Thursday, December 18, 2008

Alaska Could Have Been The Palestine Of The US

Rafael Medoff, director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, writes that in 1938, following Kristallnacht, Secretary of the Interior, Harold L. Ickes came up with an idea:
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...and predicted their pioneering efforts would "open up opportunities in the industrial and professional fields now closed to the Jews in Germany."
Keep in mind that Alaska did not become a state until 1959--until then it remained a possession, meaning that Alaska would not be subject to the then current limits on immigration.

Nevertheless, there was general opposition. Tom Kizzia of The Anchorage Daily News writes:
Many Americans resented what they saw as competition for jobs from foreigners during the Great Depression. It would be worse still if the new immigrants were Jews, at a time when shrill alarms about "international Jewish conspiracies" were heard openly across the land from right-wing politicians and radio personalities.
But there were other issues as well--issues and opposition reminiscent of the problems Jews were facing in Palestine. For example, there was a question whether Jewish immigrants had what it took to tame the land:
"They are not the type of hardy Scandinavians who have had so much to do with development of Alaska on their own initiative," said postmaster Robert E. Sheldon, president of the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce.

"Alaska wants no misfits and is unprepared to care for discards," concluded an editorial in Cap Lathrop's News-Miner.
In addition, Medoff notes that there was another issue that would be faced in Palestine--fear of Jewish settlers:
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. [emphasis added]
Then of course there was a similar reaction to Jewish immigration into Alaska when President Roosevelt introduced his own White Paper:
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...
In the end, the plan failed because Jews were never given a chance. Jews had no historical or cultural connection to Alaska, unlike Palestine. Also, Jews had no presence in Alaska, unlike in Palestine where there was a continued presence from the destruction of the Second Temple through the conquest and occupation of Palestine by the Muslims.

All that the Jews wanted was a safe haven--and they were denied.
Not America's greatest hour.

Years later, the history of Alaska and Israel would cross paths when Alaskan pilots aided in Operation Magic Carpet.

Wikipedia lists other plans to save Jewish refugees during that time:
  • Fugu Plan, a Japanese plan to bring Jewish refugees to Manchukuo.
  • Madagascar Plan, a Nazi proposal to deport European Jews to Madagascar.
  • Jewish Autonomous Oblast [Birobidzhan], a Soviet territory intended as a Yiddish-speaking Jewish homeland in Siberia.
  • Kimberley Plan, an Australian proposal to bring Jewish refugees to Kimberley.
There is also a short interview on NPR, where Richard Breitman, a professor of history at American University, talks to Scott Simon about the Alaskan resettlement plan and why it didn't work.

Crossposted on Soccer Dad

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