Jewish-Mormon relations are back in the news.
Mitt Romney is likely to become the Republican nominee for president - which would make him the first Mormon to do so - and will be actively seeking Jewish votes. Meanwhile, controversy has erupted over several Mormon temples conducting proxy baptisms of Holocaust victims.
The baptism ceremonies have understandably offended some Jews, and Mormon leaders have ordered its temples to stop doing them. The baptizers believe they are saving the Holocaust victims' souls - but a more important question to consider, especially on the eve of Yom Hashoah, April 19, is what Mormons did to help save Holocaust victims' lives.
The best known and most influential Mormons in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s were Senators William King and Elbert Thomas, both Democrats from Utah. Both men were fervent Christian Zionists.
Thomas had visited Jerusalem in 1912. According to his diary, he sat on the Mount of Olives and read from the writings of early Mormon leader Orson Hyde about the Jews: "Consecrate this land for the gathering together of Judah's scattered remnants, for the building up of Jerusalem again after it has been trodden down by the Gentiles so long. Restore the kingdom unto Israel, raise up Jerusalem as its capitol."
King, for his part, was one of the founding members of the American Palestine Committee, an organization set up in the 1930s to rally Christian support for Jewish statehood.
Hitler's persecution of European Jewry moved King and Thomas to action. King supported the controversial Wagner-Rogers bill of 1939, which would have permitted 20,000 German Jewish children to enter the United States outside the quota system. In 1940, King initiated legislation to open Alaska to Jewish refugees. Both bills were blocked by anti-immigration forces. Typical of the opposition was Laura Delano Houghteling, President Roosevelt's cousin, who remarked at a Washington dinner party that "Twenty-thousand charming children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults."
Sen. Thomas developed close ties to Benzion Netanyahu, who in those days was director of the Revisionist Zionists' American division. In an interview (with one of the authors, Rafael Medoff ), Prof. Netanyahu recalled how in their first meeting, he began by giving the senator a long account of the origins of Zionism, the Jews' conflict with the British in Palestine, and the persecution of European Jewry.
Eventually Thomas cut in: "You've been talking for 40 minutes, but you got me after the first 10." Their shared biblical heritage was sufficient for the senator: "Your heroes are my heroes," he told Netanyahu. Thomas subsequently spoke at Revisionist rallies and lent his name to their newspaper ads calling for Jewish statehood.
Benzion Netanyahu's relationship with one of the most influential Mormons in America in those days is particularly interesting in view of this week's New York Times report about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's previously unknown, longtime personal friendship with Mitt Romney, dating back to their work together at the Boston Consulting Group in the 1970s.
Sen. Thomas was particularly active in the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, a lobbying group led by future Knesset Member Hillel Kook (using the pseudonym "Peter Bergson" ). The Bergson Group, as it was known, sponsored hundreds of newspaper ads criticizing the Allies' refugee policy. Thomas's name appeared on many of those ads, lending their cause power and prestige. He also co-chaired the Bergson Group's 1943 conference on rescue, which challenged the Roosevelt administration's claim that nothing could be done to help the Jews except winning the war. As a loyal Democrat and New Dealer, this was not an easy position for Thomas to take.
In December 1943, Sen. Thomas played a key role in advancing a Bergson-initiated Congressional resolution calling for creation of a special government agency to rescue Jews from Hitler. At about the same time, aides to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. discovered the State Department was suppressing news about the genocide and obstructing opportunities to rescue Jewish refugees. Armed with this information and with congressional pressure mounting, Morgenthau convinced FDR to preempt Thomas and the other congressional advocates of rescue by unilaterally creating the War Refugee Board.
During the final 15 months of World War II, the board played a major role in saving some 200,000 Jews. Among other things, it helped finance the life-saving work of Raoul Wallenberg. Sen. Thomas's action in the Senate was an indispensable part of the chain of events that led to Wallenberg's mission.
The horrors of the Holocaust, combined with his Mormon faith, moved Thomas to intensify his efforts on Capitol Hill for Jewish statehood after 1945. The United States and the international community had a "moral debt" to the Jewish people, Thomas contended. As President Harry Truman wavered on whether to support creation of a Jewish state, Thomas and other members of Congress became an important source of pro-Zionist pressure on the administration.
When Jewish voters in 2012 assess the future of Mormon-Jewish relations, they will need to take into account not only the Mormons' interest in Jews who died during the Holocaust, but also the efforts by some prominent Mormons to help Jews escape from the Holocaust.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and co-author of the new book 'Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the "Jewish Vote" and Bipartisan Support for Israel.' Dr. Yehudit Even-Haim, an Israeli historian and educator, wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on Sen. Elbert Thomas.