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|The Politics of the American Response to Global Anti-Semitism, Rafael Medoff|
[*] L’abandon des Juifs: les Américains et la solution finale, Préface de Elie Wiesel, Postface de André Kaspi, Flammarion, 1987, 459 pages.
No. 87, 1 October 2009 / 13 Tishrei 5770
The wave of global anti-Semitism that erupted in 2000 prompted an array of studies and conferences, most notably an international conference in Berlin in April 2004, sponsored by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). In the United States, advocates of American governmental action against anti-Semitism sought to use the momentum from the Berlin conference on anti-Semitism to bring about a new U.S. approach to the problem.
In a potentially significant gesture, the Bush administration named former New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch to head the U.S. delegation to Berlin. Although Koch had endorsed George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election, he remained a staunch Democrat and his appointment therefore seemed to signal the administration’s interest in defining the fight against anti-Semitism as a bipartisan effort.
Secretary of State Colin Powell at first did not intend to participate in the Berlin conference. Subsequently, at the urging of Rep. Tom Lantos (Dem., California), Powell agreed to take part. Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor in Congress, strongly believed Powell’s involvement was necessary to "give the issue of European anti-Semitism the high-level attention it needs and deserves." Indeed, "all eyes followed [Powell] wherever he went," a member of the U.S. delegation to the conference later recalled. "With his presence, the glamour and prestige of the Conference increased exponentially and made it clear that there would be meaningful results and not just talk."
Powell went further in his remarks than the usual general condemnations of anti-Semitism made at such events. He declared, "It is not anti-Semitic to criticize the policies of the state of Israel, [b]ut the line is crossed when Israel or its leaders are demonized or vilified, for example by the use of Nazi symbols and racist caricatures." Powell’s statement represented the first time the U.S. government officially recognized the Israel-Nazi analogy as crossing the line between legitimate criticism and outright bigotry.
It was also an example of what the State Department could and should have done seventy years earlier.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt held eighty-two press conferences during 1933, his first year in office. That was also Adolf Hitler’s first year in office, and it was a year marked by an array of anti-Jewish measures by the new German regime. Yet the subject of the persecution of Germany’s Jews arose at FDR’s press conferences on just one occasion that year, and not because Roosevelt raised it. A reporter asked, "Have any organizations asked you to act in any way in connection with the reported persecution of the Jews over in Germany by the Hitler government?" The president replied: "I think a good many of these have come in. They were all sent over to the Secretary of State." Secretary of State Cordell Hull, like the president, chose to say nothing in public about the plight of Germany’s Jews. Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress and one of FDR’s most fervent supporters, was so disillusioned by the administration’s silence that he confided to a friend in October 1933, "We have had nothing but indifference and unconcern [from the White House] up to this time."
It would be five years and another 348 presidential press conferences before anything about Jewish refugees would be mentioned again by FDR. Even then, when the subject came up, it did not go far. On 2 September 1938, a reporter asked the president if he had any comment on Italy’s order expelling twenty-two thousand Jews. The president’s reply: "No." That was all. Not until the Kristallnacht pogrom, in November 1938, did Roosevelt and his State Department speak up about Germany’s Jews. One wonders what lesson Hitler derived from the Roosevelt administration’s nearly six years of silence.
Secretary Powell’s remarks at the Berlin conference in 2004 not only represented a welcome change from the silence of his predecessors in the 1930s, but also suggested to Congressman Lantos that the Bush administration might be prepared to actively lead an international fight against anti-Semitism.
Lantos therefore authored and introduced the Global Anti-Semitism Review Act, HR 4230, to create, within the State Department, the position of U.S. envoy for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism around the world; and to require the State Department to report to Congress each year on anti-Semitism.
Lantos and his supporters argued that the problem of global anti-Semitism had reached such proportions that it necessitated serious and sustained attention; that the United States had a long and noble history of speaking out against human rights abuses abroad; and that the United States also had a particular strategic interest in fighting anti-Semitism, since hatred of Jews had become intertwined with hatred of Americans in the ideology of Muslim terrorists and potential terrorists. This in effect created a link between the fight against anti-Semitism and President Bush’s own post-9/11 war on terrorism. Nevertheless, Rep. Lantos soon discovered, to his dismay, that the Bush administration found those arguments less than persuasive.
On 19 July 2004, the State Department publicly outlined its opposition to the Lantos bill. A three-page memorandum prepared by State’s Bureau of Legislative Affairs asserted that the United States should refrain from giving "preference" to any "single religious or ethnic group." Focusing on anti-Semitism would mean showing "favoritism" to Jewish targets of bigotry.
At the same time, the State Department announced that it supported a weaker version of the Lantos bill, which had been introduced by two of the administration’s Republican allies, Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey and Senator George Voinovich of Ohio. Their legislation required only a onetime report by the State Department on anti-Semitism, and no position of envoy. State’s support for Voinovich-Smith seemed inconsistent with its proclamation against "favoritism" for the Jews, since even a onetime report would involve singling out anti-Semitism for special attention, albeit briefly.
The administration’s opposition to Lantos put it in uncomfortable company. A spokesman for the militant Council on American-Islamic Relations, an organization hostile to Bush’s Middle East policies, rejected the legislation on the ground that "hate incidents aren’t...exclusive to one group of individuals." The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, a strongly pro-Arab magazine published by former U.S. ambassadors, called the measure "outrageous," noting with particular ire that the preamble of the Lantos bill stated that "anti-Semitism has at times taken the form of vilification of Zionism [and] incitement against Israel," a point the magazine disputes.
Congressman Lantos was not impressed by the claims put forward by the State Department and its supporters. Anti-Semitism was not merely one more irritant in a long list of unpleasant societal phenomena, but a significant and growing problem that affected one particular group. "I’m unaware of an outbreak of anti-Episcopalian feeling throughout Europe," he noted wryly. Jews were under attack, and there needed to be a serious response.
Lantos also pointed out that despite State’s claim that creating a special office or envoy on anti-Semitism would give unfair preference to the Jews, "the [State] Department currently has statutorily mandated offices on Tibet, Women, Human Trafficking, and Religious Freedom."
It was at this point, with the State Department lobbying against the Lantos bill and promoting the weak Voinovich-Smith measure in its stead, that my colleagues and I at the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies became involved in the controversy. The Wyman Institute’s unique agenda is to promote scholarship concerning America’s response to Nazism and the Holocaust-the subject of Prof. Wyman’s bestselling 1984 book, The Abandonment of the Jews-and at the same time to explore ways in which the lessons of the 1930s and 1940s can be applied today.
Our interest was informed by the fact that the State Department’s position on "singling out" the Jews for special attention echoed a troubling chapter in America’s past. During the Holocaust, the State Department and other Roosevelt administration agencies did their best to downplay the Jewish identity of Hitler’s victims-even though the Nazi regime had clearly singled out Jews for annihilation.
"The refugee problem should not be considered as being confined to persons of any particular race or faith," the State Department declared in planning the Bermuda refugee conference of 1943, at which the United States and Britain feigned interest in the problem but offered no meaningful assistance.
Likewise, FDR’s Office of War Information (OWI) instructed its staff to avoid mentioning that Jews were the primary victims of Nazi atrocities. OWI officials claimed coverage of the Nazi mass murders would be "confused and misleading if it appears to be simply affecting the Jewish people." The Jews were not even mentioned in President Roosevelt’s 1944 message commemorating the first anniversary of the Jewish revolt against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto.
A meeting of the American, British, and Soviet foreign ministers in Moscow in October 1943 issued a statement threatening postwar punishment for Nazi war crimes against conquered populations. It mentioned "French, Dutch, Belgian or Norwegian hostages...Cretan peasants...the people of Poland"-but not Europe’s Jews. Ben Hecht, the Hollywood screenwriter-turned-rescue activist, responded with a biting full-page newspaper ad, sponsored by a political action committee called the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe (better known as the Bergson Group). Hecht depicted the ghost of a Jew murdered by the Nazis sitting by the window sills of the Allied leaders after the Moscow conference, and commenting: "In the Kremlin in Moscow, in the White House in Washington, in the Downing Street Building in London where I have sat on the window sills, I have never heard our name. The people who live in those buildings-Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill-do not speak of us.... The Germans will think that when they kill Jews, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill pretend nothing is happening."
In a similar vein, Arthur Szyk, the world-famous artist who worked alongside Hecht in promoting rescue, remarked bitterly that the persecution of Europe’s Jews was being "treated[ed] as a pornographical subject-you cannot discuss it in polite society."
Allied leaders were reluctant to acknowledge that Jews were the primary victims of the Nazi mass-murder machine for two primary reasons. First, FDR feared he would be accused of fighting World War II for the sake of the Jews; thus instead of consistently standing firm against domestic anti-Semites, Roosevelt tailored some of his policies to avoid antagonizing them. Second, Allied leaders knew that calling attention to the plight of the Jews would increase public pressure to give them refuge.
Today’s anti-Semitic violence in Europe and anti-Semitic propaganda in the Arab media cannot be compared to the annihilation of six million Jews by the Nazis. Nor will the actions of today’s State Department regarding anti-Semitism result in consequences similar to those suffered by Jews because of the State Department’s actions during the Holocaust. Yet is it possible that certain core attitudes have remained entrenched in Foggy Bottom all these years? In attempting to block reporting on anti-Semitism because it would "afford special status" to the Jews, the State Department certainly invited speculation that, both in 1944 and 2004, the State Department did afford a special status to Jews-as a people whose suffering deserves no special attention, even when they are being singled out for persecution.
In response to the State Department’s declaration against the Lantos bill, the Wyman Institute decided to prepare a petition to Secretary Powell, urging State to withdraw its opposition. Spearheaded by former U.S. Congressman Stephen Solarz and Prof. Wyman, the petition contended that "It is the anti-Semites who are singling out Jews, and that is why the fight against anti-Semitism deserves specific, focused attention."
Not surprisingly, the petition quickly attracted widespread support in the Jewish community. In addition to prominent signatories such as Miles Lerman, past chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a longtime leader of the American Jewish Congress and World Jewish Congress, the Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox) and the Rabbinical Assembly (RA) (Conservative) called on their member-rabbis to write their own letters to Secretary Powell in support of the Lantos initiative. The appeal to the RA membership was especially poignant because it came from Rabbi Dr. David Golinkin, Rabbi Jonathan Lipnick, and Noam Sachs Zion, the sons of three Conservative rabbinical students who, in 1943, had organized their own activist group to publicize the plight of Europe’s Jews.
What was most important, however, was to demonstrate to the Bush administration that the fight against anti-Semitism was not a concern of the Jewish community alone but enjoyed the support of a broad cross-section of prominent Americans from all walks of life. It was also crucial to make clear that the petition’s supporters were not just Democrats-who would be expected to oppose the administration on most issues-but also staunch Republicans who were prepared to defy their president and party on this matter.
The final group of more than one hundred signatories, who came together in a matter of weeks, exemplified bipartisanship and diversity. There were prominent Republicans such as Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, former vice-presidential candidate Jack Kemp, and former U.S. Senator Rudy Boschwitz, as well as the Bush administration’s own Richard Perle, alongside former CIA director R. James Woolsey, former National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, President Clinton’s envoy for Holocaust issues, Stuart Eizenstat, and former State Department officials Richard Schifter and Abraham Sofaer. Many Christian leaders also signed, including the presidents of the Union Theological Seminary and Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, and deans of the Yale University Divinity School and the Drew University Theological School, as well as First Things editor Father Richard John Neuhaus. Cultural figures were also well represented, among them musicians Janis Ian and Peter Himmelman, comedians David Brenner and Marc Weiner, and artists Mark Podwal, Archie Rand, Will Eisner, and Joe Kubert.
The Wyman Institute’s petition was faxed to Powell on 10 September. Within days, cracks began to appear in the administration’s wall of opposition to the bill. Senator Rick Santorum (Rep., Pennsylvania) announced two days of activities on Capitol Hill to raise awareness of anti-Semitism and, while not explicitly embracing the Lantos bill, endorsed the bill’s concept of an annual State Department report on anti-Semitism. Moreover, Santorum publicly took issue with State’s opposition to Lantos, asserting, "This is an all too common response from that agency. This is not an unusual development from Foggy Bottom-the fog is usually quite pervasive there."
Now the dominoes began to fall quickly. On 21 September, Rep. Smith announced he was withdrawing his bill and endorsing the stronger Lantos version. The San Francisco Chronicle, in its report on Smith’s change of heart, called the Wyman Institute’s petition "one key to advancing Lantos’s bill."
Voinovich was next. One week after Smith’s about-face, The Forward reported that Voinovich, who was running for reelection against a Jewish state senator, was preparing to endorse Lantos’s bill. "I presume that he will do this because this is an important piece of legislation for him," Lantos commented. "He believes in the substance. But obviously for political reasons, as well." The newspaper quoted "congressional staffers and Jewish activists in Washington" as saying that "the State Department is likely to refrain from lobbying against the measure now that Voinovich and Smith are on board."
With its congressional allies bailing out, the administration shifted gears. The State Department quietly stopped opposing the bill, and on 8 October, the House passed the Lantos-Smith measure by acclamation. Two days later, a new Voinovich bill, now identical to that of Lantos, was passed by the Senate.
With the presidential election less than three weeks away, the White House evidently realized that the Lantos bill that it had so strenuously opposed could actually serve as a political asset. Hours before arriving for a campaign appearance in heavily-Jewish West Palm Beach, Florida, President Bush signed the Lantos bill into law. "This nation will keep watch" against anti-Semitism, Bush vowed. "Extending freedom also means disrupting the evil of anti-Semitism." "At every stop" in Florida, the Miami Herald reported, "Bush told the crowd that he’d earlier in the day signed" the Lantos bill. After winning Florida by just 537 votes four years earlier, the Bush campaign knew that every Jewish vote in the state was potentially crucial.
The Lantos bill did not specify a deadline by which the new envoy for combating anti-Semitism had to be named, and it soon became clear the administration was in no hurry. While the job search proceeded at a snail’s pace, the State Department in early 2005 issued the first report on global anti-Semitism required by the Lantos law. In one respect, the report was a major step forward: it presented the first official U.S. government definition of anti-Semitism. In effect codifying what Secretary Powell had said at the 2004 Berlin conference, it stated that "the demonization of Israel or vilification of Israeli leaders, sometimes through comparisons with Nazi leaders, and through the use of Nazi symbols to caricature them, indicates an anti-Semitic bias rather than a valid criticism of policy concerning a controversial issue."
At the same time, however, the State Department’s report exhibited the kind of bias for which Foggy Bottom has earned a reputation over the years, by minimizing the anti-Semitism sponsored by Arab regimes with which the administration has sought friendly relations. For example, the report’s section on Saudi Arabia, a major promoter of anti-Semitism, was just 182 words long. By contrast, Iceland was given 387 words, even though the report cited only one instance of anti-Semitic harassment and one hostile cartoon there. Only 86 words were devoted to the Palestinian Authority (PA), despite the frequency of anti-Semitism in its newspapers and on its television and radio programs. The report gave more space to Armenia (194 words), Brazil (149), and Azerbaijan (142), where there is no evidence of government-sponsored anti-Semitism, than to the PA.
The report’s slant suggested that the new ambassador, whenever he finally began his task, could find himself under pressure from his State Department colleagues to refrain from using language that might offend regimes whose favor State was currying.
In the spring of 2006, some eighteen months after the passage of the Lantos bill, the Bush administration finally announced that former congressional staffer Dr. Gregg Rickman, who had worked extensively on Holocaust restitution issues, would become the ambassador for fighting anti-Semitism. His tasks would include tracking outbreaks of anti-Semitism around the world, meeting with officials of other governments to discuss ways to combat the problem, and in general keeping the issue in the public spotlight.
In late 2007, Rickman released his own report on global anti-Semitism. Once again, regimes favored by the State Department faced far less criticism than they seemed to deserve. Regarding Egypt, for example, the report noted that "anti-Semitism is found in both the pro-government and opposition press." While that statement was technically true, it failed to acknowledge the extent of anti-Semitism in Cairo’s government-controlled newspapers. An anti-Jewish series that was broadcast on a private Egyptian television station was mentioned in the report, but the anti-Semitic programs on the government-controlled television station were not.
The report’s section on Saudi Arabia noted that "there was substantial societal prejudice based on ethnic or national origin." There was no indication that part of the reason for anti-Jewish prejudice in Saudi society could be the anti-Semitism in the Saudi government-controlled media and schools. Similarly, regarding the PA, the State Department report stated only that during the previous year, the PA regime had "prohibited calls for violence, displays of arms, and racist slogans, although this rarely was enforced." The report did not mention the proliferation of "racist slogans"-that is, anti-Semitism-in the PA’s media, schoolbooks, and elsewhere.
Rickman’s report did mention one step taken by an Arab regime against an anti-Semitic institution. Under international pressure, the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced the shutdown of the Zayed Centre for Coordination and Follow-up, which, the report noted, distributed "books with anti-Jewish themes," "allowed some anti-Semitic language on its website," and "hosted some speakers who promoted anti-Semitic views."
However, instead of praising the UAE for closing the center, the State Department report cited the action as an example of the UAE restricting freedom of speech. To the extent that the State Department’s human rights reports color relations with the cited countries, the UAR could theoretically have found itself penalized by the United States for having shut down a center that promoted hatred of Jews.
The phenomenon of the State Department downplaying unsavory governmental behavior for political reasons is hardly exclusive to the regimes of the Middle East. The best-known example in recent memory involved North Korea. In early 2008, a deputy assistant secretary of state, Glyn Davies, was revealed to have pressured State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor to tone down a forthcoming report on North Korean human rights violations so as to avoid disrupting U.S.-led talks with Pyongyang. "[W]e can sacrifice a few adjectives for the cause," Davies counseled, specifically urging the authors to refrain from acknowledging that public executions were "on the rise" and omit a reference to North Korea as "repressive."
Conflicts of interest can easily arise when the State Department is tasked with both strengthening relations with other countries and reporting on human rights abuses or other objectionable behavior by the regimes governing those countries. State Department officials may be tempted to rationalize "sacrificing a few adjectives" in order to attain political goals they regard as more important than human rights or anti-Semitism. One remedy would be to remove the U.S. envoy for combating anti-Semitism from the State Department and situate him in another department, where he would not feel constant pressure to address politically motivated expectations.
Holocaust rescue advocates in the United States faced a somewhat analogous situation in 1943. It had become clear by then that the State Department was the most serious obstacle to the United States taking any meaningful steps to rescue Jews from the Nazis. President Roosevelt had vested in State the authority to deal with Jewish refugee matters, and State Department officials proceeded to obstruct rescue opportunities and suppress news about the mass murder of European Jewry.
The Bergson Group activists therefore began promoting the idea of creating a new government agency whose sole purpose would be to rescue the Jews. Senior Treasury Department officials agreed that the only hope for rescue action was to "get this thing [refugee policy] out of the State Department into some agency’s hands that is willing to deal with it frontally." Ultimately, as a result of pressure from Congress, the Bergson Group, and the Treasury Department, President Roosevelt agreed to establish the new agency, which was called the War Refugee Board. During 1944-1945, the board played a central role in the rescue of more than two hundred thousand Jews. Had refugee policy remained lodged in the State Department, one may safely say that the number to be rescued by U.S. action would have been negligible.
The first order of business, however, is for the United States to choose a new ambassador for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism. Gregg Rickman was relieved of his duties when the new administration took over in January 2009. As of this writing, his replacement has not yet been named.
When a president from a party different than that of his predecessor takes over in Washington, many government officials are quickly dismissed from their positions. The process of replacing outgoing officials takes time, with those who are considered the most important replaced first. On the one hand, it is understandable that at a time of multiple domestic and foreign crises, the Obama administration does not see this position as a top-tier concern. Yet it is nevertheless surprising how far down anti-Semitism appears to have slid on the new administration’s list of priorities, particularly when it was the Democrats themselves who fought so hard to create the position over the vehement opposition of the Bush administration. Bush’s eighteen-month delay in choosing Rickman was unreasonable. One would have thought the Obama administration would be careful not to repeat that mistake.
Foot-dragging on the selection sends a message that anti-Semitism is not of great importance to the United States. At a time when anti-Semitism remains a staple of government propaganda in the Middle East, when violent anti-Semitic incidents are reported almost daily throughout Europe, and when even the streets of Washington are not untouched by anti-Semitism’s violent potential, that is the wrong message to send.
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 Congressional Record, House of Representatives, 12 May 2004, E838-E839.
 Betty Ehrenberg, "The Anti-Semitism Conference: An Inside Look," Jewish Press of Omaha, 14 May 2004.
 U.S. Department of State transcript, Statement by Secretary Powell at the Conference on Anti-Semitism of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 28 April 2004.
 Laurel Leff and Rafael Medoff, "New Documents Shed More Light on FDR’s Holocaust Failure," American Jewish World, 30 April 2004.
 Wise to Mack, 18 October 1933, in Carl Herman Voss, ed., Stephen S. Wise: Servant of the People-Selected Letters (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1970), 195.
 Leff and Medoff, "New Documents."
 State Department Comments on Global Anti-Semitism Review Act of 2004, Department of State Bureau of Legislative Affairs, 13 July 2004, 2.
 Justin Nyberg, "Protection from Hate?" San Francisco Examiner, 28 September 2004.
 "Congress Passes Anti-Semitism Bill," Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 2004.
 Janine Zacharia, "Lantos Intolerance," Jerusalem Post, 23 July 2004.
 Lantos to Powell, 19 July 2004, Office of Congressman Tom Lantos.
 David S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945 (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 107.
 Laurel Leff, Buried by "The Times": The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 248.
 Wyman, Abandonment, 337.
 Ibid., 154-155.
 Ibid., 337.
 Wyman Institute et al. to Powell, 10 September 2004, David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, Washington, DC.
 Eli Lake, "Senator Works to Build Awareness of Anti-Semitism," New York Sun, 14 September 2004.
 Edward Epstein, "Anti-Semitism Proposal Wins Key Backer," San Francisco Chronicle, 22 September 2004.
 Ori Nir, "GOP Congressmen Wage Fight against Antisemitism," The Forward, 1 October 2004.
 "Anti-Semitism Office Bill Passes," Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 12 October 2004; James D. Besser, "Congress Scorecard: Split Decision," New York Jewish Week, 15 October 2004.
 Lesley Clark, " Turn out the vote,’ Bush Tells S. Florida," Miami Herald, 17 October 2004; Richard W. Stevenson, "Bush Hops through Florida, Where a Slim Lead Is a Lot," New York Times, 17 October 2004; "Bush Signs Global Anti-Semitism Law," Agence France Press, 16 October 2004.
 Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, "Report on Global Anti-Semitism," 5 January 2005, United States Department of State.
 Al Kamen, "In the Loop: Regime’ Changed," Washington Post, 5 March 2008.
 See Rafael Medoff, Blowing the Whistle on Genocide: Josiah E. DuBois, Jr. and the Struggle for a U.S. Response to the Holocaust (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2008).
 Minutes of Treasury Department staff meeting, 18 December 1943, Morgenthau Diaries 688II/82-91, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, NY.
 Wyman, Abandonment, 285.
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Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which focuses on issues related to America’s response to the Holocaust. He is the author of eleven books about the Holocaust, Zionism, and American Jewish history, the most recent of which is Blowing the Whistle on Genocide: Josiah E. DuBois, Jr. and the Struggle for a U.S. Response to the Holocaust (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2008).
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