“Do you want to start a Holy Jihad?”
That blunt question, posed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to startled American Jewish leaders in 1944, never seems to go away, as the latest events in the Middle East suggest. Then, as now, the question of whether America’s behavior is what provokes jihadists was hotly debated.
Rabbis Stephen S. Wise and Abba Hillel Silver, the two foremost Jewish leaders of their era, met with Roosevelt in the White House on March 9, 1944. They wanted the United States to press the British to open Palestine to Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler.
FDR replied that if the U.S. did so, “enraged Arabs” would attack American GIs in the Middle East. “Do you want to be responsible by your action for the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives?” he asked them. “Do you want to start a Holy Jihad?”
That was one of many instances in which administration officials cited the fear of provoking Arab violence as the basis for U.S. policy in the Middle East or America’s response to the plight of Jews fleeing from the Nazis.
On Jan. 17, 1943, Roosevelt met in Casablanca, Morocco, with local government officials following the Allies’ liberation of the region from the Nazis. One topic they discussed was whether North Africa’s 330,000 Jews should have their pre-war equal rights restored.
FDR argued that “the number of Jews engaged in the practice of the professions (law, medicine, etc.) should be definitely limited to the percentage that the Jewish population in North Africa bears to the whole of the North African population,” so that local Arabs would not be angered. He stated that his plan would further eliminate the specific and understandable complaints which the Germans bore toward the Jews in Germany.
In the end, public protests in the United States forced the Roosevelt administration to implement equal rights for the Jews of North Africa. The feared Arab backlash did not materialize.
In the meantime, the administration spotted another possible jihad-provoker: a series of full-page newspaper ads by the activist Bergson Group urging creation of a Jewish army to fight alongside the Allies against the Nazis.
U.S. envoy Harold Hoskins, sent by FDR to scout out the situation in the Mideast, reported back in April 1943 that “if the issues of a Jewish political state and of a Jewish army continue to be pressed at this time,” the Arabs would instigate “a very bloody conflict” and drag the Allies into it. This would plant “the seeds of a possible third World War,” the State Department concluded, urging an Allied ban on all public discussion of Palestine until the end of the war.
Roosevelt approved the proposed ban, but after Jewish leaders protested, and after Secretary of War Henry Stimson called the warnings about Arab violence “alarmist,” the president backed down.
FDR made the same claim when Sen. Robert Taft (R-Ohio) in 1944 introduced a resolution affirming U.S. support for creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine. Roosevelt told his Cabinet the resolution would be “responsible for the death of a hundred thousand men.” As a result of the administration's opposition, the resolution was temporarily shelved. A year later, though, Congress passed it — and no Arab rioting ensued.
Jewish leaders rejected the Roosevelt administration’s line of reasoning. They doubted a congressional resolution would cause World War III. They felt sure that whatever limited Arab violence might erupt could be kept in check if the Allies showed a firm hand. And they understood that some Arab or Muslim extremists would always oppose the West, regardless of Western behavior.
In her 1975 autobiography, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir reflected on the Allies’ fear of provoking a jihad if they issued a declaration supporting Jewish statehood or the rescue of European Jews. What would have happened, she asked, if the Allies had firmly supported Zionism and rescue? “A few Arab leaders might have made threatening speeches. Perhaps there would have been a protest march or two. Maybe there would even have been an additional act of pro-Nazi sabotage somewhere in the Middle East,” she wrote. “But thousands more of the Six Million might have survived.”
The recent events have revived the debate over the causes of violence in the Muslim world. Should a U.S. congressional resolution be shelved, or an amateur video banned, if they might spark Muslim anger? Or is Muslim violence ultimately the product of deeper religious and ideological sentiments that have nothing to do with how Americans behave? In such situations, is widespread rioting inevitable, or can the United States prod local security forces to keep the peace? To what extent should U.S. policy be influenced by fear of mobs? Seventy years later, these questions still haunt American policymakers as they navigate the Middle East.
Rafael Medoff is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.