A Safe Haven for Jews

For many Latter-day Saints, the United States has played a special role in Providential history as the location primed and prepared for the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ after it had lapsed into apostasy through the disappearance of priesthood authority sometime after the death of Jesus Christ and his Apostles.

Last night, we stumbled across The Fiddler on the Roof (1971) on a public television station and greatly enjoyed watching it for the first time in many years.  The musical effectively captures the spirit of its artistic inspiration in the fiddler on the roof depicted in Marc Chagall’s The Dead Man (1908).

However, during the wedding of Tevye and Golde’s daughter Tzeitel to Motel the tailor, I felt like getting up and leaving. The subject matter is so disturbing. Soldiers attack the wedding party, destroying Tevye’s property and particularly the gifts for the newly weds. From this point on, the tension escalates and there is no sign of a happy end in sight; indeed, anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of history knows there is no happy end for the inhabitants of this obscure shtetl called Anatevka in the Pale of Settlement in Tzarist Russia.

We watch the Jews of Anatevka and the other shtetls in the region suffer a progrom of destruction and expulsion based on their religion. In the end, they file out of their shtetl dragging their belongings, having been given only three days to settle their affairs, pack up, and leave the town they have lived in for generations. We learn that Tevye’s daughter Chava, who has married a Gentile, will be going to Krakow as a result of the expulsion, and we cringe, thinking with dread of the treatment of Jews in the shtetls of Poland and of 1939, and the invasion of the Nazis. We also cringe when hearing of other places within the Pale of Settlement where people who are leaving Anatevka are going.

The only beacon of hope shining at the end of this haunting musical is when we learn that Lazar Wolf, the rich butcher, and Tevye and Golde and their two youngest, unmarried daughters will be going to America as a result of the expulsion. To be sure, things were not completely rosy for Jewish immigrants in New York City around the turn of the century, but the news of Tevye’s destination does not convey a sense of dread as does Kiev or Krakow as a post-pogrom destination for migration. To the contrary, it is with great relief that we learn that Tevye and his family are going to America. We know they will be safe there from the future atrocities that they cannot yet even imagine (to wit, the almost entire eradication of Yiddish as a language and culture through the genocide of its speakers) that are still to engulf their homeland, at the hands of Tzarist Russians, Nazi invaders, and Communist oppressors alike.

Watching The Fiddler on the Roof and reflecting on the history and plight of Europe and Russia’s Yiddish-speaking Jews brought to mind another way in which America plays a special role in Providential history: it has been and continues to be a safe haven for Jews in modern history. (To be fair, when speaking of the last two hundred years, England and its other daughter nations have probably also been a safe haven for Jews.) America can and should be proud that it provides refuge for Jews in a world sadly eager to destroy them and deny them peace in their religion and heritage.

[UPDATE: This post has been edited to reflect Ronan's points.]

19 Responses to A Safe Haven for Jews

  1. J. Stapley says:

    John, I’ve been meaning to ask for some time why it is that you and your brother learned yidish. It is also remarkable the degree to which anti-semitism, thankfully, has been purged from popular society.

  2. Ronan says:

    when speaking of the last two hundred years, England and its other daughter nations follow closely behind

    As America is only 200 years old, then it’s the only time period that matters. Have Canada, Australia, England and New Zealand been any different in their treatment of Jews in that time? I honestly don’t know.

    Anyway, I’m offending for a word. Sorry. Great post.

  3. john f. says:

    Ronan, unfortunately, England cannot be lauded for its treatment of the Jews before the time frame I mentioned.

  4. john f. says:

    Also, I think it is an interesting question why America and England (and England’s other daughters, such as Canada and Australia) have been able to provide a place for Jews to live largely unmolested while the rest of the world has not. Specifically, can there be something about a common-law, free-market system that enabled a tolerance somehow inhibited by countries with civil law systems?

  5. Ronan says:

    John, that wasn’t what I was saying. I know that anti-Semitism was rife in England in the Middle Ages. You lauded America for its treatment of Jews; in that same time period (i.e. the existence of the USA) I am wondering what reasons you give for “England and her daughters” occupying a place behind the USA.

    I have an American-Jewish professor, btw, who says that the he could not have lived in the neighbourhood of Baltimore that he lives in 40 years ago. Because he was Jewish. America has been a beacon of tolerance for Jews, thank God, but is not whiter than white.

  6. Sarebear says:

    I came across this too! I forgot I set it up to TIVO a few weeks ago. I can’t afford TIVO but we do it anyway because it literally saves my sanity. Helps distract me, and I can watch stuff like this, instead of the daytime lineup of pap on the big three networks.

    I was pleased to run across it, but I too was disturbed; I had not remembered all the meanness in it. I guess I only fondly remembered “Tradition”, “Sunrise, Sunset”, “La Chaim”, and other songs. (Please excuse me if I butchered that last song title.)

    It was uncomfortably reminiscent, in SOME ways, of the exodus from Nauvoo. In some. I understand though that the mistreatment of the Jewish people far exceeds in length, breadth, and depth, that of the 19th century Mormons; still, it was a picture in my mind.

    Is Yiddish just the Eastern European Jewish language, and Jews in Israel speak Hebrew? I never thought about the difference between them, before.

  7. Eric Russell says:

    Nice post. But there is a new question. Following the same line of thought, ought America and Briton ensure that Israel a safe haven for the Jews? It is this question, I believe, that will determine American and British warfare over the next century.

  8. Perplex says:

    In 1939, some 900 Jews sought to escape Germany after Kristallnacht broke out in 1938 by boarding the S.S. St Louis for Cuba. The idea was to stay in Cuba until immigration quota in the US would finally allow them entry to this country.

    To cut a long story short, these fleeing Jews were denied haven in Cuba, and when they tried entering the US, they were stopped at the coast of Florida. Eventually, they had to be shipped back to Europe where many of them died during the war.

    The Tragedy of the S.S. St. Louis

    http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/stlouis.html

    Of course, there’s also the account of Russian soldiers captured in WWII and held in prison camps in New Jersey. These soldiers gave up fighting and opted not to be returned to Communist Russia. To cut a long story short again, they were drugged and shipped back to Stalin.

    Repatriation — The Dark Side of World War II

    http://www.fff.org/freedom/0295a.asp

    These are just two samples of historical accounts that do not seem to agree with the official propaganda that America is a safe haven for people trying to escape the destruction of war in their countries. In many cases, America is the exact opposite of the typical romantic notion we have of it.

  9. john f. says:

    Nice try “perplexed.” The two examples you cited do not outweigh the flood of immigration that occured before WWII. You have a very difficult argument if you are trying to say that America is not and has not been a safe haven for Jews throughout its history. Of course, there has been anti-semitism here too, but, following Rawls’ challenge, if I were a Jew around 1900 and the victim of a pogrom in the Pale of Settlement, then I would sure choose New York City over Krakow, Kiev, or anywhere else in the world.

  10. Perplex says:

    John,

    I don’t argue that America IS NOT or HAS NOT BEEN a safe haven. What I argue is that America is NOT ALWAYS or has NOT ALWAYS been a safe haven.

    There are certainly exceptions to the official propaganda line, and they’re not minor exceptions either. The flood of immigration that you talk about do not lessen the significance of these exceptions.

    To take it a little further: If America were such a welcoming place, why do Russian Jews emigrate to Israel where most of the surrounding Arab countries want to kill them? Why don’t they settle in some wide open space in Utah where Mormons are most likely to embrace them as long-lost brothers? Certainly, Utah alone has enough land to resettle all the Jews in Israel.

    And to paraphrase P.T. Barnum, I don’t really care much about what you say about me, as long as you spell my name correctly.

    Perplex (without the “ed”)

  11. john f. says:

    Preplex wrote What I argue is that America is NOT ALWAYS or has NOT ALWAYS been a safe haven.

    Then you are arguing against a straw man, at least in the context of this discussion. This post was not propaganda for any party line but rather my observation that among the other virtues of America, it is and has been a safe haven for Jews in a world literally out to destroy them.

    If America were such a welcoming place, why do Russian Jews emigrate to Israel where most of the surrounding Arab countries want to kill them? Why don’t they settle in some wide open space in Utah where Mormons are most likely to embrace them as long-lost brothers? Certainly, Utah alone has enough land to resettle all the Jews in Israel.

    You must be joking with this question. They returned to Palestine because of the doctrine of Zionism: that this was their promised land and that God was giving it back to them. They didn’t go there for the reason that America would have instigated pogroms against them, although they would have been justified in this belief if they did hold it since it would have been true for most other emigration destinations.

    The “exception” of turning a ship of emigrees away in a post-migration age, while tragic, is actually not very significant in light of the many Jews who found their safe haven in America at the turn of the century.

    The “exception” of Russian soldiers that you mention is bizarre; I’ve never heard of it; even if it is true, it means nothing in the context of this conversation. My personal preference would have been to allow them to settle here, although it is questionable that they would have wanted to if they were devout communists who would not be able to stand witnessing the prosperity of our system and the high standard of living enjoyed by the people.

  12. Perplex says:

    John,

    John: Then you are arguing against a straw man, at least in the context of this discussion. This post was not propaganda for any party line but rather my observation that among the other virtues of America, it is and has been a safe haven for Jews in a world literally out to destroy them.

    That’s the general idea, or the generally-accepted observation about America. It is not a straw man argument to offer specific evidence that opposes a generally held idea. One way of avoiding the logical fallacy of generalizations is by going into specifics with concrete evidence.

    Much as I want to avoid believing that you are merely dishing out propaganda, the language you chose is hardly objective. You say that there’s a “world literally out to destroy the Jews.” What about Jews who are literally out to destroy the world, let alone Jews who are bent on destroying each other? Do such notions ever enter your mind?

    John: You must be joking with this question. They returned to Palestine because of the doctrine of Zionism: that this was their promised land and that God was giving it back to them.

    In other words, Zionism is a morally justifiable cause. Never mind that thousands of innocent Palestinians have been massacred for the purpose of establishing and maintaining the State of Israel.

    It is a joke when you say that you don’t pass out propaganda while upholding some tenets of Zionism (“God is giving back Israel to the Jews”; “Israel is the Jewish Promised Land”, etc.) as unquestionably true.

    John: They didn’t go there for the reason that America would have instigated pogroms against them, although they would have been justified in this belief if they did hold it since it would have been true for most other emigration destinations.

    If you say that America, under certain conditions, would have instigated pogroms against the Jews, wouldn’t that invalidate your idea that this is a safe haven?

    The “exception” of turning a ship of emigrees away in a post-migration age, while tragic, is actually not very significant in light of the many Jews who found their safe haven in America at the turn of the century.

    It may not be significant to you, but it is significant to the families of those 900 Jews who perished in the war as a result of this “safe haven” closing its doors on them. At the least, it is significant enough for the Jewish Virtual Library that has a record of this historical account.

    The truth is, had the Allied powers in WWII opened their borders to help the Jews escape Hitler, there would have been no need to establish a State of Israel in the land of Palestine. Like you, those European Jews would feel more at home living among the Anglo-Saxon people in New York, London, or Paris rather than with their turban-wearing Palestinian brothers in the Middle East.

    But that is not an option given to them. That explains why these Jewish immigrants would rather settle in Israel instead of America even if it means being killed by suicide bombers.

    John: The “exception” of Russian soldiers that you mention is bizarre; I’ve never heard of it;

    That’s why I give you the link so that you can study it yourself, and discover some truth.

    John: …even if it is true, it means nothing in the context of this conversation.

    Even if it is true, it means nothing to you because I’m sure you’re not about to give up your silly notion that America is a “safe haven”, for Jews or non-Jews. It’s not the first time I’ve talked to people who don’t want to hear the truth.

    Perplex

  13. Mike says:

    The atrocities committed against the Jews, indeed, against any group or person is a silent witness of intolerance and inhumanity. Why grasp at straws as to whether America is a safe haven for Jews or non-Jews?

    “It’s not the first time I’ve talked to people who don’t want to hear the truth.”

    How noble to cut down “people who don’t want to hear the truth” without sharing said truth at all. I have to wonder what personal agenda Perplex is trying to push? The fact remains that people treat people with the utmost cruelty. Any focus on the fallacies of a nation in upholding justice, equity, and even mercy without the slightest suggestion of how to improve such a bleak situation is a waste of time. It can be equated to sitting in a thoughtless stupor while those around are suffering and dying.

    Let us instead focus on the good will of people that live around the globe and how to nurture and expand that power. Let us learn from the mistakes of the past and decide how we will improve because of them. Flouting the sufferings of others for mere arguments’ sake cheapens them and is as tinkling symbols and sounding brass.

  14. Perplex says:

    Mike,

    Mike: The atrocities committed against the Jews, indeed, against any group or person is a silent witness of intolerance and inhumanity. Why grasp at straws as to whether America is a safe haven for Jews or non-Jews?

    How is this exactly grasping at straws if America is also found to be intolerant and inhuman?

    Mike: How noble to cut down “people who don’t want to hear the truth” without sharing said truth at all.

    On the contrary, I have already shared some truths. Read my posts above. If you haven’t gotten them yet, isn’t it possible that you have already closed your mind on them?

    Mike: I have to wonder what personal agenda Perplex is trying to push?

    I don’t have an agenda. Maybe in your universe, when people question generalizations, they must have a personal agenda.

    Mike:The fact remains that people treat people with the utmost cruelty. Any focus on the fallacies of a nation in upholding justice, equity, and even mercy without the slightest suggestion of how to improve such a bleak situation is a waste of time. It can be equated to sitting in a thoughtless stupor while those around are suffering and dying.

    So you want suggestions? What good does it do to give further suggestions when you refuse to concede that what I’m telling you is true? To me, it would be like giving pearls to the swine.

    Mike: Let us instead focus on the good will of people that live around the globe and how to nurture and expand that power.

    Why should I focus on the good will of people when I know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions?

    Good will is best known by good works. That’s why it’s not grasping at straws to examine any evidence that may contradict the claim that John F. has made about America.

    Mike: Let us learn from the mistakes of the past and decide how we will improve because of them. Flouting the sufferings of others for mere arguments’ sake cheapens them and is as tinkling symbols and sounding brass.

    Learn from the mistakes of the past? We cannot do that if we don’t bring out those mistakes in the open and re-examine them.

    As a bewildered John F. said about the Russian soldiers being drugged and repatriated back to Stalin’s Russia in WWII: “I haven’t heard of that”.

    Are you ready to learn from your mistakes? Would you even know what your mistakes are unless they are pointed out to you?

    Perplex

  15. Mike says:

    Perplex:

    I agree with you that we can only learn from our mistakes when we know what they are. In my universe, most people I am familiar with undertake a certain action when they have a motive to do so. Do you have a motive for questioning generalizions in your universe? That motive interests me.

  16. Perplex says:

    Mike,

    Mike: In my universe, most people I am familiar with undertake a certain action when they have a motive to do so. Do you have a motive for questioning generalizions in your universe? That motive interests me.

    To answer that question, let me share first how I got into this discussion. I was surfing aimlessly at the Mormon Archipelago website, browsing through the topic headings in the list, when a particular topic seemed interesting to me. I clicked the topic link and got to this site. I read what John F. wrote, and what the others thought about what he said. After that, I wrote my own response.

    My answer to your question is this: It depends on the generalization at hand. In most cases, I just ignore them. If I didn’t, you would see me commenting on almost every topic all over the Mormon Archipelago like the all-wise Annegb.

    To answer your question again using this particular topic as an example: I don’t have an agenda. If I had an agenda, I would have come here as the result of a plan in mind. But I got into this forum by meandering. This means that in my universe, some people do things for no special reason.

    In my universe also, good intentions are not important. In many cases, they lead to hell. That’s why when I responded to John’s essay, I wasn’t interested in his motives for writing. I was more interested in the things that he said.

    Now, it seems to me that you are the type of person who looks for motives everywhere, who does things with a clear purpose, even if it means straying off the discussion’s topic. What then is your motive for asking me about my motives?

    Perplex

  17. Mike says:

    Perplex:

    As you stated:

    “Now, it seems to me that you are the type of person who looks for motives everywhere, who does things with a clear purpose, even if it means straying off the discussion’s topic. What then is your motive for asking me about my motives?”

    In light of this discussion, I would characterize motive as a driving reason to do more than merely read a comment, i.e. respond to what John F. wrote.
    My motive for asking you about your motives is the following: As I read your comments I had difficulty understanding your frame of reference regarding America, the situation of the Jews, etc. It was especially after you said the following that I was interested in understanding where you were coming from:

    “Even if it is true, it means nothing to you because I’m sure you’re not about to give up your silly notion that America is a “safe haven”, for Jews or non-Jews. It’s not the first time I’ve talked to people who don’t want to hear the truth.”

    My motive is to gain a better understanding of your perspective. I am interested in hearing your opinions because I get the feeling that we may see many things in different ways, and discussion with you may help me see where there are fallacies in my logic or understanding. As you asked, how can we see our mistakes unless they are shown us? And so I digressed from the discussion’s topic. If you would like to respond this, you are free to send me an email at the address listed. Unfortunately your email address was unreachable.

    Mike

  18. Mike says:

    Perplex:

    As you stated:

    “Now, it seems to me that you are the type of person who looks for motives everywhere, who does things with a clear purpose, even if it means straying off the discussion’s topic. What then is your motive for asking me about my motives?”

    In light of this discussion, I would characterize motive as a driving reason to do more than merely read a comment, i.e. respond to what John F. wrote.
    My motive for asking you about your motives is the following: As I read your comments I had difficulty understanding your frame of reference regarding America, the situation of the Jews, etc. It was especially after you said the following that I was interested in understanding where you were coming from:

    “Even if it is true, it means nothing to you because I’m sure you’re not about to give up your silly notion that America is a “safe haven”, for Jews or non-Jews. It’s not the first time I’ve talked to people who don’t want to hear the truth.”

    My motive is to gain a better understanding of your perspective. I am interested in hearing your opinions because I get the feeling that we may see many things in different ways, and discussion with you may help me see where there are fallacies in my logic or understanding. As you asked, how can we see our mistakes unless they are shown us? And so I digressed from the discussion’s topic. If you would like to respond this, you are free to send me an email at the address listed. Unfortunately your email address was unreachable.

    Mike

  19. Perplex says:

    Mike,

    Mike: In light of this discussion, I would characterize motive as a driving reason to do more than merely read a comment, i.e. respond to what John F. wrote.

    If you define motive as a “driving reason to do more”, then my previous answer is sufficient: “I don’t have an agenda”. There was no “driving reason” for my commenting on John’s essay other than that I thought it was an interesting topic for me. People can do things for no particular reason; at least, that’s how things are in my universe.

    Mike: My motive for asking you about your motives is the following: As I read your comments I had difficulty understanding your frame of reference regarding America, the situation of the Jews, etc. It was especially after you said the following that I was interested in understanding where you were coming from

    What exactly is hard to understand about my comments? Is there a problem with the evidence given or the conclusions?

    Mike: My motive is to gain a better understanding of your perspective.

    If you wish to see the other viewpoint clearly, there’s no better way to do it than to continue exploring the subject. To me, that means reasoning and “arguing” things out to bring them into the light.

    That’s where I differ from John F. His initial reaction to my comments was to dismiss them. He called my facts “insignificant” or “bizarre”, even saying that he hasn’t heard of them (although a reference was given). Reactions like that are very typical of people who think that they have arrived at the truth, whose impulse to every idea that don’t agree with the “officially-accepted” truths is to prejudge them.

    Mike: I am interested in hearing your opinions because I get the feeling that we may see many things in different ways, and discussion with you may help me see where there are fallacies in my logic or understanding.

    In that case, there’s no better way to bring out these opinions into the light than by continuing with the topic at hand. At this point, you already know my position on the subject of John’s essay. As of the last exchange, John has yet to counter my arguments. The ball is on the other side of the court, and yet I still don’t know which side you wish to play on.

    It’s really no different than chess. You make a move, I make a move. The more moves we make, the more we see our opponent’s moves. The more we learn from the other side. But if you try to checkmate at the second or third move of the game, just as John F. has done, you only show what kind of player you are. You deserve to learn nothing.

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