Thursday April 24, 2014
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24.04.2014
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Richard Baehr

The role of American Jewish leadership

A new article on Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky by Rick Richman provides important historical insight into a period when a dark curtain was closing on the Jews of Europe, in June 1940.

As Richman explains, Jabotinsky traveled to the United States then to deliver a series of speeches. Prominent American Jewish leaders at the time and for years earlier had seemed terrified of how non-Jews would react to Jabotinsky's passionate calls for the Jews to leave Europe, for recruiting a Jewish division to fight the Nazis, and for Britain to open the doors of Palestine to Jews fleeing Europe. In fact, the Jewish leaders seemed to be more concerned with the need to avoid rocking the boat in America than with how Europe's Jews would fare under Hitler. There was overwhelming concern about looking like a minority group pressing for war, and a great discomfort in criticizing the Roosevelt administration for its failure do more to protect Europe's Jews. Then as now, Jews were overwhelmingly liberal in their politics, strongly aligned with the Democratic Party, and in particular, in thrall to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, regarded as a great friend of American Jews.

Richman considers why Jewish leaders attempted to undermine Jabotinsky when he visited the U.S. to try to gain support for his initiatives: "The brief answer is that American Jewish leaders considered Jabotinsky 'right-wing,' while they were liberals allied with Roosevelt and his party; they considered him a 'militarist,' which they thought inconsistent with Jewish values; they considered him an 'extremist' in matters they thought needed quiet diplomacy, given America's neutrality; and they wanted to avoid having Jews perceived as an ethnic group pushing a pro-war agenda."

Someone might think, reading this today, that not much has changed in the way liberal Jews think about other Jews who fight too hard for Jewish causes or Israel, or who have that "right-wing" stigma.

American Jews were much more concentrated geographically in 1940 than today. Almost half the country's near 5 million Jews lived in the New York City metropolitan area. There were only five Jewish congressmen, all but one from New York, compared to 21 now. Today there are 11 Jewish senators, while in 1940 there were none. Jews also did not populate a third of the Supreme Court as they do today, nor did they fill a large number of ambassadorial posts (a payback to reward big campaign bundlers for U.S. President Barack Obama), or hold other prominent government positions on the federal, state and local levels. Today, all this political prominence is associated with a community that has slipped to about 2 percent of the nation's total population.

In 1940, Jews were almost 4% of the population in the U.S., double their current share, but the Jewish leadership seemed reluctant to press too hard on the case for action to protect or save Europe's Jews, where more than half of all Jews in the world then lived. Whatever one thinks of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and how much influence it actually has today with Obama as president, it did not exist in 1940, and cannot be blamed for failure in that era. AIPAC and other pro-Israel advocacy organizations were formed to assure that there were groups who would stand up for Jews and the Jewish state on a national level after the Holocaust, since Jews themselves perceived that they had little political power during the war years, other than perhaps in New York.

Of course, there was both much more open and casual anti-Semitism in America in 1940 than today, and there was no State of Israel.

Despite fantasies among some Roosevelt worshippers about his great achievements in ending the Depression, was still largely in one in 1940, and isolationism was a strongly held view in most of the country. Today, with Jews so thoroughly integrated in America's political, business and entertainment circles, Jews are in a comfort zone in America that not only did not exist, but could not have been imagined in 1940.

It is fair to consider whether all this success and assimilation into the American mainstream has enabled major Jewish organizations to make their case today for Jewish interests, and for defending Israel when the leadership of the country resides in hands distinctly less friendly to Israel than Roosevelt was perceived to be toward Jewish interests in 1940.

Of course, Roosevelt's wartime actions to save the Jews of Europe proved largely inconsequential and he seemed uninterested in getting involved in any rescue effort until near the end of the war and only after the mass murder of Europe's Jews had been underway for years, and he was finally goaded into action. Roosevelt's constant message to anyone who appealed to him to bomb the train lines to Auschwitz was that the best way to help Europe's Jews was to win the war as quickly as possible. Only in Hungary was there evidence of lives saved due to American intervention and even here, the shift in policy only occurred after direct lobbying of Roosevelt by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau in 1944.

Obama has always had strong Jewish support in his campaigns for political office -- both an overwhelming share of Jewish votes (78% in 2008, 69% in 2012), and significant campaign contributions as well. But the community's support had little to do with Obama's views on Israel. In fact, most Jews for whom Israel was a very important issue did not vote for Obama in 2012.

Jews are as liberal today as they were in the Roosevelt era. They remain a community apart, however, in that their increasing economic success has not resulted in any shift in political thinking, as it has with pretty much every other ethnic group.

Many major Jewish organizations have been reluctant to directly challenge Obama on issues relating to Israel, because Israel has less significance for many Jews than other political issues on which they are very closely aligned with the president and the Democratic Party.

Of course, this is not a situation that has only played out with Obama. Jewish federations routinely invite prominent Democrats to speak to their most important events, almost as if Republicans did not exist. Jews are loyal to Obama for his policies on marriage equality, abortion rights, immigration, and taxation and spending policy ("please, please tax me more, it is only fair"), and in almost no cases because of the president's perceived support for the Jewish state. Some liberal Jews are pro-Israel, but they have set a low bar for Obama to show his credentials in this area. Other liberal Jews are interested in Israel from an opposing perspective, and have formed groups such as J Street, whose sole purpose is to enable Obama to apply pressure on Israel with cover from the Jewish community.

Even Jewish organizations which are Israel-focused are aware of the liberal political orientation in the Jewish community, and at times seem anxious to avoid confrontation with the president, even when they are unhappy with his policies. On the other hand, when the president asks for support on foreign policy issues, most of the organizations fall into line. When the president came calling on AIPAC to fight for a congressional resolution to back a military strike against Syria over its chemical weapons use, AIPAC quickly signed up, and sent its top people to Capitol Hill, while Obama was making their very uphill effort meaningless by agreeing to a Russian proposal to address the issue.

In the recent weeks since the signing (or not-quite-signing) of the P5+1 deal with Iran in Geneva, a weak agreement that will do little to curtail or delay the Iranian nuclear program while releasing badly needed cash to the regime, it has seemed that the leadership in challenging the agreement, and pushing for additional sanctions, has come from members of Congress, rather than from the organizations one might expect to be leading the charge with Congress.

In 1940, Jewish organizations were afraid to be seen as exercising any political power, and were convinced they had very little of it anyway. Now the community's influence is greater, and the community is better organized, but with a very divided, highly partisan political climate, Jewish organizations do not want to be seen as going up against the president from the party most Jews support. Lobbying groups have always tried to keep Israel as a bipartisan issue in Congress, and in large part they have succeeded.

But that success has most of the time been on easy votes, not on tough votes when members from one party are asked to challenge the president of their party on a matter of great consequence. Will the major Jewish organizations try to soft-pedal any opposition to the administration on the current Iranian nuclear issue so as to avoid a direct confrontation? It has a long track record of that kind of behavior.

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