Well, another year is almost finished, and good riddance. Before we say goodbye to 2013, though, we should take a moment to note one of its overlooked milestones. This was the 30th anniversary of “Indicting American Jews,” the probing, angry, magisterial essay by the late Holocaust historian Lucy Dawidowicz, published in Commentary in June 1983.
Dawidowicz, a leading intellectual of the neoconservative school, was best known for her groundbreaking 1975 volume, “The War Against the Jews: 1933-1945,” which definitively established Nazi Germany’s utter commitment to exterminating European Jewry. Killing Jews wasn’t a secondary or incidental objective, she showed, but a central Nazi war aim.
“Indicting American Jews” addressed the increasingly fashionable notion that American Jews abandoned European Jews to their fate. Dawidowicz dissected two efforts then current that branded American Jews as complicit. One was a self-styled investigative panel, the American Jewish Commission on the Holocaust, chaired by former Supreme Court justice Arthur J. Goldberg. The other was a 1982 documentary titled “Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die?”
Both efforts aimed to show that the wartime Jewish leadership under Rabbi Stephen Wise was slavishly devoted to President Franklin Roosevelt and unwilling to challenge his supposed indifference to Jewish suffering. Dawidowicz mercilessly demolished them both. The commission, she wrote, began by disclosing its verdict, never called witnesses, subcontracted its research to a lifelong Wise-basher and ended up rejecting its own report. As for the film, it was depicted as a shrill parade of half-truths.
In fact, the author wrote, the Jewish organizations made real efforts to prod Roosevelt. The problem was that their efforts were doomed to failure.
She gave several reasons why they couldn’t succeed. Most important was Hitler’s maniacal determination to kill Jews. Second was Roosevelt’s genuine fear that the right-wing, isolationist Congress would accuse him of waging a “Jewish war” and turn against it. Then, too, the entire world was at war. Tens of millions were dying. Ten million Americans were in uniform. And Jews were not powerful then. It was hard to plead for special attention from an America that didn’t much like Jews to begin with.
But Dawidowicz wasn’t interested merely in deflecting the indictment of the Jewish leadership. She had an indictment of her own. The myth of inaction wasn’t just misguided — it was part of a deliberate smear campaign, “the exploitation of the Holocaust by some with old political scores to settle within the Jewish community.”