John Rothmann was president of the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews when he led this protest outside the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco in 1986.
John Rothmann was president of the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews when he led this protest outside the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco in 1986.

Archives Week: In immigration coverage, ‘let my people go’ was once ‘don’t let them in’ 

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“I confess it is a vexatious question …” So wrote the founding editor of the Emanu-El newspaper — this news, Jacob Voorsanger, on the topic of immigration.

Immigration as a subject has always been front of mind for American Jews, themselves immigrants to a country with a scant history of embracing them, and so it was in 1898, when those words were written.

At that time, the Emanu-El — this newspaper’s original name —  was only 3 years old and the country was experiencing a great wave of Jewish migration from the Russian Pale of Settlement that would reshape American Jewry.

But Voorsanger, himself an immigrant from Amsterdam, was not too keen on it.

“We have shielded and protected the Russian brother and he has created problems for us that we find difficult to solve,” he wrote.

Voorsanger devoted his lengthy “Our Weekly Chat” space to making a delicate case in support of immigration policy that would close the doors to Russian Jews. As the rabbi of the large and prosperous Temple Emanu-El, Voorsanger was connected to the primarily German Jewish cosmopolitan elite of the city, who looked down on the poorly educated, more observant, Yiddish-speaking Jews from farther East.


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Not that Voorsanger expressed that directly. Instead, he couched his argument in logic. He thought that if the country wasn’t strict about restricting immigration, then cities would get too crowded; he saw overpopulation as the root of much evil and vice. Overpopulation was, in fact, the very thing that had caused problems in Russian territories to begin with, he argued, along with a sprinkling of antisemitism.

“You know the sad, unhappy story of the Russian Jew,” Voorsanger wrote. “His misfortunes, his trials and tribulations are an oft-told tale. In his case religious persecution appears as a primary motive for his being driven forth from his native land; but in his case also over-population lies at the basis of all this unholy proceeding against him.”

But the real question came down to principle. Sadly, he decided, if you opposed letting people into U.S. cities, you couldn’t make an exception for Jews. That would be un-American.

“Shall we ask immunity for any class of immigrants from a general provision that aims at restricting all? We could not do so without first meeting the charge that, in such case, we hold the interests of our country secondary only to the well-being of a number of immigrants to whom we are united with the sympathetic bonds of religion,” he wrote.

As far as Russian Jews themselves, Voorsanger did his best to praise them as having “grit and courage,” assimilating well and in general being not terrible: “he represents the Jewish name not unworthily in the most remote corners to which the white race has ventured.”

Russian Jews who came to the U.S. at the turn of the century were not uniformly welcomed by the Jewish community. (Photo/International Ladies Garment Workers Union Photographs 1885-1985)
Russian Jews who came to the U.S. at the turn of the century were not uniformly welcomed by the Jewish community. (Photo/International Ladies Garment Workers Union Photographs 1885-1985)

And he supported immigration if somehow Russian Jews could be kept out of the cities, as he felt that it was the uneven density of people on the planet that caused the problem.

“The United States with seventy millions of people can easily become the home of four hundred millions and yet not be over-crowded,” he opined (the current estimate is more than 332 million).

And yet, Russian Jews wanted to crowd into the same spaces as their family and friends, preferring to settle where they knew people who spoke their language and practiced Judaism as they did, instead of going out and tilling the bountiful soil of America.

“His gregarious instincts have caused congestion in the cities of the Atlantic border and further inland, not to speak of Europe,” lamented Voorsanger.

It’s a stark contrast with how this  newspaper greeted the most recent wave of Russian-speaking Jews, one that started in the late 1960s in response to economic hardship, domestic antisemitism and anti-Israel rhetoric from the Soviet government.

Plight of Jews in Russia Worsens” this publication’s headline read in 1967 — and that was only the beginning.

It is estimated that more than 1.25 million Jews left the Soviet Union, most of them for Israel or the United States. About 40,000 came to the Bay Area. But this time, unlike Voorsanger’s advocacy for limited immigration, modern Bay Area Jews fought for their right to come.

Local Jewish leaders created the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews, protested outside the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco, gathered signatures and held vigils.

The Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews held daily vigils in front of the Soviet Consulate, like this one in Nov. 1986, to protest the USSR policies that made it difficult for Jews to leave Russia. (Photos/Tom Wachs)
The Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews held daily vigils in front of the Soviet Consulate, like this one in Nov. 1986. (Photos/Tom Wachs)

“Determined to mobilize Bay Area public opinion on behalf of the six million persecuted Jews in Russia, the Northern California Committee for Soviet Jewry has planned an all-day demonstration for Sunday, Oct. 22. The day precedes the festival of Simchas Torah, an occasion when Russian Jews have dared to express their bond to Jewish tradition,” the paper wrote in 1967.

Things further ramped up in 1968, when a rally for Soviet Jewry held in Stern Grove drew more than 3,000.

“Speakers expressed hopes that the Jewish community of the Soviet Union might be free to worship as it pleases, to educate children in the religion of their fathers, and to express their Jewishness in the tradition of their faith,” the paper reported.

Vigils, rallies and protests continued throughout the decades. In 1975, mayoral candidate George Moscone joined activists at a protest in Union Square in San Francisco. But sometimes the anger of local protesters  went too far: A 1973 letter to the editor titled “Deplores Vandalism at Soviet Consulate” took a finger-wagging tone.

“Whoever threw those bags of paint did a great disservice to Soviet Jews and to the Jewish community. Undoubtedly they think of themselves as being clever and brave, but by their actions, they put in jeopardy legislation which is presently before our Congress,” the letter said.

Within the columns of the paper itself, Earl Raab, who directed the Jewish Community Relations Council from 1951 to 1987, used his regular column to keep the situation of Soviet Jews in the minds of readers for nearly two decades.

In 1973 he took aim at Jewish people who had attended a “posh affair” at the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco.

Earl Raab was a prolific writer who led the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council for decades.
Earl Raab was a prolific writer who led the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council for decades.

“It’s common knowledge that there are Jews in Soviet prison camps today, mainly for the reason that they are practicing Jews,” he wrote. “It is common knowledge that there is a special campaign of terror directed against Soviet Jews. For example, during the very week of the Soviet Consulate affair in San Francisco, 63 Jews were arrested in the Soviet Union.”

And in 1989, he was still urging that the plight of Soviet Jews be taken seriously. “A political refugee is defined as one who has a well-founded fear of political oppression, and any Soviet Jew who does not have such a fear is adrenalin-deficient,” he said wryly.

This era came to a definite close in 1999, when the very same activists who protested outside the Soviet Consulate were invited inside what had become the Russian Consulate.

“Only a decade ago, most Jews would have laughed at the thought they might ever be invited into the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco,” the paper wrote in its weekly editorial. “The large, brick fortress on Green and Baker streets was tantamount to the Kremlin. The consulate was the evil empire. Inside of it were the communists who imprisoned Jews. Outside the building, Jews demanded, ‘Let my people go.’”

Raab’s 1989 column couldn’t be more different from Voorsanger’s in 1898, and yet both felt they had the best interests of the Bay Area community at heart.

Whether its opinion pieces were for or against the immigration of Russian Jews, and whether the paper reported rallies to increase immigration limits or meetings to lower them, at every point in time the paper has covered the “vexatious” question with the same central issue: what it means to be Jewish in America, or what it means to become American while remaining Jewish. Would immigrants threaten the prosperity of San Francisco’s assimilated Jewry? Would abandoning the Jews of the Soviet Union threaten the identity of Jews as a global people?

There were never easy answers, but there have always been good-faith efforts to tackle questions about the story of Jewish immigrants in America. Or, as it was put in 1921 by a member of the Council of Jewish Women and quoted in this paper, heartfelt but somewhat bombastic:

“As Jewish women we belong to that race which pointed the way of righteousness to all the peoples of the earth. As American women we belong to that nation which pointed the way of right ideals to all the nations of the earth. Conscious of this great heritage but ever mindful that a heritage is only precious as we add to it, let us vitalize our work for the immigrant so that in the far-off day when America’s mission shall have been wrought, we Jewish women of the twentieth century shall have had our telling share in helping realize the fondest dream of the American fathers.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.