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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser