For many people whose grasp of history slips out of memory instantly, there was a time, not long ago, before Israel existed as the nation-state of the Jewish people. It may surprise many to know that the realization of the Zionist experiment is only 70 years old—a hiccup of history, but an agonizingly long time for anti-Semites the world over.
During those centuries of Jewish displacement, where Jews were largely unwelcomed in homelands both inhospitable and murderous, the people were dependent on the occasional patron for nominal peace and acceptance. And when that failed, miserably in the case of the Holocaust, they needed to look elsewhere, largely to nongovernmental organizations, such as the World Jewish Congress, which was established to safeguard world Jewry at the very moment when its existence was most in doubt.
In fact, in 1942, it was Gerhart Riegner, from the Geneva office of the World Jewish Congress, who was among the first to sound the alarm that the Nazis were actually waging two wars at the same time: one militarily, which everyone knew about, for world dominance; the other genocidal, which was both clandestine and yet plainly obvious, against the Jews. Since its founding in 1936, the World Jewish Congress has been at the forefront of a number of epochal moments in history, as Jewish defenders of last resort, the stories of which are now chronicled in an important new book, “The World Jewish Congress: 1936-2016,” edited by Menachem Rosensaft.
Each chapter recalls either a different rescue mission, or truth-telling, justice-seeking episode where the World Jewish Congress stood up for Jews caught in a crisis without representation or recourse. Rosensaft, who has shown himself to be quite an adept and astute editor of anthologies chronicling the Jewish experience, most recently with, “God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors,” has assembled an impressive roster of writers who serve as entertaining tour guides through the World Jewish Congress’ finest hours and near misses.
The stories are at times riveting, at other times poignant. There was the Nuremberg Tribunals, the diplomatic negotiations that resulted in Jews from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria emigrating to Israel and France, the cause to liberate Jews from the Soviet Union, the restored relationship between the Jewish people and the Vatican, the success at revoking the 1975 United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism, the exposure of UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi past, the international efforts to force Swiss banks to finally release funds they had illegally and immorally withheld from Jewish Holocaust victims and their heirs.
Eli Rosenbaum, once America’s long-serving, chief “Nazi-hunter” for the Justice Department, contributed a wonderful and well-written chapter on his own role in the Kurt Waldheim scandal. Rosensaft’s Introduction is quite fine, along with the chapters on the World Jewish Congress’ activities today, and its future goals, by the organization’s chief executive, Robert Singer, and its president, Ronald Lauder, respectively. All together they comprise capstones to a fitting celebration of 80-years of good and righteous deeds in the service of Jewish survival.