By the time I was six years old, some 10 years after the Holocaust, any discussion my parents would have about it invariably ended with them lamenting the failure of the Roosevelt Administration to save the Jews of Europe.
I never heard a single word at the dinner table against any of FDR’s domestic policies, nor, of course, his stewardship of the allied campaign to defeat the Nazis. But on the question of not speaking out forcefully on Hitler’s drive to annihilate the Jews, or doing anything to impede it, or to save them, my parents were not forgiving. My mother’s family in Lithuania, with one single exception, was wiped out like so many Jews there and in the rest of occupied Europe. So, 10 years on, this was very much on her mind.
Recounting these tragic episodes of official indifference to the fate of European Jewry is worth noting today in how the international community has reacted not only to the Iranian regime’s nuclear program and its malign behavior, but also to its now 42-year campaign of genocidal threats against the State of Israel and its incessant, daily spewing of anti-Semitic invective.
I was reminded of the dangers of indifference again when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered remarks last week on the occasion of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. The stepson of a Holocaust survivor who authored a moving personal account of his years as a victim of Nazi barbarity, Blinken went beyond the usual expressions on the need to remember.
The secretary zeroed in on the failure of the State Department to save Jews during World War II when an open-door policy could have allowed in untold numbers of European Jews facing certain death at the hands of our enemy.
Referencing then-Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, Blinken said that “He had immense power to help those being persecuted. Yet, as the Nazis began to systematically round up and execute Jews, Long made it harder and harder for Jews to be granted refuge in the United States.” Long served as a special assistant secretary of state for war issues, before being named assistant secretary in 1940.
Actually, this indifference began before the outbreak of World War II in 1939. In July 1938, at the initiative of the United States, 32 countries and 24 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) convened in Evian, France to discuss the growing issue of Jews seeking to flee persecution in Nazi Germany and in Austria. Despite the ruffles and flourishes of this international gathering, only the Dominican Republic, among all the countries present (including the United States) offered a specific proposal to admit Jewish refugees.
The message was not lost on Nazi Germany.
Nor was the case of the SS St. Louis, less than a year later, in May 1939. The Hamburg-America line vessel, sailing from Germany to Cuba with over 900 Jews aboard, was ultimately denied entry at Havana, despite strenuous efforts by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to negotiate with the Cuban government to allow them in.
The ship then made its way to the Florida coast, within view of Miami, hoping for a positive decision to allow the passengers to disembark. Denial to dock in the U.S. was the answer at the State Department, which said the refugees “must await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for, and obtain immigrations visas before they may be admissible to the United States.”
Ultimately, the ship returned to Europe. Though some passengers found refuge thanks to efforts of the JDC, less than half survived the Holocaust. Hitler’s “test” to prove that Jews would not find a haven, even in the Western Hemisphere, succeeded.
For sure, 2021 is not 1938. But the vehemence and the nature of Iran’s rhetoric leveled at the only Jewish state bears striking resemblance to that in Europe over 85 years ago. Israel is described by Iranian leaders as a “cancer which must be excised.” The Nazis used the word “vermin,” but the message is the same. Every week, one Iranian official or another – from the top down – threatens to level Israel’s second-largest and third-largest cities, Tel Aviv and Haifa. The Holocaust is not only denied in Tehran, it is used as a club against Israel, claiming the “Zionists” hide behind it as a rationale for their illegal existence.
The current rushed effort to engage Iran in a resumption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) talks on Iran’s nuclear program raises many questions, the first of which is do we really believe, after nearly 30 years of developing a program focused on producing nuclear weapons, the Iranian regime intends to trash it, in order to be considered a member in good standing of the international community?
Beyond that though, is the businesslike way this is all being carried out. Tehran, since the U.S. elections in November, knowing that a more favorable approach toward it by the U.S. and its P-5+1 (U.S., United Kingdom, France, Russia and China, plus Germany) partners was in the offing, has done everything to stick a finger in our collective eye, by raising the level of enrichment of nuclear fuel, introducing advanced centrifuges, testing ballistic missiles, and denying snap inspections of military sites. Do we really think this is just brinkmanship?
There is an infinitesimal chance that any of the P5+1 players will ever be the target of a campaign that calls for its annihilation as a “cancer” that must be removed. Or, that a multi- stage inter-continental ballistic missile will ever be fired from Iran into the heart of any of its capital cities.
But Israel has sound reasons to be worried. The current JCPOA agreement is replete with holes and sunset clauses that would allow the Iranians, patient and not worried about calendars or clocks, to eventually find a path to a nuclear weapon. Its missile program already has produced weapons that can reach the heart of Israel and its friends in the Gulf.
And the rhetoric out of Tehran about destroying the “Zionist entity” continues unabated.
Even with statements noting the JCPOA needs to be strengthened (begging the question as to why the 2015 agreement was so porous to begin with) there is a nagging sense that Israel’s justified mistrust of Tehran is seen as an annoyance, or that it is simply spoiling the party, with reconciliation within reach. Israel of course, is in Tehran’s crosshairs, and by extension, the Jewish people must not have to sit by and watch another outlaw regime, this time in the 21st century, threatening to annihilate Jews.
In the 1930s, all of the signals relating to Nazi Germany’s designs on European Jewry were as obvious as a neon sign on a clear night. Words do count, but few were listening, and even fewer did anything about it.
Secretary Blinken’s candid remarks about indifference to such threats which were carried out on European soil over 75 years ago have implications for the present. All policymakers now making their way to the table with Iran should heed that message.