On Hanukkah, the Jews Found Friends in Montana

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

An amusing feature story in the New York Times last week reported signs of a revived Jewish presence in Montana, from the menorah-lighting that will take place in the State Capitol this Hanukkah, to the bomb-sniffing dog imported from Israel who responds only to commands given in correctly-accented Hebrew.

The Times also recalled an inspiring episode that took place in Billings, Montana, in 1993: an attack on a Jewish home’s menorah display moved thousands of local residents and shopkeepers to place paper menorahs in their own windows as a sign of solidarity with their Jewish neighbors.

For those familiar with Montana’s political history, however, it may not seem surprising to find such sentiment in the remote plains of the American northwest.

Because exactly fifty years before the incident in Billings, during the week of Hanukkah in 1943, another voice from Montana rang out in defense of the Jews. That voice belonged to U.S. Senator James E. Murray, and the cause was the plight of the Jews in Hitler Europe.

From the point of view of political self-interest, Senator Murray had little to gain –and much to lose– by taking an interest in rescuing European Jewish refugees.

At the time, only about 2,000 Jews lived in Montana–barely one third of one percent of the state’s population. Helping European Jews would not help Murray very much on election day.

Moreover, isolationist sentiment was strong among Montanans. The state’s other U.S. Senator was Burton Wheeler, an extreme isolationist and supporter of the reactionary America First movement. Another Montana congressman, Jacob Thorkelson, openly spouted antisemitism from the floor of the House of Representatives, railing against “communistic Jews” and “Jewish international financiers.” Senator Murray might easily have concluded that advocating U.S. intervention in Europe’s affairs would lose him votes.

Moreover, Murray had been elected to the Senate on a platform pledging “one hundred per-cent support” for President Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. One would have expected him to support the Roosevelt administration’s argument that there was no way to rescue European Jews except to win the war.

Yet in defiance of all political logic, Murray became an active supporter of the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe (better known as the Bergson Group) and repeatedly challenged the Roosevelt administration’s failure to aid Jewish refugees. In the halls of Congress, Murray spoke out vigorously for Europe’s Jews and championed resolutions pressing the administration for rescue action.

Most notably, Murray co-sponsored a Bergson-initiated Congressional resolution in late 1943 which urged FDR to create a government agency to rescue Jews from the Holocaust. This clashed directly with Roosevelt’s “rescue through victory” philosophy, and the administration lobbied strongly against the resolution.

On December 20, the day before Hanukkah, Murray and his colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously endorsed the rescue resolution. This congressional pressure, combined with behind-the-scenes lobbying by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., persuaded FDR to establish the War Refugee Board. Despite almost no government backing, the Board helped bring about the rescue of an estimated 200,000 Jews during the final fifteen months of the war.

Bergson Group leader Hillel Kook, in a postwar interview with Prof. David S. Wyman, explained his group’s success in building relationships with members of Congress. When they first began lobbying on Capitol Hill, Kook recalled, they contacted senators from states with large Jewish populations, such as Robert Wagner of New York. But Sen. Wagner had close ties to mainstream Jewish leaders such as Rabbi Stephen Wise, who was deeply loyal to President Roosevelt and urged Wagner to stay away from the Bergsonites.

“Then later we got smarter and started looking for senators from states where there no Jews,” Kook told Wyman. “And we found them on the merit of the cause.”

Senators such as James Murray of Montana, Elbert Thomas of Utah, William Langer of North Dakota, Edwin Johnson of Colorado, and Guy Gillette of Iowa championed the Bergson Group’s rescue campaign. They had few Jewish voters in their states, and no real relationships with mainstream Jewish leaders or organizations. As a result, they were less susceptible to pressures from the Jewish establishment, and they looked at the rescue issue “on the merit of the cause,” as Kook put it.

On the merit of the cause, a senator from Montana stood up for the Jews on the eve of Hanukkah in 1943. And on the merit of the cause, on Hanukkah in 1993, the Jewish people once again found friends in Montana.
December 2009