(Forward) In the months before America entered World War II, Jews were often accused of trying to drag America into the war — and 81 years ago, on June 4, 1941, a Jewish member of Congress named Michael Edelstein rushed to the House floor to defend his fellow Jews against such accusations – only to die of a heart attack minutes later:
The long-forgotten incident took place just six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, which led the U.S. to immediately declare war on Japan. The exchange in Congress started when Mississippi Democrat John Elliott Rankin, the “No. 1 Jew-baiter of the House,” as Time magazine called him, charged that “Wall Street and a little group of our international Jewish brethren are still attempting to harass the president … and the Congress of the United States into plunging us into the European war unprepared.”
He added: “These international bankers are so afraid this peace movement now going on in England, this peace movement now going on behind the lines, might take root and this catastrophe be brought to a close before they can get us into it that … yesterday they held a rally in Wall Street, and Wall Street bankers made a plea to that effect.”
Rankin ended by declaring: “We ought to let the world know now, we ought to let the British people know now, that we are not going to plunge into this war and send an army to fight on European soil.”
As some members applauded, Rep. Michael Edelstein, a Manhattan Democrat who had held his seat for just 16 months, jumped to his feet and demanded time to rebut his colleague.
“Hitler started out by speaking about ‘Jewish brethren,’” Edelstein said. “It is becoming the play and the work of those people who want to demagog to speak about ‘Jewish brethren’ and ‘international bankers.’ The last speaker, speaking about international bankers, coupled them with our Jewish brethren. The fact of the matter is that the number of Jewish bankers in the United States is infinitesimal.”
He continued: “I deplore the idea that any time anything happens, whether it be for a war policy or against a war policy, men in this House and outside this House attempt to use the Jews as their scapegoat. I say it is unfair and I say it is un-American.”
Because Edelstein was speaking in what’s known in the House as a “one minute speech,” House Speaker Sam Rayburn banged his gavel and yelled, “The time of the gentleman from New York has expired.” But Edelstein kept going.
“As a member of this House I deplore such allegations because we are living in a democracy. All men are created equal, regardless of race, creed, or color; and whether a man be Jew or Gentile he may think what he deems fit.”
Edelstein received “long and hearty” applause, the Chicago Tribune reported, but the moment soon turned tragic. “In a corridor he stopped to speak to his secretary,” Time magazine reported. “Suddenly he slumped and fell against a door. From the lobby, congressmen and attendants came running.” Edelstein died of a heart attack just five minutes after his speech. He was 53.
“Time” described him as “most popular of the six Jews in the House, esteemed by Democrats and Republicans alike. Mike Edelstein rarely made a speech, yet he was well equipped to answer this slur on his race.” Edelstein “died in the arms of a friend today a few moments after he dramatically had defended the Jewish people in a speech in the House,” The Associated Press wrote.
Edelstein was born in Poland and moved to the U.S. when he was 3. He had been a New Dealer and was elected, ironically, to fill out the term of his predecessor who had died in office in 1939. Never married, he lived with his 85-year-old mother.
Rep. Sam Dickstein, a fellow New York City Jewish Democrat, announced the news. “….After several other members offered tributes, the House passed Dickstein’s resolution to establish a committee of House members to attend Edelstein’s funeral. The House then adjourned for the day.
(Dickstein, it turned out, had spied for the Soviet Union under the code name “Crook,” according to the 1999 book, “The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America—the Stalin Era.”)
Later that day, Rankin expressed sorrow about Edelstein’s death. “I regret extremely his passing,” he told reporters. “He was a good man, a good citizen, and a worthy representative of his district.” But the incident didn’t seem to make much of an impression on the Mississippi congressman, known for his hatred of both Jews and Black Americans. Two years later, he railed against Jews for causing “race trouble.”
“When those communistic Jews – of whom the decent Jews are ashamed – go around here and hug and kiss these Negroes, dance with them, intermarry with them, and try to force their way into white restaurants, white hotels and white picture shows,” he said, “they are not deceiving any red-blooded American, and, above all, they are not deceiving the men in our armed forces – as to who is at the bottom of all this race trouble.”
Rankin’s antisemitic attack on the eve of World War II echoed isolationists like Charles Lindbergh, who, on Sept. 11, 1941, infamously charged, “The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration.”
In the months leading up to Edelstein’s death, dueling House members had “been denouncing and defending American Jews” over U.S. involvement in World War II, according to the Chicago Tribune…
Some quotes that completely refute Congressman Edelstein’s contention that Jewry was not dragging America into World War II:
“This war is not against Hitler or National Socialism but against the strength of the German people, which is to be smashed once and for all, regardless whether it is in the hands of Hitler or a Jesuit priest.”
—Winston Churchill, quoted in Emrys Hughes, Winston Churchill: His Career in War and Peace, p. 145
“The Jews are the aristocrats of the world. Our campaign is the economic boycott against all German goods, shipping and services. What we are proposing is to prosecute a purely defensive economic boycott that will undermine the Hitler regime and bring the German people to their senses by destroying their export trade on which their very existence depends, Each of you, Jew and Gentile alike must refuse to deal with any merchant or shopkeeper who sells any German-made goods or who patrionizes German ships or shipping.”
–Samuel Untermyer, leading American Zionist
“The fight against Germany has now been waged for months by every Jewish community, on every continent, in all labour unions and by every single Jew in the world. There are reasons for the assumption that our share of this fight is of general importance. We shall start a spiritual and material war of the whole world against Germany, Germany is striving to become once again a great nation and to recover her lost territories as well as her colonies. But our Jewish interests call for the complete destruction of Germany. Collectively and individually, the German nation is a threat to us Jews.”
—Vladimir Jabotinsky, 1934
“We are not denying and we are not afraid to confess, this war [WWII] is our war and that it is waged for the liberation of Jewry. Stronger than all fronts together is our front, that of Jewry. We are not only giving this war our financial support on which the entire war production is based. We are not only providing our full propaganda power which is the moral energy that keeps this war going. The guarantee of victory is predominantly based on weakening the enemy forces, on destroying them within their own country, within the resistance. And we are the Trojan horse in the enemy’s fortress. Thousands of Jews living in Europe constitute the principal factor in the destruction of our enemy. There, our front is a fact and the most valuable aid for victory.”
—Chaim Weizmann, President of World Jewish Congress, 1942
“Read for yourself the story of the progress of Jewry through Europe and America. Wherever they come they are welcomed, permitted to settle down, and join in the general business of the community. But one by one the industries of the country close to them because of unfair practices — until, it being impossible to longer hold in check the wrath of a betrayed people, there is violence, and, inevitably, an ignominious ejection of the whole race from the land. There is not a single instance when the Jews have not fully deserved what is happening in Germany today.”
—Samuel Roth, Jews Must Live, Golden Press NY, 1934, p 64
“The pressure of the Jews on President Roosevelt and on the State Department is becoming ever more powerful….The Jews are right now the leaders in creating a war psychosis which would plunge the entire world into war and bring about general catastrophe. This mood is becoming more and more apparent. In their definition of democratic states, the Jews have also created real chaos: have have mixed together the idea of democracy and communism and have above all raised the banner of burning hatred against Nazism. This hatred has become a frenzy. It is propagated everywhere and by every means: in theaters, in the cinema, and in the press. The Germans are portrayed as a nation living under the arrogance of Hitler which wants to conquer the whole world and drown all humanity in an ocean of blood. In conversations with Jewish press representatives, I have repeatedly come up against the inexorable and convinced view that war is inevitable. This international Jewry exploits every means of propaganda to oppose any tendency towards any kind of consolidations and understanding between nations. In this way, the conviction is growing steadily but surely in public opinion here that the Germans and their satellites, in the form of fascism, are enemies who must be subdued by the ‘democratic world’.”
—Count Jerzy Potocki, Polish Ambassador to the USA, in a report from Washington back to the Foreign Ministry in Warsaw, dated Feb.9, 1939