Religious Zionist leader Rabbi Meyer Bar-Ilan played a previously unheralded role in trying to stir U.S. officials to rescue Jews from the Holocaust, according to new research.
Writing in the Fall 2014 issue of Jewish Action, which is published by the Orthodox Union, historian Rafael Medoff documents a previously unheralded lobbying effort by Rabbi Bar-Ilan in the United States in 1943.
Dr. Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of numerous books about the Holocaust and Zionism, including The Historical Dictionary of Zionism
Known at the time as Meyer Berlin, the rabbi was one of the founding fathers of Mizrachi, the religious Zionist movement, and he established the American branch of the organization in 1914. He was the youngest son of Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the famed rabbinical sage known as the Netziv.
Dr. Medoff describes how Rabbi Bar-Ilan traveled to Washington in early 1943
in order to undertake "a remarkable one-man lobbying mission to Capitol Hill, at a time when there was no organized Jewish lobby in Washington as we know it."
His first meeting, with Senate Majority Leader (and future vice president) Alben Barkley, did not go well. Rabbi Berlin spoke about what he called "the amazing and utter silence of the United States Government in regard to the terrible situation of the Jews in Nazi-occupied lands." But, according to the rabbi's diary, Senator Barkley "had no knowledge at all" of the plight of Europe's Jews, even though by then it had been amply publicized. Appealing to Senator Barkley to take action, Rabbi Berlin reminded him that "God Almighty sends his blessing to those peoples who stand by the Jews in their time of peril."
SAVING HORSES INSTEAD OF JEWS
Rabbi Berlin's meeting with Senator Robert Wagner of New York did not go much better, according to Dr. Medoff. He found the senator "lukewarm" on the issue of rescuing Jews. Wagner even tried to change the subject to the status of Jews in the Soviet Union, whom he claimed were "well situated." Rabbi Berlin remarked, "If horses were being slaughtered as are the Jews of Poland, there would by now be a loud demand for organized action against such cruelty to animals. Somehow, when it concerns Jews, everybody remains silent, including the intellectuals and humanitarians of free and enlightened America."
Dr. Medoff points out that two years later, "in a sad fulfillment of Rabbi Berlin's dire prediction, U.S. General George Patton would divert U.S. troops to rescue 150 prized Lippizzaner dancing horses, which were caught between Allied and Axis forces along the German-Czech border."
Rabbi Berlin's meeting with Vice President Henry Wallace was equally frustrating. The rabbi urged Wallace to support creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, both as a matter of justice and to help save Jews fleeing from Hitler. But Wallace replied, according to Rabbi Berlin's diary, that "many groups in American Jewry were totally against Zionism and he had no right to consider the opinion of one group in preference to another."
Dr. Medoff reports that Wallace "mentioned his conversation with Rabbi Berlin to Congressman Sol Bloom, a Jewish Democrat from New York who strongly supported the Roosevelt administration's positions on Zionism and refugees. Bloom told Wallace that 'the Zionists were troublemakers; if I had any more trouble with fellows like Rabbi Berlin to send them over to him.' "
Rabbi Berlin found a more receptive audience when he met with a Republican congressman, House Minority Leader Joseph Martin. "The congressman was apparently touched by my words….'That is surely wrong,' [Martin] exclaimed" when Berlin described the plight of the Jews. Martin pledged to "try to do his very best" to press the British on Palestine.
Berlin noted later in his diary that "Congressman Martin has, until now, not been approached at all about Zionist or general Jewish matters and it is truly a pity that we are neglecting people of this calibre."
GALVANIZING JEWISH LEADERS
Dr. Medoff also recounts how Rabbi Berlin took part in meetings of senior American Jewish leaders in the spring and summer of 1943, and tried to prod them to respond more actively to the Holocaust. At one meeting, he "complained bitterly about the indifference, inadequate action and lack of feeling [about European Jewry] on the part of American Jews, " according to the minutes of the discussion.
But Rabbi Berlin was himself the target of criticism from mainstream Jewish leaders such as Dr. Stephen S. Wise, head of the American Jewish Congress. Wise condemned Berlin for "violating Zionist discipline" by establishing a Mizrachi lobbying operation in Washington. Rabbi Berlin agreed to shut down the office in exchange for a promise by Wise that the established Jewish groups would set up a lobbying unit of their own "within a few weeks." Dr. Medoff notes that in the end, it took six months, rather than a few weeks, for Wise and his colleagues to open that office.
Rabbi Berlin returned to Eretz Yisrael in late 1943, and soon afterwards Hebraicized his name to Bar-Ilan. He passed away in 1949, at age 69. The university which bears his name was established six years later.