FDR and the Jews by Richard Breitman and Allan J Lichtman: This world, the next world and the New Deal

During the late 1930s, American Jews quipped that there were, in ascending order of perfection, “Dos velt, jenner velt und Roosevelt” – this world, the next world and the New Deal. To Jewish immigrants and their children, President Roosevelt offered oppor

FDR and the Jews
Richard Breitman and Allan J Lichtman
Harvard University Press, 464pp, £22.95

During the late 1930s, American Jews quipped that there were, in ascending order of perfection, “Dos velt, jenner velt und Roosevelt” – this world, the next world and the New Deal. To Jewish immigrants and their children, President Roosevelt offered opportunities for modest prosperity and unprecedented social mobility. Although born a Protestant patrician, he was known to have Jewish acquaintances and had fought electoral battles alongside Catholics and Jews. He appointed a Jewish treasury secretary in the shape of Henry Morgenthau Jr, recruited bright, young Jews to run new government agencies and nominated Felix Frankfurter to the Supreme Court.

Yet, at the first international Zionist congress after the war, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver denounced Roosevelt for betraying the Jewish people. Silver was, admittedly, pro- Republican and nurtured a feud with Rabbi Stephen Wise, a Roosevelt loyalist he deposed from the leadership of the Zionist Organisation of America. Even so, it was a stunning turnabout of the reputation of a man whom one Jewish leader had dubbed “the modern Moses”.

The critique sharpened in the 1960s with the advent of ethnically assertive Jews who despised what they perceived as their parents’ timid conduct. These self-styled “New Jews” obsessed over FDR’s record on the immigration of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and wartime rescue schemes. Seeking answers, Jewish and non-Jewish historians locked horns over the same limited body of evidence, much of it ambiguous. Roosevelt committed little to paper and tended to say whatever a particular audience wanted to hear, while subtly avoiding any firm commitments.

In 1987, Richard Breitman and Alan Kraut contributed to the controversy with Ame - rican Refugee Policy and European Jewry 1933-45, a singularly balanced explanation of why it had been so hard for Jews to enter the United States. Now Breitman, this time with Allan J Lichtman, has applied the same forensic skills and ruthless objectivity to Roosevelt’s specific contribution.

Breitman and Lichtman identify four phases of Roosevelt’s relationship to Jewish issues. During his first term, 1932-36, his main concern was passing the legislation necessary to secure economic recovery. He refused to condemn Nazism when Hitler came to power and did little to relax the strict immigration controls he had inherited from his predecessors. At a time of mass unemployment and rising anti-Semitism, he preferred not to use up political capital fighting Jewish battles, even if he abhorred National Socialism and was distressed by the fate of Germany’s Jews.

After his triumphant re-election, he felt more confident. The “second Roosevelt” wrestled with racist officials in the state department and denounced anti-Semitism. He backed efforts to relax visa controls, with the result that 83,000 German Jews reached the US between 1937 and 1940, compared to 18,000 between 1933 and 1937. After the German annexation of Austria, he defied the state department by triggering a conference on the refugee crisis and was the only head of state to recall his nation’s ambassador from Germany after the pogrom of November 1938.

Roosevelt promoted the search for places where Jewish refugees could settle and leaned on Latin American countries to be more open. He delighted American Zionists by expressing regret when Britain reneged on the promises made to the Jewish people in the Balfour Declaration. Then again, it was a lot easier for him to demand that Britain allow increased Jewish immigration to Pal - estine than it was to challenge his restrictionist Congress.

However, once Europe descended into war, Roosevelt’s priorities changed. He was convinced that sooner or later the US and Germany would slug it out but his determination to arm the democracies and edge America into a belligerent role meant that he could not gift a single advantage to the powerful isolationist lobby. He declined to ameliorate the immigration rules and remained silent about Nazi atrocities against the Jews.

After the US entered the war, Roosevelt believed that only victory would save them. Since Nazi propaganda claimed that he was fighting a Jewish war, he studiously avoided any reference to Jewish persecution. He left sceptical officials to field the burgeoning evidence that the Jews were facing physical extermination and held just one meeting with Jewish representatives devoted to the discussion of Jewish suffering and rescue measures. Breitman and Lichtman comment that: “This cautious wartime Roosevelt was politically and emotionally stingy when it came to the plight of the Jews.” Finally, Morgenthau took on the state department and presented “the Chief” with a plan for what became the War Refugee Board, the body credited with saving between 125,000 and 200,000 Jews.

Breitman and Lichtman conclude that FDR was “neither a hero of the Jews nor a bystander”. On the basis of meticulous research, using many fresh sources, they establish his good intentions beyond any doubt. But by locating his words and deeds in their precise context, they elucidate what was feasible and distinguish when his conduct stemmed from prudence, cowardice or indifference. They do equal justice to the American Jewish leadership with whom he interacted. For good measure, they end by situating FDR in the spectrum of US presidents who have confronted genocide. None has ever placed humanitarian intervention above political advantage or the national interest.

"Roosevelt promoted the search for places where Jewish refugees could settle and leaned on Latin American countries to be more open." Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 03 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Christians

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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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