September 12, 2013
A few days before Yom Kippur in 1943, NBC aired a radio play dramatizing the horrific events and tragic end of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising earlier that year. For half a minute, Americans from coast to coast, many of them Jews but most of them not, listened to a cantor chant el malei rachamim, the traditional Ashkenazi prayer for the dead. “Hear him with reverence,” the announcer instructed. “In the Ghetto, thirty-five thousand stood their ground against an army of the Third Reich—and twenty-five thousand fell. They sleep in their common graves but they have vindicated their birthright. Therefore, let him sing and hear him with reverence, for they have made an offering by fire and atonement unto the Lord and they have earned their sleep.”
This historic broadcast was the first mainstream dramatic representation of the uprising, detailed reports of which only began reaching New York in September 1943, five months after the battle and a few weeks before the High Holidays. The radio play detailed the horrific suffering of the ghetto inhabitants, the heroics of the fighters, and their inevitable deaths. The response was so overwhelming that the program was aired again for Hanukkah in December 1943.
“The Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto” wasn’t just a piece of timely wartime programming by NBC. It was the capstone of an American Jewish Committee program to combat anti-Semitism by promoting the idea that, with the world at war, anti-Jewish bigotry wasn’t just a problem for the Jews—it was also essentially un-American.
The initiative was the brainchild of Richard Rothschild, a philosopher-turned-advertising executive who was recruited in the late 1930s to craft AJC’s national strategy to combat anti-Semitism. Rothschild introduced the concept of “salting in,” whereby notable Jewish figures were folded into radio programs or print material. Their names alone, he felt, would identify them as Jews; there was to be no discussion of the character’s religion or ethnicity. The Jew was to be presented, quite simply, as a natural part of the landscape. At the same time, non-Jewish stars like James Cagney were recruited to perform AJC material. Meantime, millions of Americans saw full-page newspaper advertisements, school posters, and comic books prepared by AJC but distributed through partner organizations.
While the war itself laid the groundwork for shifting American perceptions about Jews, Rothschild and his colleagues were instrumental in casting anti-Semitism outside the realm of social acceptability. Rather than dignifying anti-Semitic attacks with a direct response, they simply presented an alternate reality in which Jews were portrayed in pop culture as Americans like anyone else—prefiguring by decades the rise of Judd Apatow’s nebbishy anti-heroes. The anti-Semites, Rothschild argued , had to be the “ones in the criminals’ dock” where their un-Americanism, indecency, and subversive activities could be exposed.
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Charlotte Bonelli is the director of AJC’s Center for Jewish Research. Her book Exit, Berlin, will be published by Yale University Press in 2014. Find this story online: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/143909/ajc-mainstreaming-jews