Republicans, Mormons, and Jews: The Unlikely 1940s Alliance That Reshaped U.S. Mideast Policy
Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, D.C.
Senator Elbert Thomas, Democrat of Utah, was the most influential Mormon in America.
Benzion Netanyahu and Hillel Kook were young Jewish activists from Jerusalem.
In a span of just six months in 1943-1944, this unlikely interfaith alliance would help change the Roosevelt administration's response to the Holocaust, reshape U.S. policy in the Middle East, and redefined the role of Jews in American politics.
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Netanyahu and Kook, born in Europe and raised in British Mandatory Palestine, traveled to the United States in 1940, hoping to mobilize U.S. support for rescuing Europe's Jews from Hitler and creating a Jewish state. "It was a brand new world for us," Netanyahu told me in one of my interviews with him. "I had never been to America. But I had to learn quickly -- there was no time. The world of European Jewry was going up in flames.
Netanyahu became executive director of the U.S. wing of the militant Revisionist Zionist movement. Kook, under the pseudonym Peter Bergson, founded the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe. They organized rallies, placed hard-hitting full-page ads in newspapers, and launched a new era of Jewish political activity in Washington, D.C.
There was no organized Jewish lobby in the nation's capital in those days as there is today. Mainstream Jewish leaders, such as Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, met with members of congress and government officials from time to time, but as strong backers of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, they usually confined their dealings to pro-FDR Democrats. Netanyahu and Bergson, by contrast, actively cultivated ties to prominent Republicans such as former President Hoover and dissident Democrats such as Sen. Thomas.
Thomas, formerly head of the Mormon mission in Japan, was a fervent Christian Zionist. When news of Nazi atrocities against Jews reached America in the 1940s, Thomas became active in both Netanyahu's group and Bergson's, speaking at their rallies and adding his name to their newspaper ads.
In late 1943, Bergson initiated a congressional resolution urging creation of a U.S. government agency to rescue Jews from Hitler. The Roosevelt administration, claiming nothing could be done to save refugees, tried to block the bill. Sen. Thomas, defying the president, persuaded the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to unanimously adopt the measure.
This congressional pressure, combined with behind-the-scenes efforts by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., persuaded FDR to establish the War Refugee Board. The Board ultimately played a major role in saving some 200,000 Jewish refugees. Among other things, it helped finance the life-saving work of the famous Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.
Hoover, who had spearheaded U.S. food relief efforts in Europe during and after World War I, had a strong personal sympathy for refugees. In 1939, the former president endorsed legislation to admit 20,000 German Jewish refugee children outside the immigration quotas. This was a politically risky move, since Hoover was hoping to secure the 1940 Republican presidential nomination, and the GOP was still largely anti-immigration.
President Roosevelt, by contrast, refused to support the child refugee bill. His cousin, Laura Delano Houghteling, wife of the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration, warned "that 20,000 charming children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults.” The bill was buried.
In 1943, Hoover was the keynote speaker at Bergson's national conference on rescue, which challenged the administration's claim that it was impossible to rescue Jews from Hitler.
In 1944, Netanyahu and his colleagues lobbied Hoover and other Republican leaders to include a plank in the GOP platform supporting Zionism. The plank they adopted demanded "refuge for millions of distressed Jewish men, women, and children driven from their homes by tyranny" and establishment of a "free and democratic" Jewish state. This compelled the Democrats to compete for Jewish support and treat the Jewish vote as if it were up for grabs, by adopting an almost identical resolution at their convention the following month.
These events helped ensure that support for Zionism (and later, Israel) would become a permanent part of American political culture. Every subsequent Republican and Democratic convention has adopted a similar plank. To do less became politically inconceivable.
During the postwar years, the Truman administration's Palestine policy was profoundly influenced by concerns that the GOP's support for Zionism could lure Jewish voters away from the Democratic Party. Although 85-90% of U.S. Jews had voted for FDR in 1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944, prominent Republicans were not convinced they would automatically vote for Truman -- especially if Truman wavered on Zionism.
Truman supported the 1947 United Nations vote to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. In the face of Arab hostility, however, Truman soon backed away. In March 1948, he approved a State Department proposal to support "international trusteeship" over Palestine instead of Jewish statehood.
Surprised by the storm of public protests that ensued, Truman tried to blame the trusteeship idea on officials in "the third and fourth levels of the State Department." But as I discovered in the research for my new book, Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the "Jewish Vote" and Bipartisan Support for Israel (coauthored with Prof. Sonja Schoepf Wentling), during the weeks to follow, the administration -- including the first level of the State Department -- continued to promote that policy, and worse.
State's number two man, Undersecretary Robert Lovett, summoned Zionist official Nahum Goldmann to his office on April 22 and read him the riot act. According to Goldmann's account, Lovett said the declaration of a Jewish state --which was being planned for May 15 -- would cause "a general conflagration with terrible repercussions on the world scene." He demanded the Zionists indefinitely postpone the proclamation, threatening that if they did not agree, "we will become very tough. We will wash our hands of the whole situation and will prevent any help being given to you."
Lovett threatened to release a "White Paper" blasting the Zionists, which he said would "do great harm to the Jews in this country." He told Goldmann the paper would have "grave repercussions" for Jews, since "anti-Semitism is mounting in an unprecedented way in groups and circles which are very influential and were never touched by anti-Semitism."
Jewish leaders meeting in New York City the following week voted to support proclaiming a state and ignore the State Department's threat. American Zionist leader Emanuel Neuman told his colleagues that Lovett's threat "did not have to be taken seriously" because "a presidential election [was] due in November" and Truman understood "the vast and bitter repercussions that [an anti-Zionist stance] would create in the American Jewish community."
Indeed, Truman was more than a little worried about the Jewish vote. "The Jews and crackpots seem to be ready to go for [New York governor Thomas] Dewey [in the 1948 presidential race]," Truman complained to the First Lady. White House aide Clark Clifford urged Truman to support Zionism because the Jewish vote was "important" in New York, and New York's 47 electoral votes "are naturally the first prize in any election."
The GOP's nomination of Dewey helped ensure the Empire State would be a battleground state in 1948. At the same time, Dewey, Hoover, and other leading Republicans, joined by dissident Democrats such as Sen. Thomas, enthusiastically championed the cause of Jewish statehood. Truman could read the political handwriting on the wall. Over the strenuous objections of his State Department, he extended U.S. recognition to the new State of Israel within minutes of its proclamation.
But if not for the unlikely alliance of a Quaker expresident, a Mormon senator, and a handful of Zionist emissaries from Jerusalem, those events might well have turned out very differently.
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