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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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That dirty word ‘merger’ — and building a shared Jewish future

 

Dear Rabbi: Your Talmudic Advice Column

 

A community responsibility

Day schools are great.

Day schools are effective.

Day schools yield committed, knowledgeable Jewish adults.

The Jewish community has spent years touting the benefits of day school education. Have we been distracted by the shiny object?

Day schools are not the vehicle of choice for the vast majority of the North American Jewish community. In fact, a majority of our Jewish children are being educated in synagogue-based religious schools. Therefore, there is a moral imperative to invest in the vehicle through which we must inspire the next generation and our collective vibrant Jewish future.

 

 

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Death and dignity in New Jersey

The New Jersey State Senate is due to consider a bill legalizing and regulating physician-assisted suicide — the “New Jersey Death with Dignity Act” — already approved by the State Assembly.

The law would permit “qualified” competent adults, whom physicians predict will die of a terminal disease within six months, to obtain lethal drugs in order to end their own lives. As the New Jersey Senate (before which, in 1861, Abraham Lincoln called Americans the “almost Chosen People”) prepares for this debate, the citizenry of the state and its legislators can benefit profoundly from the wisdom of Jewish tradition.

Suicide is not a sin in Judaism. Suicide is (as Catholic theologian G. K. Chesterton said) “THE sin.”

 

 

The murderer down the street

Of course, I haven’t seen him since he was 9, the year I left Chicago for New York. The only memory I have of him is as a dark-haired little boy, chipping golf balls by himself on his lawn.

I should mention here that he didn’t murder just one person. He murdered two. His mother and his grandmother. We’ll call him Andy.

Andy’s grandmother was a tough lady who lived two houses down, in a manicured sixties-era bi-level, with a friendly, pear-shaped husband and a fluffy orange Pomeranian named Fritzie. I encountered this neat, put-together lady and her dog every day on their regular walks down the street. Desperate for doggie contact, I begged her to walk Fritzie, and every now and then she let me hold the leash.

 

 

Why Martin Luther King was the greatest American of the 20th century

I was moved to tears by the movie “Selma.”

It captured the greatest American of the twentieth century at the height of his powers, using oratory and an army of religious leaders who answered his call to change America. As a communal activist, the idea that Martin Luther King’s entire career spanned just 14 years — from when he was 25 to his assassination before his 40th birthday — beggars the imagination.

Martin Luther King Day was this week. To Americans it should signify a rebirth of the principles enumerated on the Fourth of July. The latter commemorates the formation of our country upon the values of freedom, equality, and the infinite worth of the human person. When we remember Martin Luther King, however, we commemorate the man who brought America to conform to those founding principles, which were being violated. Just think of an America so great that it could cross the Atlantic to fight and defeat Hitler while at the same time denying a black child in the South the right to drink water from a fountain on a scorching summer day.

 

 
 
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