By Menachem Z. Rosensaft
There can be no question that the recently released White House recordings by the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum revealed one of the ugliest remarks ever uttered in the Oval Office.”The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” then National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger told President Nixon in a March 1973 conversation. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”Immediately after these reprehensible comments were made public, I wrote in the New York Jewish Week that they laid bare not just Kissinger’s quasi-obscene obsequiousness but also, perhaps more significantly, his utter lack of any moral compass.Kissinger’s words and behavior stand in stark contrast to other American Jews who have held major governmental and political positions. Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, wrote in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz that Kissinger “was not the first Jewish adviser to an American president who urged his boss to refrain from rescuing Jews.” Medoff specifically pointed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s adviser and speechwriter Samuel Rosenman who opposed the creation of a federal agency to save Jews from Nazi persecution and mass murder during World War II.True enough. Medoff failed to mention, however, that FDR’s Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., successfully fought for the creation of what became the War Refugee Board. Morgenthau also squarely confronted anti-Semites and anti-Semitism within the Roosevelt administration. In The Abandonment of the Jews, America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945, historian David S. Wyman, for whom Medoff’s institute is named, described how Morgenthau told Breckinridge Long, the Assistant Secretary of State responsible for the Visa Division, that “the impression is all around that you, particularly, are anti-Semitic!”Morgenthau was not the first Jewish American government official to speak out forcefully on behalf of persecuted Jews. Morgenthau’s father, Henry Morgenthau, who served as US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913 to 1916, called public attention to the plight of the Jewish minority in Palestine. In 1915, the senior Morgenthau also alerted the Wilson administration to the widespread massacre of Armenians by Ottoman forces in what he called “a campaign of race extermination.”One of Morgenthau’s predecessors as US Minister to Constantinople, Oscar S. Straus, had similarly used his office to intervene on behalf of Jews who had been imprisoned in Jerusalem and were awaiting deportation. Subsequently, as President Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of Commerce and Labor, Straus did his utmost to help Jewish refugees from Russian pogroms in the face of restrictive US immigration laws.”Genuinely proud of his Jewish heritage,” Straus’s biographer, Naomi W. Cohen, wrote of him, “he rarely felt handicapped because of it. Rather than choose between Americanism and Judaism, or even feel required to compartmentalize the two as separate entities, he worked out a different solution to the problem of identity which confronted all emancipated Jews. He fused his Jewish ideals with his interpretation of Americanism.”Along the same lines, New York Governor Herbert H. Lehman declared in a 1936 address at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America that, “Judaism stands in persistent protest against the exploitation or oppression of any human being. It insists that each man, woman and child is an incarnation of God, is entitled to the fullest life.”While a member of the United States Supreme Court during the 1930’s, Justice Louis D. Brandeis continued to be an outspoken Zionist and pleaded personally on several occasions with President Roosevelt to pressure the British government to ease its harsh restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine.More recently, after former United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim had been exposed as a Nazi who had consistently lied about his past, US Ambassador to Austria, Ronald S. Lauder, who went on to become President of the World Jewish Congress, distinguished himself by refusing to attend Waldheim’s inauguration as President of Austria.