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When There Was No Jewish Lobby By: Sol Stern
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, April 21, 2006

Four weeks after the publication of “The Israel Lobby,” the error-ridden paper authored by professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, the controversy still swirls in the media. Despite the hundreds of thousands of angry words about the authors’ thesis that the nefarious “lobby” has too much power and undermines America’s true interests, there’s one fundamental question that has been ignored.  What if Walt and Mearsheimer and their allies actually had their way? What would happen if there was no Israel lobby in America? 

The lobby is not likely to fold its tents anytime soon, so there’s no way of answering that question definitively. However, we do have suggestive clues from at least one sad period in American history. I am speaking, of course, of the Hitler era, 1935-1945, when there was no powerful political lobby in the United States representing Jewish “parochial” interests. These were the years when millions of  European Jews were desperately trying to flee the charnel house on the continent  and the Jews of America were too weak, or too intimidated, or too assimilationist and anti-Zionist to effectively petition their government to extend a helping hand. 

The tragic consequences of Jewish political impotence before and during World War II have been thoroughly documented by David S. Wyman, Laurell Leff and other highly regarded historians. In the absence of a Jewish lobby wielding influence in Washington DC and on the media an out and out anti-Semite named Breckinridge Long was able to control US policy on refugees from within the State Department. As anti-Jewish persecution mounted in Germany in the late 1930s, Long made sure that no more than a trickle of European Jews found safe haven in the United States. Then, even after the Final Solution became public knowledge, Long became the principle advocate within the administration arguing against any special efforts to rescue Jews. A Treasury Department official described Long and his State Department colleagues as an “underground movement [within the administration] to let the Jews be killed.”

In their paper Professors Walt and Mearsheimer make the bizarre claim that the New York Times and Washington Post are unduly influenced by today’s powerful Israel lobby. I assume they would have been more impressed with the realistic, unemotional approach to the national interest by the nation’s two leading newspapers during World War II. On November 24, 1942 the US government publicly confirmed for the first time that the Nazis had a plan to exterminate all of European Jewry and that more than two million Jews had already been murdered. This was the biggest mass murder story in history, but the Washington Post and the New York Times, both owned by Jewish families, virtually snubbed the massacre. The Post gave the revelations all of four inches on page six. The New York Times buried the story even deeper. Nor was this a one time lapse in news judgment. Neither paper assigned reporters to cover the ongoing extermination of the Jewish people over the next two and a half years. New York Times publisher Arthur Hays Suzberger regarded Zionism as a chauvinist movement and blanched at any political activity focusing on the Jews as a collectivity. Thus his paper gave less play to the Holocaust than to Tammany Hall or holiday crowds on Fifth Avenue.

The Post’s owner, Eugene Meyer, was also in flight from his Jewish identity. Despite urging from some Jewish leaders, he declined to run an editorial on the plight of the Jews of Europe. No self interested Jewish lobby for Meyer. He once wrote, “I do not feel it is necessary for any pressure group, however well meaning, to devote its time and money to the business of ‘molding American opinion’on this subject” [i.e. the destruction of European Jewry.]

No doubt professors Walt and Mearsheimer would also have been more approving of the sense of political decorum and restraint exhibited by the unofficial leader of the American Jewish community at the time, Rabbi Stephen Wise of Temple Emmanuel on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Rabbi Wise did care about the plight of his  fellow Jews trapped under the Nazi yoke, and he often spoke out on the issue,  but he never allowed those concerns to move him to create anything so self  serving as a “Jewish lobby.” Besides, Wise wasn’t going to do anything to embarrass his good friend and political hero, President Roosevelt.  Partly as a result of Rabbi Wise’s abdication, there was little political pressure on the president to consider extraordinary measures to rescue Jews, including proposals to bomb the railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz. 

What finally moved Roosevelt to some action on rescue was the creation of a fledgling and unofficial “lobby” called the “Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe.” The driving force behind the new, non sectarian group was a 30 year old Palestinian Jew named Peter Bergson. He had arrived in America as part of an Irgun delegation to do Zionist political work, but he put this mission aside and went to work full time on rousing public opinion about the extermination.  It was only because of the intense public lobbying activity of Bergson’s committee – a forerunner of today’s Israel lobby – that President Roosevelt finally came around, late in the war, to the idea of creating a special agency within the government, to try to rescue Jews facing deportation to the death camps. It was called the War Refugee Board.  Although too little and too late, the Board did save lives -- perhaps as many as 200,000 -- in the waning days of the war. 

Those survivors and their children and their  grandchildren are living testaments to the good that can come from a political  lobby pressuring a democratic government to live up to its moral commitment to  rescue the oppressed, to defend the defenseless and to remain faithful to its democratic allies. Today a new, soon to be nuclear armed Islamic Hitler rises in the East and again threatens the annihilation of the Jewish people. The charge that those who lobby our government to extend a helping hand to the potential victims of this new Nazism are somehow doing something un-American is not only obscene, but is itself profoundly un-American.

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Sol Stern is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal.

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