Franklin D. Roosevelt received 85-90% of the Jewish vote in 1932, 1936, and 1940. How was it, then, that in the run-up to the 1944 election, FDR's top Jewish supporters were worried that he might lose a significant portion of the Jewish vote?
President Barack Obama's election strategists might want to examine this historical episode--especially in light of stinging comments made last week about the president's Israel policy by the editor of the largest American Jewish weekly newspaper. Gary Rosenblatt, longtime editor of the New York Jewish Week, took aim at recent leaks to the press that were apparently intended to undermine Israel's ability to strike at Iran's nuclear facilities. One leak claimed to reveal Israel's approximate timetable for military action. A second claimed an Israeli strike would provoke Iranian attacks on Americans. A third exposed an Israeli agreement with Azerbaijan that would have given the Israelis a base from which to launch a raid on Iran.
The Obama administration vehemently denied that it was the source of the leaks. Rosenblatt isn't buying it; "I have come to believe, reluctantly, that the administration is leaking these stories to the press," the Jewish Week editor wrote, adding: "[This] strongly suggests that the president views Israel as more of a nuisance rather than a partner regarding Iran, and perhaps the wider Mideast conflict."
Rosenblatt stopped just short of calling the president a liar. Naturally one does not use such language when referring to the president. Still, Rosenblatt's challenge is clear. The president says he has Israel's back; Rosenblatt says no, his administration is leaking stories to undermine Israel. The president says he is the most pro-Israel president in U.S. history; Rosenblatt says no, Obama views Israel as "a nuisance." The president's spokesmen say the administration did not leak the stories; Rosenblatt says no, they did leak them.
It would be understandable if the Jewish Week editor's blunt words unnerve some of President Obama's Jewish supporters. FDR's Jewish backers harbored similar worries. The Roosevelt administration's claim that nothing could be done to rescue Jews from Hitler provoked disappointment and anger in the American Jewish community during 1943-1944. Ironically, some of the sharpest criticism of FDR came from the editors of the Baltimore Jewish Times--a newspaper of which Gary Rosenblatt himself would later serve as editor for 19 years.
For example, when the administration claimed there were not enough ships to bring refugees from Europe to the United States, an editorial in the Baltimore Jewish Times blasted the "apologists for failure to aid the Jewish refugees" for hiding the fact that the Allies found ships to take tens of thousands of Polish (non-Jewish) refugees to Iran, Uganda, and Mexico. The editors stopped just short of calling the Roosevelt administration liars.
In the spring of 1943, the Roosevelt and Churchill administrations held a conference in Bermuda to address the refugee problem. No concrete rescue plans emerged. A sarcastic headline the Baltimore Jewish Times announced: "Bermuda Conferees Agree to Another Conference." Another editorial in the Times denounced FDR's refugee policy as one of "nauseating repetitions of sympathy which lead nowhere and are never accompanied by action."
Then as now, editorial in the Jewish press are often a bellwether of American Jewish opinion. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the most prominent Jewish leader of that era and a staunch supporter of President Roosevelt, understood there was no guarantee FDR would win his usual overwhelming share of the Jewish vote in 1944.
At the 1944 Democratic Party convention in Chicago, Wise warned an administration official that FDR's refusal to press the British to open Palestine to Jewish refugees "could lose the President 400,000 to 500,000 votes."
Of course we all know the ending to that story--ultimately, FDR did win 90% of the Jewish vote in 1944. But that came only after the president made a series of election-year gestures to the Jewish community, including creation of a government agency to rescue refugees, admission to the United States of a small number of refugees outside the quota system, and adoption of a party plank supporting Zionism (to match the GOP's pro-Zionist platform).
When CBS-TV anchorman Walter Cronkite began criticizing U.S. policy in Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson told his aides, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." He understood what Cronkite represented.
Gary Rosenblatt, too, may represent more than just himself. As a widely-respected editor of the largest U.S. Jewish weekly, as a centrist on America-Israel issues, and as someone not known for having been especially critical of the Obama administration before, his views command attention.
When it comes to American Jews and Israel, will Rosenblatt turn out to be the Obama administration's Walter Cronkite?