Sometimes it’s the smaller milestones that teach the bigger lessons. Take this past January 22. It was the 70th anniversary of Executive Order 9417, issued in 1944 by Franklin D. Roosevelt to create the War Refugee Board, tasked with rescuing European Jews from the Nazi death machine. During the remaining 16 months until the European war ended in May 1945, it’s estimated to have saved about 200,000 lives.
The anniversary didn’t make quite the same splash as, say, the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination or the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg. Actually, it passed almost unnoticed. That’s a pity. It’s worth a second look. It has a lot to teach us about the current moment in history.
This is an unusual moment for America. After a decade of entanglement in two ground wars, we’re now engaged in three separate negotiating processes, each addressing a different deadly international dispute. One is the six-power negotiation with Iran in Geneva over halting its nuclear weapons program. The second is the international conference, also in Geneva, to stop the carnage of the Syrian civil war. The third is the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
It’s hard to think of another time when three such urgent diplomatic processes were going on at once. They have different timelines, different casts of characters and different issues under dispute. But all involve global stakes.
All three reflect, at least partly, the Muslim world’s traumatic, often violent process of adjustment to modernity. All three concern the same 1,000-mile stretch of the Middle East between Jerusalem and Tehran. And right now, for better or worse, they’re all Barack Obama-John Kerry productions.
But they’re not the same. One pits an Iran with great-power ambitions against a rare, painstakingly constructed coalition of global powers determined to trim Iran’s sails. The second addresses a local Syrian protest that escalated into a flashpoint in the centuries-old conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, dragging in various regional and global allies. The third is even more local, involving a territorial dispute between Israelis and Palestinians, but echoes globally because of the passions it evokes throughout the Muslim world and beyond.
None of these disputes is World War II redux, despite what you sometimes hear. None involves a nation or axis of nations with the ambition, much less the power, to conquer and enslave the world as Germany and Japan tried to do. None involves a nation remotely capable of exterminating the world’s Jews.
Iran, you say? The director of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, Tamir Pardo, declared publicly in December 2011 that Iran is “not an existential threat” to Israel. The Israeli military chief of staff, Benny Gantz, stated publicly in April 2012 that Iran’s leaders are “very rational,” not self-destructive. And Pardo and Gantz, you’ll recall, were both chosen in 2011 to replace predecessors who hadn’t sufficiently shared Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Iranophobia.
But if none of the three disputes shares the essential characteristics of the Nazi threat, each of them features one of its traits. Iran aspires to acquire armaments of enormous power, which would greatly increase the reach of its regional ambitions. Syria has proven able and willing to slaughter vast numbers of innocent civilians, on a scale that shocks even the hardened conscience of our cynical age. And the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict puts the living heart of contemporary Jewish civilization at risk. Nazism did all three.
What can the War Refugee Board teach us? To answer that, we need to recall what the board wasn’t. For one thing, it wasn’t formed in August 1942, when word first reached the West of the Nazis’ plan to exterminate the Jews. It would take another 18 months of furious Washington bureaucratic trench warfare for advocates of rescue — mostly Jewish organizational leaders and Treasury Department officials — to overcome deliberate State Department obstruction.
Perhaps history would have turned out differently had the board been formed in November 1942, as soon as American intelligence confirmed the reported Nazi genocide. Or after the Allies issued their joint declaration on December 17, 1942, published on Page 1 of the New York Times, condemning Germany’s “bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination” of “the Jewish people in Europe” and vowing “practical measures” to “insure that those responsible for these crimes shall not escape retribution.” Or perhaps in January 1943, after the World Jewish Congress submitted the first concrete rescue plan, a $600,000 Romanian ransom offer.
But it wasn’t. Instead the State Department was put in charge of rescue plans, which were studiously dismissed, sabotaged or stalled by officials who we now know were contemptuous of Jewish lives. It wasn’t until July 1943 that the ransom offer was brought to Treasury officials. They began gathering evidence of State Department sabotage. That led to congressional hearings in November, a State-Treasury showdown in December and, finally, the president’s order in January to create the board under Treasury’s supervision, not State’s.
What if rescue had begun earlier? With twice as much time, maybe twice as many Jews would have been rescued — perhaps 500,000 or more. Perhaps with momentum and creativity, 1 million precious lives could have been saved, twice the Jewish population of what was then Palestine.
And today we would remember 5 million martyrs, and the Holocaust would still be history’s greatest evil. Nazi Germany was bent on conquering the world and ridding it of Jews, and it nearly did so. There are tragedies in the world, and acts of human evil, that cannot be wished away.
Americans were noisily unwilling to join a European war in 1939. Certainly not to save Jews. Congress refused even to suspend immigration quotas. If Japan hadn’t attacked America — and Germany hadn’t attacked Russia — Hitler would have won. It took a mobilized world and tens of millions dead to stop him.
But then, if it hadn’t been for the lunacy of World War I, Germans wouldn’t have turned to Hitler — nor would Britain and France been so reluctant to take up arms in a timely manner.
Just so, if America hadn’t invaded Iraq to bring the ill-conceived caravan of democracy to the Middle East, the peoples of Egypt and Syria likely wouldn’t have risen up to join the caravan and 130,000 Syrians would still be alive. Iran would still be quaking in fear of Saddam Hussein. And Americans wouldn’t be so reluctant to enter another war.
But we did invade Iraq, and chaos did spread through the region, and Iran was rid of its great enemy. And Americans don’t want to enter another war. Certainly not for the Jews. Let’s pray for Geneva.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).