At this week's unveiling in Jerusalem
of a bust of Winston Churchill, speakers praised the late British leader as a stalwart friend of the Jewish people during their darkest hour.
Rabbi William F. Rosenblum probably would not have agreed.
Rosenblum's name is long forgotten now. But in April 1944, at the height of the Holocaust, he delivered one of the boldest critiques of Churchill's Jewish policy ever heard.
Here was the setting:
On March 19, 1944, the Germans had occupied Hungary. The last major Jewish community in Europe that had been untouched by the Holocaust, 800,000 in number, was now within Hitler's grasp. The Washington Post ominously reported that the Jews in Hungary could expect "the same ruthless treatment meted out to their co-religionists in other countries."
If there was any hope of some Hungarian Jews escaping, they needed a haven to which they could flee. America's doors were almost entirely shut. Palestine was much closer--but since 1939, the British White Paper had kept all but a handful of Jews out of the Holy Land.
The White Paper was due to expire on Friday, March 31, 1944. That weekend, Jews around the world anxiously wondered whether Prime Minister Churchill would continue the immigration restrictions or scrap them.
In their Shabbat sermons, rabbis throughout the United States appealed to the Churchill administration to open the doors of Eretz Yisrael to Hungary's Jews.
Enter William Rosenblum.
Rosenblum was an unlikely player in this drama. He had been a lawyer, social worker, and businessman in interwar Nashville, Tennessee. A chance meeting with a prominent Reform rabbi, William Rosenau, convinced Rosenblum to leave his profession and become a rabbi. In 1926, at age 34, Rosenblum graduated from the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College.
Rosenblum was ahead of his time in some respects. He was, for example, chairman in the 1930s of the "American Pro-Falasha Committee," the first organization to work on behalf of Ethiopian Jewry.
Rosenblum does not seem to have been involved in Palestine affairs, nor did he hold positions in Zionist organizations. In fact, his mentor, the aforementioned Rabbi Rosenau, was later one of the founders of the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism.
But one did not have to be a card-carrying Zionist to recognize the terrible threat to Hungarian Jewry and the urgent need to find them a haven.
And so it was that at Shabbat morning services on April 1, Rosenblum rose in the pulpit of his synagogue, Temple Israel in New York City, to make the startling suggestion that if Jesus suddenly appeared, he too, as a Jew, would be barred by the Churchill government from entering the Holy Land:
"One cannot help wondering what would happen if the Messiah did return to earth. Would his admission to Palestine be referred to the generals of the armies, the prime ministers of the nations, or the conscience of Christian civilization?"
(The "generals" he mentioned were the Allied generals who had been quoted in the press as claiming that Jewish immigration to Palestine would result in Arab attacks on Allied soldiers in the Middle East.)
Rabbi Rosenblum sarcastically suggest[ed] that Churchill would have barred a resurrected Jesus from Palestine [due to the White Paper,ed.]
Then Rosenblum went further:
"And one cannot help wondering what the fate of the Redeemer would be in a world that has so glibly turned its back upon his teachings and upon his very own people."
For Rabbi Rosenblum to sarcastically suggest that Churchill would have barred a resurrected Jesus from Palestine was quite a jab--especially coming just one week before Easter, the holiday when Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead.
And for Rabbi Rosenblum to broadly accuse the Christian world of turning its back on the teachings of Jesus by abandoning the Jewish people, was equally bold.
But Winston Churchill gave him ample reason to speak those strong words. Despite anguished appeals from Jews around the world, Churchill refused to alter the White Paper policy, and his Foreign Office repeatedly undermined opportunities to rescue Jewish refugees from the Nazis.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. went so far as to characterize the Churchill government's position as "a sentence of death" for Jewish refugees.
No doubt both Rabbi Rosenblum and Secretary Morgenthau would have been surprised, to say the least, by some of the things that were said about Churchill's Jewish policy at this week's bust dedication in Jerusalem.