Was There Communal Failure? Some Thoughts on the American Jewish Response to the Holocaust

  • Henry L. Feingold
Part of the The Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute Series on Diplomatic and Economic History book series (WOOROO)


The American Jewish response to the Holocaust has become a central question in the group’s historiography and has produced a plethora of books and articles that question not only the effectiveness of that response but the character of the leaders who organized it.1 Before I began research for A Time for Searching (Johns Hopkins Press: 1992), I suspected that there was much more to the story than merely noting that the second and third generations had become uncaring Jews.2 American Jewry’s prior record of reaction to overseas crises was, after all, a good one. Calls for help from abroad had elicited a generous Jewish response during the Damascus Blood Libel case (1840), the Mortara kidnapping (1858), the Dreyfus Affair (1894), the Beilis Blood Libel case (1903–1907), and the Kishinev pogrom (1903). Including the familiar mass-protest ritual and the quest for government diplomatic intercession, the community response to these crises was neither notably different from what Jews were doing in the 1930s and 1940s nor more effective. Were the researchers who found American Jewry indifferent to the fate of their European brethren imagining a Jewry that they wanted to exist rather than contending with the one that did? I suspected that the best clues to explain the behavior of American Jewry during the Holocaust were hidden in its experiences during the interwar years. Specifically, the roots of the Jewish response could be found in the individual and group identity changes of the post-immigrant generations, which made them at once freer of communal constraints and less able to identify with a worldwide Jewish interest.


Jewish Community Zionist Movement Jewish Life Communal Failure Jewish Immigrant 
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  1. 1.
    The latest example is Rafael Medoff, The Deafening Silence: American Jewish Leaders and the Holocaust (New York: Shapolsky, 1987). There are others as well. Haskell Lookstein, Were We Our Brothers’ Keepers? The Public Response of American Jews to the Holocaust, 1933–1945 (New York: Hartmore House, 1986); Seymour M. Finger, ed., America Jewry during the Holocaust (New York: Homes and Meier, 1984); Saul S. Friedman, No Haven for the Oppressed: United States Policy toward Jewish Refugees, 1933–1945 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1973).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See, for example, Henry L. Feingold, “‘Courage First and Intelligence Second’: The American Jewish Secular Elite, Roosevelt, and the Failure to Rescue,” American Jewish History 72 (June 1983), 459; and Feingold, “Rescue and the Secular Perception: American Jewry and the Holocaust,” in Organizing Rescue: Jewish National Solidarity in the Modern Period, ed. Selwyn I. Troen and Benjamin Pinkus (London: Frank Cass, 1992,) 154–166.Google Scholar
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© Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute 1996

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  • Henry L. Feingold

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