Fallacy of ‘Presentism’ in Judging FDR & Jews in WW 2


Prof. Lipstadt

On March 6th, the renowned Holocaust historian Deborah E. Lipstadt lectured at Manhattan’s famed Temple Emanu-El. She spoke with obvious erudition and considerable charm on a difficult subject: “On America, The Holocaust, And Playing the Blame Game.” I had blogged here on a related topic last fall, “How FDR Was Influenced by Anti-Semitism.”
Prof. Lipstadt readily stipulates that the US administration should have done more to let in Jewish refugees, especially during the 1930s, but she warns against judging Franklin D. Roosevelt and the American Jewish community of that time too harshly from the moral standpoint and knowledge of events that we came to have in the post-war years; she characterizes such an imposition of present standards on past eras as a fallacy called “presentism.” She also criticized those in the pro-FDR “defensive school”–including Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., William vanden Heuvel and Lucy Dawidowicz–who indignantly countered that the US did all it could to save Jews during the ’30s and ’40s.
I personally know the latter not to be true, given my parents’ narrow escape from the Nazis–no thanks to Roosevelt’s Department of State–as I wrote about in a Meretz USA blog post in 2009:

My own parents almost fell victim to the antisemitic policy of the US State Dept. in 1941, which was explicitly directed by [Assistant] Secretary of State [Breckinridge] Long to obstruct lawful Jewish immigrants as much as possible. The US consulate in Belgrade, Yugoslavia made my father go through totally unnecessary hoops before handing him visas that had already been authorized; if the Germans had attacked Yugoslavia weeks or even days earlier than they did, this policy would have succeeded in getting my parents murdered.

Lipstadt believes that it’s not by accident that the critics of FDR and the American Jewish establishment during the Nazi era emerged after Menachem Begin’s Likud broke the Laborite monopoly on power in Israel, with its electoral victories in 1977 and in the 1980s. But since the first such book was written by Arthur D. Morse in 1967 (“While Six Million Died”), I don’t necessarily see a cause & effect here. I also don’t see how an ideological backlash to Labor’s decades in power would explain the biting examination by the non-Jewish American historian David S. Wyman (e.g., “The Abandonment of the Jews”). All in all, I think that Wyman and some other critics of FDR and the organized Jewish community (such as the activists of the Bergson Group) may be closer to the mark.
Still, her point about “presentism” is a good one, and if her description of this debate is accurate, she is right to be disturbed by its vituperative tone. While I share her general view that most American Jews were not indifferent toward the fate of their fellow Jews in Europe, they were too easily taken in by the conviction that Roosevelt was totally on their side.
FDR, the head of what Jew haters at the time dubbed the “Jew Deal”–because of the unprecedented number of Jews in his administration–was not their enemy, but he also was less than a great friend at this hour of need. This master politician had to be maneuvered into active and direct policies to rescue Jews with the creation of the War Refugee Board in January 1944—too late for most Jews living and dying under the black shadow of the SS. I write about this tragic episode and the ongoing argument left in its wake in a review of two books on this subject, in the upcoming summer print issue of Tikkun.

0 thoughts on “Fallacy of ‘Presentism’ in Judging FDR & Jews in WW 2

  1. I grew up in the working-class and very Jewish area of Boyle Heights on the east side of L.A. during this period. Far from being insensitive to the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi’s on our people, I can remember many meetings and events and demonstrations that took place there and in the wider Jewish community, embracing Jews of a variety of political and religious as well as secular convictions. The one thing that seemed universal was a very real desire to help, coupled with a very real sence of helplessness. FDR was almost universally beloved among Jews of this time. They didn’t want to make trouble for him and relied on him to do the best that America could. There was a lot we didn’t know, from the waste of bombs jetisoned on open land and a policy that did not allow the bombing of the Camps under any circumstances. Jews still felt like guests in the home of the goyim and acted accordingly. Jews still weren’t employed in management positions by the large Corporations, like ATT and Standard Oil. It wasn’t until the sixties, the civil rights struggles, the anti-war movements and the Six Day War that Jews really began to step out in the greater Community with high levels lof assurance and dignity. It wan’t long after that that an American-Jewish right wing seriously began to develop as Jews asserted themselves and became a growing segment of the upper-middle and upper classes. It was about that time that I first was told we were no longer “a minority.” We were becoming a part of the dominent white society and culture. What is called Presentism is therefore quite dangerous if one wishes to have a true appreciation of the historic context through which we travelled. But I do marvel at how the assumptions, even mine, have changed and evolved.

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