The Holocaust: Never in America?

 There is a sense of déjà vu, a parallelism between America’s ten years and counting policy “containing” Iran, and America having ignored Germany’s emergence as a military power; Hitler’s graduated policy of isolating, then murdering the Jews.

All agree that antisemitism in 1933 was intense in both Germany and the United States. What lessons have we taken away from the fact that in the course of less than a decade Germany transformed from “merely” racist to homicidal so, while the United States remained “traditionally” antisemitic? Is 2012 safer for the Jewish people than we were in 1932, the year Germany voted for a Nazi-led government, and Hitler became the country’s chancellor?

In this Rosh Hashanah greeting card from the early 20th century, Russian Jews, packs in hand, gaze at the American relatives beckoning them to the United States. (Wikipedia)

There is, of course, no simple answer. First, we already know that ten years after that election Auschwitz was operational and had adapted 20th century technology to assembly-line mass murder. So, while we can know what occurred in the past, we cannot predict definitively the future. But we can, based on history, make an educated guess.

Holocaust Denial is typically assumed to be a product of non-Jews, its motive somewhere between serving as defense of Christianity, to inciting anti-Jewish violence. But Holocaust denial also takes a Jewish form. According to this narrative the Holocaust happened “over there” and not “here.” Reasons proffered are both social acceptance and our system of legal protections. For more than a century Jews have considered America our Diaspora’s long-sought Exception, our Goldene Medina.

But this posits the United States as “exceptional.” On what do we base this assumption; how do we come by our faith that the colonial description of America as the “city on the hill,” the “New Jerusalem” extends also to ourselves? Just how secure, how accepted are Jews in the United States?

For three hundred years Jew, Muslim and Christian participated in Spain’s Golden Age: before Islam was forced back across the Straight of Gibraltar. Five hundred years later King Boleslav of Poland invited Jewish settlement, guaranteed their security resulting on the next Golden Age for Jews. And even Lithuania rose to that description as Vilnius was called the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.”

On the eve of the Shoah the Jewish community of Vilna [Vilnius] was the spiritual centre of Eastern European Jewry, the centre of enlightenment and Jewish political life, of Jewish creativity and the experience of daily Jewish life…”

On 24 June, 1941 Germany, until 1933 also considered “exceptional” by its Jews, arrived at Vilna.

Since there were so many past “exceptions” in the history of our experience in the Diaspora, some spanning several centuries, American Jewry’s claims regarding our homeland deserve closer examination.

One clear argument is the number of Jews who achieved high government office. As far back as the Civil War a Jew was appointed Attorney General for the Confederacy; during the Vietnam war Richard Nixon, whose White House tapes demonstrate strong antipathy towards Jew, appointed a Jew as his Secretary of State. Since 1916 eight Jews were appointed to the US Supreme Court. And in 2000 presidential candidate Al Gore selected a Jew for his running mate. These and other such facts inspire pride, reassure of our acceptance as “Americans.”

And our sense of comfort and acceptance is reflected in our high rate of intermarriage. In 2001 the rate was 47%; today the rate is higher. And while many factors determine choice of a mate, I suggest that one of the most salient and perhaps least acknowledged (at least by ourselves) is our long history of persecution in the Diaspora: we yearn for acceptance, to belong. According to Alan Dershowitz,

American Jewish life is in danger of disappearing, just as most American Jews have achieved everything we ever wanted: acceptance, influence, affluence, equality.”

The German comparison: I wrote above that Germany, at least until 1933, was also considered “exceptional” by that Jewish community. How does the American model compare to pre-Holocaust Germany?

For me the comparison is very uncomfortable. In Germany as in the US Jews were over-represented among the elites, also rose to high levels of government and politics. A Jew wrote the constitution for Germany’s first venture into democracy; another Jew served as foreign minister in the Weimar government. Jews were prominent in the arts and the sciences: numbering fewer than .08% of the population, Jews represented 24% of Germany’s Nobel recipients.

In an effort to explain, to comprehend how their beloved fatherland, their German identity evaporated so quickly, women survivors almost mantra-like repeatedly told interviewers, “We were so German… so assimilated!”

During the Weimar Republic, strictly religious education and practices were on the decline and mixed marriages on the rise. In the large cities, marriage to Christians was becoming so common – especially among Jewish men – that some Jewish leaders actually feared the complete fusion of their community into German society by the end of the twentieth century.”

“[I]n 1927, 54% of all marriages of Jews were contracted with non-Jews,” a statistic even greater than the American 47% in 2001! If, as I suggest, intermarriage correlates to “level of comfort” in our respective communities, German Jewry in the years immediately before the rise of Hitler were more comfortable, more assimilated than are we in America today.

A selective comparison of American policy affecting Jews: the 1930’s, 2010’s

There is no evidence to suggest that either president, Obama or Roosevelt, pursue(d) policies intentionally intended to harm the Jews. Yet by the passivity of their responses to global challenges Jewish lives were placed at risk and lost. Obama’s failure to date to more assertively block Iranian hegemonic ambitions, including its nuclear weapons program, has placed America’s interests in the Middle East (the oil monarchies, the Suez Canal, etc) at risk; it also placed at risk the security of our traditional dependencies and allies, including Israel.

By failing to stand by Israel in face of Turkey’s support of the Mavi Marmara provocation Obama allowed to fester a rupture in relations between two of America’s most important allies protecting American interests in the Middle East.

The president’s intervention to remove Hosni Mubarak as president of Egypt as well as numerous other policy decisions, whether intended or not, contributed to regional instability, harmed America’s standing in the region and in the world and, most importantly for this discussion, materially contributed to Israel’s present state of isolation and threat.

There is a sense of déjà vu, a parallelism between America’s ten years and counting policy towards containing Iranian ambitions, and Roosevelt passively standing by as the Third Reich publicly and determinedly grew its armed forces in violation of Versailles; failed to forcefully respond to Germany’s hegemonic ambitions, its emergence as a military power. His failure also to confront Hitler’s graduated policy of isolating, then murdering the Jews. 

Prisoners on way to gas chambers. Picture of the Birkenau (Auschwitz II) extermination camp taken by an American surveillance plane on August 25, 1944.
(In original image size arrow and reference visible. Wikipedia)

Like Obama, there is no evidence that Roosevelt pursued a “policy” to intentionally harm Jews. But neither does his response to the escalating persecution indicate any intention to materially interfere with that persecution. This detached attitude is evident in his unwavering adherence to the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act as “response” to the 1935 Nuremberg Laws; to the 1938 Krystallnacht pogrom; even to early and persistent reports of einsatsgruppen massacres two years before the US entered the war. Before 1941 Roosevelt insisted the US does not interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation; after that date the excuse was that the victims were citizens of an “enemy” nation! Each of these situations were given extensive coverage in the US press, so the president could not claim absence of intelligence.

While America’s response to each of these may not rise to the level of a policy of antisemitism, neither did they demonstrate concern for the fate of the Jews, or America’s claim to be haven to the oppressed. Even today Roosevelt apologists insist he was no antisemite, that the president’s “hands were tied” by the 1924 Law!

Whatever the reason, clearly his hands were not tied when, with daily newspaper headlines reporting on the unfolding Final Solution the president steadfastly refused to halt or even slow the slaughter of the still living dead by ordering a few bombs be dropped on killing centers as American aircraft overflew them en route to industrial targets. And were his “hands tied” when he denied refuge to Jewish children made homeless by the Krystallnacht pogrom? He even defended not doing so in a radio address, “that [refuge] is not in contemplation, we have the [1924] quota system.” But when Britain appealed for refuge for London children facing the Battle of Britain, children who could as well have found refuge in the countryside, they were immediately welcomed. Even London’s “threatened” dogs were more acceptable for refuge than Jews!  In fact in no year during this horrible period did Roosevelt’s State Department even fill allowable quotas for Jews.

If American policy in general was passively complicit in the Holocaust, Roosevelt’s State Department was actively supportive in the murder of Europe’s Jews.

With this background to the question (and I’ve limited the discussion to government policy, not popular antisemitism) how secure are America’s Jews today, how likely that the Holocaust was just the single and unique occurrence we like to believe, that such recurring is rarely even considered, at least not, “over here”? Is Never Again more than just a rhetorical flourish, a palliative the sole purpose of which is our desire for self-reassurance?

Put another way, will Denial preserve us if we are living but a reassuring lie?

About the Author
David made aliya in 1960 and has been active in Jewish issues since. He was a regional director for JNF in New York, created JUDAC, Jews United to Defend the Auschwitz Cemetery during that controversy; at the request of Jonathan Pollard created and led Justice for the Pollards in 1989.