Ed Koch Commentary: FDR
March 21, 2011
The War Against the Jews Goes On
The latest Palestinian violence against Israelis, and the continuing abandonment of Israel by most of the international community, inevitably bring to mind the abandonment of the Jews during the Holocaust. Just this past week, a document emerged which raises disturbing new questions about President Franklin Roosevelt’s response to the Nazi mass murder of Europe’s Jews.
The document was brought to my attention by Dr. Rafael Medoff, a Holocaust scholar and director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, DC. Several years ago, Dr. Medoff collaborated with me on my book “The Koch Papers: My Fight Against Anti-Semitism.” It was based on my writings and speeches about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, during the course of my nine years in Congress and twelve as mayor of New York City.
The document which Dr. Medoff sent me last week, concerning FDR and the Holocaust, was frankly shocking. It had to do with the Allies’ occupation of North Africa, which they liberated from the Nazis in November 1942. At the time, President Roosevelt publicly pledged the Allies would do away with the anti-Jewish laws that had been in force in the region. But when FDR met in Casablanca with local government leaders in January 1943, he took a very different line. The transcript of those discussions, which Dr. Medoff cites, reveals what FDR said about the status of the 330,000 Jews living in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia: “The number of Jews engaged in the practice of the professions (law, medicine, etc) should be definitely limited to the percentage that the Jewish population in North Africa bears to the whole of the North African population...The President stated that his plan would further eliminate the specific and understandable complaints which the Germans bore toward the Jews in Germany, namely, that while they represented a small part of the population, over fifty percent of the lawyers, doctors, school teachers, college professors, etc., in Germany, were Jews.”
Hard to believe a president would say such a thing? Maybe, but the source is unimpeachable: the transcript appears in Foreign Relations of the United States, a multivolume series of historical documents published by the U.S. government itself. The Casablanca volume was published in 1968, but did not attract much notice at the time. Dr. Medoff has done a public service by bringing it to our attention again.
Fortunately, U.S. policy in occupied North Africa in the end did not follow FDR’s line. When it became clear that the administration was stalling on getting rid of the old anti-Jewish laws, American Jewish leaders loudly protested. (If only they had been so vocal throughout the Holocaust years!) One of the most memorable critiques came from Benzion Netanyahu --father of Israel’s current prime minister-- who in those days headed up the American wing of the Revisionist Zionist movement: “The spirit of the Swastika hovers over the Stars and Stripes,” he wrote. The protests eventually forced the White House to back down. North African Jews were gradually released from forced-labor camps and the anti-Jewish quotas and other laws were rescinded.
The American Jewish community reveres the memory of FDR. He will always be remembered and rightly so for leading us through the Great Depression and is responsible for this country not ending up in the column of fascist nations, as did Germany and Italy.
We had 25 percent unemployment in a nation of 132 million. We had Father Coughlin and Charles Lindbergh beating the drums of fascism and support of Adolf Hitler and his ideas, particularly those blaming the Jews of the world for the ills of the world. We had the German-American Bund led by Fritz Kuhn in Yorkville with signs stating “No Jews Allowed.” I saw such signs as a small boy on the beaches of Coney Island.
And, of course, FDR led us to victory in World War II. So the feelings of support for him held by much of the country’s Jewish citizens was highest then and still among the highest for his memory. To this day, Jews overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party. The Jewish community gave President Barack Obama 78 percent of its vote in the presidential election in 2008.
I appreciate FDR’s contributions to the survival of our country. At the same time, I have never forgiven him for his refusal to grant haven to the 937 Jewish passengers on the SS St. Louis, who after fleeing Nazi Germany had been turned away from Cuba and hovered off the coast of Florida. The passengers were returned to Europe, and many were ultimately murdered in the Nazi concentration camps before World War II ended. I have said that I believe he is not in heaven, but in purgatory, being punished for his abandonment of the Jews. The concept of purgatory is Catholic. I am a secular Jew, but I am a believer in God and the hereafter, and I like this Catholic concept. The Casablanca document reinforces my conviction that President Roosevelt was, at heart, not particularly sympathetic to the plight of the Jews.
Today, the war against the Jews continues. While Palestinian terrorists murder Israeli children in their beds and fire rockets into Israeli towns, the international community rages against Israel. To his credit, President Barack Obama vetoed the recent United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel--yet in the same breath, the administration spokeswoman and U.N. ambassador emphasized the U.S. agreed with the substance of that one-sided resolution. That’s no way to treat an ally.
Why can’t Jews live on the West Bank? More than one million Arabs live in Israel now, about 20 percent of its population. When Israel and the Palestinian Authority settle their differences, shouldn’t Jews be able to choose to live in the new Palestinian state as citizens, or at least resident aliens? I don’t see why not.
Of course, Israel has made mistakes in its dealings with the Palestinians. The Israelis are no less human in that respect than other nations, including ours. But the intransigence, unwillingness to compromise, is far greater on the part of the Palestinian leaders, who fear for their lives threatened by the Arab radicals, fundamentalists and terrorists. Where are the Arab voices of moderation? I don’t hear them. But I do hear the voices of those threatening the destruction of Israel, of those seeking to delegitimatize Israel at the United Nations.
Yes, the war against the Jews is still going on, 66 years after World War II. But, thank God, there is now a Jewish state that will not be cowed and will do what is necessary to protect the Jewish people.