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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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue