On Rosh Hashanah, the most prominent rabbi in the United States devoted his sermon to condemning the president of the United States over his response to a recent controversy involving an anti- Nazi protest. Sound familiar?
In fact, the year was 1935, and the president was Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The rabbi, Stephen S. Wise, was the head of the American Jewish Congress, a leader of the American Zionist movement and spiritual leader of Manhattan’s Free Synagogue. He was arguably the most prominent rabbi and Jewish leader of his era. Wise was also one of the founders of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union and a staunch supporter of Roosevelt and the New Deal.
The notion of publicly criticizing the president, whom he adored, was anathema to Wise — until the day the S.S. Bremen came to town.
On July 26, 1935, the German ocean liner sailed into New York’s harbor, proudly flying the swastika flag, the notorious symbol of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. It was greeted by crowds of anti-Nazi protesters, some of whom burst past the police lines. They tore down the Nazi flag and hurled it into the water. Six of the demonstrators were arrested.
But when the protesters were arraigned before New York City Magistrate Louis Brodsky on Sept. 6, Brodsky dismissed the charges on the grounds that tearing down the Nazi flag was justified. It was the S.S. Bremen that was guilty, the judge declared; it had engaged in “gratuitously brazen flaunting of an emblem which symbolizes all that is antithetical to American ideals.”
Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels’ newspaper, Der Angriff, called Judge Brodsky “an Eastern Jew” who promoted “Jewish-communistic agitation.” A Berlin newspaper accused Brodsky of “incomparable impudence and brazen- faced provocation of the honor of the German people.”
As a result, Secretary of State Cordell Hull sent the Hitler regime a note expressing “regret” at Judge Brodsky’s ruling.
American Jews were shocked and dismayed by the Roosevelt administration’s position. For the first (and last) time, Rabbi Wise publicly challenged FDR’s policy concerning the Nazis.
Roosevelt did not utter one brave word against the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews. The reason for his silence was that FDR was keenly interested in maintaining good diplomatic and economic relations with Nazi Germany. That was a higher priority for the Roosevelt administration than Hitler’s persecution of the Jews or his aggressive actions against Germany’s neighbors.
For the president and his advisers, political expediency trumped all other considerations. Some things never change, one might say.
Rafael Medoff is founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.