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When Good People Do Bad Things

When war paranoia struck the West Coast in 1941, it did so with a vengeance. Suddenly one's Japanese neighbors -- farmers with cherry orchards, children who shared the neighborhood playground, their doting mothers -- were viewed as potentially dangerous.

Fear built on racism and led to tragedy, says history Professor Ellen Eisenberg. After Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor, every person of Japanese ancestry was removed from the West Coast. Whole families, most of them American citizens, were hauled away to camps where they were incarcerated behind barbed wire, some for as long as four years. No charges were filed, so no defense was possible.

Eisenberg's new book, The First to Cry Down Injustice? Western Jews and Japanese Removal During WWII -- recently named a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award -- looks at how West Coast Jews reacted to the wartime policy of incarceration.

"People get scared during war," says the Dwight and Margaret Lear Chair of American History. "In 1941 people really thought there would be an attack on the West Coast, and for all they knew, their next door neighbor was the enemy. The policy of removal was wildly popular in the West, and very few individuals or organizations spoke out against it -- even Jews, whose long history of oppression had led them to champion civil rights and protest discrimination."

U.S. Jews had begun to fight for the rights of blacks, Jews and Mexicans, but on the West Coast most remained tensely silent as their Japanese American neighbors were railroaded to incarceration camps. Because of the brutal treatment of Jews in Germany, American Jews wanted to support the war effort against the Nazis; many held uneasy, conflicted feelings about Japanese incarceration, and their reactions were mixed.

A Jewish organization in Los Angeles reported on Japanese Americans, contributing to the propaganda that led to their incarceration, while some in Seattle and San Francisco spoke out against the policy of removal. Many who didn't later regretted their silence, including Gus Solomon, a young Portland lawyer who eventually became a federal judge. "Given the overwhelming public support for the government policy, the silence of the majority of Jews suggests some level of disagreement," Eisenberg says.

Just as today's war paranoia can easily become aligned with racism, it did so during World War II. "There was a fundamental difference in the way Americans reacted to German and Italian Americans, as opposed to Asian Americans," Eisenberg says. "They assumed that citizens of Japanese descent had loyalty to the Japanese emperor in their blood. Playing American baseball didn't make them American."

Eisenberg's finding that a Jewish organization contributed to the propaganda against Japanese Americans has created surprise and discomfort, but serves as a "cautionary tale of how bad things can be done by good people," according to Brandeis University history Professor Jonathan Sarna. "The facts might upset some people because they want to think Jews would have supported oppressed groups," Eisenberg says, "but the evidence is crystal clear. This is what happens when people become paranoid.

"By the summer of 1942, all people of Japanese descent had been incarcerated and the hysteria had abated," Eisenberg says. "More people, including those in the Jewish community, were willing to speak out against the practice. The West Coast Jewish community also quickly shifted gears toward promoting civil rights in Mexican and black communities, and after the war they focused on Japanese rehabilitation. Their silence was short-lived."

The First to Cry Down Injustice was published in September, and Eisenberg is now co-authoring a broad history of Jews in the Pacific West, to be released in fall 2009. "Most Jewish American histories have an East Coast bias, with a focus on New York City," Eisenberg says. "But now regional Jewish history has a growing audience."

History itself may have a growing audience. "I think some people imagine that historians sit at their desks memorizing lists of names and dates," Eisenberg says, "but the study of history is far from a desk job. When you're looking at history, you can never get bored."