Commentary Magazine


Did FDR Act to Save the Jews of the Middle East? An Exchange.

On October 12, I wrote in Contentions to take issue with an article published in the Forward by former New York District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau and New York University Law Professor Frank Tuerkheimer in which the two attempted to cite the American involvement in the North African campaign during World War II as proof that Franklin Roosevelt had successfully saved the Jews of North Africa and British Mandate Palestine. They have replied to that post with the following letter. My response to their letter follows.

Jonathan Tobin’s response to our article addresses both an issue we did not raise and ignores the geography and realities of the North Africa campaign.  We wrote that after the Pearl Harbor attack by Japan that Roosevelt adopted a “Germany first” policy, a politically unattractive plan to defeat Germany, the enemy that had not actually attacked us.  Roosevelt sensed that “German control over an industrial Europe would pose far greater danger to the United States in the long run.”

Tobin writes of Rommel’s victories in North Africa as “scaring” the Allies but, in the long run, “his chances of ever entering Cairo, let alone Jerusalem and Tel Aviv” as being “doomed.”

The noted diplomatic and military historian of the Second World War Gerhard Weinberg has written, “The Germans did not send the Afrika Korps into Egypt to dismantle the pyramids for shipment to Berlin but rather to make possible the killing of the Jewish inhabitants of the Palestine mandate, as Hitler promised the grand mufti of Jerusalem.” And Weinberg has commented “most have ignored the critical role that Roosevelt’s actions to ensure the supply of the British army fighting in North Africa and to provide it with the equipment needed to defend the southern approach to Palestine played in enabling that army to stop the Germans.”

Finally, Professor Weinberg has reminded us that American reaction to the Holocaust should be considered in “the context of reality instead of the outrage of retrospective analysis blinded by the enormity of human suffering. This is critical for any understanding of those sad events.”

The thrust of our article is that Roosevelt’s incisiveness and political courage saved the lives of thousands and thousands of Jews and enabled the Jews of Palestine to wage their successful war for independence. Nothing Mr. Tobin writes changes that.

Robert M. Morgenthau and Frank Tuerkheimer

Jonathan S. Tobin responds:

Robert M. Morgenthau and Frank Tuerkheimer’s valiant effort to somehow vindicate the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt vis-à-vis the Holocaust continues to fall flat. Their assertion that I don’t understand the military history they cite is ludicrous. It is their attempt to take a chapter of military history out of context that is the problem here.

They may be able to cite one German historian who has tried to prove the murderous fantasies of the pro-Nazi Palestinian leader Haj Amin Husseini were the motivations for all German military movements in the Mediterranean. But this is simply not true. Adolf Hitler would have happily slaughtered any Jew who came under his power, but he did not send Erwin Rommel and the Afrika Korps to the Western Desert as part of plan to murder the Jews of the pre-state yishuv in Palestine. Rather, the mission of Rommel and his troops was to prevent the British from overrunning all of Italian-held Libya as they were threatening to do in early 1941. The fortunes of the North African campaign were reversed several times before the final Allied victory in 1943. (Benghazi, the provisional capital of anti-Qaddafi Libyan insurgents changed hands five times within two years.) There is no proof Hitler saw the dispatch of what was — when compared to the scale of the armies employed on both the Western and Eastern fronts — a token force to North Africa as having as its ultimate goal the conquest of all of the Middle East. Nor did the Germans ever divert anywhere close to the amount of resources or equipment to the Mediterranean to allow Rommel to do anything more than unsuccessfully threaten Cairo.

By the same token, Roosevelt’s dispatch of equipment to the Middle East had as its sole purpose the strengthening of the British military position as a prelude to taking the war to Europe. FDR was mainly concerned, as was Winston Churchill, with defending the Suez Canal, not the “southern approach to Palestine.” To assert the contrary is absurd. Moreover, any residual benefit to the Jews of North Africa of the decision to fight in North Africa (which was initially resisted by the Americans whose preference was always to launch a second European front rather than to shore up British imperial interests in the Med) was purely accidental.

Part of the reason why Roosevelt has been judged harshly for his lack of response to the Holocaust is that the fate of the Jews was always a non-issue for him. His sole concern was winning the war. One could make an argument that doing so ultimately saved many lives. But while FDR deserves great credit for that victory, it was won too late to save six million Jews. As historian Lucy Dawidowicz memorably wrote, even though the Allies and the Soviets won their wars against the Axis, the Germans can be said to have largely won theirs against the Jews. Contrary to Morgenthau and Tuerkheimer, American involvement in North Africa perfectly illustrates Roosevelt’s lack of concern for the Jews. Neither the well-being of the Jews of Palestine nor those in Nazi-occupied Libya or those parts of North Africa owned by Vichy France ever entered in FDR’s decision-making process.

The article of Morgenthau and Tuerkheimer, like many other efforts designed to clean up Roosevelt’s deservedly poor image with respect to his response to the Holocaust requires readers to suspend disbelief in a manner  inconsistent with the duties of a historian. The facts of American indifference and inaction — a record that was only ameliorated in a limited fashion by the noble efforts of, among others, Mr. Morgenthau’s father Henry — cannot be erased by the desire of some to salvage the reputation of an otherwise revered president.

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