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Also by Edwin Black
Chapter One: The Powers That Were
Shock waves rumbled through the world on January 30, 1933 . The leader of a band of political hooligans had suddenly become chief of a European state. Before January 30, 1933, the repressive ideology of the National Socialist German Workers Party – NSDAP – had been resisted by the German government. That would all change now.
Hitler had become chancellor of Germany – a shock, but no surprise. The November 1932 general elections were held amid public hysteria over Germany ’s economic depression. Despite expensive emergency makework programs, more than 5 million people were still unemployed on election eve. In some areas the jobless rate was 75 percent. More than 17 million persons – about a third of the entire population – were dependent upon a welfare stipend equivalent to a few dollars per family per month. Such families knew hungry nights once or twice weekly. Destitute people slept in the streets. The memory of closed or defaulted banks was fresh. The Nazis blamed the Jews and sought voter support through street violence against Jewish members of Germany’s urban middle class.
But the November 1932 election was indecisive. Hitler’s party received only a third of the vote, about 12 million ballots. Then a coalition government was blocked by Hitler’s refusal to share power with the Socialists, who controlled 20 percent of the vote, and the Communists, who controlled 17 percent. Finally, in exasperation, on January 30, 1933 , President Paul von Hindenburg exercised his emergency powers, appointing Herr Adolf Hitler interim chancellor.
The Nazis had promised that upon assuming power they would rebuild Germany’s economy, dismantle its democracy, destroy German Jewry, and establish Aryans as the master race – in that order. Yet many Western leaders saw only the economic value of Nazism. Hitler seemed the only alternative to a Communist state, a man who mild rebuild the German economy and pay Germany ’s debts. That would be good for all Western economies. As for the threat to Germany ’s Jews, that was a domestic German affair.
Therefore, if the world’s governments would not act, it would fall to the influential Jews of America to save their brethren in Germany . With the ability to be heard, the Jews of America, especially in New York, could mobilize economic and political pressure against Germany that would make war against the Jews a campaign of national suicide.
American Jewish muscle was not a sudden imagined power. For nearly a century, American Jews had been using economic pressure and protest to beat back anti-Semitic outrages throughout the world. But this time the American Jewish community would fail. That failure was tied to the so-called Big Three defense groups: The American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith, and the American Jewish Congress.
Both the American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith were founded by well-to-do German Jews with a special outlook. Like other European Jews, the German immigrated en masse following the political upheavals of the mid-nineteenth century. But unlike their East European counterparts, the Germans clung to their original national identity, and were economically more established. Moreover, many German Jews believed that they were so-call Hofjuden, or courtly Jews, and that coreligionists from Poland and Russia were “uncivilized” and embarrassing. The bias was best summarized in a June 1894, German-American Jewish newspaper, the Hebrew Standard which declared that the totally acclimated American Jew is closer to “Christian sentiment around him than to the Judaism of these miserable darkened Hebrews.”
Having achieved a secure standing in America, the German Jews organized essentially to protect their position from any “Jewish problems” that might appear. In 1843, in a small café on New York’s Lower East Side, twelve German Jewish leaders founded B’nai B’rith as a benevolent fraternal organization. By aiding the Jewish poor, they hoped to remove any Jewish welfare burden that could arouse Christian anti-Semitism. By the 1880s, after hordes of impoverished East European Jews flooded America , B’nai B’rith accepted these newcomers as lodge members, but largely to “manage” the East European Jewish presence in the United States .
In 1906, as Czar Nicholas continued his anti-Semitic pogroms, men like Jacob Schiff, Louis Marshall, and Cyrus Adler went beyond philanthropy and constituted the American Jewish Committee. These powerful men would now function as a special lobby concerned with political problems important to Jews. The Committee initially limited its membership to roughly sixty prominent men, led by about a dozen central personalities from the realms of publishing, finance, diplomacy, and the law. As individuals, they had already proven themselves combating hotels and other institutions that discriminated against Jews. Once united as the American Jewish Committee, they waged effective private economic war against the Russian monarchy. Their motives were not based on concern for East European Jews, but rather on a solid opposition to organized Jew hat4rey anywhere in the world.
But in 1933 things would be different. Quick as they were to oppose anti-Semitism in foreign lands, Germany held a special pace in the hearts of Committee leaders. A foreshadowing of just how emotionally paralyzed the Committee would become in a crisis involving their ancestral home was amply displayed during the early years of World War I. Committee stalwarts were torn between their loyalties to the German Fatherland and America ’s popular allegiance to France and Britain. In 1915, Committee Cofounder Jacob Schiff articulated his conflict in a note to German banker Max Warburg: “I still cherish the feeling of filial devotion for the country in which my fathers and forefathers lived, and in which my own cradle stood – a devotion which imbues me with the hope that Germany shall not be defeated in this fearful struggle.” Committee members’ open support for Germany against Russia did not alter until the United States actually entered the war.
Popular Jewish disenchantment over Committee policies and the known Hofjuden prejudice against the Jewish multitudes had long alienated American’s East European Jewish community. Increasingly, the Jewish majority saw the gentlemen of the American Jewish Committee as benevolent despots, not entitled to speak for them. In response, a number of national and regional Jewish organizations gathered in Philadelphia in June 1917 and affiliated into the American Jewish Congress. Proving their democratic character, 335,000 Jewish ballots from across the nation were cast. Three hundred delegates were elected and an additional one hundred appointed, representing thirty national Jewish organizations.
After the war, the question of who would represent Jewish interests at the Peace Conference was bitterly contested. A delegation cutting across Committee and Congress lines finally did assemble at Versailles. But the Committee split off from other American Jewish groups negotiating Jewish rights when – in the Committee view – the proposed rights went “too far.” Specifically, when Versailles mapmakers were redrawing boundaries based on religious, linguistic, and other ethnic affinities, popular Jewish sentiment demanded to be counted amount the minority groups targeted for self-determination. That meant a Jewish homeland in Palestine – Zionism.
Committee leaders were repulsed by Zionism. In their view, a refuge in Palestine would promote Jewish expulsions from countries where Jews lived and enjoyed roots. Anti-Semitic regimes could point to Palestine and claim, “You belong there in your own nation.” However, majority Jewish sentiments won out at Versailles , assuring a Jewish homeland in Palestine, with stipulations preserving Jewish rights in other countries.
American Jewish Congress leaders returned from Versailles in triumph. They had helped create a Jewish homeland, as well as secure international guarantees for minorities in Europe. In the early 1920s, the congress solidified its popular Jewish support, thereby becoming the third of the so-called Big Three.
By 1933, the Congress stood as the most representative and outspoken Jewish defense organization. In contrast, B’nai B’rith functioned as little more than a fraternal order (except for its autonomous Anti-Defamation League). And the Committee, in 1933, basically represented the interests of about three hundred and fifty prominent Jewish members. Nonetheless, the Committee and B’nai B’rith – which often acted as a binary lobby – were respected, influential, and adequately financed, with access to the most powerful circles of American government and business. By comparison, the Congress, despite its vast membership, constantly struggled for funds and for recognition. While the Committee and B’nai B’rith generally chose quiet, behind-the-scenes methods, Congress people – predominantly East Europeans – were accustomed to attention-getting protests.
Yet, all were Jews, drawn from a common heritage. And as of January 30, 19 33, there arose a clear need to unify to combat the greatest single anti-Jewish threat ever posed. Hitler promised not only to rid Germany of its Jews, but to cleanse the world as well. Action by American’s Jews was required – fast action.
As Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party was taking over Germany, as the German Jews of New York were dominating the American Jewish political scene, so too, would Germans and Germany now determine the realities in a small, undeveloped stretch of desert by the sea known as Palestine. For hundreds of years, the area had been the kingdom of the Jews. After the Israelites’ dispersion in the second century A.D., the Romans changed the region’s name to Syria Palaestina to wipe away the Jewish nation forever. Small groups of Jews had remained through the centuries in what became known simply as Palestine, but not until the late nineteenth century, following waves of European anti-Semitism, did large numbers of Jews begin an experimental return to their ancestral home. Agricultural settlements repeatedly failed in Palestine as Jewish idealists and dreamers tried to force the sandy and swampy wasteland to bloom. But, with the steady help of European and American Jewish philanthropists, the Jewish agricultural revival finally began to triumph over the neglected Palestinian terrain.
By the time airplanes were flying over the Mideast, the future of Jews in Palestine could be seen as green patches against a bleached beige backdrop. The green patches marked orange groves, the economic basis for Jewish survival in the Holy Land. When the young workers came from Russia , Poland , and even the United States , they were frequently settled on groves to grow oranges and other citrus for export. Orange crates became the building blocks of Zionism.
Promising as those orange groves were, Jewish Palestine in 1933 was still little more than a collection of unconnected enclaves between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea . The nearly 200,000 Jews living in Palestine accounted for only 19 percent of the population. If the enclaves were to grow, into an actual homeland and fulfill the promise of God, Abraham, and Balfour, the orange groves would have to prosper. For that, more hands and more lands were needed.
But in 1933, Jewish prosperity in Palestine was in danger of shutting down. In a tense world, the British were once again making strategic plans for the Middle East . These plans were dependent upon the Arab potentates England had been stringing along for a decade with conflicting promises of Arab nationalism in Palestine . So Palestinian immigration regulations had been pointedly revised a few years earlier. Severe quotas now applied to all Jewish immigrant categories, except the so-called capitalist settler with proof of £1,000 (about $5,000) in hand.
Few Palestine-bound Jews possessed that much money. Most were poor European workers. Moreover, the “worker immigrant” quota itself was limited by “absorptive capacity” or the ability of the Palestinian economy to expand and provide new jobs. In this way, existing Arab jobs theoretically would no longer be threatened by new Jewish arrivals. The British didn’t really expect the Palestinian economy to grow, because quotas restricted immigration for all but the wealthier Jews, and the great majority of wealthy Jews were uninterested in emigrating to Palestine. With little or no new capital, the Jewish economy in Palestine would stagnate.
At the same time, the message to the world was clear. What began as a private campaign of violence against Jews was now, under Hitler, the unofficial policy of the day. Jews were murdered in their homes, daughters were raped before parents’; eyes, rabbis were humiliated in the street, prominent leaders were found floating in the canals and rivers. As early as the first day after Hitler’s surprise appointment as interim chancellor, the message was indeed clear to those who would pay attention: The Jews of Germany were facing an hourglass, and time was slipping away.
Copyright © 2020 Edwin Black
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