Netanyahu and Benzion - Amos Ben Gershom - April 30, 2012
Benjamin Netanyahu and his father Benzion. Photo by Amos Ben Gershom
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Playing off Republicans against Democrats in U.S. Presidential election campaigns in order to advance a Zionist cause is a gambit first employed at a Republican National Convention 68 years ago by a man called Netanyahu - Benzion Netanyahu.

In an article published recently in the Los Angeles Times entitled “The Jewish vote as a Factor in U.S. Politics” Dr. Rafael Medoff, director of the David S Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, recounts the efforts of the late father of the current Israeli prime minister to use the 1944 Republican Convention in Chicago as a means of pressuring Franklin Roosevelt’s Administration to oppose British restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine and to increase its own efforts to help Jewish refugees escaping from Europe.

Medoff portrays this premeditated playing off of Republicans against Democrats as a watershed event for the American Jewish community. “This was the beginning of the "Jewish vote" as a factor in U.S. presidential politics. For the first time, both parties recognized that Jewish votes might be up for grabs, and that Jewish concerns needed to be addressed to attract the support of Jewish voters,” he writes.

Medoff’s article, as well as the more detailed account contained in his 2003 book “Militant Zionism in America: the Rise and Impact of the Jabotinsky Movement in the United States 1926-1948” inevitably invite comparisons to the actions and attitudes of Netanyahu’s son, Binyamin, especially in the ongoing 2012 election campaign, in which he has been accused of meddling on behalf of Republicans and against the Democrats.

Given the Israeli prime minister’s view that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iranian regime and Adolf Hitler’s Germany are one and the same, one cannot but wonder about the extent of the historical echoes that Netanyahu hears from his own father’s experience with a Democratic Administration that Netanyahu and his contemporaries in the Revisionist “Bergson Group” in the early 1940’s viewed as indifferent to the fate of millions of Jews facing almost certain extinction in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Medoff recounts the elder Netanyahu’s enlistment of Claire Booth Luce - the renowned essayist, feminist and born-again Republican conservative who delivered rousing speeches in both the 1944 and 1948 Republican conventions - as well as other Republicans to the Zionist-Revisionist cause. It was Netanyahu, Medoff says, who helped persuade Luce to help introduce a chapter in the party platform adopted at the 1944 Republican Convention in Chicago that slammed President Roosevelt’s failure to press for implementation of the Balfour Declaration and the terms of the British Mandate “while he pretends to support them”, as it said.

According to Medoff’s account, Roosevelt and the Democrats, who had hitherto taken the Jewish vote for granted, were suddenly alarmed by the possibility that they would lose some of the Jewish vote in the 1944 elections and were thus spurred to include similar support for Jewish refugees and for immigration to Palestine in their own platform at the Democratic National Convention, also held in Chicago, one month later.

Although Obama would no doubt be flattered by any comparison to FDR – especially to his four consecutive victories in presidential elections – it is doubtful whether that is Netanyahu’s intention. Rather, the parallels that he often draws, in public and in private, are of a callous world that didn’t lift a finger to help the Jews, a Democratic U.S. Administration that has other things on its mind, and U.S. Jews that are taken for granted because they automatically vote for Democrats en masse, for reasons that do not necessarily serve the best interests of the Jewish people at large. As Reform Rabbi and Zionist leader Abba Hillel Silver once said of his rival Zionist leader Stephen Wise and other of his ilk, they would “sacrifice Zionist loyalties” in exchange for continued access to the Democratic elites.

Medoff, co-author of another new book that highlights Republican support for Jews and Zionism - "Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the 'Jewish Vote' and Bipartisan Support for Israel" – told Haaretz in an email interview that the elder Netanyahu’s view of Wise was similar: “He considered him to be weak, too susceptible to Roosevelt's flattery, too seduced at having access to power to realize that access did not equal influence. He recognized that Wise was a Zionist; but he was convinced that Wise's loyalty to Roosevelt and the Democratic Party clouded his political judgment and made him reluctant to take the kind of bold steps that a Jewish leader needed to take in that time of crisis.”
Which definitely sounds like something that Netanyahu or several of his confidantes might say today about many of Obama’s Jewish backers and their support for his policies towards Iran and the Palestinians.

There are other historic parallels as well as rich ironies in Medoff’s accounts of that period, including the story of Netanyahu’s first significant convert to the Bergson cause, then Senator Elbert Thomas of Utah, who was actually a Democrat, but, much more significantly, was also a Mormon, just like Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Thomas was one of the few Democratic politicians who dared to criticize Roosevelt’s policy on Jewish refugees from Europe and to sign newspaper ads castigating the Administration’s attitude. According to Medoff, it was Netanyahu who persuaded Thomas to become a full member of Bergson’s Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe which, one can safely assume, was probably the inspiration for the name of the anti-Obama Emergency Committee for Israel headed by Weekly Standard editor and Fox News analyst William Kristol.

Medoff, who interviewed the elder Netanyahu at length, says that he tended to believe that “people who took the Bible seriously - including Mormons, but obviously including many other Christians, especially evangelicals-- were more likely to be pro-Zionist.” As does his son, especially in connection with the Republican Party that is now convening in Tampa.

Finally, it should be noted that the role and effectiveness of the Bergson Group as well as the degree of Roosevelt’s alleged callousness towards the Jews of Europe have been the subject of harsh historical dispute for decades. Medoff, who has been harshly critical of Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust, portrays Netanyahu’s father as a pivotal player in Revisionist activities at the time, but there are others, both inside and outside the Revisionist movement, who say that his role was marginal and largely clerical - though that was not the way, of course, that he was viewed at home.

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