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  • American Jewish Leaders and the North Africa Controversy of 1943:Applying the Gurock Principle
  • Rafael Medoff (bio)

After more than two years of persecution at the hands of the Vichy French colonial authorities, North Africa’s 330,000 Jews regarded the Allied conquest of the region in November 1942 as heaven-sent. Following a centuries-old custom of establishing local Purim-style celebrations to mark deliverance from catastrophe, the Jewish community of Casablanca declared the day of the Allied liberation “Hitler Purim” and created a “Megillat Hitler,” intertwining the tale of ancient Persia with their own experience of good fortune, complete with expressions such as “Cursed be Hitler, cursed be Mussolini.” It soon became clear, however, that the Allies had no intention of ending Vichy’s anti-Jewish practices any time soon. This turn of events triggered an unprecedented series of American Jewish protests, made all the more remarkable by the fact that they took place at a time when American Jews were not engaged in comparable protests over the mass murder of Jews in Europe. This unusual episode illustrates a principle articulated by Jeffrey S. Gurock in his analysis of American Jewish foreign policy: the positions taken by Jewish leaders are not always based on the merits of the foreign policy issue in question, but are sometimes dictated, at least in part, by how the issue affects American Jews themselves.1

American Jewish sensibilities have always been attuned to the need to align Jewish concerns with what is perceived by the broader society as acceptable American behavior. Demonstrating that there is no conflict between core Jewish interests and the values and principles of most non-Jewish Americans has been understood as the path to attaining a level of equality and acceptance that Jews have not enjoyed in other countries. Even issues that were less obviously germane to American national concerns, such as Zionism, were framed publicly by American Jews as [End Page 297] consistent with American principles and United States foreign policy interests. In several significant instances, however, major American Jewish organizations have taken positions on matters of U.S. foreign policy that ostensibly reflected Jewish solidarity with coreligionists abroad, but actually were driven by, or at least strongly influenced by, more narrow Jewish domestic interests.

The early history of American Jewish intervention to aid Russian Jews provides one illustration of this phenomenon of domestic considerations shaping American Jewish foreign policy positions. Responding to Czarist persecution of Russian Jewry, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in 1906 lobbied for abrogation of the Russo-American Commercial Treaty. Ostensibly this protest campaign was triggered by the Russian government’s refusal, beginning in the 1890s, to grant visas to all American Jews who wished to visit that country. In practice, however, the number of American Jews affected by this Russian policy was not more than “a few hundred,” according to AJC leader Jacob Schiff. But the issue assumed unusual importance to the Committee and its allies, because it was perceived as affecting their own status as Jews in the United States. If a foreign government were permitted to discriminate against Jewish Americans, they would then be placed, as Naomi W. Cohen has written, “in the intolerable category of second-class citizens.”2 Thus a political struggle waged to help Russian Jewry was motivated in part—perhaps in large part—by some American Jews’ concerns about their own status as American citizens. Undoubtedly American Jewish leaders felt genuine sympathy for their coreligionists in Russia, consistent with the traditional principle of diaspora Jewish communities coming to one another’s aid in times of travail. But in this case, American Jews were driven by more than basic feelings of intra-Jewish solidarity.3

Similar motives are evident in the responses of major American Jewish organizations to proposals for restricting immigration to the United States, which were debated by Congress from the late 1800s until the early 1920s. Many of the German-born or German-descended Jews who held positions of leadership in the American Jewish community during this period were less than enthusiastic about the mass immigration of East European Jews to the United States. They regarded the visibly Jewish newcomers as a source of embarrassment...


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pp. 297-310
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