My disagreement with Deborah Lipstadt

My disagreement with Deborah Lipstadt

Prof. Deborah Lipstadt

Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) falls on the evening of April 18 this year.  Back on March 15, I wrote a Tikkun blog post that became the subject of an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post, April 2, “Taking the politics out of Holocaust history” by Rafael Medoff, a historian who founded and heads the David S. Wyman Center for Holocaust Studies. My Tikkun post began as follows: 

On March 6th, the renowned Holocaust historian Deborah E. Lipstadt lectured at Manhattan’s famed Temple Emanu-El. She spoke with obvious erudition and considerable charm on a difficult subject: “On America, The Holocaust, And Playing the Blame Game.” …

Prof. Lipstadt readily stipulates that the US administration should have done more to let in Jewish refugees, especially during the 1930s, but she warns against judging Franklin D. Roosevelt and the American Jewish community of that time too harshly from the moral standpoint and knowledge of events that we came to have in the post-war years; she characterizes such an imposition of present standards on past eras as a fallacy called “presentism.” She also criticized those in the pro-FDR “defensive school”–including Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., William vanden Heuvel and Lucy Dawidowicz–who indignantly countered that the US did all it could to save Jews during the ’30s and ’40s.
What got Dr. Medoff’s notice was the following passage:

Lipstadt believes that it’s not by accident that the critics of FDR and the American Jewish establishment during the Nazi era emerged after Menachem Begin’s Likud broke the Laborite monopoly on power in Israel, with its electoral victories in 1977 and in the 1980s. But since the first such book was written by Arthur D. Morse in 1967 (“While Six Million Died”), I don’t necessarily see a cause & effect here. I also don’t see how an ideological backlash to Labor’s decades in power would explain the biting examination by the non-Jewish American historian David S. Wyman (e.g., “The Abandonment of the Jews”). All in all, I think that Wyman and some other critics of FDR and the organized Jewish community (such as the activists of the Bergson Group) may be closer to the mark.
It remains to be seen that this will take on the “David vs. Goliath feel” that Medoff perceives in my disagreement with Prof. Lipstadt, a giant in the field of Holocaust-related scholarship. I rather hope it doesn’t.  But insofar as I can tell, Lipstadt is mistaken to see the hand of Zionist factionalism in
historical works that criticize the US government’s inadequate and often inhumane response during the Holocaust, as well as the dearth of energy and cohesion in the American Jewish community at the time.  Here’s the heart of Medoff’s critique:
Seliger could have cited many additional examples that leave Lipstadt’s thesis in tatters. After all, the entire first wave of scholarship critical of FDR long preceded Begin’s rise in 1977. Prof. Wyman’s first book on the subject, Paper Walls, was published in 1968.

That same year, a prominent Israeli historian of the Holocaust, well known as a man of the Left, not only criticized the Roosevelt administration’s response to the Holocaust but added, “[I]t is somewhat difficult to put all the blame for complacency on British or American statesmen, some of whom could not exactly be described as friends of the Jews, when Jewish leaders made no visible attempt to put pressure on their governments for any active policy of rescue.” So wrote Prof. Yehuda Bauer, in the pages of Midstream magazine.

Next came Henry Feingold, in 1970, with The Politics of Rescue. He concluded that “European Jewry was ground to dust between the twin millstones of a murderous Nazi intent and a callous Allied indifference.” Prof. Feingold was for many years chairman of the Labor Zionists of America, so he doesn’t fit Lipstadt’s it’s-all-a-Likud-plot theory very well. In fact, one might say that his Laborite credentials turn her theory on its head.

There was plenty of criticism of FDR in the years following Begin’s election. But it came from the Left as often as it came from the Right.

For example, Martin Gilbert, who has described himself as “a supporter of the [Israeli] Labor Party,” wrote in his 1981 book Auschwitz and the Allies that the Roosevelt and Churchill administrations were guilty of “failures of imagination, of response, of intelligence, of piecing together and evaluating what was known, of co-ordination, of initiative, and even at times of sympathy.”

Arthur Hertzberg, the historian, Jewish leader, and outspoken critic of Begin, wrote in 1984 that the Roosevelt administration and the other Allies “were well and currently informed about the tragic fate of the Jews, certainly by 1942, and did little to mitigate it.” …

Medoff made a minor factual error of his own in identifying “Israel Horizons” magazine, which I edited for a number of years until its suspension in 2011, as “the US publication of Meretz, the Israeli party led by Shulamit Aloni and Yossi Sarid.” More accurately, IH was published by Meretz USA, now called Partners for Progressive Israel. We were then, and remain, allied with the Meretz party within the World Zionist Organization; but while this is a relationship reflecting a philosophical kinship, IH was the organ of an American non-profit organization and not of an Israeli political party.

Technically speaking, Aloni was one of three founding co-leaders of Meretz, launched as the common electoral list of the Ratz, Mapam and Shinui parties in 1991; it became a unified political party under Sarid in 1997, when Meretz USA was also created.  Both of these remarkable individuals are now retired from professional politics (Aloni since ’97, and Sarid since 2006).

Finally, Medoff is more combative than I am in my Tikkun post.  I largely agree with Lipstadt’s point about “presentism,” even as I believe that she carries it too far. You can actually read her argument online via a pdf of a lecture she delivered about a year ago at the University of Michigan (accessible by clicking here).

By | 2012-04-17T11:00:00-04:00 April 17th, 2012|Blog|0 Comments

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