How to explain the ‘timid’ reaction of American Jewish leaders to Kristallnacht?

When American Jews learned of Nazi Germany’s Kristallnacht pogrom 80 years ago, the community’s leaders were determined to keep a lid on people’s emotions.

During the night of November 9-10, Nazi-led “demonstrators” murdered 100 German Jews in a nationwide orgy of violence. Thirty thousand Jews were rounded up for concentration camps, and more than 200 synagogues became smoldering ruins. Although the pogrom was described as Germany’s most bloody assault on Jews since the Middle Ages, few Jewish leaders in the US were prepared to agitate.

Most notably, the influential General Jewish Council insisted on maintaining radio silence following Kristallnacht. Comprised of leaders from the so-called “defense” organizations, the council issued these instructions in the pogrom’s aftermath:

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“There should be no parades, public demonstrations, or protests by Jews,” according to the directives. The council also reminded American Jews that it was in their interest not to advocate for admitting more Jewish refugees into the country.

According to historians, most prominent American Jews were afraid of how their fellow citizens would react to “demands” from the Jewish community. Few Americans supported going to war with Hitler, and anti-Semitism was more widespread than at any other point in US history.

Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the most prominent rabbi in the United States during the Roosevelt administration (public domain)

“When FDR asked his closest Jewish adviser, Samuel Rosenman — a prominent member of the American Jewish Committee — if more Jewish refugees should be allowed to enter the U.S. in the wake of Kristallnacht, Rosenman opposed such a move because ‘it would create a Jewish problem in the US,’” wrote Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

We at MJAC have been wondering, have things changed? Are today's Jewish leaders any more brave and bold, or to put it another way, any less timid and cowardly than Jewish leaders during the 1930s?