As a book that that seeks to upend commonly held historical notions, Robert N. Rosen’s “Saving the Jews” is by its very nature a combative work. But even by Rosen’s standards, his 17th chapter is a confrontational one. It is here that he engages FDR’s detractors most directly, in language that prompted 55 scholars to sign a petition condeming the book.
The chapter, titled “American Jewish Patriots, Palestinian Jewish Terrorists, and ‘the Irgunist Hoax,’” begins with a catalog of American Jewish contributions to the war effort: 550,000 Jewish American soldiers; 36,000 medal recipients; 35,157 casualties, and 8,000 killed in action. For Rosen, himself the son of a World War II veteran, such figures are central, a demonstration not only of American Jewry’s concern for Europe’s Jews but of FDR’s, as well.
Rosen contrasts those Jews who served in the U.S. armed forces with “a group of young Palestinian Jews stranded in the United States [who] sat out the war in America, preferring to agitate for the overthrow of the British in Palestine rather than enlist and fight Nazis themselves.” At the center of this group is Hillel Kook, aka Peter Bergson, an activist allied with the Irgun, the militant Zionist group active in Palestine in the years leading up to Israel’s creation.
In setting up his portrait of Bergson — several of whose followers did actually fight in the war — Rosen puts himself directly at odds with the work of Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and with Wyman himself, author of the book “The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945” (Pantheon, 1984), a much-lauded bestseller.
For Wyman and Medoff, co-authors of the book “A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America, and the Holocaust” (The New Press, 2002), Bergson is a hero, a central figure in alerting the world to Hitler’s bloody plan. For Rosen, Bergson is a charlatan who cynically employed the plight of Europe’s Jews in furthering his true goal: overthrowing British rule in Palestine. In the course of his Bergson discussion, Rosen takes direct aim at Medoff, Wyman and others. In one instance, he writes of “America-bashing Roosevelt decriers.” In another, he speaks of the “anti-FDR, pro-Irgun, anti-American version of history.”
The Wyman Institute petition is built around these two quotes. “In Robert N. Rosen’s new book,” the petition reads, “he impugns the patriotism of scholars… who have taken issue with the Roosevelt administration’s response to the Holocaust. Mr. Rosen accuses these scholars of promoting ‘an anti-American version of history’ and of engaging in ‘America bashing.’
Though carried out in scholarly guise, the feud between Rosen and the Wyman Institute, some following it say, is more akin to a schoolyard brawl than to a clear-eyed historical debate.
“On both sides there is a commitment,” said Peter Novick, emeritus professor of history at the University of Chicago and the author of “The Holocaust in American Life” (Houghton Mifflin, 1999), a chronicle of the uses and abuses of the Shoah in the postwar years. “The beating up on America and the administration is way overdone and ahistorical. On the other hand, there are those committed to polishing up the memory of FDR.”
There appears to be little interest on either side in reckoning with the opposition’s ideas. Many of those who signed the petition told the Forward that they did so without reading the book. Rosen, meanwhile, when asked what he made of the the Wyman Institute’s critique (a compendium of scores of alleged scholarly misdeeds), said that he had been too busy to get to it. Both Medoff, a prolific writer of op-eds and letters to the editor of newspapers and magazines, and Rosen, a divorce lawyer, clearly have a taste for confrontation. If anything, Rosen claims to enjoy the furor his book has unleashed. “I couldn’t get any publicity for my book until the Wyman Institute came around,” he said. “I relish this.”
But not all the parties involved are fans of the stark terms in which the feud has been waged. Laurel Leff, who is the author of last year’s “Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper” (Cambridge University Press) and also a signer of the petition, expressed displeasure with the way positions and ideas in the debate have been caricatured — including her own. “Rosen implies that I’m a supporter of the Bergson group, a sort of Irgunist, when I’m really no such thing,” she said. Leff, who regards herself as more sympathetic to Roosevelt than Medoff is, ultimately argued for balance. “You can say that American servicemen were heroes and still argue that American could have done more,” she said.
Offering what was perhaps the affair’s most measured note — and Rosen’s biggest endorsement — was Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, who also authored an afterword for the book. “The Holocaust is such an emotional issue, nobody can be neutral,” he told the Forward. “I didn’t necessarily come away agreeing with all of Rosen’s conclusions, but for me there was a lot of new information, a lot of new perspective. The question you pose when you read a book is, ‘Did I learn more today than knew before?’ and here the answer, very decidedly, is yes.”
Gabriel Sanders is the associate editor of the Forward.