Biography of Stephen Wise

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



Stephen S. Wise


Stephen S. Wise (1874-1949) was a  great Zionist leader and supporter of the national liberation movement of the Jewish people.

Stephen Wise was born Weiss in Buda-Pest, Hungary, in 1874. Because he came to the United States as a young child, he may be regarded as strictly an American. In New York City he received both a Jewish and secular education. He earned a Ph.D. at Columbia University and was ordained a rabbi at the then new Jewish Theological seminary. Although the JTS is a Conservative school, Wise became a Reform rabbi. He differed from nearly all other Reform rabbis in that he was a Zionist, as was Abba Hillel Silver, the only other Reform rabbi endorsing Zionism at that time. Wise wrote a scholarly dissertation on the Book of Judges for the Bible published by the Jewish Publication Society in 1917.

After serving a congregation in New York City and then in Portland, Oregon, where he also acted as Oregon’s Commissioner of Child Labor, he returned to New York and founded the Free Synagogue, as well as the Reform Jewish Institute of Religion, which has since merged with the Hebrew Union College located in Cincinnati, Ohio.  In New York, Wise was one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The other founders were also Jews. This fact leads the current black leaders Farrakhan, Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton to call Jews “bloodsuckers” and New York City “Hymietown”.

Stephen Wise actually attended the second Zionist Congress is Switzerland in 1898, so that he became the associate of Louis Brandeis, the Supreme Court Justice who headed the American Zionist movement as of 1914. This made it possible for him to become the Chair of the Provisional Executive Committee of the American Zionist movement. He therefore succeeded in influencing President Wilson to support the Balfour Declaration.

Wise made every effort to get the Reform movement to support Zionism, particularly after the Nazi takeover of Germany in January of 1933. Wise sought to rally public opinion against Germany, a task made most difficult by such American Nazi collaborators as Charles Lindbergh and Joseph Kennedy. In the hope of gaining more influence in this country against Germany, Wise, together with Brandeis, founded the American Jewish Congress and  the World Jewish Congress, which promoted a broader representative body than American Jews could present alone. Wise succeeded in meeting and repeatedly visiting President Franklin Roosevelt, who feigned support for the Jewish cause, although Roosevelt was no doubt the most malicious American enemy the Jewish people have yet endured.

During the Second World War, Wise was elected co-chair of the American Zionist Emergency Council. The other co-chair was rabbi Abba Hillel Silver of Cleveland, Ohio. Both men were charismatic speakers but Silver was a better politician and edged Wise out of any leadership position by 1947 when Silver, not Wise, represented the Jewish people at the United Nations conference on the partition of the Holy Land. That conference resulted in the recognition of Israel as an independent nation for the first time since the year 70.

During the Second World War it was Wise who tried to called attention to the mass slaughter of the European Jews. This met with little success, as the newspapers either did not publish these horrors or buried these reports on some back page. Franklin Roosevelt, the darling of the Jewish community, let Wise know that he was not interested in the fate of the Jews.

Now there are Jewish historians, among them Francisco Gil-White, who include Rabbi Wise among those who failed the Jewish people in World War II.

This accusation has led to considerable controversy because it is so true of the American Jewish community in general, although not of Stephen Wise. Indeed, the American Jewish community did next to nothing to rescue the German Jews between January 1933 when Hitler was appointed dictator until the U.S. entered the Second World War in December of 1941. In fact, the antagonism to the German Jews was so great that even those few who nevertheless succeeded in coming to the United States were greeted by the American Jews with such comments as “ all German Jews are arrogant,” “German Jews are not welcome here,” and “German Jews should have stayed in Germany.” Insults and derogatory conduct by American Jews towards the few German Jewish refugees were the rule, not the exception, as the American Jewish community generally refused to believe the horrors told them by the refugees.

It is true that some American Jewish leaders collected large sums of money to aid the German and Austrian Jews. However, that money was spent on salaries for “executive directors”, on travel, hotel bills, dinners and other entertainment, even as the German Jewish community was being decimated because no one would pay  their way to America. The Nazis had confiscated all German Jewish wealth so that the Jews could not pay for their passage themselves.

The truth is that Stephen Wise represented a tiny fraction of American Jews ready to help their brethren in Europe, just like the minority of Jews who today seek to insure the survival of Israel while the majority of American Jews once more side with our enemies and associate with the party of Farrakhan, Jackson and Sharpton.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The Restoration of Israel (2006).

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