Though the Palestinian Authority, through President Mahmoud Abbas’ speech at the United Nations, formally requested the Security Council to grant full UN membership to an independent Palestine, it is still unclear how this will all play out. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu followed Abbas with his own impassioned speech about the steps and risks that Israel has taken, and is willing to take. “The truth is,” said Netanyahu, “that Israel wants peace. The truth is that I want peace. The truth is that in the Middle East at all times, but especially during these turbulent days, peace must be anchored in security. The truth is that we cannot achieve peace through U.N. resolutions, but only through direct negotiations between the parties. The truth is that so far the Palestinians have refused to negotiate. The truth is that Israel wants peace with a Palestinian state, but the Palestinians want a state without peace. And the truth is you shouldn't let that happen.”
But there are historic chapters and parallels that add significant context to this event that should not be overlooked. In a recent interview with Accuracy in Media, former New York Times reporter-turned-playwright Bernard Weinraub discussed critical events during World War II, in the years leading up to the creation of Israel , that are highly relevant today.
The U.S. establishment turned away as millions of Jews were being slaughtered in Europe. Discussing a play he wrote, “The Accomplices,” that ran in New York in 2007, Weinraub referred to then-President Franklin Roosevelt and top members of his administration, the leading American rabbi of that time, Rabbi Steven Wise, and much of the media, including The New York Times, all of whom failed to confront the reality of the Holocaust as it was occurring. The reasons are complex, and are discussed in the interview, which you can read in full or listen to here.
While President Obama is generally receiving high marks from many Jewish leaders and groups for his speech at the U.N. on Wednesday, some of those same people are wondering if this is the speech he would have given it wasn’t for the fear that ran through Democratic Party following the previous week’s special election results in New York’s ninth congressional district. Ed Koch, former Democratic mayor of New York City, endorsed the Republican to send a message to President Obama. Apparently Koch believes Obama got the message, offering high praise for his speech and acknowledging the change it represented in Obama’s words. In that race to fill the seat vacated by the disgraced Democrat, Anthony Weiner, a conservative Republican Catholic won a significant victory over a Democratic Orthodox Jew in a heavily Jewish district. The seat was also previously held by Democrats going all the way back to 1923, including Sen. Chuck Schumer and VP candidate Geraldine Ferraro.
In a column on Thursday in the Jerusalem Post, Isi Leibler, a columnist for the Post and long-time Jewish activist, questions whether the American Jewish leaders of today, even those representing groups that are very pro-Israel, are sufficiently skeptical of Obama’s position vis a vis Israel. Leibler wrote that “over the past six months, the principal organizations involved in public affairs—the Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations (Presidents Conference), the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Anti- Defamation League (ADL), and Bnai Brith International—while remaining unreservedly committed to Israel have generally been reluctant to explicitly challenge the Obama administration’s pressures and one-sided demands upon Israel.”
Many in the media are focusing on the claim that the Palestinians have made this request for statehood at the UN because of their “frustration” with Israel ’s “intransigence.” But the reality is that Israel has twice in the past 11 years offered them statehood, and Palestinian leaders have rejected the offers. And today, it is very unlikely that the Palestinians will receive as generous an offer as they did in 2000/2001 and 2008. The situation has changed in several respects. Lebanon ’s Cedar Revolution has been replaced by a government dominated by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which, as Prime Minister Netanyahu pointed out in his UN speech today, currently presides over the UN Security Council. The Iranian-backed terrorist group Hamas is in control in Gaza and considered a partner with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. In addition, Turkey and Egypt ’s governments have gone from being friendly, or at least not hostile to Israel , to now being quite hostile and unreliable. And most ominous of all is Iran, still threatening to destroy Israel as it continues to work on developing nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.
Columnist and historian Victor Davis Hanson believes that “The next war against Israel is no longer a matter of if, only when. And it will be far more deadly than any we’ve witnessed in quite some time.” In the same column this week, he wrote that “It is trendy to blame Israel intransigence for all these bleak developments. But to do so is simply to forget history. There were three Arab efforts to destroy Israel before it occupied any borderlands after its victory in 1967. Later, it gave back all of Sinai and yet now faces a hostile Egypt . It got out of Lebanon —and Hezbollah crowed that Israel was weakening, as that terrorist organization moved in and stockpiled thousands of missiles pointed at Tel Aviv. Israel got out of Gaza and earned as thanks both rocket showers and a terrorist Hamas government sworn to destroy the Jewish state.”
The irony is that Obama’s demands on Israel to stop building or adding on to any existing settlements in the West Bank and in their capital city of Jerusalem has led to this intransigence by the Palestinians, who have refused to negotiate with Israel for the past two years, whereas before that the issue was not an obstacle to the two sides getting together.
The parallels with what Bernard Weinraub described in his play, “The Accomplices,” are eerie, if not exact. The Jewish state of Israel is facing its greatest existential threat in its 63 year existence, and America’s government, media, and even in some cases American Jewish leaders are not only refusing to confront this reality, but they are blaming the situation on Israel. The New York Times, only yesterday, said that Israel is most responsible for the lack of movement toward a Palestinian state. “The main responsibility right now,” the Times said in an editorial, “belongs to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel who refuses to make any serious compromises for peace.”
In the interview, Weinraub, who had been a correspondent for The New York Times in Vietnam, Northern Ireland, and London, also discussed some of the changes he witnessed in his 14 years, starting in 1991, as the Times reporter on Hollywood and the film industry.
Below, in quotes, are excerpts from the interview. You can listen to the entire interview or read the transcript here.
“Some time in the ’80s, when I was at the Washington bureau of the Times, I did a story about a film, a documentary, by a fellow named Laurence Jarvik, called Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die…It was a very powerful documentary about this very subject. It was talking about the Bergson Group, but it was really about the government’s response in the 1940s, the Roosevelt administration’s response, and, in some ways, the establishment Jewish response to the Holocaust, to what was going on in Europe. The documentary was on PBS, and it caused all kinds of controversy, mostly by the Roosevelt people, people who said Roosevelt did everything he could... The story so fascinated me because I knew nothing about this, like most people, about Peter Bergson and what the government did and didn’t do...
“Bergson came along—Bergson was a really young man in 1940…when he was 27, came to the United States from Israel, which was Palestine—and, initially, he and his group, they were activists there. They were part of this group called the Irgun. But their initial goal was to come to the United States to get public support to establish a Jewish state in what was British-Mandatory Palestine. In fact, his real name was Hillel Kook, and he changed it to Peter Bergson to make it more American. Bergson himself was an interesting figure, because, although he was part of the underground, and a militant guy, he came from a very well-known family. His uncle was the chief rabbi of Palestine. He came from a very distinguished family. Anyway, Bergson came, and very quickly realized that what was going on in Europe—that is, the slaughter of Jews that was beginning, nobody knew, of course, the scale of it in 1940—took precedence over anything involving possibly establishing a state of Israel . He and his group began campaigning to get as many Jews as possible—who are, obviously, in real danger—to come to the United States , to open the doors of the United States . That was their major goal.
“Rabbi Wise, who was close to FDR, was appalled by the Bergson people. He felt that they were way out of bounds, that they were going public when they shouldn’t have. Rabbi Wise and other Jewish leaders felt that one should not raise the issue publicly. One should not shout out. One should not do what Bergson was doing—because if you do, it would cause anti-Semitism in the country...Their concern was, you had to be quiet. You had to be as quiet as possible—that was Wise’s concern—and you had to support FDR, no matter what. Because FDR was, for Wise and others, the friend of the Jewish people.
“Rabbi Wise felt—and he was correct—that there was a great deal of anti-Semitism in the country. There was Father Coughlin, who had a weekly radio address that had millions and millions of people [listening]. There was Henry Ford, who had these vile anti-Semitic speeches which were on the radio. In New York, in Yorkville, there were pro-Nazi marches. Rabbi Wise and others felt that Jews were vulnerable in the United States , and, as a result, Jews can’t make noise.
“Americans claimed that they did not know about the Holocaust as it was happening. How was it possible that so much information was not available in the mass media? The reasons was that the mass media—The New York Times and other papers—never treated the Holocaust as an important news story. From the start of the war in Europe to the end, the story of the Holocaust made the Times’ front page only 26 times out of 2,400 front pages. Most of the stories refer to the victims as “refugees” or “persecuted minorities.” They were rarely identified as Jews. I’m not, in any way, defending the Times, but the Times was not alone
“If Holocaust stories were put on the front page, [people] certainly would have known about it. But the Times rarely published editorials about the annihilation Europe’s Jews, and, insofar as I can tell, only once ran a lead editorial about Nazi genocide—
“The Times was run by a very assimilated Jewish family of German descent—that they would be seen as engaging in some kind of special pleading for Jews, and deliberately downplayed the news of the Holocaust and the Jewish identity of the victims. Certainly, even executive editors of the Times in recent years, like Abe Rosenthal or Max Frankel, talked about this. On any kind of coverage of Jewish issues, the Times was, at that time, in the ’30s and ’40s, was very, very ambivalent and very skittish, and went out of its way not to even use the word “Jew.” When the death camps were finally liberated, the coverage downplayed the fact that the victims and the survivors were overwhelmingly Jews. There was just an effort to avoid using the word “Jew.” That’s how the family felt.
“There are certainly stories about the government blocking, or rejecting, the idea of bombing the railway lines into Auschwitz. They certainly could have done that. Even if it would have stopped the slaughter for one day, or two days, or three days, of thousands of people, it would have had that effect. So the government certainly could have done more in terms of rescue, and in terms of bombing or going after the areas where the death camps were. The government never really did that.”