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FDR and the Jews

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$24.00 • £20.95 • €21.95

ISBN 9780674416741

Publication Date: 11/24/2014


464 pages

6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

Belknap Press


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At long last, two historians have sought to provide an analysis of Roosevelt’s stance on the ‘Jewish question’ that avoids the tempting urge to judge the past through the lenses of the present… FDR and the Jews offers…a new perspective, a cogent and comprehensive study of Roosevelt’s evolving opinions on the Jews… Breitman and Lichtman’s carefully documented explication of this somewhat byzantine narrative proves immensely valuable in understanding the mechanics of what remain some of the most controversial decisions in the history of American foreign policy: the refusal to admit the Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis to the United States in 1939 and the refusal to bomb the Auschwitz crematoria after their existence was discovered in 1942… Among the other accomplishments of this remarkably clear, concise but complicated history is the attention it devotes to American Jews, who were anything but unified during the war… [It] provide[s] the perspective necessary to comprehend the complexities of what have become some of the most painful and politically charged memories in American foreign policy. In short, FDR and the Jews is a narrative that resists the temptations of artificial drama and a work of scholarship that avoids facile categorization.—James McAuley, Washington Post

Sadly, Roosevelt left behind a rather thin paper trail. He didn’t write a memoir or record many White House conversations, and he refused to allow note-taking at his personal meetings. To fill this gap, Breitman and Lichtman have combed the archives of the leading players who did write down their thoughts and recollections, and the result is quite impressive. Even those who disagree with the book’s conclusions must acknowledge the mountain of research on which they rest… The authors rightly note the squeamishness of America’s modern presidents in dealing with genocide… Historically speaking, Roosevelt comes off rather well… [An] eminently sensible book.—David Oshinsky, New York Times Book Review

Thoughtful and persuasive… It poses a challenge to the theme that American Jews have no friends, that the gentile world has been at best indifferent to the survival of the Jewish people. It shows that, while there were some anti-Semites in the State Department, the best friend Jews had anywhere in the world in the 1940s was the government of the United States and its president FDR; that, while FDR put domestic political factors ahead of rescuing European Jews, he did far more than any other head of government to act to protect Jews facing death… It’s the most responsible, reasoned, well-documented assessment of FDR’s role.—Jon Wiener, Los Angeles Review of Books

One effect of Breitman and Lichtman’s book is that no one who reads it sympathetically can continue to believe that Roosevelt acting alone ‘could have’ simply devoted the efforts of the United States to stopping or seriously mitigating the Holocaust, even if he had known sooner of the Nazis’ plans.—Noah Feldman, New York Review of Books

Level-headed yet deeply troubling, FDR and the Jews offers a history of American policy toward overseas Jews before and during World War II… Assertively fair-minded, sometimes excessively so, FDR and the Jews pushes back against simplistic denunciations, and refuses to treat the era’s combination of constraints and decisions as a one-dimensional history of American abandonment. Situating Roosevelt within political and global circumstances, it weighs his actions with understanding and sympathy, though not always with approval.—Ira Katznelson, New Republic

[Breitman and Lichtman] challenge the view that F.D.R. was remiss in helping [Europe’s Jews] and plot stages in his development from aloofness to engagement.—Jerome Donnelly, America

The carefully nuanced FDR and the Jews…remains the definitive work on the topic.—Joshua Kendall, Boston Globe

While this incisively written study is unlikely to sway anyone whose mind is already made up, readers without fixed views will find plenty to ponder. And it will remind everyone not only of the enormity of the Holocaust but…the ultimate limitations of the presidency, no matter who holds the office.—Alan Cate, Cleveland Plain Dealer

FDR and the Jews…is not a defense of the president. The authors note that Roosevelt’s primary objective, especially during his first term, was economic recovery, not confronting Congress to revise restrictive immigration law. Nevertheless, the American Jewish community trusted him and understood that he was the first president to intervene somewhat on behalf of their oppressed brethren abroad. The authors observe that Roosevelt was neither a savior nor an indifferent bystander, yet his efforts on behalf of the Jews was far greater than those of any other world leader.—Jack Fischel, Hadassah Magazine

Breitman and Lichtman take pains to highlight what FDR did do to aid Jews fleeing Europe, and which has been largely ignored by his critics… Breitman and Lichtman conclude—wisely—that ‘without FDR’s policies and leadership,’ the Germans and Italians would have beaten the British in North Africa and conquered, which would have ended all hopes for a future Israel (and put hundreds of thousands of more Jews in harm’s way). And, they continue, even though the war always took priority over the rescue of masses of Jews ‘Roosevelt reacted more decisively to Nazi crimes against Jews than did any other world leader of his time.’—Murray Polner, History News Network

On the basis of meticulous research, using many fresh sources, [Breitman and Lichtman] establish [FDR’s] good intentions beyond any doubt. But by locating his words and deeds in their precise context, they elucidate what was feasible and distinguish when his conduct stemmed from prudence, cowardice or indifference. They do equal justice to the American Jewish leadership with whom he interacted. For good measure, they end by situating FDR in the spectrum of U.S. presidents who have confronted genocide. None has ever placed humanitarian intervention above political advantage or the national interest.—David Cesarani, New Statesman

[A] meticulously researched history… As this book reminds us, politics offers not a simple choice between good and evil, but an agonizing choice between competing evils. Who among us can be sure [Roosevelt] chose badly?—Dominic Sandbrook, Sunday Times

FDR and the Jews aims for a balanced view… Roosevelt’s actions during the Holocaust make a better showing than most, even if not as good as one might wish.—George Bornstein, Times Literary Supplement

[This] work, which includes formerly unpublished primary sources, attempts to present an objective account of FDR and the Holocaust. [Breitman and Lichtman] note that the president was neither savior nor indifferent bystander. Although Roosevelt displayed sympathy for European Jews, his response was often tempered by pragmatic considerations. Nevertheless, the authors conclude that Roosevelt’s efforts on behalf of the Jews were far greater than those of any other world leader.—J. Fischel, Choice

Breitman and Lichtman pursue several telling currents in FDR’s record, namely the president’s ability to keep the private separate from the public, his reliance on Jewish leaders, and his evolving enlightenment toward Jewish issues as he neared the end of his life.Kirkus Reviews

A penetrating analysis of the historical record, uncovering new sources and answering haunting questions that still linger after 75 years. A must read!—Richard Ben-Veniste, Senior Partner, Mayer Brown LLP, and Commissioner, 9/11 Commission

The FDR who emerges here is concerned with the fate of European Jewry, but also exquisitely sensitive to the demands of the situation: in short, he is the ultimately political man, and his approach shifts with each turn of major events. This comprehensive work will become the definitive word on the subject.—Noah Feldman, author of Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices

This splendid book should banish forever the notion that Franklin Roosevelt was a blinkered anti-Semite who made little effort to stop the Holocaust. With dazzling research and astute judgments, Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman portray FDR as a cunning politician who, in the dreadful context of his times, did more to aid Jews than any other leader in the United States or abroad.—Michael Kazin, author of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation

Anyone who wishes to be part of the conversation about FDR’s response to the Holocaust would do well to read Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman’s FDR and the Jews. In a quiet and sober fashion it reexamines what is already known and lays out new and previously unknown information.—Deborah E. Lipstadt, author of The Eichmann Trial

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