Tuesday, June 5, 2018

No Refuge in Alaska

Purchased from the Russian Empire in 1867, the territory of Alaska was the United States’ “Last Frontier.” Following its 1899 gold rush, which helped lay the foundation of Alaskan infrastructure for many of its larger population areas, development soon became a priority of the territory’s governing bodies. Among the many opportunities discussed is one that became almost a footnote in Jewish history.

In November 1938, just after KristallnachtHarold Ickes, the United States Secretary of Interior, suggested at a press conference that the territory of Alaska could be a haven for the Jews of Germany and German occupied territory. A formal proposal titled “The Problem of Alaskan Development” (focusing on development rather than a humanitarian campaign) was written by Interior Undersecretary Harold Slattery. The proposal called for four areas to be designated for the settlement of refugees, particularly, but not exclusively, Jewish refugees. The goal was not altruistic. Ickes and Slatterly and their supporters saw the potential for these refugees to boost the area’s economic development.

Alas, the plan did not receive the expected support. There were the obvious objections from anti-Semites who opposed any increase in Jewish immigration. However, the proposal also received little Jewish support. Ickes’ plan made the Jews of the time nervous that they would be accused of trying to take over a portion of the country. (In 1938, no one knew how desperately such plans would be needed!) The collapse of the Slattery Report was the result of President Roosevelt’s proposal that the United States would allow 10,000 refugees to be admitted per year for five years, but of those, no more that 1,000 per year could be Jewish.

In an interesting footnote to this footnote, the Slattery Report was not the first proposal for Jewish settlement in Alaska. In 1906, Russian emigre Abe Spring proposed that the Jewish victims of Russian pogroms be allowed to settle in the far north territory, but the idea was rejected by Congress.

Note: There was a resurgence in interest in the Slattery Report after the publication of Michael Chabon’s novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2009), which presented an alternate history as if the proposal had been accepted and Alaska had become a Jewish settlement area.

No comments: