North to Alaska: Chabon and Cohen by way of Tsuk Mitchell

Several of us here in Sage House have read and enjoyed Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union—perhaps you have, too. If you are fascinated by Chabon’s imagining of a parallel history in which the focus of Jewish resettlement was not Israel, but rather Alaska, you may be interested in our recent book Architect of Justice: Felix S. Cohen and the Founding of American Legal Pluralism by Dalia Tsuk Mitchell, which recently won the American Historical Association’s 2007 Littleton-Griswold Prize. Cohen, who is best known for his work with the Department of the Interior in the 1930s and 1940s, was a major voice in support of the real Alaska Development Program, which was intended to provide northern refuge for the Diaspora.

Tsuk Mitchell’s book provides a detailed and concise account of the program and its eventual nonimplementation. Two samples:

“Cohen believed that bringing various occupations and talents to Alaska would be a foundation for strengthening Alaska’s economy and for promoting American values and culture. In a letter to Warner Brothers Pictures, discussing the possibility of a documentary on the Alaska Development Program, Cohen stressed the similarities between Alaska and the Western frontier in the late nineteenth century. ‘As the West was built through the pioneer spirit of persecuted and poor immigrants from Europe, so can Alaska be transformed into one more industrial and cultural star on the American shield,’ he explained.”

“Editorials in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner asserted that Alaska could not ‘afford to carry on with a mass of misfits’ and that German-Jews are unsuited for Alaska settlers.’ ‘They are not the type of hardy Scandinavians who have had so much to do with the development of Alaska.’ . . . Even the Alaska Weekly, which condemned ‘opposition to Jewish refugees based on racial antipathy,’ declared that ‘Jews would be the least desirable of immigrants because of being the least adaptable.'”

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Listen to an interview with Michael Chabon about The Yiddish Policemen’s Union on the nextbook site here: Land of the Lost

New York Times article about The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: The Frozen Chosen

Q & A with Chabon in the Seattle Times.

North to Alaska: Chabon and Cohen by way of Tsuk Mitchell