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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.

 

 

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.

 

 

For all we are worth

What does a person cost?

When I was a kid, science teachers were fond of telling their students (if they wanted to shock or humble us) the chemical value of a human body. It amounted then to about $1.78. With inflation, today you may be worth as much as $4.50.

Now, I don’t want you to get a swelled head (because we’ll be needing it at its regular size), but if you sell off the components of your body, according to a 2011 story in Wired, then your heirs could get $45 million today, according to “Inside the Business of Selling Human Body Parts.” That’s because we live in the West. Blood, organs, and DNA are cheaper in the developing world.

The phrase “human values” normally has a very different connotation, but I have a morbid fascination these days about the price of a person. As I have mentioned before in the Standard, I made a commitment last Rosh Hashanah to take an active role in freeing slaves.

The most recent estimates put the number of slaves in the world today at 30 million. Federal officials report that about 60,000 slaves are now captive in the United States.

 

 

RECENTLYADDED

A reason for optimism

A Frenchman, a German and a Jew were wandering in the desert. All three were parched with thirst. They each craved their favorite drink.

The Frenchman proclaimed, “I am thirsty! I must have a glass of wine!”

The German said, “I am thirsty! I must have a frothy beer!”

The Jew said, “I am thirsty! I must have diabetes!”

Jews are a worrying lot. We often are consumed by fear, and see our glasses of wine and beer as only half full. Perhaps that is from years of persecution, or perhaps it is just part of our DNA. Any way you slice it, we are pessimistic.

 

 

Deep down, you already know

About asking help — and listening to ourselves

It isn’t a news flash that we have access to massive amounts of information today. But the numbers about the numbers are worth reporting.

Dr. Martin Hilbert and a team of researchers at the University of Southern California calculated that the average American met with the equivalent of 40 85-page newspapers containing only information — no ads — per day in 1986. By 2007, we were exposed daily to the equivalent of 174 newspapers. Dr. Hilbert has not yet released any information past that date. I am just hoping that he and his research team aren’t buried under a pile of reports, unable to get up.

 

 

The non-Jews who love us

Joanne Palmer’s beautiful and uplifting cover story on Cory Booker, in this newspaper last week, cap-
	tures Cory’s warmth, openness, and humanity. It also captures something else that I was startled to read: Cory’s retelling of the price I paid at Oxford University for the inclusion of thousands of non-Jews as members of the L’Chaim Society and for Cory’s presidency.

Joanne quotes Cory as saying, “‘After the [Lubavitcher] rebbe’s death there was a power vacuum, and then Chabad in England turned on Shmuley…. He had non-Jewish members. They told him to get rid of the non-Jews or you must leave Chabad England.’ Rabbi Boteach did not comply with the demands, ‘so they turned on him.’”

 

 
 
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