Fictive History and Rhetoric in the Stop the Iran Deal Movement

There is a claim being put forward by some who support Israeli harsh criticism of the Iran nuclear deal. This claim is that liberal American Jews — in the media, on campuses, and elsewhere — are repeating history. They are offering the same weak reaction to Jewish danger that was once seen earlier during the 1930s and 1940s.

Former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, argues this: “History will judge us,” he asserts. “Subsequent generations will look back on us as we look back on Jews of the 1930s. Remember that American Jewry once had a chance to save six million Jews, and there are six million today in Israel. This is about our survival as a people.”

Indeed, Oren says that his major reason for pressing Random House to publish his book Ally earlier than intended was that it would appear in a timely way before the Iran nuclear deal was concluded. As he reasoned: “There are moments like this in American Jewish history where American Jewry had an opportunity to intercede and perhaps save millions of Jews. And that moment was lost.”

So too do organizers in the U.S. of the July 22 “Stop Iran Now Rally” at New York’s Times Square repeat the claim: “We say, ‘Never Again’ will Jews be silent. We speak of the inaction by major U.S. Jewish organizations in the late 1930s as the threat of Nazi Germany grew, and during the horrors of the Holocaust. Will we be silent as well? Will the same sin be repeated?”

The thrust of this claim is that liberal Jews who stand with President Obama or who, even despite disappointment with and criticisms of Obama’s failures, support the Iran nuclear deal are ‘again’ turning a blind eye toward and betraying Jewish needs. The canard rests on a revisionist history about the American response to the Holocaust, which blames not only the Roosevelt Administration for limited action to thwart the destruction of the Jews in Europe, but spreads blame to American Jews. According to this story, American Jews did little or nothing during Depression and war to pressure the administration either to open American doors to refugees or to undertake needed rescue action. In addition, the claim rests on a contemporary impulse to brand Jews who see promise in the Iran nuclear deal and oppose the current “say no” campaign in Congress as morally deficient and mark them as disloyal.


First, despite his credentials as an historian, Michael Oren doesn’t know what he is talking about in saying that American Jewry once had a chance to save six million Jews. Knowledge of what is today called the Holocaust, but which appeared initially to those far from Nazi-occupied Europe as so many atrocities, rather than a systematic plan of extermination, became known to American Jewish leaders only in the fall  of 1942. By that time, the Nazi killers had already aggressively murdered three million Jews, initially on the eastern front with guns near pits, and subsequently, in Nazi-occupied Poland, after deportations from ghettos to killing installations, by gassing. Such victims — early half the six million — were, let us note, already beyond any rescue or saving. The claim is that American Jewish leaders then — after they knew — did little or nothing to bring any pressure to bear on the administration to rescue the others who were still alive and might be saved, abandoning all duty to their brethren, and failed also to do all they could to raise a clarion cry about what was taking place.

But this is erroneous. When American Jewish leaders met with Franklin Roosevelt at the White House in early December, 1942, at the only gathering the President ever hosted with American Jewish leaders during the Nazi destruction of European Jewry, they were convinced, as Roosevelt said that the leader of the free world and his administration would do “all in our power to be of service to your people in this tragic moment.” Such confidence turned out to be misplaced, however, and soon dissipated in the months following the public declaration in mid-December by the Allied powers that the Nazis were carrying out extermination in Europe. By February 1943, American Jewish leaders knew full well that unless special rescue action were quickly undertaken — action beyond the U.S. simply pressing forward in a two-front global war to victory — there would be few Jews left in Europe to be saved.

So American Jewish leaders, facing the challenge of pressing a nation at war to undertake independent rescue action on behalf of a minority people abroad, overcame the substantial political and organizational differences marking American Jewry at the time, joined together for common action in the Joint Emergency Committee for European Jewish Affairs, and began acting on a broad agenda to be implemented through shtadlanut (representation) with members of Congress and also mass rallies in urban centers with large Jewish populations, aimed at putting pressure on the Roosevelt Administration to embrace rescue action. American Jewish leaders lobbied actively in Washington and more than forty such mass rallies were organized in some twenty American cities around the country during spring 1943 calling for rescue and enlisting also sympathetic labor and liberal allies.

The largest and best known of these, the “Stop Hitler Now Rally,” took place in Madison Square Garden at the beginning of March 1943, drawing, it is reported, up to 75,000 participants in the largest Jewish city in the nation. The rally featured prominent liberal politicians like Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Senator Robert F. Wagner. Many more similar rallies were organized in other cities, including Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles. The “United Rally to Demand the Rescue of Doomed Jews” held in Chicago in mid April at Comiskey Park drew 20,000 participants and featured Missouri Senator Harry Truman.

American Jewish leaders, that is, far from being inactive or silent, were actively engaged in moving the Administration to save the remnants of European Jewry. As Rabbi Stephen Wise, who led the Joint Emergency Committee, in April wrote to Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles: “Unless action is undertaken immediately, there may soon be no Jews left alive in Europe.” Not inaction or silence or low loyalty to Jews abroad by prominent American Jewish leaders explains the record of American inaction; rather there was a counter-response undertaken by the Roosevelt Administration with the British government in the face of substantial public pressure — in America and also abroad in England — to head off and successfully blunt rising pressure by calling the Bermuda Conference.

This conference scheduled in Bermuda away from the press in a distant place under martial law, and from which American Jewish leaders were crudely barred, was a “politics of gestures” meant to contain and divert rising public interest in rescue. Freda Kirchwey writing in The Nation observed that Bermuda “brought nothing but a series of excuses for the failure of the British and American governments to do anything effective to rescue the victims of Hitler’s terror….” The leader of the Synagogue Council of America called Bermuda a “mockery,” and Rabbi Wise dubbed it a “dismal failure.”

In a January 1943 Big Three meeting in Casablanca, Allied governments had agreed on an unconditional victory strategy to prosecute the war. There could hence be no approaches to the Axis powers by the U.S. government through overtures to neutral governments to permit Jew to exit Europe, as American Jewish leaders openly sought. The American government had also enacted war measures to tightly blockade the sending of funds and goods to Nazi-occupied Europe, so there also could not be the sending of financial aid or food aid to Jews in the ghettos. Try as they did, American Jewish leaders could neither blunt the Roosevelt Administration’s firm commitment to prosecuting the war all out to victory without humanitarian distractions nor act for rescue on their own.

Try as they could, American Jewish leaders also could not get to see President Roosevelt a second time. The White House was on lock down to Jewish leaders in 1943. Administration leaders had decided there would be no substantial response to the Jewish plight until victory was achieved, and Roosevelt had delegated consideration of refugee or rescue matters to State Department decision-makers.

It should be noted that American Jewish leaders reactivated in 1943 the same methods they utilized earlier during the mid and late 1930s to get America to open its doors to refugees or to protest against German persecution. American Jewish organizations, often working  with liberal and sometimes labor allies, had interceded with representative in Congress to challenge aspects of the immigration restriction regime and with administration officials to protest Nazi policies. They had held rallies in Madison Square Garden and elsewhere to oppose Hitler and stand against anti-Jewish actions. At the key moment when remnants of European Jewry needed rescue, they undertook the same strategies. But such efforts could not move the nation at war toward rescue, nor change the immigration restriction regime earlier.

Efforts to damn the activists for inaction or silence simply do not draw on a “history that judges” but are rather partisan efforts to revise history and substitute a fictive past useful for present purposes.


Frankly, it is ironic that those who damn the efforts of American Jewish leaders in the past as “inaction” and “silence” employ today these same efforts to bring public pressure to bear to block the Iranian nuclear deal, which in their assessment threatens the Jewish future. Michael Oren speaks out against Secretary of State John Kerry and American Jewish leaders seek through organizing mass rallies in urban centers with large Jewish populations to obtain support for Congressional action. “Stop Iran Now” rallies have been held in New York, Fort Lauderdale, and Phoenix on July 22 and in Los Angeles and San Diego on July 26. AIPAC is sponsoring a mass fly-in to Washington DC July 28-29 to bring pressure to bear on Congress and will, on July 28, also consider other modes of action to help secure Congressional action, including possibly the strategy of seeking to punish Democratic candidates who back the President. AIPAC is also organizing a two-week mass blitz in local Congressional districts and has created a new group, Citizens United for a Nuclear Free Iran, that will carry its message.

The mass rallies today are live-streamed on the internet to thousands more at other locations and in their homes, broadening their impact. The rallies also draw significant support today not from liberals but conservatives, who see in them opportunity to slam the liberal Administration. A sign in New York on July 22 said “End the Democrat’s Liberal-Progressive Agenda That is Destroying America.” In the 1940s, American Jews supported the Administration and sought additional action to save Jews; today a growing and aggressive segment of American Jewry opposed to the Administration sees its failures on Israel as of a piece with alleged broader failures. Whereas rallies in the 1940s  included liberal politicos and selected AFL-CIO leaders, today they draw on personalities from conservative radio and TV, conservative Christian groups, and the Heritage Foundation.

This essay takes no stand as yet on the Iran nuclear deal the Obama Administration has negotiated. The writer believes there are worrying aspects of the agreement and also that the agreement represents a step forward including elements favorable to the American interest and to Israel. The purpose here is to put the lie to the claim that American Jewish leaders and American Jews were inactive or silent during the Holocaust. The claim is fictive and represents a moral rhetoric that seeks to exclude those who differ with those who oppose the Iran agreement. Such opposition should be on the merits alone. False rhetoric to morally accuse and proscribe should have no place in an important argument about the American and Jewish future.

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.
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