American Jewish Disorganization During WWII and Post-Holocaust Zionism

World War II caused massive change across the globe. No international community was affected as much as the Jews. The genocidal atrocities of Nazi Germany will probably never be forgotten, due to the barbaric nature of the violence. The global community had known that there was discrimination to some level occurring toward Jews in Nazi controlled areas, but the full scope was not known until after the war concluded. It had been known that there was a loss of civil rights similar to the discrimination that African Americans had faced. In spite of this knowledge, American Jewish groups were unsuccessful in trying to convince the US government to take additional Jewish immigrants as refugees, which would have dire consequences. However, some have claimed that the assimilation into American culture for the Jews was too much, as they lost their own identity separate from America. By highlighting the inability of American Jews to organize and achieve their goals, World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust resulted in a more united Jewish global population under Zionism.

In the early 20th century, Jews from all over the world were immigrating to America in large numbers. Most of these people were coming to New York City, which had become home to the largest Jewish community in the world.[1] In a way, New York City became a place for global Jewry to reconnect after Diaspora separated them millennia ago. American Jewish Zionist academic Simon Rawidowicz first introduced the use of the word “Disaspora” to describe the “scattering” of Jews from Israel in 1930.[2] The new wave Jewish immigrant’s resistance to assimilation was a cause for concern among the earlier Jewish immigrants. The established Jewish community feared that if these new people would not assimilate, then there would be a marginalization of all American Jews. However, many see this encouraged assimilation as the beginning of the loss of identity of Jewish people within America. “The new Jews here were asked to meld into an anonymous American mass,” according to Jacob Rader Marcus, “to change radically in dress, speech, mannerisms.”[3] To change all of these parts of ones life is to drastically alter their outward appearance to others, and also remove a part of their uniqueness and identity that they brought with them. So while some of these newer Jewish immigrants created a more distinct, unique kind of Jewish American, many Jewish Americans began to resist Jewish tradition more and seek “Americanization.”

Damage to a synagogue in Berlin following Kristallnacht

World War II and the years preceding it created a crisis for American Jewry. In order to understand the situation in America fully, the situation in Germany has to be examined. The German National Socialist regime had built itself up on several tenets. Among them, they sought to undo the social progress that German Jews had achieved. The German Weimar Constitution of 1919 had granted full political and civil rights to Jews. Once Adolf Hitler’s autocratic government had replaced that regime, it only took a few years for this progress to be destroyed. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 revoked the rights of Jews as German citizens. This left all German Jews vulnerable to oppression by their own government. At this point, there was not massive outcry among American, or even German, Jews. However, after Kristallnacht, there was no longer any doubt that the Jews had to leave Germany. Kristallnacht describes the pogrom that was carried out on the night of November 9th, 1938. German civilians and paramilitary forces looted Jewish businesses and committed arson against Synagogues in Germany and Austria. Young Jewish men were imprisoned and eventually deported to concentration camps. The situation further deteriorated as financial restrictions forced those who were attempting to flee to leave Germany bankrupt. Unable to sell their seized property and with no economic recourse, emigration was very difficult. To make the situation worse, Germany was expanding. This forced German Jews to have to flee far away from Germany to escape the oppression. When Germany annexed part of Czechoslovakia and invaded Poland, they added two different large groups of Jews to their already existing Jewish population.[4] These Jews were forced to reorganize within ghettos, which ran rampant with disease, starvation, and random killings by Nazi soldiers. Jewish Americans hoped that the United States would help ease the crisis that the European Jews were now in.

Back within the United States, the American Jewish leadership was pleading with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to assist in any way possible. Due to a quota system that had been in place for decades, America would not admit more than a certain amount of refugees from each country. The system did not even take into account if the people seeking admittance were immigrants or refugees. To make matters worse, America was not receptive to any immigrants at this time. Because of the global depression, America was unable and unwilling to accommodate an increase in population. In an effort to make sure Americans achieved more employment, Herbert Hoover issued an order in 1930 that further decreased the number of immigrants America would take. Eight years later, a Fortune magazine poll found that 67.4% of people would be in favor of an outright ban on immigration.[5] To go along with the poor economic climate, fears of espionage created a nationalist culture within the US that was not receptive toward new people regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity.

However, in spite of all of this negativity toward immigration, Jewish immigration was rising. The rule demanding a clean bill of health from the country the person was leaving from was modified because the German police would not sign off for healthy Jews. In 1933, only 134 quota refugees had arrived. By 1939, over ten thousand refugees were immigrating to America per year.[6] However, there were still strict guidelines on what would qualify someone for immigration. It was required that the immigrants have a full visa, which was difficult to obtain. The complicated authorization process resulted in only 10% of those who could have obtained a visa actually making it to America.

Anti-Semitism was present in America leading up to WWII

The disorganization of the American Jews at this time made achieving their goals impossible. They were unable to combat rising anti-Semitism, and instead just dealt with it. “Most assimilated Jews were preoccupied with American problems, such as the depression and World War II,” explains Seymour Maxwell Finger in American Jewry During the Holocaust.[7] It is evident that Jewish identity had become secondary to American identity for most of the established, older Jewish American families. Without greater organization that would unite Jewish Americans, their Jewish ethnicity was swept up in the nationalism of two World Wars. Perhaps if there were more unity among the Jewish American community Jews close to President Roosevelt would have been persuaded, or at least pressured to personally appeal. These men who could have spoken on the behalf of American Jews include Benjamin Cohen, the famous economist, and Samuel Rosenman, who wrote speeches for FDR.[8] Although there were many committees and fraternal organizations for American Jews, the fragmentation of Jewish leadership meant that none had enough pull or power to influence American politics or society at the time.

Without pressure or even a voice for the Jewish people, policy never changed to help European Jews in dire need. A very highly publicized case of refusing those in need was the MS St. Louis. The passengers on board the ship were European Jews who were desperately attempting to flee the worsening situation in Europe. Many of the refugees had sold all of their possessions and used all of their money to pay for documentation to travel and chartering the ship to sail from Hamburg, across the Atlantic Ocean, to Cuba. However, Cuba had recently passed a law making all immigration illegal, except for US citizens. The Cuban government turned them away as the law had also retroactively invalidated their visas.[9] When they sailed to Florida to attempt to enter the states, the US Coast Guard denied them. The official reason given was the tourist visas that they were trying to use required a return address, which they did not have. For this reason immigration services told the captain that his ship would not be allowed on the shores of the US. Heywood Broun took a very strong stance in his editorial “There Is A Ship…” which ran in June 23rd, 1939 issue of The American Jewish Outlook. In the article he details the hypocrisy of every American who calls himself a humanitarian but has done nothing to appeal to his government to lend aid to those who so urgently need it. “If suddenly the vessel flashed an S.O.S. to indicate that the crew and the 900 passengers were in danger every other steamer within call would go hurrying to the rescue,” Broun claims. The way that he explains it, this ship was essentially sending out an S.O.S. to America. Even though the danger was not at sea, the message was the same: help us or we will die. However, people were not willing to accept more into America, even if these people needed help. The editor’s note mentions that “temporary havens” had been created in England, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands for the passengers. Before the end of WWII, all of these countries except for England would be under Nazi control. As Broun foretold, “These 900, with possibly a few exceptions, will not die immediately. They will starve slowly, since they have already spent their all. Or they will linger in concentration camps.”[10] According to historians, around twenty-five percent of the passengers of the MS St. Louis died before the end of the war. A popular American Jewish newspaper running an editorial with such a harsh, outspoken tone illustrates the frustration that many Jewish Americans were feeling with their country not helping Jews in need.

Samuel Untermeyer was a strong voice among the American Jewish population

There were attempts by American Jewish leaders to target Hitler and Nazi Germany in any way they could. In 1933, the Jewish War Veterans began to plan a boycott of German goods. Samuel Untermeyer, the famous Jewish American lawyer, picked up the idea and began to attempt to create this into an international Jewish plan. The movement gained momentum and by 1935, large department stores and labor unions were in on the plan. However, Morris Waldman, president of the American Jewish Committee, labeled the boycott as “futile [and] possibly dangerous.” Waldman believed that going this direction to aid in the effort against Hitler would confirm the anti-Semitic notion that Jews dominated world economies. Additionally, it was believed that a ban on German goods would do more bad than good for America, as Germany was a net importer of America. If Germany were to follow suit and ban US goods within their borders, it would be worse for the US than for Germany.[11] The American Jewish and world wide Jewish communities were split on the issue, which highly demonstrates the disorganized disarray of Jewish leadership at the time. The American Jewish Congress, the American Zionist Movement, B’nai B’rith, and the American Jewish Committee were all major American Jewish organizations that all had varying opinions on the plan. There was even disagreement within the leadership of the individual organizations. To try to unite the Jewish voice, there were several attempts to centralize American Jewish leadership within one body. There were several organizations created, but all of them would at some point fall victim to division over some fundamental disagreement. At this point, many of the disagreements came over Zionism. The ultimate disorganization would doom the plan to boycott Germany, reaffirming that if American Jews were to be able to get anything done, it would require greater organization.

Before and during the World War II, quarrels between American Jewish groups were largely over Zionism. However, toward the end of the war, Jewish groups began to get behind Zionism. The push toward Zionism was surely due to the realization that Britain would not work to establish a Jewish state, as they had promised to do. When European Jewish refugees began to flee Germany and surrounding nations for Palestine, Britain took back their vow to support a Jewish state in the Middle East. When they issued the White Paper of 1939, Britain declared that they had fulfilled their promise by allowing 100,000 refugees to enter Palestine. Furthermore, they claimed that no more Jewish refugees would be accepted to ensure the long time stability of the area. In 1942, due to the war, the Zionist Conference was not held. Instead the Biltmore Conference was held in the Biltmore Hotel of New York City. The conference resulted in the Biltmore Program, which shifted Zionist policy. Now instead of looking for a Jewish state somewhere in the world, the Biltmore Program demanded, “that Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth.”[12] Over 600 delegates of Jewish organizations (both Zionist and non-Zionist) from eighteen countries adopted the program as their chief concern. Zionism also gained a considerable boost after the revelation of the full scale of the Holocaust. The obvious change this created was more support among Jews for Zionism. American Jews in particular experience a large change as their roles grew immensely. Now that Zionists had realized that Britain would not be of help, they now looked to America to help them. This created increased pressure for American Jews to influence their government. One reason why America was considered a potentially ally to the movement was that American Jews had become the most powerful group within Jewish politics. This change was due to the interwar migration of Jews to New York and Polish Jews experiencing extraordinarily high mortality rates from WWII and the Holocaust. Economically better off than their European brethren, American Jews took the lead in supporting the Zionist movement.

This map shows the results of mass immigration of Jews to Palestine and the creation of the state of Israel

Union among Jews would result in Zionists achieving their ultimate goals. When Britain withdrew from Palestine, a United Nations Special Committee determined that there would need to be a solution for what to do about the Jewish population there. The two options were a bi-partisan state in Palestine, or two separate states of Jews and Arabs. Zionists gave support to the second option as it was seen to be more in line with their goals. The United Nations voted to segment Palestine into two states, creating the State of Israel.

[1] Finger, Seymour Maxwell. 1984. American Jewry during the Holocaust. New York: Holmes & Meier.

[2] Rawidowicz, Simon, and Benjamin C. I. Ravid. 1986. Israel, the ever-dying people, and other essays. Rutherford [N.J.]: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

[3] Finger, American Jewry.

[4] Feingold, Henry L. The Jewish People in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992. Print.

[5] Finger, American Jewry.

[6] Feingold, Jewish People, 229.

[7] Finger, American Jewry.

[8] Finger, American Jewry.

[9] Levine, Robert M. 1993. Tropical diaspora: the Jewish experience in Cuba. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 103.

[10] Broun, Heywood. There Is A Ship…. The American Jewish Criterion [Pitsburg], June 23, 1939: 3. Print.

[11] Feingold, Jewish People, 235.

[12] Oren, Michael B. Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2007. 442-445.


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