Japanese American children being relocated to internment camps, 1942.
(Photo/Russell Lee-Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)
Japanese American children being relocated to internment camps, 1942. (Photo/Russell Lee-Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

Jewish values, a judge and Japanese American internment

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Although hindsight is 20/20, looking backward at opportunities taken or missed does not provide a “do-over” for how people might have or should have behaved.

The Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor provoked fear of Japanese Americans, especially on the West Coast, which resulted in President Franklin Roosevelt’s February 1942 executive order mandating their internment.

This February marked the 80th anniversary of a wrong that cannot be made right.

Most Japanese Americans were from families that came to the United States as long ago as three generations earlier. They were loyal, law-abiding citizens who gave no cause to believe that they were a fifth column in our midst. Yet they were forced to sell their property and possessions, often at fire-sale prices; they had to abandon their businesses and leave their jobs.

Despite overwhelming support among Americans for the Japanese internment, there were those in the Jewish community who were outraged. Partly that was because Jews were being rounded up in Europe and murdered in concentration camps, while there was no internment of German Americans. But also because such treatment was antithetical to Jewish values as instructed by Leviticus 19:16: “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.”

The actions of Louis E. Goodman, U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of California, embodied the highest of Jewish values in his approach to this tragedy. Speaking from the pulpit of Congregation Emanu-El on Yom Kippur of 1947, he said: “To advocate a just cause sometimes requires a rare sort of courage, the sort of courage that ignores personal security, be it real or fancied.”

Goodman in an item from our archives, Dec. 11, 1942
Goodman in an item from the J. archives, Dec. 11, 1942

Three years earlier, Judge Goodman came to the rescue of 26 Japanese Americans incarcerated at the Tule Lake Segregation Center after the U.S. government announced that it would begin drafting young Japanese men of conscription age into the Army, the same army that had been guarding them and their families in these detention camps.

Most of the young Japanese Americans choked back their resentment at the way the government had stripped them of all of their rights, and chose to accept the draft as just another unwanted test of their patriotism.

But about 300 refused to comply with their draft orders. These resisters asked a simple but devastating moral question: “If we are loyal enough to join the army, what are we doing behind barbed wire?” The government punished them harshly for this.

Through the spring and summer of 1944, agents of the U.S. Marshals Service swept through the camps, arrested the resisters and carted them off to county jails to await trials on charges of draft evasion. In every case but one, the federal judges convicted the Japanese American draft resisters.

Thirty-three draft resisters from the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho had the misfortune to appear before Federal District Judge Chase Clark. When he had been governor of Idaho, Clark demanded that all Japanese Americans be placed in “concentration camps” and forcibly removed from Idaho at war’s end. Now he set in motion production-line criminal justice, hearing 33 separate jury trials in 11 days. Every case ended with a sentence of three years and three months in the federal penitentiary.

Only one judge broke this pattern — Judge Goodman, who heard the cases from the Tule Lake camp in July 1944 in Eureka. The logging and fishing town about 230 miles north of San Francisco had a long history of ferocious anti-Asian sentiment. In 1885, an angry white mob had forced all 310 Chinese residents of Eureka onto a boat and exiled them from Humboldt County with a warning that they should never return. The local chamber of commerce guide boasted that Humboldt County was “the only county in California without a Chinaman.”

The day that Judge Goodman arrived, the local newspaper, the Humboldt Standard, ran a front-page story with the headline “Not Enough Food, Japs Complain in Jail Here” and a sentence that read: “Not enough ricee …  they want three mealees, so solly, please.”

The lawyers appointed to represent the Tule Lake resisters suggested they plead guilty. But when Judge Goodman asked them about the circumstances that had led them to resist the draft — their forced uprooting from their homes in California, prolonged detention behind barbed wire, and so on — he refused to accept the guilty pleas. He purposely dragged the cases out all week on procedural matters, and then scheduled a special session of court for Saturday morning — the day he was scheduled to go home to San Francisco. And with his car idling in the parking lot outside the courthouse and his packed suitcases in the trunk, Judge Goodman took to the bench and delivered an opinion dismissing the charges against the Tule Lake resisters for lack of due process.

Judge Goodman told a stunned courtroom that “the defendants cannot be denied the protection of the guaranty of due process because of war … or danger to national security but only upon a valid declaration of martial law,” which had not taken place.

“It is shocking to the conscience,” he said, “that an American citizen be confined on the ground of disloyalty, and then be compelled to serve in the armed forces, or be prosecuted for not yielding to such compulsion.”

And with that, Judge Goodman banged his gavel, got up, hurried to his waiting car and beat it back to San Francisco.

In his closing remarks at the Yom Kippur service in 1947, he declared, “Gallantry and intrepidity in a just cause are the essence of strength. They command respect and admiration. They make for security, never for insecurity. If the American Jew looks into himself … and finds there that kind of courage, the God of Israel should look with favor upon him.”

These words summed up the commitment to Jewish values that guided his decisions, and they echo down the 80 years since the injustices imposed upon American citizens of Japanese heritage: “Do not follow after the multitude to do evil” (Exodus 23:2) and “In a place in which there are no men, strive to be a human being (Pirkei Avot 2.5).

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce
Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce

Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce, Ph.D., is the senior rabbi emeritus and the Taube scholar at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. Ordained at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, he earned his doctorate in counselor education at St. John’s University.