1940: American Inaction and the Tragedy of European Jewry


During 1940, three of the most significant Zionist leaders in the world – Chaim Weizmann, Vladimir Jabotinsky, and David Ben Gurion , all visited the United States , hoping to gain a measure of American Jewish support or US government support for the creation of a Jewish army to help fight the Nazis. Rick Richman's new book, Racing Against History, provides an interesting and very carefully researched history of these visits, the leaders' goals, what they accomplished, and what prevented greater success. Richman's book is a fascinating look at a moment in time, different seemingly from our own, but with some of the same issues.

Many fewer people are aware today of Jabotinsky than of Weizmann or Ben Gurion. Richman provides an illuminating portrait of this exceptional Jewish leader and his work, which will serve as an introduction for many. Nearly 40 years after Jabotinsky's death, Menachem Begin became the first Israeli Prime Minister whose politics were rooted in his vision.

In World War 1, the British had allowed the creation of a Jewish legion, 15,000 strong, that had fought on their side in various places, with Jabotinsky having a leadership military role. Weizmann, a highly respected British chemist with many British government contacts, parlayed the Jewish help for Britain in the war to gain support for creation of a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine, laid out in the Balfour Declaration, and eventually leading to the British mandate for Palestine between the wars.

The visits to America in 1940 were designed in part to get American help to change British policy in Palestine, which had shut the door on Jewish migration, in defiance of their mandate to allow Jewish settlement of the land in Palestine. This was an urgent goal given the enormous and growing number of Jewish refugees in Europe following the invasion of Poland in September,1939 by the Germans and the Soviet Union, and the collapse in the spring of 1940 of a number of Western European countries with sizable Jewish populations of their own – the Netherlands, and France, among them. Already, the Jewish communities of Austria, Germany and Czechoslovakia were dealing with severe discrimination and worse following the Nazis taking control, each in the 1930s. The Zionist leaders hoped that after the war, the Jewish contribution to the war effort would enhance the chances for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, as promised in the Balfour Declaration.

The United States was on the sidelines of World War 2 throughout the year 1940, with minimal support provided to Great Britain, the last of the democratic holdouts after the French capitulation in June 1940. Most Americans, most Jewish Americans, and an overwhelmingly majority in the Congress, were wary of getting involved in the war in Europe. In the case of many Jewish Americans, they were reluctant to appear as warmongers, making special pleas for their beleaguered religious brothers and sisters abroad, thereby risking American lives and treasure in another conflict. While the supply of war material to Britain grew in 1941, it took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941 to awaken Americans to the catastrophe already underway across the oceans.

The visits to America by the three Jewish leaders were uncoordinated, and never overlapped. In retrospect, they were a failure, though they did create much more interest in Zionism in America. Jabotinsky held public rallies with large enthusiastic crowds, and was by far the most direct about the enormous threat to the world's second largest Jewish community in Poland. The dislocation was particularly severe in the German zone of occupation, where the brutal anti- Semitism of the Nazis was on full display. The Russians treated everyone badly, but Jews were not a target in quite the same way. Jabotinsky had warned of the severe danger for Jews in Eastern Europe before the war started. As Hitler built his power, his expansionist desires became obvious, and other Eastern European countries adopted similar fascist leadership. Jabotinsky talked of the need for more than a million or even several million Jews to be absorbed in Palestine. While the threat to the Jews grew, Britain, catering to the Arabs, adopted new restrictions on Jewish emigration to Palestine with its issuance of a white paper, which Weizmann fought to no avail.

The Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg estimated that by the end of 1940, fewer than 100,000 of Europe's Jews (out of a population of 9 million), had already perished. In the next two years, the toll would be horrific – about 4 million murdered, over two thirds of that number in 1942, the first year in which the United States was fully engaged in the war. The German invasion of Russia in June 1941 led to the most intense period of Jew killing, utilizing both einsatzgruppen gunmen and various means of slaughter in the death camps, from gas to starvation. 

Could the visits of the Zionist leaders to America have led to actions which prevented or minimized the enormity of the destruction of Europe's Jews by the Nazis? This seems highly unlikely in one sense, given that most of the murdered Jews were located deep in Eastern Europe, where neither the British nor Americans had much chance to influence events on the ground in 1941 and 1942. However, had the British been more welcoming of Jews to Palestine, or America to Jewish immigration in 1940 and the 1930s, there is no real argument that many more could have been saved among those willing to leave.

The failure of the Zionist leaders to influence either American or British policy is not surprising. The three leaders were at odds with each other. Ben Gurion, the leader of the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine, and a committed socialist, headed the Labor Zionist movement. He and Jabotinsky had not communicated with each other for years. The Zionist Organization of America, was a rival of Jabotinsky's New Zionist Organization. The ZOA largely boycotted Jabotinsky's New York City rallies. Jabotinsky's more public calls for actions contrasted with Weizmann's quiet diplomacy.

Weizmann, who was the first of the leaders to visit the United States, and had little expectation that America or American Jews would be able to do much to influence the British.

Jabotinsky sounded the loudest alarm about the fate of European Jews and created the greatest stir, but his sudden death from a heart attack in upstate New York in early August 1940, in the middle of his American trip, seemed to sap the energy of the movement he was creating.

Ben Gurion seemed to alienate most American Jews he met with on his trip, the final of the three visits.

Jabotinsky thought Zionism's quest for the establishment of a Jewish state, was a singular goal, not a socialist paradise in Palestine, a goal Ben Gurion supported.

In 1940, FDR was planning to run for a third term, something no former President had ever done before. The eventual Republican nominee, Wendell Willkie, a businessman, warned that Roosevelt would take the nation to war if re-elected. The race was expected to be much closer than the first two Roosevelt victories, and FDR, a consummate and cautious candidate, was reluctant to allow Willkie to establish much space from Roosevelt as the peace candidate. Jewish Americans were overwhelmingly Democrats, and big fans of Roosevelt, and many in the Jewish leadership, were hesitant about putting Roosevelt in a difficult position by lobbying for anything connected to the war effort. As for Jewish immigration to America, that door had been largely shut in 1924 with the immigration act passed that year, five years before the Great Depression. Now with millions of Americans out of work, and widespread poverty, there was little sympathy among Americans for reopening the immigration door to anyone and creating more competition for the few jobs to be had.. There was also open and broad based public anti-Semitism on radio and in newspapers, in the corporate world, and in the Roosevelt administration itself and among members of Congress.

Roosevelt proved himself generally uninterested in the plight of European Jews until the last year of the war, when assistance was provided to the remains of the Hungarian Jewish community, one of Europe's largest. His successor as President, Harry Truman, took decisive action, recognizing Israel in 1948, the day it declared itself a new nation. That action was to a large extent due to the efforts of Chaim Weizmann to convince Truman to support the Jewish state, after a long time Jewish friend of Truman's from Missouri, Eddie Jacobson, had facilitated a meeting between the two.

In the end, Jabotinsky was the most prescient about the threat to the Jews of Europe, the most clearheaded about a Jewish army and the most inspiring of the three. Weizmann had a major role in two of the key formative moments in the creation of a Jewish state: getting the Balfour Declaration and gaining American recognition of the new state of Israel. Ben Gurion led the Jews of Palestine single-mindedly on the path to nationhood and in the war of independence and for years after.

In 1940, Jews were almost 5 million in number in America, about 4% of the population, double their share today. But their political influence was not great; there were only a handful of Jewish members of Congress and Zionism was not a cause for many. And Jews were divided and at each other's throats, fighting over policy and power in the community. It was not a surprise, given the lack of coordination among the three visitors to America accompanied by the divided state of the American Jewish community, that an America reluctant to enter the European war would show much interest in a Jewish army to fight overseas, no matter how it was organized and staffed. 

Today, the Jewish community and the state of Israel face different threats, but some things remain the same. Most Jews in America are still on the left politically and will rally behind Democrats, whether or not their policies are supportive of Israel and a close relationship between the two countries, or other Jewish causes. Different issues than Israel matter more to most Jews, just as in 1940.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the leader of the Reform movement, the largest denomination among American Jews, recently criticized President Trump's decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, Israel's capital for nearly 70 years , even though Congress had overwhelmingly passed legislation in 1995 on a bipartisan basis directing such a move. Jacobs apparently could only support such a move if it were undertaken by a Democrat.

Naturally, Jacobs and many reform members, and most Jewish members of the Senate and House of Representatives, supported President Obama's Iran nuclear deal, and are reluctant to criticize it today. Some have also been passive in showing support for Iranian demonstrators on the streets, though it is obvious that the nuclear deal did not improve conditions for Iranians, but merely funded more extensive international aggression by Iran and its proxy armies, and greater theft by the Iranian leadership and its Revolutionary Guard.

It is clear that the Zionist leaders in 1940 understood correctly that the Jewish future depended on having one's own state. Had Israel existed before World War 2, many European Jews would have been saved. Israel now has a larger Jewish community than the United States, with the highest birth rate among the Western democracies. The nation has a strong economy, has become a technology powerhouse, and maintains a respected military capability.

The push for a Jewish army to fight the Nazis did not succeed, except for a very small operation in 1944 by one 5,000-member brigade which fought with the British in Italy. It was certainly not that effort that led to the creation of Israel, and even a much larger operation, such as Jabotinsky envisioned: an over 100,000-member Jewish army. Even that would still have been only a tiny percentage of the total combat forces on the allied side in the war.

The news about the nature and extent of the Holocaust and the large displaced Jewish population in Europe at the end of the war made more people and governments sympathetic to a Jewish state. That, plus the low level war between Jews and Arabs in Palestine and between each group and the British, finally led to the partition resolution, and Britain's abandonment of Palestine in 1948. It was only then that a Jewish army could fight for Palestine, which they did successfully, to create a new State of Israel.