By Rafael Medoff
Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s support for boycotting Israel, and the resolution on the subject that she has introduced (H.R. 496), have sparked a new round in the long-running debate between Israel’s friends and opponents.
Leaving aside the obvious fallacy of Rep. Omar’s comparison of Israel to Nazi Germany, her resolution casts an unexpected spotlight on a little-known chapter in American history that deserves more attention: the nationwide boycott of German goods in the 1930s.
As a precedent for using boycotting as a political tool, Omar’s resolution points out that “Americans of conscience…boycott[ed] Nazi Germany from March 1933 to October 1941 in response to the dehumanization of the Jewish people in the lead-up to the Holocaust.”
As soon as the Nazis rose to power in early 1933, German Jews were barred from numerous professions, subjected to severe discrimination, and targeted by mob violence.
America’s foremost Jewish leader, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, reported receiving letters from Germany telling of “tortures, the cutting of Hackenkreuze [swastikas] into the flesh of Jews, imprisonment, death, and [Ku Klux Klan-style] night visits and night rides from which Jews never return…It is hell, truly worse than hell.”
In response, American Jews boycotted German goods. Picket lines were set up in front of stores that imported products from Nazi Germany, such as Macy’s and Gimbel’s. Doctors and pharmacists were encouraged to turn to non-German alternatives to German-made medicines. Athletes who qualified for the upcoming Olympic games in Berlin were urged to stay home.
Jewish organizations were not alone in this effort. U.S. Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas joined the picketing outside Macy’s. The American Federation of Labor actively assisted the boycott. New York City’s Republican mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, canceled a contract for German steel that was supposed to be used to build the Triboro Bridge. Gallup polls found most Americans in sympathy with the boycott.
Some prominent Americans, however, opposed boycotting the Nazis. The opposition cut across party lines–it came not just from conservative isolationists (who feared boycotting would drag America into a foreign war), but from prominent liberal figures as well.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pre-World War II policy was to maintain trade and diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany. FDR’s secretary of state, Cordell Hull, said the administration opposed any “racial or political boycott” of Germany.
The Roosevelt administration went so far as to help the Hitler regime elude the boycott. The Treasury Department permitted the Nazis to forego the usual “Made in Germany” label and instead mark the goods as having been made in a particular city or region, which many consumers would not recognize. U.S. officials also looked the other way when the print on German labels was illegible, or when they were attached in a way that made them inaccessible.
Some liberal academics supported the boycott. Others not only opposed the boycott, but personally violated it by visiting Germany in the 1930s and maintaining student exchange programs with German universities that were totally controlled by the Hitler regime. The sordid details are recounted in Prof. Stephen Norwood’s study, The Third Reich and the Ivory Tower.
Smith College president William Neilson, a longtime NAACP board member, visited Nazi Germany in 1933 and found “no cases of mistreatment” of Jewish citizens. Barnard College Dean Virginia Gildersleeve, a staunch Roosevelt supporter, announced after touring Germany in 1935 that Hitler’s desire to acquire “new land” was “legitimate,” and that the sharp reduction in the admission of Jews and women to German universities was justified.
Pacifists such as Vassar College president Henry MacCraken saw the boycott as a step towards war. He organized a tour of Nazi Germany for college students and professors in 1934. Footage of the trip was used for a Nazi propaganda film called “Germany Today,” which was shown in the United States in an effort to soften Hitler’s image.
Another prominent pacifist, Bryn Mawr professor Henry Cadbury, denounced the boycott as “simply war without bloodshed.” He admonished American Jews to “display good will instead of hatred” towards Hitler, claiming that, “By hating him and trying to fight him, you will only help make him worse in his attack on the Jews.”
The boycott controversy roiled the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, a leading left-of-center activist group. Its mostly-Jewish Brooklyn chapter asked the group’s national leadership to endorse the boycott. The request was rebuffed; WILPF leaders said they resented the notion of “separating the Jewish question from the larger minority problems.” One WILPF leader confided to a colleague: “For the first time in my life I am beginning to feel a little anti-Semitic.” Many members of the Brooklyn branch, and nearly the entire Bronx chapter, resigned in protest over the boycott issue.
Although the boycott fell short of its goal of driving Hitler from power, its impact was evident from the significant decline in German exports and the repeated complaints by German officials to the U.S. ambassador in Berlin about the damage that the boycott was doing to their economy.
The story of the anti-Nazi boycott movement in America is a reminder that courage and cowardice may be found on both sides of the aisle. When it came to boycotting Hitler, there were “Americans of conscience” in both camps, but unfortunately not enough of them where it could have made the most difference – in the White House.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and the author of The Jews Should Keep Quiet: President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust, forthcoming from The Jewish Publication Society in 2019.
Main Photo: Storefront with an American Jewish War Veterans sign supporting the boycott of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.