A lighthearted conversation between two Jewish comedians, Seth Rogen and Marc Maron, aimed to promote a new film, An American Pickle, recently landed actor Seth Rogen in a pickle with the Jewish community. Rogen stated, “You don’t keep something you’re trying to preserve all in one place.” Rogen dismissed rather perfunctorily one of the most compelling arguments for modern-day Zionism, which Golda Meir summarized best: “Israel itself is the strongest guarantee against another Holocaust.” Unfortunately, Rogen’s ambivalent position is not unique among younger generations of Jews.
As I point out in my op-ed in support of the bipartisan Holocaust Education bill, the “Never Again Education Act,” such views have a lot to do with a growing ignorance among younger generations of the history of the Holocaust. (The History News Network). We urgently need to impart to the younger generations the knowledge of history that the older generations have acquired. The Shoah revealed that few nations cared about the catastrophic fate of the European Jews during the Holocaust. Even the United States didn’t do much to help them.
In what follows I’d like to look back briefly at two salient moments of U.S. history: 1) the American response to the Holocaust; and 2) the American response to the State of Israel during the Kennedy administration, in order to advance two interrelated arguments:
- Perpetuating knowledge of the Holocaust is very important in reminding Jews and the international community of one of the main reasons why the Jewish people need a Jewish state, and
- The international community, including the United States, is more, rather than less, likely to remain united behind Israel if the country continues to be a strong modern state.
‘America First’ and the Holocaust
If any country could have saved a significant proportion of European Jews from the Holocaust, it was the United States. Reliable news about concentration camps trickled into the country in 1942 via the World Jewish Congress and the State Department. In 1942, the Allies received reliable information about Hitler’s plans to annihilate the Jews. This news came from three main sources: Nazi leaders uncomfortable with Hitler’s plans to destroy the Jews; Polish officers opposed to the Nazi regime occupying their country; and Jewish escapees or other eyewitnesses.
Other reliable sources corroborated this information. Gerhart M. Riegner, the leader of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, met with the British and American consuls to warn them about Hitler’s plans for the annihilation of the European Jews. Gerhart asked the Allied governments to investigate these claims and to inform Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress, about them. The government officials didn’t deliver this critical information immediately. When Rabbi Wise finally received the news, he and other Jewish leaders set up a meeting with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on Dec. 8, 1942. They informed him that about 2 million Jews had been killed by death squads and in concentration camps (whereas the actual figure was double).
Despite making some vague promises, the president chose not to do anything to help the European Jews. The United States did not offer a safe haven for Jewish refugees; it did not bomb the Auschwitz gas chambers (despite doing recognizance flights around Auschwitz and bombing its Monowitz Buna Werke factory), and it did not try to prevent the deportations and killings of more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews in the spring of 1944. Ultimately, the Roosevelt administration did not want to give the impression that the United States was fighting a “mercenary” war on behalf of the European Jews, many of whom might have been saved were it not for this policy of “America First.”
The meeting between John F. Kennedy and Golda Meir
Today we may take for granted that the U.S. is Israel’s strongest ally. But this wasn’t always the case. As Francine Klagsbrun observes in her monumental biography of Golda Meir, Lioness, before John F. Kennedy, American presidents did not offer their full support to Israel when the new nation was struggling to get on its feet. Golda Meir’s second historic meeting with Kennedy in 1963, while the president was on holiday in Florida, changed U.S. policy towards Israel to the strong alliance that the two countries share this day.
Meir asked Kennedy to sell to Israel Hawk missiles in order to help the country defend itself from antagonistic Arab neighbors. She impresed upon the president that, without the State of Israel, the Jews would once again be exterminated—only this time for good. “If we should lose our sovereignty again, those of us who would remain alive—and there wouldn’t be very many—would be dispersed once more. But we no longer have the great reservoir we once had of our religion, our culture, and our faith. We lost much of that when six million Jews perished in the Holocaust.’ ” (Lioness, 347-348). The president seemed deeply affected by her exhortations. “ ‘Kennedy leaned over to me. He took my hand, looked into my eyes and said very solemnly, ‘I understand, Mrs. Meir. Don’t worry. Nothing will happen to Israel.’ And I think that he truly did understand” (Lioness, 348).
With her characteristic mixture of realism and idealism, Meir urged Israel to pursue peace with its neighbors from a position of strength. “So to those who ask, ‘What of the future?’ I still have only one answer: I believe that we will have peace with our neighbors, but I am sure that no one will make peace with a weak Israel. If Israel is not strong, there will be no peace.’ ” (Lioness, 460). Her words seem prophetic now in light of the recent Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Her persuasive arguments to Kennedy, reminding him of the painful legacy of the Holocaust and the urgent need for a strong and well-defended state for the Jewish people, ring truer than ever today.
Claudia Moscovici is a literary critic and author of “Holocaust Memories,” a new survey of Holocaust memoirs, histories, novels and films.