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»It Is a World Problem«

The Realignment of Jewish Minority Protection in the 1930s


In August 1934, Jewish delegates from twenty countries as well as several Zionist associations congregated at the Bureau Central in Geneva for the third preparatory World Jewish Conference. Representatives from France, Greece, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Poland, Romania, the United States, and other places had accepted an invitation from the head of the conference’s administrative committee, Nahum Goldmann, to push forward with the founding of a new transnational Jewish advocacy organization.

The conference’s agenda was overshadowed by recent developments in Germany. The speed with which the Nazi regime organized boycotts against Jewish stores and services and passed legislation to drive Jews out of multiple professions as well as the rampant antisemitism in the streets posed an unprecedented challenge to all forces engaged in Jewish defense. Consequently, three out of the seven adopted resolutions dealt directly with the impact of the Nazis’ policies. These included promoting the boycott of German goods and appealing to the League of Nations to present a more comprehensive plan for German Jewish refugees. The third resolution, which is reproduced here in attachment, demanded the restoration of complete civil equality for German Jews.

Resolution on the situation in Germany adopted by the World Jewish Conference in August 1934, Yad Vashem Archives P.13/152.
Resolution on the situation in Germany adopted by the World Jewish Conference in August 1934, Yad Vashem Archives P.13/152.

To this end, the crafters of the resolution did not limit themselves to condemning the Nazis’ attempt to camouflage their distortion of the legal system. By stating that the disenfranchisement was also a violation against human and minority rights, they evoked a broader legal perspective and thus underlined the fact that this was not merely a Jewish issue.

The reference to the minority treaties elaborated and signed at the Paris Peace Conference as binding regulations guaranteeing legal and political security for the millions of minorities across Eastern Europe in particular could be read as a call to the League of Nations. The League was to monitor the compliance of the treaties by all states yet proved to be slow and ineffective in condemning the Nazis’ provisions and actions.

While German Jews were without a doubt grateful for the conference’s condemnation of the Nazi onslaught, they most likely defied the call to be protected under the minority treaties. The overwhelming majority considered themselves – as their largest advocate, the Centralverein Deutscher Staatsbürger Jüdischen Glaubens argued – to be (German) citizens and not a minority. This is a notion they shared with the French Alliance Israélite Universelle and the Board of Deputies of British Jews. To all three organizations, Jews were a religious community and citizens of the countries they lived in. Demanding national rights, they asserted, would question their loyalty and thus encourage further antisemitic slurs of disloyalty – a reason why these three bodies did not send delegates to the conference.

In spite of this unfortunate schism in their own camp, the conference delegates confidently intended to send a strong signal to both the Jewish and the gentile world that »a permanent body representing Jews all over the world« was being established »whose task it will be, in the name of the whole of Jewry, to defend the common interests, and to protect the rights of Jewish communities wherever they may be threatened.«

Under the auspices of the Comité des Délégations Juives and the American Jewish Congress, Jewish minority proponents – among them Leo Motzkin, Stephen S. Wise, and Mordechai Nurock – had, since 1931, actively promoted the longstanding plan for establishing a World Jewish Congress (WJC). The aim of this new organization was to unite the various and often antagonistic factions of assimilationists, Zionists, supporters of Gegenwartsarbeit, and Jews of Eastern and Western Europe in one powerful representative body. Its indisputable premise, however, was that only by striving for national rights in the diaspora and for a Jewish homeland in Palestine could the plight of the Jews be overcome.

The delegates’ confidence was urgently needed as the situation for Jews in Europe at the beginning of the 1930s was deteriorating considerably, and not only in Germany. Poland, Romania, and Hungary, which had only reluctantly signed the minority treaties in Paris promising to provide »total and complete protection of life and freedom of all people regardless of their birth, nationality, language, race or religion« (Article 2), openly violated its stipulations by depriving Jews of these rights or even took measures to limit their access to professions and educational institutions. The situation in Palestine, a place that increasing numbers of Jews were considering as a place of refuge, specifically the massacres of 1929 in which over 130 Jews were killed, only deepened the impression of a serious crisis. Against the backdrop of this broader context, the resolution further indicates how members of the conference connected their struggle against Nazism and for Jewish rights with the struggle for a democratic Europe. By calling upon the »solidarity with all liberal and justly thinking people,« the delegates underlined how Europe in its legal and political entirety was on the line and that their battle against antisemitism was one amongst many to prevent Europe’s fall. This notion became even more pronounced after the founding of the WJC in 1936, when the attacks on Jews in Germany had intensified and Jewish organizations and governments alike realized that the specter of Nazism would not disappear soon. In this vein, the WJC’s first president, Stephen S. Wise, declared in the opening session in Geneva: »Whether or not the world recognize it, whether or not Jews understand it, anti-Semitism is a world problem.« Moreover, he added, disgruntled about the time that had been wasted: »If Hitlerism had been faced by Western Powers when it was little more than an anti-Semitic election expedient, it is doubtful whether the entire Western civilised world would be called upon as it is called upon today to face the ever-growing peril of that crescent and barbaric Power which is Nazi Germany.«

Momme Schwarz is a research associate and PhD candidate in the Academy Project »European Traditions – Encyclopedia of Jewish Cultures at the Saxon Academy of Sciences.« His project focuses on the transformations of Jewish minority diplomacy during the 1930s and early 1940s | schwarz(at)dubnow.de

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