The Shameful Legacy of Rabbi Stephen Wise

Left to right: Nahum Goldmann, Stephen Wise, Henry Torres (speaking) at the World Jewish Congress Installation Conference, New York City, June 1942. Photo: wiki commons.

From my early childhood, I remember my mother teaching me about the importance of supporting the Jewish people and the Jewish nation – and not being afraid.  My middle name, David, is after the sole member of my mother’s family, David Waga, who escaped the concentration camps where so many members of my family were killed.  David fought with the partisans during the Holocaust.

Growing up as a member of the community of Rabbi Avi Weiss, from my pre-teenage years I recall demonstrations outside the Soviet Embassy were we yelled “Let My People Go”. We raised a voice of moral conscience on behalf of many other important Jewish related causes as well.  I then became National President of the Betar Movement – the activist movement of Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Today, as I raise my family, I am proud that my children attend yeshiva and that we are involved in numerous Jewish charities and causes.

Because of my background, I declined to allow my children to attend a party program that recently took place at the Stephen Wise Synagogue.  Now, don’t call me an extremist – I have let my kids attend parties at other reform temples.  As CEO of a Public Relations Agency, I represent churches and many different causes – yet I will never walk through the doors of a building that honors Stephen Wise.

For those that are unaware, Rabbi Stephen Wise was the most prominent leader of the American Jewish community during the 1930s and 1940s, and served as “president of both the American Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Congress.”  Perhaps there are many fine things that he did in his life, but it is nearly unanimously recognized that the man’s leadership was atrocious when it came to saving Europe’s Jews during the Holocaust. So how could Stephen Wise be regarded as anything other than a despicable human being and a disastrous Jewish leader?

It is true that you cannot judge another man until you walk in his shoes – but through the lens of history we can see that he was woefully inept when it came to doing all he could to help Jews during the Holocaust.  He failed dismally in his role as a Jewish leader, and to regard him as honorable is a disservice to the memories of the 6 Million.

How can the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan or the Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles be proud to carry his name when Professor Mark Raider, chairman of Judaic Studies at SUNY Albany says that Wise was “cautious and ineffective” in response to “the disgracefully slow response of the Allies” to the Nazi persecution of European Jewry?

Wise called President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ‘Boss’ or ‘Chief,’ and advised President Franklin Roosevelt not to meet with the 400 Orthodox Rabbis that marched on Washington in 1943.  To protect their self-interests, Dr. Zohar Segev of Haifa University says Wise and his colleagues “worked actively to tone down any Jewish criticism of the Roosevelt administration.” They “used their influence to restrain, limit, and control any efforts towards greater activism.” They wanted to maintain the liberal status quo.

Rabbi Wise despicably worked against all efforts of Jewish activists who did all they could to raise awareness of the millions being killed in Europe.  Wise referred to Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky as “a ‘traitor” for preaching evacuation for over a million Eastern European  Jews, and said that Bergson Group leader Peter Bergson was “worse than Hitler”. (Bergson worked tirelessly to raise awareness over the fate of Jews in Europe, while Wise claimed it would increase Anti-Semitism in America).

Rabbi Ephraim Kestenbaum, son of Rabbi David Kestenbaum who was active in saving European Jews during the Holocaust recounted that Wise phoned his father on several occasions, telling him that he should stop putting so much pressure on the American government to save European Jews. Rabbi Kestenbaum told of how on one occasion, he took a message for his father from Wise who told him, “Tell your father that he has to be an American and not to fight hard for Jews in Europe. You have to be an American first.”

Wise regarded himself as a servant of Roosevelt – rather than working for the best interests of the Jewish people. Could any other ethnic group honor a man who failed his people in their most dire time of need?  Any Institution which honors Stephen Wise should be ashamed to carry his name. The man’s conduct was despicable and his memory does not deserve to be recognized by Jewish institutions.

6 Million Jews were slaughtered, and it is clear that the Jewish community of the free world did not do enough to prevent one of our people’s greatest calamities. Who knows how many more Jews there would be today if Wise had done the right thing.

Ronn David Torossian is CEO of 5WPR and author of “For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations.”

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