelt to make this into what would no doubt have been called a “Jewish war.”
“It’s garbage,” Bergson shouts, “to say that Jews couldn’t do anything because of anti-Semitism.” As it happens, anti-Semitism did not intimidate the Jewish organizations into silence; they did speak out. But when historians cite the pervasive presence of anti-Semitism during the war, they mean to underscore the relative powerlessness of American Jews, only 3 percent of the American people. Anti-Semites may believe that the Jews rule the world, but the fact is that American Jews were in no position to change national priorities in the war even if they had wanted to. And as a group, Jews had the greatest stake in winning the war as fast as possible. For that was the surest way to save the European Jews.
The War Refugee Board occupies a substantial segment in Jarvik’s film, and here too we get more propaganda than truth. In addition to John Pehle, we see Josiah DuBois, Jr., who had also worked under Morgenthau in Treasury and who later became the board’s general counsel; Ross McClelland, who represented the board in Switzerland; and Ira Hirschmann, who carried out special tasks for it. DuBois summons up old passions as he tells how the State Department suppressed the information that it received from its legation in Switzerland about the murder of the European Jews, and how it sabotaged the efforts by Treasury—which was responding to the pressure of the Jewish organizations—to send funds abroad to aid the suffering Jews. This is a story that has been told before. In the article I published last year on American Jews and the Holocaust (New York Times Magazine, April 18, 1982), I was able to add some details not previously known.
When Treasury officials finally obtained incontrovertible evidence of State’s obstructionism, they presented Morgenthau with an eighteen-page memorandum entitled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews” (January 13, 1944). Morgenthau himself had been profoundly affected by the news of the murder of the European Jews and had persistently prodded the State Department to act more expeditiously. He had even directly accused State’s chief obstructionist, Breckinridge Long, of anti-Semitism. Now Morgenthau condensed his staff’s report, cooled down its language, retitled it “Personal Report to the President,” and took it to Roosevelt on January 16. Morgenthau also had with him a draft for a presidential executive order providing for the creation of a War Refugee Board. Roosevelt did not read the report, but listened while Morgenthau and his staff summarized it. He looked at the executive order, suggested one change, and told Morgenthau to go ahead with it. On January 22, 1944, the White House announced that the War Refugee Board had been established.
Two months earlier, the Irgunists had used their contacts in Congress to introduce a resolution urging the President to create a “commission of diplomatic, economic, and military experts to formulate and effectuate a plan of immediate action designed to save the surviving Jewish people of Europe.” Exploiting the coincidence in timing, the Irgunists now falsely claimed credit for the creation of the War Refugee Board. Jarvik in the film follows suit, by splicing his interviews to create the impression that the Irgunists deserve the credit.
I recently raised this issue with DuBois. He believes (as I do) that the Irgunists succeeded in raising the level of public awareness about the terrible fate of the European Jews. But DuBois was nevertheless quick to say that the sequence of events within Treasury that led to the War Refugee Board was unrelated to the Irgun’s public-relations activities. The pressure of conscience within Treasury and the need to respond to the desperate entreaties of the American Jewish organizations were what led to the creation of the War Refugee Board.
Near the film’s end, Pehle says that the accomplishments of the board, however important, were late and little. No one will dispute that. Surely more Jews might have been rescued—though none who were in Hitler’s vise. Without doubt, the restrictive immigration policies of the United States doomed tens of thousands of Jews who might have found sanctuary in this country before the outbreak of the war. The mean-spiritedness of American consular officials in carrying out their instructions barred other thousands of Jewish refugees stranded in inhospitable places just barely beyond Hitler’s reach. Had the American people been more generous, more tolerant, less xenophobic, more Jews could have been saved.
But is the United States to be reviled and repudiated on this account? Better to ponder where American Jews would be today had not America—and Britain too—held back the Nazi tide. Some say that the United States fought “only” to preserve Western civilization. Had it not so fought, and won, no Jews at all would have been left in the world, and no civilization either.
As for American Jews, they too could certainly have done more, tried harder, shouted more loudly. But I am not persuaded that in the end they would have accomplished much more than they did. At one point in the film, Bergson rages: “What would have happened if [American Jews] had stormed the White House?” One knows what would have happened. They would have been seized, removed bodily, booked, jailed, and condemned. Any interference with the country’s prosecution of the war or with war production—strikes, race riots, as in Detroit in June 1943—brought out the army. When necessary, the army seized plants and restored order in the streets. Imagine how Americans would have reacted to an attempt to “storm” the White House. And for what? To hold the President hostage for the European Jews?
One of the supreme ironies in this whole episode has to do with the identity of those making capital out of the accusations of indifference and betrayal which the Irgunists, the American Jewish Commission on the Holocaust, and Laurence Jarvik have entered against the “Jewish establishment.” For when one searches the record of the past for those who were truly indifferent to the fate of the European Jews, one discovers in many instances the forebears of those who today find retroactive fault with the wartime Jewish record or are detractors of the contemporary American Jewish community for its “uncritical” support of Israel.
Consider the case of the New York Times, which has. solicitously recorded the pulse rate of the commission, spotlighted Merlin, and treated the Jarvik film as a major cultural event. The Times was not very attentive to the fate of the European Jews during World War II. When, for instance, the Polish government-in-exile and five other governments-in-exile submitted a memorandum on the mass murder of the Jews to the Big Three Allied powers and to the Pope, the Times ran the story (July 2, 1942) in a single column on an inside page. The continuing stream of terrible news about the European Jews was similarly treated.
The scanting coverage may be fairly attributed to the policies and politics of Arthur Hays Sulzberger, then the Times‘s publisher. Sulzberger’s major Jewish passion was anti-Zionism. He was an ardent supporter of the American Council for Judaism, a minuscule dissident group which had been formed at the end of 1942 by Jews who felt their status as Americans threatened by the rising demand for a Jewish state in Palestine. The Council’s president, Lessing Rosenwald, had been a member of America First, the isolationist organization that harbored anti-Semites like Charles Lindbergh. That was just one measure of the distance that lay between the American Council for Judaism and most American Jews.
Sulzberger was not averse to using six columns of the Times, on November 6, 1942, to publish a talk he delivered to a Reform congregation in Baltimore, in which he condemned the “professional agitators” for a Jewish state. In August 1943, when the American Jewish Conference met in New York to consider the problem of Palestine and other questions on the Jewish postwar agenda, the Times took the occasion to publish a story about the American Council for Judaism and its anti-Zionist principles. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin, then serving in Washington as an information officer with the British embassy, noted the Times attack on the conference in a dispatch of August 28, 1943: “There seems no doubt that Sulzberger, so far as lies in his timorous nature, has generally decided to expose what he regards as a dangerous chauvinist movement.”2
But much worse than the Times‘s deficiencies in those days was the failure of the Left in the United States. Hardly any group or party along the Marxist spectrum—from the Socialists of the Second International to the Stalinists of the Third International and the Trotskyites of the Fourth International to the myriads of sectarian splinters—ever gave a passing thought to the fate of the European Jews. As an explanation for the “tardiness” with which he and other leftists responded to the Holocaust, Irving Howe in his recent memoir A Margin of Hope writes that he and his friends “continued to think more or less in Marxist categories.” Those categories harbored no rubric for Jews, even as the particular victims of Nazi racism, another concept absent from Marxist thinking.
The Socialists (including their leader, Norman Thomas, who was also a member of America First) and the Trotskyites opposed American entry into the war. In the July-August 1941 issue of Partisan Review, which was then loosely connected with Trotskyism, two of the editors argued that “all support of whatever kind must be withheld from Churchill and Roosevelt” on the ground that any such support “clears the road for fascism from within.” Then, after Partisan Review had changed its position and decided to support the war, no one on its editorial board, not even the Jews, and with one exception no one among its contributors ever mentioned the European Jews, even if only to illustrate the depth of Nazi/Fascist barbarism. George Orwell alone—whom no one could ever accuse of philo-Semitism—wrote in a “Letter from London” (July-August 1943):
People dislike the Jews so much that they do not want to remember their sufferings, and when you mention the horrors that are happening in Germany or Poland, the answer is always “Oh yes, of course that’s dreadful, but—”—and out comes the familiar list of grievances. Not all of the intelligentsia are immune from this kind of thing. Here the get-out is usually that the refugees are all “petty bourgeois”; and so the abuse of the Jews can proceed under a respectable disguise.
As for the American Communists, they zigged and zagged in accordance with Soviet foreign policy. During the life of the friendship pact between Nazi Germany and Communist Russia (August 23, 1939-June 22, 1941), American Communists opposed U.S. entry into the war. Their slogan was: “The Yanks Are Not Coming.” After the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, the line abruptly changed. Nothing must be permitted to impede the prosecution of the war, not even strikes by defense workers for higher wages. A new Communist slogan was adopted to fit the new line: “Open Up the Second Front Now.” Millions for defense of the Soviet Union, but nothing for rescue of the European Jews.
Today the Left, heartland of anti-Zionism, bays loudly against the “Jewish establishment” for having “betrayed” the European Jews during the Holocaust. It appropriates the cruel and ill-founded charges of collaboration which Hannah Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem, leveled against the Jewish leadership in the Nazi-controlled ghettos in Eastern Europe, and applies them to the Jewish leadership of the United States. In so doing it finds itself, in one more instance of the bizarre political cross-breeding we witness nowadays, in a retrospective alliance with the Irgun whose commander was none other than Menachem Begin.
In its day the Irgun stood on the Right in Jewish political life—in Eastern Europe as in Palestine. Like its ideological progenitor, the Revisionist party, it defended bourgeois capitalism and was the declared enemy of the socialists within the Zionist movement. Yet Irgun veterans like Bergson and Merlin, having cut their ties with Begin and the Herut party, are welcomed by the Left which regards Begin as its primal foe.
Lenni Brenner is a good illustration of this hybrid. A self-styled anti-Zionist Jew of the Left, Brenner is the author of Zionism in the Age of the Dictators,3 a pseudo-scholarly book determined to prove that the UN was right: “zionism [sic] is racism.” In fact Brenner echoes the Soviet-Arab line about “Zionist collusion with the Fascists and the Nazis.” In his preface Brenner asserts that “the Palestinian people are deeply appreciative of the firm support given them by progressive Jews.” Among the six he cites are Elmer Berger, longtime executive of the American Council for Judaism, and Felicia Langer, an Israeli Communist lawyer who has represented PLO terrorists. In his text, Brenner has good words for two other Jews—Peter Bergson and Samuel Merlin—and says of them and the Irgun that they “did more than all other Zionists to help the Jews in occupied Europe.” (He does not say what it is they did.)
All the characters in this sad and politically grotesque tale were gathered in reunion, as it were, in a column by Alexander Cockburn in the Village Voice (March I, 1983). In that column, Cockburn, who has made a reputation as a particularly virulent opponent of Israel, the Jewish community, and Western values altogether, interviewed Laurence Jarvik, quoted Peter Bergson, reviewed Lenni Brenner’s book, and condemned Israel and the American Jewish organizations. Jarvik told Cockburn: “The Holocaust is used to browbeat the Christians and keep them from criticizing anything that Jewish organizations do, or anything that Israel does.” Here is a textbook example of projection if ever there was one. For it is Jarvik and his companions on the Left who have turned the Holocaust into a stick with which to beat the Jewish community for its “sin” of supporting Israel.
The murder of the European Jews was the greatest Jewish disaster of our time, perhaps the greatest in all Jewish history. Unlike other disasters that have afflicted the Jews, this one has taken on a particularly ugly afterlife. It is not enough that one-third of the Jewish people were murdered, and that Ashkenazi civilization was destroyed. The Holocaust’s bitter history is now being transformed into a vehicle of anti-Semitism. The anti-Semites of the Right, as I have had prior occasion to point out in these pages,4 deny that there ever was a Holocaust. The anti-Semites of the Left blame it on the Jews.
1 The official findings are available in English translation, with an introduction by Abba Eban and supplementary materials, in The Beirut Massacre: The Complete Kahan Commission Report (Karz-Cohl, 136 pp., $14.95).
2 Washington Dispatches 1941-1945: Weekly Political Reports from the British Embassy, edited by H.G. Nicholas (University of Chicago Press, 1981), p. 240.
3 London: Croom Helm; Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill; $16.95 hardcover, $8.95 paper.
4 “Lies About the Holocaust,” December 1980.