An Irresistible CallYonoson Rosenblum
The name James G. McDonald deserves to be a familiar one
Wednesday, December 26, 201
Even among those broadly familiar with efforts to rescue the Jews of Europe both before the outbreak of World War II and during the war, the name James G. McDonald is not a familiar one. It should be, as I learned this week at a screening of a documentary on his life — A Voice Among the Silent — at Jerusalem's Menachem Begin Center.
His name was not entirely unfamiliar to me, but I knew McDonald primarily as the first US ambassador to Israel. One day, in the middle of a shiur on perek Chelek in Sanhedrin, Rav Moshe Shapira, zt:l, whose second yahrtzeit just passed, mentioned a comment from McDonald's diary of his time in Israel: He described Israel as the only country in the world in which 25 percent of every government plan explicitly relies on miracles.
McDonald was one of the first to take Hitler's genocidal rhetoric against the Jews seriously and to attempt to warn the world — most prominently President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Pope Pius XII — against him. As chairman of the Foreign Policy Association from 1919 to 1933, he traveled frequently to Germany. His fluent German — his mother was German-born — and Aryan appearance, enabled him to win the trust of the Nazis.
In April 1933, he met with two senior Nazi officials to discuss their economic plans for the country. But within 15 minutes, the Nazis drifted "back to the subject of the Jews, which seems to be an obsession with so many Nazis." When he showed himself to be repulsed by their remarks, they asked in surprise, "But surely you, a perfect type of Aryan, should not be unsympathetic to our views."
In a subsequent meeting that year with Hitler himself yemach shemo, Hitler confided, "Everyone would love to be rid of the Jews. I will show them how."
Unlike many who dismissed Hitler's ranting as mere rhetoric, McDonald took him at his word. He had witnessed, long before Kristallnacht, the boycotts of Jewish businesses, the brutality of Nazi thugs, and, perhaps worst of all, the rapture of Germans when Hitler spewed hatred of the Jews at mass rallies.
McDonald took on the chairmanship of the High Commission for Refugees Coming from Germany in 1933, and in that capacity set out to sound the alarm. A supporter and personal friend of FDR, McDonald pressed him to act. But FDR either rebuffed his efforts or made promises and did not follow through.
McDonald beseeched FDR to condemn the Nazis' treatment of the Jews to no avail. Never once in any of his famed "fireside chats" did FDR ever mention the plight of European Jews. The immigration quotas from Germany and Austria went unfilled until 1938. Indeed Undersecretary of State Breckinridge Long, with FDR's knowledge, cut those quotas in half twice, on the grounds that the German Jewish refugees might be German spies or communists.
Finally, in December 1935, McDonald resigned as chairman of the High Commission for Refugees in protest over American inaction and went public with his criticisms of the Roosevelt administration.
In 1939, when the Cuban government refused to allow the SS St. Louis to dock in Havana and retroactively revoked the visas held by the over 900 German Jewish refugees on board, McDonald pressed FDR to admit the passengers to the United States. When that request was denied, he worked out a plan whereby they would be admitted to the US Virgin Islands.
FDR relayed to McDonald the rejection of the proposal by Secretary of State Cordell Hull on the grounds that the refugees could only be admitted on tourist visas. And one of the requirements of a tourist visa is that the visa-holder has a home to which to return — something that German Jews, who had been stripped of their citizenship by the Nazis, did not have. In a perfect catch-22 situation, the 937 passengers on board the SS St. Louis were sent back to Europe because they had no place to which to return in Europe. Approximately a quarter of those on board would eventually lose their lives in German concentration camps.
All McDonald's efforts were not for naught. He had a role in persuading some South American governments, including Argentina and Bolivia, to admit thousands of Jews in the 1930s. And he partnered with American journalist Varian Fry, who was working in Vichy-controlled southern France, to secure Special Visitors Visas for leading European intellectuals, including noted roshei yeshivah. He was the advisor to the American delegation to the failed 1938 Évian Conference, which utterly failed to win any Western support for accepting refugees.
The overriding concern revealed by the conference was not that Hitler would refuse to let out Jews under German control, but that he would allow Jews to emigrate. The conference signaled to Hitler that his persecution of Jews would rouse little opposition in the Western world. But, at least, the dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, did agree to accept 5,000 Jewish refugees. And between 1938 and 1940, the US for the first time used up the full German and Austrian immigration quotas, and even exceeded them by 10,000.
Only when four tough-minded, non-Jewish lawyers at the Treasury Department, led by Josiah DuBois, presented Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. with a "Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government to the Murder of the Jews," did Morgenthau agree to finally confront FDR about State Department hostility to Jewish rescue. FDR was forced to agree to the creation of the War Refugee Board, which he had long opposed. The WRB, in the estimate of David Wyman, author of the seminal The Abandonment of the Jews, helped save between 200,000 and 400,000 Jews.
The Holocaust left McDonald a passionate lifelong advocate for the Jewish People. As a member of the joint postwar Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on opening Palestine to Jewish refugees, McDonald was the only member to support for a Jewish state. And when British prime minister Clement Attlee, and, in his wake, American president Harry Truman, wavered on implementing the committee's recommendation to permit 100,000 Jewish immigrants to Palestine, McDonald warned Truman that he would be an "anathema" if he did not support the recommendation.
Truman was convinced. Subsequently, Truman appointed McDonald — over fierce opposition from Secretary of State George Marshall and Secretary of Defense James Forrestal — as his representative to the provisional Jewish government in Palestine and eventually as the first US ambassador. In the latter role, McDonald clashed frequently with the State Department, for example in recommending American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. At least until Ambassador David Friedman, McDonald was, in the judgment of Hebrew University professor Shlomo Slonim, "the most committed and friendly ambassador Israel ever had."
McDonald would describe his lifelong advocacy on behalf of the Jewish People as "an irresistible call."
FOLLOWING the screening of Shuli Eshel's documentary, she and historian Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of important works on FDR's inaction (FDR and the Holocaust) and the general apathy of American Jewry during the Holocaust (The Deafening Silence) led an audience discussion.
The discussion focused on a recently opened 5,000-square-foot exhibit at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum entitled "Americans and the Holocaust" from which the name James McDonald is totally omitted. That omission is especially strange given that the Holocaust Museum possesses all 10,000 pages of McDonald's neatly typed diaries, and is the co-publisher of four volumes of those diaries to date.
Medoff argued, creditably I think, the reason behind expunging McDonald from the record is that the US Holocaust Museum does not want to challenge the general Jewish adulation of FDR until today.
That inability to criticize FDR set the precedent for the reluctance of American Jews to give primacy to "narrow" Jewish interests, even Jewish survival itself. Support for President Obama's Iran deal is but the latest installment.
And the reason is not hard to find. Once any awareness of a unique Jewish historical mission is lost, concern with Jewish survival becomes a narrow parochial issue. Cut off from Torah, the majority of American Jews no longer see the continued existence of the Jewish People as vital.