Words that presidents won't say
Words that presidents won't say

The controversy over President Obama's refusal to use the words "Islamic terrorism" is not unprecedented. In the 1930s and 1940s, American Jewish leaders were frustrated by another president who declined to say two words that were central to describing another international crisis.

That president was Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the words he resisted saying were "Jewish refugees." 

With regard to the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany, "President Roosevelt has not by a single word or act intimated the faintest interest in what is going on," Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, American Jewry's foremost leader, complained to a colleague in April 1933, two and a half months after Adolf Hitler's rise to power.

Longtime FDR friend and soon-to-be Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. visited the White House in September 1933 to request a public statement about German Jewry's plight. FDR told them he preferred to say something about human rights abuses in Germany in general, without focusing on the Jews. In the end, however, he made no statement at all.  

The brutalization of Germany's Jews during that period was no secret. "Reports of the beatings and legal disenfranchisement of the Jews flowed out of Germany," Deborah Lipstadt writes in Beyond Belief, her study of American press coverage of the Holocaust. "Persecution was occurring with frightening regularity" and --during those early years-- was amply covered in major U.S. daily newspapers.

Yet in the eighty-two press conferences FDR held in 1933, the subject of the persecution of the Jews arose just once, and not at Roosevelt’s initiative. It would be five years, and another 348 presidential press conferences, before anything about Europe’s Jews would be mentioned again at presidential press conference.

Even at the peak of the Holocaust, Roosevelt and his administration did their best to avoid mentioning that the Jews were being targeted by the Nazis. When the Roosevelt administration announced plans to hold a token conference in Bermuda in 1943 to discuss the refugee issue, it emphasized: "The refugee problem should not be considered as being confined to persons of any particular race or faith." 

The American, British, and Soviet foreign ministers, meeting in Moscow in late 1943, issued a statement threatening postwar punishment for Nazi war crimes against "French, Dutch, Belgian or Norwegian hostages...Cretan peasants...[and] the people of Poland"--but not Jews. President Roosevelt did not use the word "Jews" even in his 1944 statement commemorating the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt.

The directors of FDR's Office of War Information instructed their staff to avoid mentioning that Jews were the primary victims of Nazi atrocities. Coverage of the Nazi mass-murders would be "confused and misleading if it appears to be simply affecting the Jewish people," they were told. Incredibly, the Jews were not mentioned even in President Roosevelt's 1944 public statement commemorating the first anniversary of the Jewish revolt against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Arthur Szyk, the famous artist and Jewish activist, remarked bitterly that the persecution of Europe's Jews was being "treated[ed] as a pornographical subject--you cannot discuss it in polite society."

There was a concrete reason behind the Roosevelt administration's policy of not acknowledging the Jewish identity of Hitler's victims. The president and his advisers were concerned that if they publicly recognized that the Jews were being singled out, then --as one State Department official put it-- “the various [Allied] Governments would expose themselves to increased pressure from all sides to do something more specific in order to aid these people.” 

President Obama, too, has his reasons for not wanting to characterize recent terror attacks as Islamic terrorism; he believes using the term will anger Muslims. His critics disagree; they contend it is impossible to wage an effective war without accurately identifying the enemy.

One thing is certain: the president's policy has driven some of his spokespeople to absurd lengths, such as when Mr. Obama said the attack on the kosher grocery in Paris last year was "random," and White House spokesman Josh Earnest tried to justify that statement on the grounds that "these individuals were not targeted by name…There were people other than Jews who were in that deli.”

Whether the current policy will have the effect that President Obama desires, remains to be seen. In the case of President Roosevelt, the policy of omitting the Jews produced exactly the result he intended: by keeping the Jews out of the media spotlight, he reduced and delayed public pressure for U.S. action to help them.

Dr. Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of 16 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust.