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American Jews Acting on Behalf of their Co-Religionists Abroad Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Friday, April 11, 2014

(Further material on this topic can be found in section II The Roots of Jewish Power in  J.J. Goldberg’s book Jewish Power)


I am two years older than my brother, but from the time we were very little, he was always bigger. He is now 6 ‘ 7”. Because of his size, he was always my defender.

Perhaps you’ve been in that situation- been the older or bigger or more responsible person, who takes care of someone else. That happens with communities too. Older, more established communities can help fledgling communities or communities that are smaller or weaker.

At first the Jewish community in the United States was definitely the smaller sibling. The first several synagogues built in the United States received financial support from the more established congregations in the Caribbean. For the first two hundred years of American Jewish history much of the leadership for the American Jewish community came from abroad. Think back to how it all began. The first 23 Jews who came to New Amsterdam in 1654 survived because of support they received from Jews back home who pressured the Dutch East India company into insisting that Peter Stuveysant allow them to stay.

The tables began to turn slightly in the middle of the 19th century. The first collective action on behalf of their overseas brethren came in response to the Damascus blood libel of 1840.

Lead by Rabbi Isaac Leeser, a traditionalist from Philadelphia, the efforts focused on urging President Martin Van Buren to use his moral influence abroad.

In response President Van Buren ordered American diplomats in Constantinople and Alexandria to pressure the Ottoman rulers of Syria and the Jewish prisoners were released. Working with Moses Montefiore, the President also got the Ottoman rulers to issue an imperial decree declaring that the blood libel had no foundation in truth.

But things didn’t always go so smoothly.  B'nai B'rith spoke out for Jewish rights early in its history and used its growing national chain of lodges as a way to exercise political influence on behalf of world Jewry. In 1851, for example, during on-going trade negotiations, Bnai Brith circulated petitions urging Secretary of State Daniel Webster to demand the end of discrimination against Jews in Switzerland. At that time a treaty calling for full protection of each country’s citizens on the other’s soil had an exception for Jews, who were legally barred from entering many cantons.

When Switzerland expelled a visiting American in 1858 for being a Jew, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise led a delegation to President James Buchanan. Despite a statement of presidential sympathy however, the treaty remained unchanged. It was easier to bully the Turks.

Also in 1858 the American Jewish Community got involved in the case of Edgar Mortata, who had been secretly baptized by his babysitter, and then at age 7 kidnapped from his parents on the grounds that he needed to have a Christian upbringing. American Jews rallied in 18 cities but to no avail. President Buchanan told Rabbi Leeser, that if Americans could stay neutral in a moral issue as clear cut as this, it might teach the rest of the world to stay out of the American slavery issue. The president’s political interests outweighed Jewish political clout.

Jews were more successful in garnering Senate support following a Rumanian pogrom in 1870. Rallies in 8 cities and lobbying in Washington lead to action by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, this even though reports of the pogrom were exaggerated and the actual death toll was zero.

The mistreatment of Jews in Russia, following the assassination of Czar Alexander II, led to the formation of several major American Jewish organizations. The American Jewish Committee, for example, began with a commitment to find ways to pressure Russia for reforms. When Oscar Strauss was chosen by Teddy Roosevelt as the first Jew to serve as a Cabinet member the President explained that he wanted “to show Russia and some other countries what we think of Jews in this country.” Significantly, Strauss was Secretary of Labor and Commerce and the Labor Department at that time ran the Bureau of Immigration.

In 1892 a group of New York Jews persuaded the New York Times to send a special correspondent to Russia to expose Czarist brutality. They paid for this mission, in part in the hopes of improving conditions in Russia so as to slow down immigration to the U.S.

A demonstration of Jewish domestic clout came in 1922 when the American Jewish Committee persuaded the U.S. Senate, over President William Howard Taft’s objections, to abrogate the 80 year old U.S. Russian trade treaty of 1832. Opponents of the treaty stressed the discrimination against American Jewish visitors, less so the persecution of Russian Jews which would not have had as big an impact on the Senators.

Yet all of this political activism was not able to stem the wave of immigrant bashing and bigotry through the 1920’s and 1930’s. The new immigration laws of 1921 and 1924 virtually stopped Jewish immigration.

President Coolidge was not amenable to meeting with the Jewish community. Interestingly this low point in Jewish political influence, came at a high point in the percentage of the American population that was Jewish, reminding us that numbers matter little as compared to the confluence of Jewish and American priorities and interests.

In the 1930’s Jewish efforts to open the golden door met a brick wall in the coalition between Southern Democrats and Republican Isolationists. The large number of Jewish immigrants, now registered voters, were still no match for the fears springing from the depression’s high unemployment rates.

“Present-ism” is the term that historians use for applying contemporary or otherwise inappropriate standards to the past. Many say that the established leadership of the Jewish community could have pressured Franklin D. Roosevelt to do the right thing during World War II, but chose not to, being frightened or dazzled by the president.

Historians today say that Roosevelt’s successful manipulation of Congress and public opinion- first to support embattled England, then to take America to war and win it- was one of the greatest displays of presidential leadership in American history.  American public opinion was hostile to Jewish rescue. Opposition was not only widespread but also intense.

There was a great difference between the American Jewish situation in 1940 and 1950. After the Second World War hating Jews was no longer a respectable political stance. This reversal in attitudes came in 1945. Not only did attitudes change but the arrest of prominent Jewish Communists in the 1950’s did not reverse the trend. At one point Joseph McCarthy met with the ADL’s director, to dodge charges of anti-Jewish bigotry- that he felt he had to do this says a great deal.

Last year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the beginnings of movement for freedom for Soviet Jews. Like Moses speaking to Pharaoh, young Jews proclaimed to the Kremlin, let my people go. There were rallies and protests, empty chairs at Bar Mitzvah celebrations and American Jews willing to go to jail for this cause. The success of this movement reflects how well it fit with the United States’ own secular priorities during this time period.

Today we are again being asked to act on behalf of Jews halfway around the world. They live in an unsettled political climate- they face risks beyond any we can imagine. The decision of whether to stay or go belongs to the Jews of Ukraine, but we want them to know that our community, established and secure here in the United States, will do all we can to help them make their way.

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