February 26, 2017

News Release from
The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies

June 9, 2004

Stephen Wise Was "Cautious and Ineffective" During Holocaust, Say Scholars at Library of Congress Panel

Stephen S. Wise, the most prominent leader of the American Jewish community during the 1930s and 1940s, was "cautious and ineffective" in his response to news of the Holocaust, according to scholars at a recent conference held in the Library of Congress.

The conference was sponsored in June by the American Jewish Historical Society, to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the beginning of the American Jewish community. Some sessions of the conference were held at American University, while others, including the panel focusing on U.S. Jews and the Holocaust, took place in the James Madison building of the Library of Congress.

Panel chairman Dr. Rafael Medoff, director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, said in his introduction that the response of American Jewish leaders to the Nazi genocide is "one of the most complex and sensitive issues in the history of American Jewry." He noted that Rabbi Wise, as leader of two of the most important Jewish organizations, the American Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Congress, "is inevitably at the center of any discussion of American Jews and the Holocaust."

Dr. Medoff quoted from the recently published memoirs of Saadia Gelb, a Labor Zionist activist who was a student at Wise's Reform rabbinical seminary, the Jewish Institute of Religion, in the 1940s. Gelb recalled confronting Wise for trusting President Roosevelt's assurances that the U.S. was doing everything possible to help Europe's Jews. "He's conning you with soapy words," Gelb told Wise. "The problem is not whether you have access to him, but what he'll do about it."

The first speaker on the panel was Prof. Mark Raider, chairman of Judaic Studies at the University at Albany (SUNY). He described Wise as "cautious and ineffective" in response to "the disgracefully slow response of the Allies" to the Nazi persecution of European Jewry.

Prof. Raider said that in his younger days, Wise was known as a maverick, for embracing Zionism when most of his Reform colleagues were anti-Zionist and establishing his own synagogue so that he could speak his mind. But during the Holocaust years, Raider said, "Wise exchanged his maverick independence for the illusory promises of the Roosevelt administration."

Raider suggested that additional reasons for Wise's ineffective response to the Holocaust were his declining health and his involvement in a wide range of organizations and causes, which took up much of Wise's time and energy.

Raider was followed by Dr. Zohar Segev of Haifa University, who surveyed the record of Wise and Nahum Goldmann as co-chairs of the World Jewish Congress. Segev said that Wise and Goldmann "worked actively to tone down any Jewish criticism of the Roosevelt administration." He said that grassroots American Jews, including some within the World Jewish Congress, supported a more activist stance by the Jewish community in response to the Holocaust, but "Wise and Goldmann used their influence to restrain, limit, and control any efforts towards greater activism."

Dr. Segev cited three factors that motivated the approach taken by Wise and Goldmann. He said they feared that aggressive protests would stimulate domestic antisemitism; they were worried that public Jewish criticism of the Allies' failure to rescue European Jews would undermine Jewish leaders' relationship with the Roosevelt administration; and they were concerned that more activist elements, such as Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, might usurp their positions of leadership in the community.

The panelists also discussed the impact of efforts by some Jewish activists in America to press the Roosevelt administration on the rescue issue. Those efforts culminated in the creation of a U.S. government rescue agency, the War Refugee Board in 1944. Prof. Raider remarked that "while every life is precious, and saving even one life is like saving an entire world," given the scope of the Nazi genocide, the achievements of those who promoted rescue must be regarded as comparatively minor. Dr. Medoff commented that the War Refugee Board's central role in rescuing an estimated 200,000 Jews and 20,000 non-Jews, while relatively small compared to the number of people murdererd by the Nazis, should not be considered inconsequential.

(Return to top)


In the News

220 Christian & Jewish Clergy Urge Arrest of Sudan's President for Darfur War Crimes
November 20, 2009

100 Holocast Praise Uganda's Darfur Arrest Threat
July 20, 2009

Marvel Publishes Comic Strip About Fight for Auschwitz Paintings
March 9, 2009

FDR Biographers Top List of Year's "Ten Most Absurd Statements About the Allies' Response to the Holocaust"
February 2, 2009

400 Rabbis Urge Yad Vashem To Recognize Bergson Group
January 27, 2009

130 Holocaust Scholars Urge: Prosecute Sudan’s President for Genocide
September 15, 2008

Families of 1936 Anti-Nazi Olympics Protesters Urge China to Restore Visa to Skater Who Spoke Out
August 11, 2008

120 Israeli Leaders Urge Yad Vashem to Recognize Bergson Group
June 23, 2008

Writing About the Allies’ Response to the Holocaust: The Ten Most Absurd Statements of 2007
February 4, 2008

Morgenthau-Holocaust Mystery, Cited in PBS TV Series, Will Be Solved in Forthcoming Book
January 18, 2008

President Bush Is Right: U.S. Should Have --And Could Have-- Bombed Auschwitz
January 11, 2008

D.C. Radio Station Pledges to Be “More Sensitive” Following “Concentration Camp” Controversy
October 31, 2007

Jailing of Holocaust-Deniers in Europe Dealt Blow to Denial Movement in 2006, Report Finds
December 28, 2006



Author Admits He Wrongly Portrayed Holocaust Rescue Activists as Draft-Dodgers
December 15, 2006

35 Catholic and Jewish Scholars Urge Vatican: Open Holocaust Archives
December 11, 2006

450 Cartoonists Urge Poland to Return Auschwitz Paintings
September 20, 2006

Jewish Groups Should Withdraw Invitations to Gibson, in Response to News of His Ties to Holocaust-Deniers
August 21, 2006

"Don't Help Jews or British POWs,"U.S. Diplomat Ordered Staff in 1940
May 25, 2006

Newspaper Association Acknowledges Failure to Aid Jewish Journalists Fleeing Hitler
March 10, 2006

Holocaust-Deniers Gained in Arab & Muslim World in 2005, But Lost Ground in U.S. and Europe
December 21, 2005

U.S. Journalism Schools and Publishers Snubbed Refugees From Hitler, Scholar Reveals
December 20, 2005

Press Release Archive