WASHINGTON — The enthusiastic response that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received when he addressed the U.S. Congress on May 24 came from both sides of the aisle. Democrats and Republicans both took part in the numerous standing ovations. Afterward, Democrats and Republicans made statements criticizing President Obama’s positions and supporting Israel’s.
But perhaps it is not so surprising that the prime minister was able to attract such bipartisan support because his father accomplished something similar 67 years ago.
In the summer of 1944, 34-year-old Benzion Netanyahu was the executive director of the American wing of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionist movement.
One of Benzion Netanyahu’s tasks was to help mobilize support in Washington for free Jewish immigration to Palestine and the creation of a Jewish state. That was no small job at a time when the British opposed Jewish immigration and statehood, and the Roosevelt administration preferred not to intervene.
The Revisionists often used tactics that the mainstream Zionists considered too aggressive. For example, Netanyahu and his colleagues repeatedly placed large advertisements in The New York Times and other leading newspapers with headlines such as “The White Paper Must Be Smashed, if Millions of Jews Are to Be Saved!” and “Is America to Be a Party to the Palestine Betrayal?”
These challenges to Allied policy did not sit well with mainstream Jewish leaders such as Rabbi Stephen Wise, who was deeply loyal to President Roosevelt, the New Deal and the Democratic Party. In his private correspondence, Wise called the president “the All Highest” and “the Great Man.”
Much to the Jewish establishment’s chagrin, Netanyahu actively cultivated relationships with Republican members of Congress and party leaders. For Wise, building friendly relations with FDR’s political foes was inconceivable. For Netanyahu it was political common sense. Roosevelt had no incentive to address Jewish concerns if he believed Jewish votes were in his pocket.
Only if there was a credible threat of Jews voting Republican would FDR see a reason to reconsider his cold policy toward Jewish refugees and Zionism.
In the months leading up to the June 1944 Republican National Convention, Netanyahu and his colleagues undertook what they called “a systematic campaign of enlightenment.” They met repeatedly with former President Herbert Hoover, 1936 GOP presidential candidate Alf Landon and influential Republican members of Congress such as Rep. Clare Booth Luce (wife of the publisher of Time and Life). At a Revisionist dinner that spring, Luce said Great Britain’s blockade of Jewish refugee ships bound for Palestine was to blame for the fact that “Jewish blood stains the blue Mediterranean red.”
In their meetings, the Revisionists asked the Republicans to include a pro-Zionist plank in their 1944 platform. Neither party had ever formally endorsed the cause of Jewish statehood, but the GOP leaders clearly were sympathetic. On the eve of the convention, Luce called Netanyahu to say, only half joking, “I’m going now to do your work at the convention.”
Meanwhile, an additional lobbying effort was undertaken by Abba Hillel Silver, the activist Cleveland rabbi who in 1943 had been elevated to the co-chairmanship of the American Zionist movement alongside Wise. Silver, who enjoyed a close relationship with Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio, lobbied Taft and other leading Republicans on the platform issue.
The GOP’s final platform not only endorsed Jewish statehood in Palestine, as Silver wanted, but also criticized Roosevelt, as Netanyahu wanted. It declared: “We condemn the failure of the President to insist that the mandatory of Palestine carry out the provisions of the Balfour Declaration and of the mandate while he pretends to support them.”
Furious and embarrassed, Wise dashed off a letter to the president declaring that he was “deeply ashamed” of the “utterly unjust” wording of the Republican plank. In the pages of the Revisionist journal Zionews, Netanyahu commented that “It seems that to Dr. Wise and his friends, partisan politics are more important than truth and the interests of their people and their country.”
The Republican Party’s move had an important consequence: It compelled the Democrats to compete for Jewish support and treat the Jewish vote as if it were up for grabs. The Democratic National Convention in July 1944 for the first time endorsed “unrestricted Jewish immigration and colonization” of Palestine and the establishment of “a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth.”
These events helped ensure that support for Zionism, and later for Israel, would become a permanent part of American political culture. Every subsequent Republican and Democratic convention has adopted a plank supporting Israel. To do less became politically unthinkable.
The bipartisan support for Israel on Capitol Hill last week thus represented the continuation of a deeply rooted tradition in the politics of American foreign policy. The seeds sown by the father in 1944 were reaped by the son nearly seven decades later.
(Rafael Medoff, director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, is the historical consultant to Israeli filmmaker Moshe Levinson’s forthcoming documentary on Benzion Netanyahu.)