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Alaska as a Jewish Refuge

Lawrence Bush
July 3, 2017

The new 49-star American flag was first raised (in Fort McHenry in Baltimore) on this date in 1959, following the admission of Alaska as the 49th U.S. state. Twenty-one years earlier, the Alaska Territory had been proposed as “a haven for Jewish refugees from Germany and other areas in Europe where the Jews are subjected to oppressive restrictions” by Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes, following Germany’s Kristallnacht pogrom. Because Alaska was a territory and not a state, U.S. immigrant quotas would not apply. Ickes had toured Alaska to discuss improving its economy and bolstering security against a feared Japanese attack. The Slattery Report (named for Ickes’ undersecretary) suggested four locations in Alaska for Jewish resettlement, including Baranof Island and the Mat-Su Valley. According to Moment magazine, Ickes’ diary declared that “President Roosevelt wanted to move 10,000 settlers to Alaska each year for five years, but only 10 percent would be Jewish ‘to avoid the undoubted criticism’ the program would receive if it brought too many Jews into the country.” The idea, however, “went nowhere.” Yet “fears that Jews would not be able to make it in Alaska were unfounded. Jews were among the earliest settlers of ‘the Last Frontier,’ and had played a major role in putting it on the American map.” It was “‘because of the Jewish presence that Alaska was developed when it was,’ says Alaska historian Patti Moss, who lives in Juneau, the state capital in southeastern Alaska. ‘The first banks: Jewish people. Railroads: Jewish financing. The first college: East Coast Jewish money. The entire infrastructure of Alaska was built by Jewish people, Jewish money and Jewish knowledge.’ ”

“The territory’s Jews could not . . . convince their fellow Alaskans to welcome the latest group of European Jews in need of a new home. Alaskan Jews were deeply concerned about the Nazi threat to their brethren in Europe . . . but the plan was not supported by Ernest Gruening, Alaska’s longest-serving territorial governor and most influential Jew.” --Moment

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.