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A Thanksgiving plan to save Europe’s Jews

 
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The autumn of 1938 was a grim time for the Jewish people. The Nazis’ Kristallnacht pogrom had devastated German Jewry. The Evian conference, which was supposed to find havens for Jewish refugees, had proven to be a farce. And Britain was preparing to shut the doors of Palestine. But on Thanksgiving Day, one courageous U.S. official proposed a bold rescue plan, offering American Jews a glimmer of hope and reason to give thanks.

The plan’s target: Alaska. Rich in natural resources but badly underpopulated, the vast northern territory, which the U.S. had purchased from Czarist Russia for $7.’-million, was the unlikely refuge suggested in 1938 for Europe’s Jews.

The idea of an Alaska haven has been much discussed in literary circles this past year, because an imaginary Alaskan Jewish colony was the setting for a recent best-selling novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon. But in 1938, the proposal did not necessarily seem like a fantasy, because the secretary of the interior, Harold L. Ickes, was its most vocal proponent.

Ickes toured Alaska that summer, meeting with local officials to discuss ways to attract settlers to develop the region. At the same time, Japan’s aggression against China and the likelihood of war in Europe intensified American concerns about Alaska’s strategic value — and its vulnerability. But previous attempts by the U.S. government to lure settlers to the northwestern frontier had failed. Who was willing to brave Alaska’s harsh climate?

Kristallnacht provided the answer. From the smoldering ruins of the synagogues and Jewish homes that the Nazis burned to the ground was born the idea of German Jewish refugees developing and fortifying Alaska. As Sen. William King (D-Utah) pointed out, refugees from Hitler, when confronted by the hardships of frontier life, "would not be thinking of the comforts of life in the States that they had sacrificed, but in terms of the savagery and hopelessness of the conditions abroad from which they had been rescued."

At a press conference on Thanksgiving eve, two weeks after Kristallnacht, Secretary Ickes proposed Alaska as "a haven for Jewish refugees from Germany and other areas in Europe where the Jews are subjected to oppressive restrictions." Alaska was "the one possession of the United States that is not fully developed," Ickes pointed out. He noted that ‘00 impoverished families had recently relocated from the dust bowls of the American West to the ‘3,000-mile Matanuska Valley in south central Alaska, and predicted their pioneering efforts would "open up opportunities in the industrial and professional fields now closed to the Jews in Germany."

Like the brave pilgrims of the Mayflower who landed at Plymouth Rock, the Jews would flee intolerance in Europe and carve out a new life for themselves in a land of liberty.

The Interior Department proceeded to prepare a full report, explaining the vast economic potential of Alaska, the military risks of leaving the area unpopulated, and the logic of bringing in "hundreds of thousands of pioneers" from other countries (the regular immigration quotas would not apply, since Alaska was not yet a state). Based on the report, King and Rep. Franck Havenner (D-Calif.) introduced legislation to allow refugees to settle in Alaska.

Meanwhile, refugee advocates created a National Committee for Alaskan Development, which built an ecumenical coalition of VIPs to back the legislation. Endorsers included Academy-Award winning actors Luise Rainer and Paul Muni, theologian Paul Tillich, the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers), and the Federal Council of Churches.

American Jewish leaders, however, hesitated to support the plan. American Jewish Congress head Rabbi Stephen Wise warned that the Alaska plan "makes a wrong and hurtful impression ... that Jews are taking over some part of the country for settlement." He argued that "just because small numbers of Jews might settle there" was not sufficient reason to support it. The Labor Zionists of America was the only Jewish organization to publicly endorse the King-Havenner bill.

Nativist and patriotic groups rallied against the legislation, claiming King-Havenner would open America to "Trojan horses," such as Jews who believed in "the Marxian philosophy." The most important opposition came from the State Department, which regarded the bill as an attempt to sneak aliens into the United States through the back door.

Strong leadership by President Franklin Roosevelt might have made a difference. But at a private meeting with FDR, Ickes found the president supported allowing only 10,000 settlers per year for five years, and of that number "not more than 10 percent would be Jews [so] we would be able to avoid the undoubted criticism that we would be subjected to if there were an undue proportion of Jews." In the end, Roosevelt was not willing to call for even that many immigrants; he refrained from saying anything publicly about the Alaska issue. Without the backing of the White House, the Alaska plan never got off the ground.

But in November 1938, when Ickes first broached the plan, nobody could foresee that unhappy outcome. As they sat down to their Thanksgiving dinners that year, American Jews knew only that one brave member of the Roosevelt cabinet had championed their people’s cause. And that was reason to give thanks.

Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

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Criticizing charedim — what about our kids?

Hundreds of thousands of charedim marched against military conscription last Sunday. The issue is tearing Israel apart.

More secular Israelis argue that the charedim are parasites. They don’t work. They live off government subsidies. Worse, they don’t fight for the country, expecting some other’s guy’s kid to risk his or her life and possibly die so the charedim can sit idly and study, contributing nothing meaningful to the country.

The charedi response is that their Torah study defines the essential character of the Jewish state. After all, without the Torah and Judaism, what distinguishes Israel from Belgium? The contribution of the young man with side curls sitting in front of a Talmud is no less valuable than his olive-green clad counterpart holding an M16. The latter focuses on Israel’s physical survival, the former on its spiritual continuity. And just as you can’t have a body without a soul, you can’t have an army that doesn’t have a spiritual reason to fight.

 

 

Tzitz, tefillin, and the halachic process

Recent weeks have seen much discussion about the permissibility of women wearing tefillin.

Although I do not question the sincerity of the parties involved, and maintain high regard for the individuals involved, I see this as an opportunity to reflect on the unique mitzvah of tefillin and on maintaining the integrity of the halachic process. In addition to the specific halachic question involved, this controversy also raises the broader question of how halachah functions, and I would like to provide some perspective on both of these issues.

 

 

Ask the right questions

With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millenials, the question “Who is a Jew?” is rather passé.

Forget the halachic dimensions to this endlessly debatable topic. Forget all the moralizing arguments over the issue. Forget the demographically induced paranoia, the post-Holocaust hand-wringing, the Israeli legal maneuvering (not to mention the pandering that comes with it), and the denominational infighting. And — for heaven’s sake! — forget the Pew study.

The fact is that “Who is a Jew?” is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance — to regain it, really — the question we must ask today is “Why be Jewish?”

 

 

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Passover reflections

Freedom is a tricky entity.

It can open avenues of positive imagination and creativity because a free people’s potential belongs ultimately to them and need not answer to a master who may limit that potential.

This is why the Haggadah must open with questions. Indeed, the Talmud tells us that if a person celebrates Pesach alone, he must ask himself the questions that lead into the story of the Exodus. The right to question, the ability to challenge authority, is the sign that a person ultimately is free. As long as an authority can say, “Keep that unacceptable idea to yourself,” you are not free. Therefore our Festival of Freedom must start with questions, which are always in some way subversive.

 

 

Why be Jewish? I’ll answer the question myself

In March I wrote in the Jewish Standard about the challenges posed to the organized Jewish community by my generation, the much- (if not, over-) discussed Millennials (“So, really, why be Jewish?”).

We need to refocus ourselves, I said, by turning away from questions like “Who is a Jew?” The key Jewish question of our time is this: Why be Jewish? “With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millennials, the question, ‘Who is a Jew?’ is rather passé,” I wrote. “The fact is that ‘Who is a Jew?’ is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance—to regain it, really—the question we must ask today is ‘Why be Jewish?’”

 

 

Hudson County is welcome to the federation

I read Joshua Einstein’s op-ed piece in last week’s Jewish Standard with great interest (“Hudson County needs a federation”).

He’s made a great case for creating a formal connection between Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Hudson County Jewish community. His argument makes sense. Northern Hudson County has been in our coverage area for many years, so we already have connections there. We now provide services to southern Hudson, including those services Einstein mentions, and more. So it all seems like a natural fit.

 

 
 
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