Book Review: FDR, Rabbi Wise and the truth

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When I was young, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was spoken of highly by members of my family. As the years passed and more information about FDR – particularly the way he manipulated people and the media – was revealed to the public, my feelings about him changed. A new book offers an even more disturbing view of FDR, particularly his positions about Jewish immigration and the Holocaust. In “The Jews Should Keep Quiet: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise” (The Jewish Publication Society), Rafael Medoff shows how FDR successfully manipulated Rabbi Stephen S. Wise to prevent the Jewish community from publicly protesting his policies relating to the Jews of Europe. However, Medoff also shows how Wise’s own blinders about FDR and his refusal to form coalitions with those who did not support progressive policies prevented him from being an effective voice for European Jews. 
Although FDR’s policies for the United States were progressive, his attitude toward Jews and immigration were not. While FDR was not in favor of the Nazi government, he strove to keep the U.S. on good terms with Germany before the war. It’s clear that FDR was antisemitic – a mild, aristocratic form that allowed him to be friends with some Jews. Medoff notes that FDR’s “private remarks about Jews seem to allude to a distinction in his mind between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Jews.” In addition, “Roosevelt’s unflattering statements about Jews consistently reflected one of several interrelated notions: that it was undesirable to have too many Jews in any single profession, institution, or geographic locale; that America was Protestant by nature, and should remain so, an overwhelmingly white Protestant country; and that Jews on the whole possessed certain innate and distasteful characteristics.” This was, of course, not the side of himself FDR showed to Wise.
The reality was that FDR had no desire to allow the Jews of Europe to enter the United States. Not only did he not want increased immigration, he supported the State Department’s refusal to fill the quotas that were already in place. For example, the annual immigrant quota in 1936 for Germany was 25,957, but only 20 percent of those spots were used. This was not a one time thing, but something that consistently occurred during the pre-war years. One of the excuses was that an influx of Jews into this country might lead to a rise in antisemitism, a thought that did resonate with some Jewish leaders. FDR led Wise to believe the lack of immigration was not caused by the White House in order to prevent Jewish protests against his immigration policies. That was where FDR’s manipulation of Wise was most successful.
Medoff shows that Wise was very proud of his relationship with FDR, as if FDR was a personal friend. It becomes clear, though, that FDR manipulated Wise to prevent Jews from publicly protesting his policies before and during the war. Since Wise was a supporter of FDR’s other policies, he felt conflicted between what he felt was good for the country and what was good for the Jews of Europe. Wise sought to gather support from progressive Christian leaders, who disappointed him with their lack of interest. For Wise, FDR’s re-election was extremely important and that overrode any thoughts he had about Jewish immigration. 
Medoff notes that “a Christian outcry might have prompted President Roosevelt to at least permit the quota of legal immigrants from Germany to be filled to the legal limits, a step that would have resulted in a haven for tens of thousands of Jews in 1933-1934... For such an outreach effort to have succeeded, however, Rabbi Wise and his colleagues would have needed to seek the support of clergy from across the religious and political spectrum. This is not to say that all evangelical or conservative Christians necessarily would have been responsive to such appeals, but it is likely that Wise would have found at least some support from fundamentalists who regarded the rescue of Jews, and especially the prospect of Jews ingathered to the Holy Land, as precursors to the messianic age.” Unfortunately, Wise couldn’t see past his progressive political leaning to approach them.
Not all members of the Jewish community agreed with Wise’s policies, but Wise did his best to silence those who opposed him. He was not above trying to smear their names in the community or suggest that their policies would be disastrous. Rather than respecting those who disagreed with him, he saw them as a personal threat to his position in the community. This was even during the last days of the war, when Wise’s health prevented him from being effective: he was reluctant to turn the reins over to someone with more energy to pursue the work. Medoff shows how Wise reacted badly to everyone from rabbinical students who wanted to take a more active role in supporting immigration to Zionist representatives who wanted to change American policy to allow Jews to enter Palestine. Wise’s feelings about FDR blinded him to the way he was being manipulated. As the author notes, “[Wise’s] interactions with Roosevelt were shaped by his deep personal loyalty to the man, his policies, and his party. In private correspondence, Wise revered FDR as ‘the great man’ and ‘the All Highest’... Wise wrote to a friend... ‘[his] election is not only essential to the well-being of America, but to the highest interests of the human race.’” Unfortunately, FDR was not deserving of Wise’s high opinion.
“The Jew Should Keep Quiet” contains far more material than can be discussed in this review. Of particular interest to some readers will be the arguments about American policy relating to Palestine, and the difference between Wise and those Zionist leaders who wanted the U.S. to pressure Britain to allow for more immigration. FDR’s thoughts on the matter were clearly in line with his other thoughts about Jews: he was not going to do anything to actively support immigration to Palestine. Also shown is FDR’s refusal to bomb railway tracks leading to concentration camps or to allow immigrants to travel on warships returning to the U.S. that could have easily transported them. Medoff clearly shows both men with all their flaws: a manipulative, uncaring FDR, whom I can no longer bring myself to admire, and Wise, who let his ego get in the way of protecting the Jewish community. Neither comes off as the hero he would like to have been. Readers interested in American Jewish history or American politics will definitely want to read this unsettling, but important, work.