Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming Congressional address is not without direct familial precedent. The prime minister’s father also looked to the U.S. Congress in his attempt to mobilize support for Zionism in the 1940s. Benzion Netanyahu, a leading scholar of the Spanish Inquisition, died in Jerusalem in 2012 at age 102. He is known to have had a significant influence on his son’s political thinking and worldview.
Born in Poland in 1910, Benzion Netanyahu was a son of Rabbi Nathan Mileikowsky, a popular Zionist orator. The family made aliyah in 1920, and Hebraicized its name to Netanyahu. In the wake of the Palestinian Arab riots of 1929, Netanyahu was attracted to Revisionist Zionism, the militant wing of the Zionist movement headed by Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Netanyahu’s intellectual and literary talents made him a natural to serve as editor of the Revisionist newspaper HaYarden in the 1930s.
Sent by Jabotinsky to the United States in 1940, Netanyahu became executive director of the U.S. branch of the Revisionists. Much of his work involved writing advertisements, which were placed in the New York Times and elsewhere, challenging the Allies’ failure to rescue European Jews from the Nazis and the need for a Jewish state in Palestine.
Netanyahu spent part of his time on Capitol Hill, seeking Congressional backing for the cause of Jewish statehood. In one of my interviews with him, Netanyahu recalled the political landscape he encountered in the nation’s capital: “Most of the Jewish and Zionist leaders, led by Rabbi Stephen Wise, were devoted Democrats and supporters of President Roosevelt. The idea of having friendly relationships with Republicans was almost inconceivable to them.”
Netanyahu was neither a Republican nor a Democrat. He had no interest in either party’s positions on any issue except rescuing Jewish refugees and establishing a Jewish state. When he found the Roosevelt administration unmovable on either issue, Netanyahu decided to put pressure on the president and the Democrats by going across the aisle and making his case to the GOP.
In the months prior to the June 1944 Republican National Convention, Netanyahu and his colleagues undertook what they called “a systematic campaign of enlightenment” about Palestine, targeting GOP leaders including former president Herbert Hoover; Senator Robert Taft, who was chairing the convention’s resolutions committee; and the influential Connecticut congresswoman Clare Booth Luce, who was slated to deliver the keynote address at the convention.
Netanyahu’s goal was to have the GOP platform include a plank supporting Jewish statehood in Palestine. Neither party had ever before taken such a stand in its platform.
At the same time, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver was leading a second Jewish lobbying effort aimed at the Republicans. Silver was Stephen Wise’s arch-rival, even as he uneasily co-chaired the American Zionist Emergency Council alongside him. Silver’s close relationship with Senator Taft led to an invitation to Silver to deliver the benediction at the 1944 convention. It also gave Silver an opportunity to speak with Republican leaders about the platform.
The Netanyahu-Silver lobbying effort was an unqualified success. The final text of the plank demanded “refuge for millions of distressed Jewish men, women, and children driven from their homes by tyranny” and the establishment of a “free and democratic” Jewish state. But then it went beyond what Netanyahu and Silver had urged, by directly criticizing Roosevelt: “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.”
Documents I found in Rabbi Wise’s private papers, located at the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem, shed new light on how Wise responded to the Republican platform—and how it led to a political achievement far beyond even what Netanyahu had sought.
Some in the Jewish community saw the presidential campaign as an opportunity to advance the Zionist cause. Wise’s friend William Rosenblatt, for example, wrote Wise in May 1944: “We will never get a Jewish Palestine unless we are forceful and militant and perhaps at this time, during the campaign, is the best time to get both sides committed.” But Wise himself originally had no intention of attending either convention or seeking their endorsement of Zionism.
Had the Republican plank referred merely to Palestine and Jewish refugees, without mentioning FDR by name, Rabbi Wise would not have objected. But the GOP’s criticism of Roosevelt—the president whom Wise revered as “the All Highest” and “the Great Man” in his private correspondence—was too much for him to take. Wise hurried to inform the president that he was “deeply ashamed” of the plank’s wording, and dashed off a press release criticizing the GOP for casting “an unjust aspersion” on Roosevelt.
The Republican plank didn’t just infuriate Wise. According to his correspondence, it also drove him to undertake a political initiative that he had not intended: to secure a pro-Zionist pledge from the Democrats. “Though I refused to go to Chicago as a delegate to the [Democrats’] Convention,” he wrote to his close colleague, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, “I now think I shall go there in order to be certain that the Resolution on Palestine which must now be adopted shall more than neutralize the damage done by the Silver-inspired attack upon the Chief.”
Silver, for his part, was delighted that—as he wrote to a colleague—”for the first time, our [Zionist] Movement finds itself in the fortunate position where both major political parties are competing for its approval.” But he was not convinced the Democrats were ready to embrace Jewish statehood. “We should [use the GOP plank] as a lever to put through a similar and, if possible, a better plank in the Democratic platform,” he counseled Wise. But at the same time he warned his rival that the State Department, which was known to be hostile to Zionism, “will bring pressure to bear…to have a watered-down, meaningless plank on Palestine” in the Democrats’ platform.”
“You might have to go to the very top to force through a strong resolution,” Silver wrote to Wise, referring to President Roosevelt. As much as he hated Silver, Wise realized that he had a point. Thus, in the days preceding the Democratic Convention, Wise asked White House aides for a meeting with FDR to secure his “personal and administration support of [the] Zionist program” and affirmation of his desire to bring about “maximum rescue [of] Jewish civilians.” Wise’s request was denied.
Wise arrived at the convention amidst rumors that presidential speechwriter Samuel Rosenman—a Jewish opponent of Zionism—was pushing for a milder resolution on Palestine. That would be “a great gift to [Republican presidential nominee] Tom D[ewey],” Wise warned. Dewey was the governor of New York, so the state was presumed to be in play in the election. A shift of Jewish votes to Dewey could tip New York in his favor.
On the second day of the gathering, a worried Wise told assistant attorney general Norman Littell that members of the platform committee were not yet embracing his proposal for a pro-Zionist plank. “It will hurt the president,” Wise warned him. “It will lose the President 400,000 or 500,000 votes.” The Republicans had adopted “a satisfactory plank” on Palestine, he reminded Littell; the Democrats needed to match it.
Wise’s warning was reinforced by a large advertisement which Netanyahu’s Revisionist Zionists placed in that morning’s Chicago Daily News. It reminded the Democratic delegates of the GOP plank and pressed them to likewise support “immediate and effective action on behalf of a Jewish Palestine.”
Wise’s lobbying succeeded. The Democrats adopted a plank endorsing “unrestricted Jewish immigration and colonization” of Palestine and the establishment of “a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth.”
“My personal friendships with many leaders of the Party gave us the resolution that we finally got despite those who would have denied us,” he wrote to the aforementioned William Rosenblatt. “With the plank in both platforms the thing is lifted above partisanship.”
That was exactly right. The adoption of the two party planks helped ensure that support for Zionism, and later Israel, would become a permanent part of American political culture. Every subsequent Republican and Democratic convention has adopted a similar plank. To do less became politically unthinkable.
It was not as if Netanyahu, Silver, and Wise created something out of nothing. Support for Zionism had long been widespread among both Republicans and Democrats. But nobody had ever attempted to channel that sentiment into the official planks of the two parties’ platforms, thereby altering the political landscape for generations to come. The bipartisan support for Israel on Capitol Hill that will be expressed when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses Congress next month will represent the continuation of a longstanding tradition in American foreign policy that his own father helped nurture seven decades ago.
Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, D.C. His latest book is FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith.