by Dr. Rafael Medoff
Believe it or not, there’s a street in Brooklyn named in honor of the president of the American Society for the Suppression of the Jews.
In the Brooklyn neighborhood of Manhattan Beach, just one block from the Brooklyn Holocaust Memorial Mall, is Corbin Place, named after Austin Corbin, a 19th-century industrialist who built the area’s railroads and major hotels–and also led a vicious public campaign against Jews.
The sordid truth about Corbin was exposed recently by New York Daily News columnist Denis Hamill. He described Corbin’s leadership of the American Society for the Suppression of the Jews, including public meetings in Brooklyn in the late 1800s at which Corbin proclaimed, “If America is a free country, why can’t we be free of the Jews?” At one meeting, Corbin declared, “We pledge ourselves to spare no effort to remand [the Jews] to the condition that they were in the Middle Ages, or to exterminate them utterly.”
As a result, New York State Senator Carl Kruger and New York City Councilman Mike Nelson, who represent the Manhattan Beach neighborhood, are proposing to change the street’s name.
Their proposal deserves support. The names chosen to adorn our street signs make a statement about who, and what, society values.
That’s why Egypt conditioned normalization of relations with Iran on changing the name of a Tehran street honoring Khaled Islambouli, one of the assassins of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. And that’s why the U.S. Agency for International Development has on several occasions threatened to withhold U.S. aid from public sites that the Palestinian Authority named after terrorists.
American streets that are named after individuals should honor those who upheld America’s noblest ideals. Three years ago, the Chicago City Council, acting in response to a request from the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, named a street after native son and Jewish activist Ben Hecht, to honor his efforts to promote the rescue of Jews from the Holocaust. And a street in Ridgewood, New Jersey was recently renamed in honor of Ridgewood native Varian Fry, the American journalist who led the rescue of more than 2,000 refugees from Vichy France in 1940-1941.
Honoring more recent champions of freedom, then-New York City mayor Ed Koch responded to the Chinese government’s massacre of student protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 by asking the New York City Council to rename the corner in front of the Chinese Mission to the U.N. “Tiananmen Square.” “I placed the sign there myself with great pleasure,” Koch told me. Some time later, the sign was mysteriously removed (no surprise, perhaps, since there was a building full of Chinese government representatives twenty feet away); “I personally replaced it,” Koch recalled. It was a small but striking gesture. Every morning, when the Chinese ambassador arrived for work, he was reminded that to Americans, the students who lost their lives protesting for democracy are heroes.
The perfect replacement for “Corbin Place” would be “Celler Place.” The late U.S. Congressman Emanuel Celler was an extraordinary humanitarian and fighter for civil rights. He was also a true son of Brooklyn–in fact, he titled his autobiography “You Never Leave Brooklyn.”
Celler grew up on Sumner Avenue and Floyd Street, at the very same time that Corbin was leading his public campaign against the Jews. He graduated from Brooklyn Boys’ High School (Class of 1906) and then Columbia Law School, built a successful local law practice and, in 1922, was elected to what would be the first of twenty-five consecutive terms in Congress, representing Brooklyn’s Tenth District.
During the Hitler years, Celler was one of the strongest voices in Congress challenging the Roosevelt administration’s failure to rescue Jewish refugees. It was no small matter for Celler to take issue with FDR–after all, he was a fervent New Dealer, and he represented a politically liberal district. Moreover, Celler chaired the House Judiciary Committee, a position he jeopardized by angering the president. Celler’s repeated protests against U.S. refugee policy were an important part of the Congressional pressure that helped bring about the creation of the government’s War Refugee Board, which helped save more than 200,000 Jews during the final months of World War Two.
Celler’s many accomplishments during his years on Capitol Hill included spearheading three Constitutional amendments to strengthen or expand voting rights, authoring the legislation that created the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, playing a key role in passing the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, and eliminating the use of national origins as the basis for immigration policy.
Let the Brooklyn street named for a bigot be renamed in honor of a Brooklynite devoted his life to fighting bigotry.