Click photo to download. Caption: The beginning of the October 1943 march by more than 400 rabbis in Washington, DC, three days before Yom Kippur. That dramatic protest helped galvanize members of Congress to introduce a resolution calling on FDR to create a new government agency to rescue Jewish refugees. The current battle on Iran sanctions has conjured echoes of the Holocaust advocacy of 1943, as Jewish groups are again bypassing the president and going to Congress, writes Rafael Medoff. Credit: Courtesy The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

By Rafael Medoff/

A tried-and-true method for lobbyists whose cause is opposed by the U.S. president is to bypass the White House by going to Congress. It worked for Jewish activists in 1943. But will it work in the current battle over sanctions on Iran?

Seventy years ago, the Holocaust rescue activists known as the Bergson Group found themselves stymied by an administration that did not want to take action to save Jewish refugees from the Nazis. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his aides insisted that rescue was not possible until the Nazis were defeated on the battlefield. The White House called its policy “rescue through victory”–a clever way of disguising what was, in reality, a policy of non-rescue.

The Bergson Group looked to Congress for help. In the autumn of 1943, just before Yom Kippur, the Bergsonites and an Orthodox rescue group, the Va’ad ha-Hatzala, brought 400 rabbis to Washington, DC, for an unprecedented march to Capitol Hill and the White House. The dramatic protest helped galvanize members of Congress to introduce a resolution calling on FDR to create a new government agency to rescue Jewish refugees.

Bergson understood the political importance of lining up supporters from both sides of the aisle. It was quite a coup that the leading sponsors of his resolution were Congress members from President Roosevelt’s own party: U.S. Sen. Guy Gillette of Iowa and U.S. Rep. Will Rogers, Jr. of California.

Presidents don’t like when activists use Congress to advance a policy that the administration opposes. FDR didn’t like what Bergson was doing, and the administration of President Barack Obama doesn’t like that some pro-Israel activists today are urging Congress to tighten sanctions on Iran. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has called the congressional sanctions effort “a march to war.”

In 1943, the Roosevelt administration’s allies in Congress tried to slow down the rescue resolution by insisting on full hearings before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Bergson arranged for an impressive array of public figures to testify in support of the resolution. Probably the most important was New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. The fact that he was a staunch supporter of President Roosevelt’s policies in general gave La Guardia credibility to challenge FDR on refugee policy.

In his testimony, La Guardia zeroed in on the fact that the administration had recently established a commission to rescue historic buildings and monuments in war-torn Europe. (“Monuments Men,” a new George Clooney movie about …read more


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