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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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Remembering Regina Jonas

Conversion to Judaism is very much in the news today — and for all the wrong reasons. But at the moment, my interest is not in the history of conversion itself, but in the way that it is read into next week’s Torah reading, parashat Lekh Lekha (Genesis 12-17).

The Torah reading opens with God commanding Abraham to set forth on a journey to a place unknown. Abraham sets forth with his wife Sarah, his nephew, all their possessions, and “the souls that they had made in Haran.”

How does someone “make” souls? The midrashic collection Genesis Rabbah, compiled some time in the fifth through eighth centuries, interprets this strange clause as referring to converts. Why did the text say “made” instead of “converted”? To demonstrate that converting someone to Judaism is like creating that person anew. But why the plural? Doesn’t it really mean that he, Abraham, had made or converted those souls? No. Abraham converted the men; Sarah converted the women (Genesis Rabbah 39:14).

 

 

Clouds of glory, clouds of honor

That future generations may know that I made the children of Israel live in booths (sukkot) when I brought them out of the land of Egypt — Leviticus 23:43.

‘Booths’ — clouds of honor (ananei kavod) — Rashi.

When we were young, many of us were taught that the sukkah — especially its essential covering — represents something otherworldly. The structure in which we were dining was meant to evoke the divine clouds that sheltered the Israelites in the desert.

 

 

Bringing the battle to our campus enemies

A month ago the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, came to Cooper Union’s Great Hall, where he spoke to approximately 1,000 students, mostly from NYU.

Praised as a moderate, at least in comparison to Hamas, Abbas accused Israel of genocide in Gaza. He repeated that charge at the U.N. General Assembly four days later.

Did anyone object to this monumental blood libel against the Jewish people?

Yes. It was an NYU undergraduate who happened to have just finished his Chabad s’michah, Mendy Boteach, along with five of his siblings. My son had sought to enlist the mainstream Jewish groups on campus to protest Abbas’s demonization of Israel. They encouraged their students to participate in the lecture instead. Some had given Abbas a standing ovation. Mendy was not disheartened. The media interviewed him extensively as the lone protestor, and his message was broadcast far and wide.

 

 

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Cold hearts and sub-Saharan Jews

I remember vividly how moved and inspired I was as a child when — at a very early stage of my Jewish education — I was introduced to the sage Hillel and his own youthful entrée to Jewish scholarship.

Hillel went on to become a renowned scholar, a beloved and oft-quoted national leader, and the founder of an important rabbinic dynasty. The brief story — my first “Talmud lesson” — is familiar. Working as a poor woodchopper, Hillel would devote half of his meager earnings to daily necessities. The other half he spent on the fee required for admission to the bet midrash — the Babylonian academy where Torah was taught by the great Shemaiah and Avtalyon. One winter Friday (during the month of Tevet, the Talmud records) he was without sufficient means to enter the citadel of learning. He was turned away. Undeterred, he climbed atop the roof, to listen to the lesson through a skylight. There he stayed until Shabbat morning, when he was found covered by three cubits of snow. “The snow came down from Heaven,” the text (Yoma 35B) says lyrically. (Even in my New England childhood, that daunting volume of snow fired my imagination!)

 

 

Past imperfect

For traditional communities, the past is normative.

The past, rather than the present, provides the best model for daily life. As the past’s standard-bearer, the traditionalist may even question the legitimacy of the present: Leaving aside technological advances, what moral or spiritual value can modernity offer, compared to the timeless legacy of the past?

Religious traditions especially, which are by nature highly conservative, judge new trends by their conformance to time-honored ways of life. Intellectual innovation, to be sure, may be encouraged, as long as it remains within the boundaries of tradition. In our own society, for example, a hallmark of Talmud scholarship long has been the ability to formulate a novel legal analysis, whose implications are normally theoretical. But in practical matters, custom rules. (There are notable exceptions among halachists of great stature; the Vilna Gaon, for example, often ruled against common practice based on talmudic sources.)

 

 

Conversion confusion

The current controversy over whether the Rabbinical Council of America may soon water down its standards for conversion demands the question: Are the RCA’s current conversion standards more difficult than they should be?

For that matter, are anyone’s conversion standards, regardless of stream, more stringent than they should be?

The question is as old as rabbinic Judaism itself, and it is not easily resolved, because the answers range from yes, to no, to maybe yes, maybe no, to it depends.

 

 
 
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