The Dangers Are Great, But it Is Not 1938

Stuart Eizenstat | Fri. Apr 20, 2007
There is a growing debate within the American Jewish community about whether the external threats to the Jewish community worldwide are similar to those just before the outbreak of World War II. The challenges now facing world Jewry, however, are not remotely similar — because of the creation of the State of Israel, because of the lessons learned from the Holocaust, because of the integration of Jews into Western societies and, critically, because the most profound challenges facing Israel and world Jewry are shared by the wider world.

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To act on the proposition that the threats today are equivalent to those in 1938 would lead to inappropriate and counterproductive policy responses. Nevertheless, there are significant dangers now facing world Jewry.

In 1938, Adolf Hitler had been in power for five years and had begun to apply anti-Jewish laws while planning the invasion of Europe. His “Final Solution” became official policy later, as a result of both his vehement antisemitism and the failure of the Allied powers to agree to take any additional Jewish refugees, a failure he took as a clear signal that the world’s democracies put a low priority on saving Jewish lives.

In 1938, Palestine was still under the British Mandate, and there was no independent Jewish state to afford a refuge to Jews in danger. Public opinion polls in the United States showed some 40% of the American public held antisemitic stereotypes of Jews and that in Europe there was rampant antisemitism, much of it church-based.

Hitler had a largely free hand in perpetrating the Holocaust, and indeed, in several Eastern European countries local residents facilitated the Nazi genocide. In France, a Vichy regime would soon be created that passed its own anti-Jewish laws and cooperated with German authorities to deport tens of thousands of French Jews to their deaths.