Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

The Rabbis March on Washington

I’ve been thinking of other examples of civil protest since the Zimmerman trial’s verdict.  How they were perceived at the time, and if they were welcomed by all the members of the group they were fighting for.  An incident I feel would be interesting to compare was the 1943 March of the Rabbis in Washington D.C

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“Make way for the rabbis.” It was probably the first time the station master at Washington,  D.C.’s Union Station had shouted these words. But the crowd before him was unlike any ever seen in the nation’s capital. Four hundred rabbis converged on Union Station two days before Yom Kippur, 1943, in a stirring display of unity to rescue Jews from Nazi extermination.

The march was the brainchild of 33-year-old Hillel Kook (b. 1910), a Jerusalem-born nephew of Abraham Isaac Kook, former chief rabbi of Palestine, who arrived in the United States in 1940. For reasons known only to him, once here, Kook took the Americanized name Peter Bergson. Purchasing full-page ads in American newspapers criticizing British limitations on the number of Jews who could emigrate to Palestine, then under British rule, and pleading for Allied action to rescue European Jewry, Bergson and his associates known as the Bergson Group – used the mass media to rouse public interest and influence the Roosevelt administration to intervene against Hitler. Most provocatively, Bergson called for the formation of an international Jewish army, which would fight under Allied auspices to liberate European Jewry.


Gaining access to the Orthodox rabbinical leadership was no simple task for the uninitiated. The elders of the Orthodox community in the 1940s were mostly European-born Talmudic scholars who spoke little English and were generally unfamiliar with the political ways of the New World to which they had emigrated. Few were accustomed to receiving national press coverage. But Bergson and his associates used their fluent Yiddish and Bergson’s family connections to win the trust of rabbis in the Hasidic and general Orthodox communities.


It states that Peter Bergson didn’t reveal the reasons for his name change, but I have to wonder if it was a form of code switching a topic we’re talking about now.  It is notable that he sought support for his initiatives within the immigrant class of Jewry at the time in that there was a tension happening that is similar to what is going on in the greater conversation on race around Trayvon Martin.    People among the more established portion of American Jews held great apprehension that the efforts to fight for increased Jewish immigration would ignite greater anti Semitism in America.  In an analogous way we are facing arguments today that discussing racism is the catalyst for racism.

In his diary, presidential aide William D. Hassett noted that Rosenman “said the group behind this petition [is] not representative of the most thoughtful elements in Jewry. Judge Rosenman said he had tried–admittedly without success–to keep the horde from storming Washington. Said the leading Jews of his acquaintance opposed this march on the Capitol.” Rosenman reportedly characterized them as “a group of rabbis who just recently left the darkest period of the medieval world.” Wise condemned “the orthodox rabbinical parade” as a “painful and even lamentable exhibition.” He derided the organizers as “stuntists” and accused them of offending “the dignity of [the Jewish] people.” Roosevelt decided to leave the White House through a rear exit.

The problem was not only the advice that prominent Jews gave FDR; it was also that the pleas for rescue clashed with the administration’s entire approach to the plight of European Jewry. During the 1930s, Roosevelt had barely said a word about Hitler’s persecution of German Jews. He refused to consider taking any diplomatic or economic steps to pressure Germany on the Jewish issue. Not only did he reject appeals to liberalize America’s strict immigration quotas, but his administration implemented such cumbersome procedures for immigration visas –procedures described by David Wyman as “Paper Walls” in his book of that name– that only a small portion of the quotas were used each year.…

I’m not trying to judge men of different eras. One of the concepts I thought would be so healing about a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would be the airing of incompletely told narratives.  I will give President Roosevelt the grace of considering he might have had macro concerns that outweighed the plight of European Jews, but the beauty of the concept as I see it is as a non Jewish American that grace is not mine to give.

The Rabbis gathered and they marched and they spoke to the American people.  Roosevelt ducked out of the back and sent his Vice President Henry Wallace to placate them with a diplomatic statement.  That day could have been considered a failure if not for the efforts of Peter Bergson and what happened later in publicizing the slight

The march garnered much media attention, much of it focused on what was seen as the cold and insulting dismissal of many important community leaders, as well as the people in Europe they were fighting for. The headline in the Washington Times Herald was, “Rabbis Report ‘Cold Welcome’ at the White House.” Editors of the Jewish Daily Forward commented, “Would a similar delegation of 500 Catholic priests have been thus treated?”…

The embarrassing publicity from the hearings opened the door to Morgenthau’s pressure on the president. With the rescue resolution already having passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Morgenthau bluntly told FDR that “you have either got to move very fast, or the Congress of the United States will do it for you.” Ten months before election day, the last thing FDR wanted was an embarrassing public scandal over the refugee issue. Within days, Roosevelt did what the Congressional resolution sought–he issued an executive order creating the War Refugee Board, a U.S. government agency to rescue refugees from Hitler.

During the final fifteen months of World War II, the Board played a crucial role in saving the lives of some 200,000 Jews. Approximately 15,000 were evacuated from Axis territory (as were more than 20,000 non-Jews). At least 10,000, and probably additional thousands, were protected within Axis Europe by Board-financed underground efforts and by the board’s steps to safeguard holders of Latin American passports. The Board’s diplomatic pressures, backed by its program of psychological warfare, were instrumental in bringing about the transfer of some 48,000 Jews in Transnistria to safe areas of Rumania.…

When the Rabbis were riding home from the train that day in 1943 I find it hard to believe they thought they had accomplished anything.  However, they could not have known that after their march and the influence of the others motivated by their stance America changed it’s posture from one that spoke the truth of the humanity under assault in Europe.

In a real way I think it helped America see what was happening to Europe as something that was happening to them as well in a similar way the death of Trayvon Martin is inspiring American’s of all races to increase their empathy of others.

I marched in LA yesterday, and there were about 400 people.  We as Black Americans are in no way facing an imminent genocide, and I feel kind of funny for having to say that I don’t find our plight the same as European Jews, but I try to be as respectful as I possibly can when using other peoples experiences to illustrate mine.  We are in need for others to see us however and I hoped to show how a minority even within a minority did something in the past.

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