American Jewish History 88.1 (2000) 1-2
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Nearly two decades have passed since the last issue of American Jewish History devoted specifically to the topic of America's response to the Holocaust. In March 1979 and again in March 1981, this journal presented what turned out to be pathbreaking essays on how the United States government and the American Jewish community reacted to news of the Nazi persecutions. The seminal nature of those essays is obvious in retrospect. Not only did they shed important new light on a complex topic; they also pointed the way for future research and influenced and inspired the next generation of scholars to dig deeper.
The intervening years have witnessed a torrent of significant new research in the field. Numerous dissertations, journal articles, and at least a dozen serious book-length studies have examined previously unknown chapters in the history of how the American government, public, and media responded to the Holocaust. Two major documentary films have already appeared, and more are in the works. A special American Jewish Commission on the Holocaust was even created by leaders of Jewish organizations to examine the contentious issues concerning American Jewry's responses to news of the genocide.
The frequent and lively discussions of this topic that appear in the media, and the fact that one of the most important books on America and the Holocaust (David Wyman's The Abandonment of the Jews) was a best-seller, indicates that a subject which was once the more or less exclusive domain of scholars has aroused considerable interest well beyond the confines of academia.
Yet for all that has been written, significant aspects of the topic remain unexplored. The essays featured in this issue of American Jewish History--and in a second issue planned for the near future--utilize new research to explore traditional points of contention as well as delve into areas hitherto neglected.
Laurel Leff's essay deals with the actions of two of the most important players in this historical drama, the media and American Jewry. "A Tragic Fight in the Family: The New York Times, Reform Judaism, and the Holocaust" explores how the principles of Reform Judaism to which the Times' owners adhered helped shape the newspaper's coverage of the Holocaust. [End Page 1]
Harold Brackman explores African-American responses to the Holocaust in his essay about the eminent black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, whose views on the Nazi persecution of the Jews in some ways mirrored, and in some ways departed from, those of the broader African-American community.
The essay by Edward Alexander directs our attention to the American Jewish intellectuals of the 1940s, whose attitudes to the Holocaust have generally eluded scholarly analysis. Professor Alexander focuses on the discrepancy between Irving Howe's muted response to the persecution of European Jewry and the passion and eloquence he exhibited in the literary world.
My own contribution to this issue focuses on the experiences of a Jewish intellectual of a very different sort, the poet Leib Jaffe. This Zionist emissary from Palestine took part in meetings of American Jewish leaders at which possible responses to the news from Europe were debated. The insights and observations contained in Jaffe's private correspondence offer an interesting eyewitness account of the American Jewish leadership at that crucial juncture in history.
Twenty one years ago, this journal helped inaugurate a new chapter in the study of a topic that is critical to students of American Jewry, the Holocaust, and American foreign policy alike. The present issue is a modest attempt to continue what American Jewish History started in 1979.
Rafael Medoff is Visiting Scholar in the Jewish Studies Program at Purchase College, The State University of New York. His published writing concerning America's response to the Holocaust include The Deafening Silence: American Jewish Leaders and the Holocaust (1987) and essays in numerous scholarly journals, among them Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Holocaust Studies Annual, and American Jewish History.