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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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Why Ferguson matters to Jews

“Standing on the parted shores of history, we still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot:

“That wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt; that there is a better place, a promised land; that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness.

“That there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands, marching together.”

This passage is read every Friday night at my synagogue, Barnert Temple, and I am moved each time it is read. Ever since I was a teenager, I would picture Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walking hand in hand in 1965, marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama.

 

 

Et tu, Jody?

Dear Ms. Jody Williams,

From the time you won the Nobel Peace Prize for your efforts to ban landmines, you have been a hero to me. In my 2008 book, “The Broken American Male,” I wrote this:

“There are those unique people who really don’t think about themselves. Few will remember her name, but I remember how impressed I was with Jody Williams, who won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1997 for her contribution to the worldwide campaign to discontinue the use of landmines. On the day she won she criticized the American government, President Clinton, and every other world leader who didn’t sign the petition banning landmines. Had she not condemned them for failing to take the threat of landmines seriously, she would have been treated like royalty. As the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, she would have been invited to royal receptions and state dinners. But that meant nothing to her because she lives for a cause.”

 

 

To a daughter on her way to Israel

We spend much of Thursday at Marshall’s.

“What do you think?” I ask you, frowning. “Here. Add up these numbers.” I read you the measurements of the cute red wheelie bag, and you punch the figures into your phone.

“It comes to 44, Mom. Perfect!” Perfect for El Al, that is. Height plus width plus depth, the dimensions of your carry-on luggage may not exceed 45 inches.

“That’s great, sweetie!” I say cheerfully, and we wheel it to the cashier. One more thing we can cross off the list.

 

 

RECENTLYADDED

Jewish time

Have you forgotten that the seasons have no regard

for the sovereignty of the sun

and instead attend upon

the grace and glory of the moon?

have you forgotten that the day begins

with evening’s song

and ends with shadow’s conquest of the hills?


 

I never heard any talk about “Jewish time” until I moved to New Jersey. When I was growing up, my family belonged to a Reform temple in Forest Hills, New York, and maybe it still retained a strong sense of its German-Jewish origins. Punctuality is a value, some say an obsession, present in powerful form in British as well as German culture, and by extension the Anglo-Saxon-dominated culture of the United States. And it was marginalized groups that were known to possess a different sense of time from the mainstream.

That’s why, back when I was a college student in the ‘70s, I heard references to stereotypes about “Indian time” for Native Americans, “Spanish time” for Latinos, and “Black time” for African-Americans. But back then, I never heard anyone talk about “Jewish time” or “Hebrew time” to explain why, for example, services scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. might not actually start until 8:15 or 8:20.

 

 

Turning inward,looking outward

We live in a world that teaches us to blame others for our failures and struggles.

Whether it’s health, finances, stalled careers, or emotional unhappiness, our often narcissistic and litigious society has trained us to look outside ourselves to justify our suffering. We explain our pain by telling ourselves that someone hurt us, our boss overworked us, or a merchant was dishonest with us.

Not so in Jewish tradition. Judaism asks us to turn inward when we are faced with conflict: Did I play a part in bringing this pain on? Could I have done something to contribute to my sadness? The classic expression of this is found in the rabbinic texts explaining reasons for the Churban — the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem. They explain that the first Temple fell because of the sins of idolatry, murder and sexual immorality, and the second because of sinat chinam, unbridled hatred between Jews.

 

 

For all these sins

We are at the beginning of the season of reflection and repentance. Each of us has the task of examining our behavior and considering how we can be better people next year.

Our prayers, for the most part, are couched in the plural (“we have sinned”), but the focus almost exclusively is on us as individuals.

Little or no attention is paid to our behavior as a community, as a people, as a nation, all of which are part of the definition of “Jew.”

Yet attention should be paid. In Israel, in Judaism, the individual is the community and the community is the individual. When one of us breaks the covenant, we all break the covenant. When we all break the covenant, each of us individually breaks the covenant. The community is the sum of its parts, yet each part is equal to the whole.

 
 
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