By Rafael Medoff
On Rosh Hashanah, the most prominent rabbi in the United States devoted his sermon to condemning the president of the United States over his response to a recent controversy involving an anti-Nazi protest. Sound familiar?
In fact, the year was 1935, and the president was Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The rabbi, Stephen S. Wise, was the head of the American Jewish Congress, a leader of the American Zionist movement and spiritual leader of Manhattan’s Free Synagogue. He was arguably the most prominent rabbi and Jewish leader of his era. Wise was also one of the founders of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union, and a staunch supporter of President Roosevelt and the New Deal.
The notion of publicly criticizing the president, whom he adored, was anathema to Rabbi Wise — until the day the S.S. Bremen came to town.
On July 26, 1935, the German ocean liner sailed into New York’s harbor, proudly flying the swastika flag, the notorious symbol of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. It was greeted by crowds of anti-Nazi protesters, some of whom burst past the police lines. They tore down the Nazi flag and hurled it into the water. Six of the demonstrators were arrested.
But when the protesters were arraigned before New York City Magistrate Louis Brodsky on Sept. 6, Brodsky dismissed the charges on the grounds that tearing down the Nazi flag was justified. It was the S.S. Bremen that was guilty, the judge declared; it had engaged in “gratuitously brazen flaunting of an emblem which symbolizes all that is antithetical to American ideals.” Hitler’s ship was the equivalent of “a pirate ship with the black flag of piracy proudly flying aloft,” Brodsky ruled.
The German press was furious. Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels’ newspaper, Der Angriff, called Judge Brodsky “an Eastern Jew” who promoted “Jewish-communistic agitation.” The Berlin newspaper Boersen Zeitung accused Brodsky of “incomparable impudence and brazen-faced provocation of the honor of the German people.” The Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung blasted Brodsky’s ruling as “an unheard-of insult to Germany.”
Hitler’s ambassador in Washington, Hans Luther, demanded an official U.S. government apology. And he got one. Secretary of State Cordell Hull sent the Hitler regime a note expressing “regret” at Judge Brodsky’s ruling.
American Jews were shocked and dismayed by the Roosevelt administration’s position. For the first (and last) time, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise publicly challenged FDR’s policy concerning the Nazis.
In his Rosh Hashanah sermon, Wise said the “horror” of the Nazis’ recent enactment of anti-Jewish laws “was made more full of horror by the act of our own government in apologizing with exaggerated profuseness and abjectness to the Nazi regime for a word of disrespect and contempt for that regime, uttered in the course of a judicial decision from the bench of the lower criminal court of our city. Such apology would have come more fitly if our government had ever uttered one brave word in condemnation of the program and the practices of the Nazi regime.”
President Roosevelt did not utter “one brave word” against the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews from the time Hitler rose to power, in early 1933, until after the Kristallnacht pogrom, in late 1938. The reason for his silence was that FDR was keenly interested in maintaining good diplomatic and economic relations with Nazi Germany. That was a higher priority for the Roosevelt administration than Hitler’s persecution of the Jews or his aggressive actions against Germany’s neighbors.
That’s why Secretary Hull apologized to the Nazis again, in 1937, when New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia called Hitler a “fanatic who is threatening the peace of the world.” That’s why President Roosevelt personally forced Interior Secretary Harold Ickes to remove critical references to Hitler and Nazism from several of his speeches in the 1930s.
And that’s also why the Roosevelt administration actively undermined American Jewry’s boycott of Nazi goods. The administration quietly permitted goods made in Nazi Germany to be labeled as having been made in a particular city or province, rather than requiring that they be stamped “Made in Germany,” so that some consumers would not realize they were buying German products. The policy was altered only when the boycott activists threatened to sue.
For the president and his advisers, political expediency trumped all other considerations. Some things never change, one might say.
Rafael Medoff is founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and author and editor of 17 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust.