Is a war on Jews a war on democracy?

Posted: Jan 14, 2003 12:00 AM
One startling revelation of Michael Beschloss's engrossing new book, "The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman, and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany" (Simon & Schuster), is the apparent extent to which FDR was able to prosecute World War II against the Nazi killing machine without giving much thought to the actual killing machine. While subsequent generations consider the Third Reich synonymous with its nearly successful attempt to eradicate a people, Roosevelt displayed, as Beschloss puts it, "a tendency to shunt Hitler's war against the Jews to a separate compartment of his mind." Even after the U.S. government had become aware of the Nazi extermination infrastructure, administration efforts to inform Americans about German atrocities didn't mention death camps. Roosevelt himself remained silent on the subject. In private, he engaged in what Beschloss describes as "silly rants about Prussians, military uniforms and marching and did not mention genocide at all -- even though he had privately learned more about the Holocaust than most Americans of the time." It must be said that Beschloss also makes it cloudlessly clear that the singular greatness of FDR's leadership in beating Germany and mapping out a lasting peace outshines such flaws. Still, they may continue to perplex the modern reader. Despite the historian's best efforts to track FDR's possible motivations, it remains downright bizarre that Hitler's war against the Jews didn't figure into the American president's vision of Nazi Germany's wider war against the democracies-in-arms. Why? Maybe the full explanation lies beyond the scope of a historian. Maybe only a Tolstoy or Twain can reach beyond what is documented to reel in, flay and bone the inner FDR to anyone's satisfaction. Leaving aside what is non-footnotable, it's hard to let go of Beschloss' conclusion that the 32nd president was inclined to compartmentalize the war on the Jews, a tendency that at least helps explain Roosevelt's inertia over aiding Jewish refugees or bombing the tracks to Auschwitz. These are lapses of considerable moral dimension. But there are also political implications to FDR's partly blinkered vision, some of which have surprisingly contemporary applications. Such notions came to me while reading Harvard literature professor Ruth R. Wisse's assessment of the recent, particularly European, resurgence of anti-Semitism. Writing in the October 2002 issue of Commentary magazine, Wisse sets out to compare the poisonous font of anti-Semitism today, the Arab-Muslim world, with the Nazi source of yore, and ends up offering a novel explanation for the potency of that hate: "Modern anti-Semitism," she writes, "achieved its power as a political instrument through its opposition to liberal democracy itself -- as personified by the Jews." There's an intriguing notion. If state-sanctioned anti-Semitism indicates a society's animus not only toward Jews, but also toward liberal democracy (not to mention tolerance and the Rights of Man), then the fallacy of decoupling the plight of Europe's Jews from the threat to the democracies becomes pretty clear: Attacks on the one may prefigure attacks on the other. FDR, of course, was hardly alone in failing to make the link. Indeed, as Wisse writes, The New York Times in the 1930s played a shocking role in minimizing the dangers of Nazi Germany, a role for which the newspaper has since apologized. The whitewash came out of publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger's opposition to Jewish nationalism, or Zionism, which he believed would benefit from frequent disclosures of Nazi atrocities against the Jews. Had the publishers encouraged the Times to cover Nazi Germany without bias, Wisse argues, they would have better covered its rearmament and its systematic perversion of the law and civil liberties. "And they would have registered the way that Nazi anti-Semitism cloaked darker anti-democratic purposes behind enmity directed against Jews alone," she writes. "The reluctance to expose dangers to the Jews suppressed recognition of much that threatened, and still threatens, the West." And what still threatens the West? Not too surprisingly, the answer is that which still threatens the Jews, who, by now, have miraculously defended a Jewish state against Arab-Muslim aggression for more than a half century. Wisse explains it this way: "As the Jews were the practice range for anti-democratic and anti-liberal forces in pre-Hitler Europe, so in the second half of the 20th century the state of Israel took the brunt of the Arab/Muslim war against Western democracy." To be sure, the anti-Semitism is the same. So, too, is the animus of its proponents toward Western-style democracy. What's different is that since Sept. 11, Israel is no longer fighting alone. Or is it? In a terrible twist, Israel's sister democracies persist in viewing her struggle for survival against the anti-democratic, terrorist forces of Islamism as something practically extra-terrestrial and completely separate from their own. This sounds an awful lot like shunting the war on the Jews to a separate compartment. The question remains: Why?