He was a beacon of light to the world

Wikipedia James McDonald, as the Special Representative of the United States to Israel, meets with Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in 1948.
James McDonald, as the Special Representative of the United States to Israel, meets with Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in 1948.

With all the talk coming out of the Presidential debates about controlling the rising tide of immigration – and with the European Union going through its own struggles on the refugee crisis – it’s interesting to look back at the lead-up to WWII to see how the U.S. dealt with a persecuted minority seeking entry to our country and elsewhere.

A documentary aired on PBS stations last week focused on that period and, in particular, the role played by James Grover McDonald, a Midwesterner and the son of Catholic immigrants who started out teaching history at Indiana University, only to try, a bit later, to change the course of history itself.

Chances are, though, that only Washington insiders of the period would have remembered what it was he did – or tried to do – had it not been for the belated discovery, and publication, of diaries kept by McDonald – later to become the first U.S. Ambassador to Israel – that detailed his personal odyssey.

It began with his appointment as chairman of the U.S. Foreign Policy Association in 1919 and subsequent visits and fact-finding missions to Germany through 1933. His mother being German, he picked up the language quickly, giving him more ready access to key officials in that country.

As his diaries reveal, McDonald came to learn, through direct conversations with those officials – including Hitler himself – exactly what the Nazis had in mind for the German Jews. In a face-to-face meeting with Hitler, McDonald wrote that he asked the Nazi leader why he was targeting Jews and that Hitler’s answer was: “I will do the thing that the rest of the world would like to do. It doesn’t know how to get rid of the Jews. I will show them.”

Convinced of the Nazis’ evil intentions, McDonald approached high U.S. government officials and members of the international community, urging them to consider paving the way to allow members of that besieged population to settle in their countries.

He was met largely by indifference.

Even personal appeals to FDR and Pope Pius XII went unanswered.

As presented by the filmmaker, President Roosevelt followed the counsel of his State Department advisers not to get dragged into such a touchy issue.

Frustrated, but still hoping to be an advocate, McDonald accepted a new role as the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in which he served from 1933 to 1935.

One of his diary entries helps explain his zeal: “The threat to Jews was not only a hideous wrong but also created a world problem of overwhelming significance. It was that not only for the sake of the Jews but for the larger cause of freedom, justice and equal treatment of all human beings, everywhere, whatever their race, religion, or nationality.”

It is that cause that should be an inspiration to all governments around the globe so that all nations – no matter their political, religious and economic differences – work cooperatively to deal with a humanitarian crisis.

In times of natural disasters, the people of all nations have given generously to help the helpless recover. Now that we are faced with a man-made disaster in Syria, for example, there are still men, women and children who – through no fault of their own – who find themselves adrift.

The world must find a way to help. There is no other choice. To do otherwise is a crime against humanity.

(Editor’s note: To learn more about James Grover McDonald, check out “A Voice Among the Silent: The Legacy of James G. McDonald,” directed and produced by Shuli Eshel.) 

Learn more about the writer ...