Last week we celebrated Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day, based on its date on the Hebrew calendar. It was May 14, 1948, 71 years ago, when David Ben-Gurion, just prior to the official end of the British Mandate in Palestine, proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel.
It is interesting to learn the role of the United States in Israel’s independence. Although the United States supported the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which favored the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had assured the Arabs in 1945 that the United States would not intervene without consulting both the Jews and the Arabs in that region. The British, who held a colonial mandate for Palestine until May 1948, opposed both the creation of a Jewish state and an Arab state in Palestine as well as unlimited immigration of Jewish refugees to the region. Great Britain wanted to preserve good relations with the Arabs to protect its vital political and economic interests in Palestine.
In May 1946, Truman announced his approval of a recommendation to admit 100,000 displaced persons into Palestine and in October publicly declared his support for the creation of a Jewish state. Throughout 1947, the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine examined the Palestinian question and recommended the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. On November 29, 1947 the United Nations adopted Resolution 181 that would divide the area into Jewish and Arab states in May 1948 when the British mandate was scheduled to end. Under the resolution, the United Nations would administer the area of religious significance surrounding Jerusalem.
Although the United States backed Resolution 181, the U.S. Department of State recommended the creation of a UN trusteeship with limits on Jewish immigration and a division of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab provinces, but not states. The State Department, concerned about the possibility of an increasing Soviet role in the Arab world and the potential for restriction by Arab oil producing nations of oil supplies to the United States, advised against U.S. intervention on behalf of the Jews.
Despite growing conflict between Palestinian Arabs and Palestinian Jews and despite the Department of State’s endorsement of a trusteeship, Truman ultimately decided to recognize the state of Israel.
Eighty years ago, on May 15, 1939, more than 930 refugees sailed from Hamburg, Germany, on the M.S.St. Louis to flee Nazi Germany. Upon their arrival in Cuba on May 27, 1939, the refugees were refused admittance by the Cuban government because their landing papers had been voided. Our long-time partner, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) became involved in negotiations with the Cuban government – these discussions unfortunately failed, as did efforts by JDC to find a haven for the desperate refugees elsewhere in the Americas. After 12 days of waiting, the St. Louis sadly headed back to Hamburg with 907 passengers. The United States, in response to the prevailing isolationism of the American public, did not offer sanctuary to the refugees.
While the St. Louis was on its way back to Hamburg, JDC representatives began extensive deliberations with various European governments, promising that JDC would guarantee the maintenance cost of the passengers. Finally, in June 1939, the governments of Belgium, England, France, and Holland, persuaded by JDC’s financial guarantees and by the global publicity that the voyage received, agreed to take in the refugees. JDC posted a cash guarantee of $500,000 in order to make the arrangement feasible and to cover upkeep costs wherever necessary. This money was raised by Jewish communities across America, including Portland. On June 17, 1939, the St. Louis arrived in Antwerp after a little more than a month at sea. From Antwerp, it was determined to which country (Belgium, England, France, and Holland) each of the returning passengers would go.
In England, JDC continued to support the last of the St. Louis refugees until 1948, but in France, Belgium, and Holland, the subsequent Nazi occupation made it difficult to send outside aid to those countries. After the occupation of France, some St. Louis refugees escaped to Switzerland. But there were others who had returned to Europe on that fateful ship who ultimately met a tragic end in concentration camps.
And, 65 years ago today (May 17, 1954), in one of the most significant Supreme Court cases in the history of the United States, the court unanimously decided that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Linda Brown was a young black student who was denied admission to her neighborhood elementary school in Topeka, Kansas because of her race.
The decision overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, which allowed state-sponsored segregation related to public education under the concept of “separate but equal.”
The Court’s opinion stated that the prevailing “separate but equal” doctrine was unconstitutional because segregation created an inherent stamp of inferiority upon African-Americans. A year later, the Supreme Court published guidelines requiring public school systems to integrate "with all deliberate speed."
The decision was considered significant in the nation’s civil rights history because it would ultimately pave the way for the end of racial segregation in public facilities and accommodations by courts.
I share this story, not only because of its historical significance, but because Bob Horenstein, the Jewish Federation’s longtime Director of Community Relations, recently participated in a three-day “Civil Rights Mission” organized by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. The trip, which included time in Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham retraced the milestone events of the civil rights movement while also informing participants about the Jewish contribution to the movement. This was a meaningful and powerful experience, not just looking back at the African-American struggle for equality in the 1950s and 60s, but also examining the legacy of slavery and racism and the need today for reform of America’s criminal justice system.
Bob has prepared this must-see PowerPoint presentation. When he described his experiences to our professional team it truly sent chills down everyone’s spine.
This week also marks local milestones as Havurah Shalom celebrates their 40th anniversary. The synagogue has grown from a small group of families meeting in each other's homes in 1978 to its current membership of more than 400 households.
In addition, Congregation Neveh Shalom is celebrating their 150 th anniversary and this past Wednesday a resolution honoring the synagogue was read in the Oregon Senate. Click here for info about resolution.
Mazel tov to both congregations!