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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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Thank you, Jon Stewart

The most trusted man in America

The reality of Jon Stewart’s February 10 announcement that after 17 years he would be leaving as host of the “Daily Show” on the Comedy Central cable network did not quite hit home until the March 30 announcement that his successor would be South African comedian Trevor Noah.

Noah, who has some Jewish ancestry, in turn was quickly the subject of controversy surrounding some offensive tweets he made in the past, tweets that some consider anti-Semitic, not to mention misogynistic, and perhaps worst of all, simply not at all funny.



Iran and the coming cataclysm

Let’s turn the tables for a moment.

Imagine if Ayatollah Ali Khameini was threatening to murder all blacks in the Middle East. What if he tweeted regularly that people of dark skin are of the devil and must be annihilated. Would the American government be negotiating with him? Or would we face international opprobrium for legitimizing a government with racist, genocidal intent against an identifiable ethnic group.

Or what if he was threatening to murder every fifth woman in the Middle East due to some ritualistic, orgiastic requirement of his demented worldview? Would we be dealing with this man prior to his repudiation of such murderous intent?



Letter from Israel: Chowing down on plants

I was a vegetarian wannabe for most of my life, and when we made aliyah in August 2007, I grabbed the opportunity to take the plunge. Introducing myself as a vegetarian from the get-go would ease the dietary transition, I reasoned.

And I was right. Our new friends didn’t bat an eye; a fair number of them also eschewed meat. Dining out was never a problem, thanks to bountiful kosher dairy and fish restaurants in Israel. My husband supported my decision with the caveat that we continue serving poultry at our Shabbat table for those like himself who prefer it. So far, so good.

A couple of years ago, after doing extensive reading and video viewing about the cruelty and environmental damage involved in the dairy, egg, and fish industries — not to mention mounting scientific evidence of the dubious nutritional value of animal foods as they are produced today — I began a gradual shift toward veganism.




Penning our stories

“The last time I got a fountain pen was for my bar mitzvah.”

That line was uttered during the two-part season finale of the ABC television network’s popular series “Once Upon a Time,” which aired on May 10. It was a little inside joke inserted by series creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, who co-wrote the episode; both of them may well have received fountain pens as gifts for their own bar mitzvahs. There was a time when a fancy fountain pen was as commonplace a gift as savings bonds for bar mitzvah boys, so much so that an often repeated bar mitzvah joke was, “Today I am a fountain pen.” (This was a play on the cliché declaration “Today I am a man,” this being a time before the bat mitzvah was fully instituted as an egalitarian religious practice.) Michael Hilton, in his book “Bar Mitzvah: A History,” reports that “in July 1946, Barry Vine of New Haven Connecticut, received sixteen fountain pens as gifts”! Now that’s the write stuff!

“Once Upon a Time’s” bar mitzvah boy was played by the actor Patrick Fischler, who perhaps is best known for his role as the Jewish comedian Jimmy Barrett on the recently concluded AMC series “Mad Men,” and who also appeared on the series “Lost,” a series that Kitsis and Horowitz previously had worked on as writers. Fischler’s character was introduced in March, during the final story arc of the series’ fourth season, first through references to a mysterious “Author” whose writings set the course of the series’ storybook characters, such as Snow White, Prince Charming, Rumpelstiltskin, Captain Hook, Robin Hood, Maleficent, and Regina (aka the Evil Queen, Snow White’s nemesis); as “The Author” he also had the power to rewrite their stories, and change their fate.



Taking inspiration from Norpac’s mission to Washington

Family vacations certainly provide more relaxing interactions. Family missions provide more meaningful, long-lasting experiences.

Our family traveled together to Washington, D.C., for the Norpac mission last week. Being part of a record-breaking 1500-person mission made the effort seem all the more important. And for our two teenagers, we provided a fascinating and awe-inspiring experience in current events, political science, history, economics, foreign policy, public speaking, and the democratic system, all in one single (and very long) day!

The Norpac mission mobilizes a cross-section of our broad community. We come from various political backgrounds but we are united in agreement on the importance of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and we are committed to ensuring bipartisan support for that relationship.

Imagine the logistics of a fully immersive one-day experience, providing transportation, food, briefings, and meaningful experiences for each participant. The Norpac leadership team, with dedicated volunteer support, ensured impressive and flawless execution.



Elie Wiesel discusses repentance with Governor Chris Christie

Our annual “Champions of Jewish Values” gala is this week. Elie Wiesel is receiving the once-in-a-generation “Light of the Jewish People” award, presented by Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, and Governor Chris Christie is delivering one of the keynote addresses. I wanted the two of them, Gov. Christie and Mr. Wiesel, to meet before the dinner.

I have taken many leaders to meet Elie Wiesel. Cory Booker was probably the first, but that stretches back 25 years, to when Cory was president of my student organization, the Oxford L’Chaim Society. When she was nominated as American ambassador to the United Nations, and came under attack from Jewish organizations for implying that Israel is capable of a genocide against the Palestinian people, I took Samantha Power to meet the legendary face of the six million. Three months ago, I took Senator Ted Cruz, who told Prof. Wiesel how his father had been imprisoned in Cuba. Now it was the turn of my own governor and friend.

Political leaders are surrounded by advisors and pollsters. They are instructed to do what’s politically expedient. Much more important, of course, is that leaders meet the great sages of our time, people who can offer a world-historical context to policy.


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