Jewish response to incarceration

The American Jewish response to exclusion and incarceration was muted. National Jewish organizations based in the East largely ignored the issue as it unfolded in 1942. Western Jews were more cognizant of the policy, but, pulled by the competing impulses of supporting a war to defeat Nazi Germany and fighting domestic prejudice and discrimination, most maintained silence on the issue. However, several community leaders were active critics of the policy, while one Los Angeles group played a role in disseminating anti- Nikkei propaganda. In the postwar era, Jewish organizations joined with the Japanese American Citizens League in civil rights coalitions and supported the redress movement.

National Jewish Organizations

As domestic and international anti-Semitism increased in the 1920s and 1930s, national Jewish organizations expanded efforts to fight prejudice, and increasingly identified with a "liberal approach to racial issues." [1] The fight against Nazism was linked to the domestic fight against racism, as Jewish organizations cast "racial discrimination as 'un-American' and antidemocratic." [2] Jewish organizations and the Jewish press frequently connected anti-Semitism to other forms of intolerance.

Despite this heightened awareness, most national Jewish organizations did not engage the issue of exclusion and incarceration as it emerged in 1942. Examination of the records of organizations including the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith (ADL), the American Jewish Congress, and the American Jewish Committee demonstrates that the issue "passed unnoticed," suggesting a failure to "recognize the racism of the Executive Order." [3] The social legislation committee of the National Council of Jewish Women distinguished itself by expressing concern about the policy in March, 1942, but fear of questioning measures deemed necessary by the military led the Council to refrain from voicing opposition. [4] Ultimately, like other national Jewish organizations, the Council neither spoke against the policy nor endorsed it.

The non-response of national Jewish groups is traceable to several factors including the community's investment in the Roosevelt Administration, their staunch support for the war effort, and their geographic location. [5] Like other civil rights and civil liberties groups, these organizations had faith in the administration, and saw it as an ally in the fight against discrimination. This made them trusting of official claims that security concerns justified the exclusion and incarceration policy. In addition, American Jews were extremely invested in the effort to defeat Nazi Germany and save their European brethren, and, like many American minority groups, looked at war service as a way of "proving" themselves as Americans. [6] Finally, only about five percent of American Jews resided in the West [7] where the Nikkei population was overwhelmingly concentrated. This meant that few had personal or organizational ties with Japanese Americans to weigh against images presented in government propaganda.

West Coast Jewish Responses

Jews living on the West Coast concentrated in the same urban areas that were home to much of the Nikkei population, to the Tolan Committee hearings on the emerging exclusion and incarceration policy, and to the assembly centers that would emerge as the first phase of that policy. Thus, unlike their East Coast and Midwestern counterparts, western Jews were witness to the policy as it unfolded.

Jewish and Japanese Americans shared neighborhoods, and children from both groups attended school together in Seattle's Central District, Los Angeles's Boyle Heights, and San Francisco's Fillmore. In these settings, there is clear evidence of individual responses of sympathy and support by Jews for their Japanese American friends and neighbors. [8]

Yet there is little record of organizational or communal response to the policy. Regional Jewish newspapers avoided the topic, even as they engaged related issues, discussing various wartime policies and the fate of German Jewish immigrants, who, like Japanese Americans, were classified as " enemy aliens ." Operating in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, where the mainstream press became increasingly supportive of exclusion policies during the winter of 1942 and where voices of opposition were few, these newspapers ran editorials supporting the war and fighting prejudice, but maintained near total silence on the fate of Japanese Americans. [9]

Several notable individual Jewish leaders defied this silence and allied themselves publically with opponents of the policy. Most prominent was Rabbi Irving Reichert of San Francisco's Temple Emanu-El. Reichert spoke out in defense of Japanese Americans immediately after Pearl Harbor, and was a founding member of the Pacific Coast Committee on National Security and Fair Play. Reichert argued that their own history of persecution should make Jews particularly attuned to prejudice. [10] Also on the committee were several of Reichert's congregants, including Monroe Deutsch, provost at the University of California, Berkeley, and Daniel Koshland, a Levi Strauss executive. Rabbi Edgar Magnin, of Los Angeles's Congregation B'nai B'rith (the Wilshire Boulevard Temple) and several other prominent Jewish southern Californians later joined the group. Los Angeles lawyers Al Wirin , who testified in opposition to the policy before the Tolan Committee, and Fred Okrand, who had grown up in Boyle Heights, worked on Japanese American civil liberties cases. Jews were most active in the Bay Area, where the Fair Play Committee coalesced among civil libertarians and academics. In Seattle, where organized opposition was heavily inflected by Christianity and pacifism, there was no notable Jewish involvement.

Despite widespread regional support for exclusion and incarceration, there is no evidence to suggest any significant backing for the policy within the Jewish community. However, one organization, the Los Angeles Jewish Community Committee (LA-JCC) (renamed the Community Relations Council during the war) played a critical role in disseminating the anti-Nikkei propaganda used to support the exclusion. Beginning in the mid-1930s, the LA-JCC worked to infiltrate and expose local pro-Nazi, pro-fascist, and anti-Semitic groups. The information uncovered was shared with federal and state authorities, and, beginning in 1939, published in the News Letter by the LA-JCC's News Research Service. Although focusing on pro-German groups, it published stories alleging Japanese American pro-fascist and subversive activity, including two full issues in the summer of 1941. This material was used in the propaganda campaign supporting exclusion and incarceration, appearing in the Dies Committee "Report on Japanese Activities" of February 28, 1942, and informing General John L. DeWitt 's 1943 Final Report on the policy. Although the News Letter and News Research Service were referenced in these materials, the connection to the LA-JCC was not publically known. [11] Despite this involvement, there is no evidence of LA-JCC officials taking a stance, publically or privately, in favor of mass exclusion.

Postwar Relations

During the war years, the emphasis on inter-group work among Jewish organizations both nationally and regionally became even more pronounced. Nationally, groups like the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress, and the American Jewish Committee were key contributors to the effort to build interracial coalitions to fight discrimination during and after the war. [12] Across the country, many Jewish communities were becoming engaged in inter-group work and building alliances to fight prejudice locally. In Los Angeles, the Community Relations Committee (formerly the LA-JCC) had embarked on a "building bridges" campaign to strengthen ties with other minority groups, work that expanded after the war. [13] As Japanese Americans returned to the area, the Japanese American Citizens League became part of this coalition, and the CRC participated in efforts to overturn land laws and naturalization bans. [14] Later these groups—along with national organizations like the Anti-Defamation League—strongly supported redress efforts.

Authored by Ellen Eisenberg , Willamette University

For More Information

Bernstein, Shana. Bridges of Reform: Interracial Civil Rights Activism in 20th Century Los Angeles. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Boyle Heights Oral History Project, 1900-1950, Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles.

Dollinger, Marc. Quest for Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Eisenberg, Ellen. The First to Cry Down Injustice? Western Jews and Japanese Removal during WWII. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2008.

Goldstein, Eric. The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race and American Identity . Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Greenberg, Cheryl. "Black and Jewish Responses to Japanese Internment" Journal of American Ethnic History 14 (2) (winter 1995).


  1. Eric Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race and American Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 195.
  2. Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness, 196.
  3. Cheryl Greenberg, "Black and Jewish Responses to Japanese Internment," Journal of American Ethnic History 14 (2) (winter 1995): 12, 13.
  4. Greenberg, "Black and Jewish Responses," 13-14.
  5. See Greenberg for a detailed study of national Jewish and African American organizational responses to the exclusion and incarceration policy.
  6. Marc Dollinger, Quest for Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 83-84. See also Beth Wenger, History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), chapter 3.
  7. See H.S. Linfield, "Jewish Communities of the United States," in American Jewish Yearbook, volume 42 (1940-1941), Table IV, 222. Accessed December 5, 2011
  8. Ellen Eisenberg, The First to Cry Down Injustice? Western Jews and Japanese Removal during WWII (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2008), 81, 86-90. A number of individual accounts of such support appear in the "Boyle Heights Oral History Project, 1900-1950" Japanese American National Museum.
  9. For a detailed discussion of the West Coast Jewish press coverage of the issue, see Eisenberg, The First to Cry Down Injustice? chapter 2.
  10. Rabbi Irving Reichert, Sermon, Friday, December 12, 1941. Reprinted in the Temple Emanu El Chronicle , December 19, 1941. Temple Emanu-El Collection, Western Jewish History Center, Berkeley, California.
  11. For a detailed discussion of the LA-JCC and the News Research Service and their relationship to the Dies Committee and to anti-Nikkei propaganda, see Eisenberg, The First to Cry Down Injustice? chapter 4.
  12. Stuard Svonkin, Jews Against Prejudice: American Jews and the Fight for Civil Liberties (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 17.
  13. Shana Bernstein, Bridges of Reform: Interracial Civil Rights Activism in 20th Century Los Angeles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 91. See also, Eisenberg, The First to Cry Down Injustice? 154-155.
  14. Bernstein, Bridges of Reform , 150.

Last updated Oct. 8, 2020, 4:53 p.m..