Ken Burns's Holocaust History Has a Palestine ProblemRoundup
tags: Jewish history, Palestine, Zionism, Ken Burns, Holocaust history
Professor Medoff is the founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and the author of more than 20 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust. Professor Penkower is a professor emeritus of modern Jewish history at the Machon Lander Graduate School of Jewish Studies and the author of a five-volume study about the rise of Israel between 1933-1948.
For the past five months, in interviews and press releases about his upcoming documentary, filmmaker Ken Burns has been claiming that the Roosevelt administration accepted more refugees than any other sovereign nation during the Nazi era.
The phrase “sovereign nation” struck us as odd. Ordinarily, one would say, “than any other country.” Why emphasize the word “sovereign?”
Now Burns has let the cat out of the bag. Apparently responding to criticism of his handling of the immigration statistics, Burns admitted to an interviewer from The Daily Beast on September 4 that he has been using the term sovereign nation to distinguish from the fact that people escaped to other places, like Palestine.
Why is Burns trying to disqualify Palestine from the conversation? Why resort to a technicality about sovereignty in order to try to push Palestine out of the discussion?
Even though Palestine was not sovereign, the ruling authorities there – the British – certainly were a sovereign power and they had to make a decision about how many Jews to admit either to the United Kingdom or to the territories under its control. Likewise, president Franklin D. Roosevelt had to make a decision about how many Jews he would admit either to the mainland United States or to the non-sovereign territories it controlled, such as the US Virgin Islands.
Sadly, Roosevelt chose to keep Jews out of the Virgin Islands, despite the offer by the governor and legislative assembly of that territory to open their doors to Jews fleeing Hitler. Treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. specifically raised the possibility of admitting the 930 refugees aboard the infamous ship, the St. Louis, to the Virgin Islands, in June 1939. But Roosevelt said No and the refugees were forced to return to Europe; many of them were murdered in the Holocaust.
If Roosevelt had allowed the St. Louis passengers or other Jewish refugees to stay in the Virgin Islands, surely today we would be crediting him for doing so. We wouldn’t say that rescuing them doesn’t count because the Virgin Islands are not sovereign. The same goes for Palestine.
When we compare the number of Jewish refugees admitted by Roosevelt to the US during the Nazi era and the number admitted by the British to Palestine, we begin to understand the rhetorical game Ken Burns has been playing.