McDonald’s heartfelt concern for the Jewish people extended into the postwar period.
We’ve all heard plenty about US government officials who turned a blind eye during the Holocaust.
But this year’s Independence Day, Israelis will hear the little-known story of an American diplomat who did everything he could to warn the world about Hitler, helped rescue European Jewish refugees and ultimately became the first American ambassador to Israel. His story will be explored in my new documentary film, A Voice Among the Silent: The Legacy of James G. McDonald, which will have its Israeli premiere at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque on Independence Day, Thursday May 12, 2016, at 7 p.m., followed by a Q&A.
McDonald was an unlikely figure to play such a central role in Jewish affairs. A Catholic from the Midwest (born in Ohio, raised in Indiana), he was a foreign policy scholar and journalist with no special interest in Jewish matters. But during a visit to Germany in 1933, he unexpectedly found himself in private conversation with the new chancellor, Adolf Hitler – and became the first American to hear the Fuhrer explicitly vow to “get rid of the Jews.”
That shocking experience changed McDonald’s life. He met repeatedly with world leaders, including president Franklin D. Roosevelt and cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the future pope Pius XII, to tell them of Hitler’s threats against the Jews. But McDonald’s warnings were largely ignored.
He ran into similar obstacles during his two years (1933-1935) as the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Coming from Germany. During that early phase of the Nazi regime, Hitler was willing to let the Jews leave. The problem, as McDonald discovered, was that no other country was willing to receive them. He resigned as commissioner at the end of 1935 as a protest against the failure of the international community to open its doors.
Nonetheless, McDonald refused to be deterred. In 1938, he became chairman of the President’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees. Although his hands were largely tied by the Roosevelt administration’s harsh immigration policy, McDonald and his colleagues did manage to help bring more than 2,000 Jewish refugees to the United States on the eve of the Holocaust.
McDonald’s heartfelt concern for the Jewish people extended into the postwar period. He served on the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine, which in 1946 sought to press the British to open Palestine to Holocaust survivors.
Then, in 1948, he was appointed by president Truman to serve as America’s first ambassador to Israel. That appointment proved fortuitous, because he was able to serve as a counterweight to officials in the State Department who wanted the Truman administration to adopt a more pro-Arab posture. The fact that there is a street in Netanya named after McDonald is a small symbolic recognition of his efforts on behalf of the Jewish state.
For many years, the story of McDonald’s actions was known only to a handful of scholars. McDonald’s daughters possessed his diaries, but many key pages were missing.
The discovery of the missing pages in 2003 shed new light on what America and the world knew about the Holocaust. The diaries were recently published by Indiana University Press in association with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and form the basis for my film.
The work of James McDonald is an inspiring story of a remarkable Christian who reached out to help others in history’s darkest hour. His story is not only a matter of historical interest – it also has important contemporary implications. Should the United States intervene against human rights abuses abroad? Should it have taken action in Darfur? Is the Obama administration wrong to refrain from intervening in Syria? The experiences of James McDonald have a lot to teach us about America’s role in the world and its humanitarian responsibilities, then and now.
The author is an Israeli-American filmmaker, based in Chicago.