Obama, FDR, and Zionism
President Barack Obama has spoken of his deep admiration for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his desire to emulate FDR’s style of leadership. But many Israelis will be hoping that sentiment does not extend to President Roosevelt’s views on Zionism, in the wake of the discovery of new documents detailing FDR’s behind-the-scenes coldness regarding the creation of a Jewish state.
In public, President Roosevelt declared his support for developing a Jewish national home in British-ruled Palestine. In private, however, FDR expressed very different views on the subject, according to the documents which I found recently at the Central Zionist Archives, in Jerusalem.
The first is an account by American Jewish leader Stephen S. Wise of a private meeting he had with the president in January 1938. Wise was dismayed to hear FDR assert, “You know there is not room in Palestine for many more people—perhaps another hundred or hundred and fifty thousand.” Those figures apparently were provided by the president’s close adviser, geographer Isaiah Bowman, who was strongly anti-Zionist.
Rabbi Wise insisted there was room for at least another 1.5-million Jews in the Holy Land, but FDR would not budge. He urged Wise to come up with “a second choice for the Jews… Palestine possibilities are going to be exhausted. You ought to have another card up your sleeve.” Wise left the meeting “surprised and shocked” by the president’s position.
Once World War Two began, President Roosevelt’s attitude toward Zionism grew even chillier.
British officials claimed any wartime expression of support for Zionism by the Allies would drive the Arab world into the arms of the Nazis. Rabbi Wise countered that the Arabs already supported the Nazis anyway. “The [pro-Nazi] rebellion in Iraq, the presence of the Mufti in Berlin and Rome, [and] the failure of Egypt to live up to her treaty of alliance [with England]” show that “the sacrifice of friends in the interest of appeasing the unfriendly has repeatedly been proven to be in vain,” Wise argued. Nonetheless, FDR sided with the British view, as another newly discovered document makes plain.
The second document, from October 1941, records Nahum Goldmann, cochairman of the World Jewish Congress, briefing American Zionist leaders on worrisome rumors that the British were holding secret negotiations with the Arabs over the future of Palestine. Goldmann’s said his request to the State Department for information about the talks had been ignored because State “is very much influenced by the British Colonial Office.”
To make matters worse (Goldmann continued), “There are reasons also to believe that even in higher quarters”—a reference to the Roosevelt White House—”there are certain prejudices that have to be overcome in order to get effective support from the administration for a Jewish Palestine.” (In a similar vein, Rabbi Wise wrote to a colleague that FDR was “hopelessly and completely under the domination of the English Foreign Office [and] the Colonial Office.”)
By 1942, FDR was so averse to being seen as pro-Zionist that he rejected even a request to permit the Palestine (Jewish) Symphony Orchestra to name one of its theaters the “Roosevelt Amphitheatre.”
A third new document concerns an April 1943 meeting between FDR and a delegation of seven Jewish congressmen. They urged the president to press the British to cancel the White Paper policy of closing off Palestine to all but a handful of Jewish refugees. “It was a very unsatisfactory interview,”Congressman Daniel Ellison (R-MD) reported to Jewish leaders. “[We] asked the President about refugees, the White Paper, etc. What he proposed to do about these things. [We] made a number of suggestions to him as to what [we] thought he ought to do and the answer to all of these suggestions was ‘No.'”
The fourth document is a transcript of Nahum Goldmann briefing David Ben-Gurion and other Jewish Agency leaders, in 1944, about the political situation in Washington. According to Goldmann, FDR’s support for Zionism was “tentative.” He added: “It is impossible to educate [President Roosevelt], because you get to see him only once every six months, for thirty minutes, ten of which are spent by him telling anecdotes, after which he expects to hear you tell him anecdotes, and then there are only ten minutes left for a serious conversation—what can one accomplish like this?”
Goldmann’s description dovetails with the bitter experience of Chaim Weizmann, when he met with FDR at the White House in July 1942. The Zionist leader wanted to speak about the Allies’ policy on Palestine, but the president diverted the conversation into a long discussion about the production of synthetic rubber. Roosevelt pushed aside Weizmann’s request to mobilize a Jewish army to defend Palestine against a German invasion; FDR supported the British view that such a move would antagonize the Egyptian Army. Weizmann argued that the U.S.-British position was like “trying to appease a rattlesnake,” but once again, Roosevelt would not budge.
David Niles, a close adviser to FDR, once remarked that if Roosevelt had lived (and thus Harry Truman remained vice president), he probably would not have supported the creation of Israel, and as a result the Jewish state might never have been established. Today it is more clear than ever why Niles doubted that FDR genuinely supported Zionism.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, D.C. His latest book is “FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith.”