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A municipal radio station used for attacks on Zionism. Angry Jewish protests. Politicians jumping into the controversy. Jewish leaders and activists divided over how to deal with the crisis.
Sounds like something from today’s headlines? Try 1937.
Seventy-five years ago this month, an Arab-Jewish controversy with some parallels to our own time erupted in New York City.
The trouble began on Saturday night, June 5, when the New York City-owned radio station, WNYC, aired three strident anti-Zionist speeches. Amin Rihani, visiting leader of the Pan-Arab Movement, declared in his remarks that Jews should establish their homeland in Texas. Harvard philosophy professor W. E. Hocking warned American Jews they would be suspected of “divided allegiance” if a Jewish state were established. And Arab-American activist Faris Malouf accused Jews of “forcing political Zionism on Palestine.”
Within minutes of the broadcast’s conclusion, according to the Yiddish daily Morgen Zhurnal, “the telephones at WNYC were ringing off the hook with calls from Jews wanting to know how it could air such an anti-Jewish abomination.” Another Yiddish newspaper, Der Tog, published two editorials strongly criticizing WNYC.
Several Jewish organizations also quickly protested.
The National Council of Young Israel declared that it “resents deeply the aid and comfort given by a New York City institution to the defenders of the Arab looters, rapers, and murderers of Jewish old men, women, and children in the Holy Land.”
Rabbi Louis I. Newman of Manhattan’s Rodeph Sholom synagogue, who headed the U.S. wing of the Revisionist Zionist movement, denounced WNYC for airing “anti-Jewish incitement.” He warned that Palestinian Arab rioters would “make capital of [the] fact that their agents here obtained facilities of [a] municipal radio station.”
Brooklyn Alderman (city councilman) Samson Inselbuch leaped into the fray with a resolution calling on the city to “repudiate” the anti-Zionist speakers and to give equal time to supporters of Zionism. Inselbuch suggested that since the United States was on record as supporting creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine, the WNYC broadcast was, in effect, anti-American.
Frederick J. H. Kracke, the city official responsible for WNYC, was summoned to appear before the Board of Aldermen on June 14.
But Kracke was able to turn the tables on his critics when, on the eve of the hearing, four major Jewish organizations signed a letter supporting WNYC. The American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith, and National Council of Jewish Women declared that the pro-Arab broadcast was anti-Zionist but not anti-Semitic, and WNYC therefore had merely given a platform to a legitimate expression of free speech.
Many recent debates over Israel have likewise focused on whether hostility toward the Jewish state is anti-Semitic, and thus beyond the bounds of legitimate discourse, or simply represents disagreement with Israeli policies.
Supporters of Israel usually regard references to Jews having “divided allegiance”—as the 1937 speakers alleged—as constituting anti-Semitism. Much of the criticism of the controversial 2007 book “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, focused on the authors’ suggestion that many American Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the United States.
The 1937 controversy collapsed almost as quickly as it had arisen. Once Kracke read the Jewish groups’ letter aloud at the hearing, Alderman Inselbunch’s call for the city to repudiate the broadcast had no chance of gaining his colleagues' support. Kracke, however, threw a bone to his critics, by agreeing to give airtime to several pro-Zionist speakers.
Most of those involved in the 1937 debate did not know it, but the fight over WNYC was actually tangled up in an unsuccessful early round of secret Arab-Jewish diplomacy. Philanthropist Felix M. Warburg and several other wealthy New York Jews were just then trying to persuade a Palestinian Arab leader, Izzat Tannous, to meet with them privately to discuss ways to settle the Palestine conflict.
Tannous took advantage of the opportunity to ask Warburg to intervene in support of WNYC and to prevent the firing of the station official responsible for the broadcast. After all, Tannous argued, “the Jews are very powerful in this city.” Warburg agreed to intervene, hoping such a gesture would facilitate the secret negotiations he was seeking.
Ultimately, one Arab-Jewish meeting did indeed materialize: on July 14, Warburg and several other prominent officials of the American Jewish Committee met in New York City with a three-man Palestinian Arab delegation. But hopes that moderation would prevail fizzled as the Arab spokesmen insisted there could never be a Jewish state of any size, and that Jewish immigration must be halted when the Jews reached 40-45 percent of Palestine’s population.
Did the secret Arab-Jewish meetings of yesteryear represent a missed opportunity to achieve peace? Or were they just another example of Arab intransigence making peace impossible? Those questions, in only slightly modified form, remain central to today’s debates over the chances for Middle East peace.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and coauthor, with Prof. Sonja Schoepf Wentling, of the new book “Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the ‘Jewish Vote’ and Bipartisan Support for Israel.”