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June 27: Helen Keller and the Jews

Lawrence Bush
June 26, 2016
Helen Keller, the deaf and blind gentile woman who became an internationally admired figure after she gained language through her teacher, Anne Sullivan, was born in West Tuscumbia, Alabama, on this date in 1880. Keller was a socialist, a member of the IWW, an anti-war activist, a founder of the ACLU, and a birth-control and women’s suffrage advocate. She was also outspoken in her defense of Jews, writing a vehement letter in 1933 protesting the burning of books, including her own, by German universities, in which she wrote, “Do not imagine your barbarities to the Jews are unknown here. God sleepeth not, and He will visit His Judgment upon you.” According to the Jewish Press, “In a December 2, 1938 correspondence to John Finley, editor of the New York Times . . .she urged the Times to publicize the deplorable situation of the Jews in Nazi-occupied lands.” Keller visited Israel in 1952, where “she worked with the Jewish Institute for the Blind . . . [and] visited President Chaim Weizmann at his Rechovot home and Golda Meir, then Israel’s minister of labor. . . . The Association of the Deaf in Israel, established in 1944, is currently located in the Helen Keller House (completed 1958) in central Tel Aviv, and there is a Helen Keller Street in Lod.” Keller also wrote a heartfelt thank-you letter to Rabbi Charles Mantinband, a rabbi who was a donor to the American Foundation for the Blind and later became active in the civil rights movement in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The letter, written after Anne Sullivan’s death in 1936, describes “winter in my life since the guardian angel of fifty years no longer walks by my side on earth.”
“The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.” --Helen Keller

​​​​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.