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American Jewish History 89.1 (2001) 105-121

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"There are Times When Silence is a Sin": The Women's Division of the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Nazi Boycott Movement

Rona Sheramy

From 1933 to 1941 the American Jewish Congress helped lead a consumer boycott of German-made goods in the United States in an effort to undermine the Hitler regime and alleviate the crisis of German Jews. While failing to bring an end to Hitler's antisemitic campaign, the anti-Nazi boycott movement--and the Congress's participation therein--is still regarded as one of the most significant examples of American Jewish mobilization on behalf of European Jewry. Scholarly accounts of the boycott effort, most notably Morris Frommer's "The American Jewish Congress: A History, 1914-1950" and Moshe Gottlieb's American Anti-Nazi Resistance, 1933-1941, illuminate the central role of the American Jewish Congress in organizing the boycott effort as well as the tensions within and between American Jewish organizations that inhibited a united protest front. 1

These assessments, though, have neglected one of the boycott movement's essential features: from 1934 to 1941 the Women's Division of the American Jewish Congress assumed a pivotal role in the day-to-day operation and local supervision of boycott work. Reflecting a gendered distribution of activist labor, division members took on the jobs of neighborhood organization, consumer mobilization, and storefront picketing. Their work was critical to the functioning of the protest effort through the early years of World War II and thus vital to understanding the complex dynamics and mechanics of the boycott movement.

Historians' neglect of the Women's Division part in boycott work is not anomalous. The historiography of American Jewry and the Holocaust speaks little of Jewish women. Landmark studies of American Jewish mobilization during World War II focus primarily on the leadership of major American Jewish defense organizations, such as the [End Page 105] American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee, B'nai B'rith, and the American Zionist Emergency Committee, and thus on the actions of a small group of men. 2 These works largely define American Jewish response to events abroad as work undertaken in the political realm: meetings with President Roosevelt, petitions to government officials, negotiations with foreign diplomats. By implication, American Jewish women, largely removed from these interactions and arenas in the first part of the twentieth century, seem not to have reacted in any significant way to the plight of European Jewry.

But by exploring what historian Paula Hyman has called the "less historically accessible arena[s]" in which women have traditionally expressed their concerns and engaged in political work--the neighborhood and marketplace--we are able to shed light on a previously unexplored chapter in the history of American Jewry and the Holocaust. 3 In the case of the congress boycott effort, we see that the plight of European Jewry propelled American Jewish women into new roles in their communities: picketers, public speakers, and community organizers. Many division members first joined the organized Jewish community and engaged in political work in response to Hitler. 4 An examination of division members' role in the boycott movement thus reorients discussion of this early protest effort and illustrates how the boycott was a transformative moment in the self-perception and political life of Women's Division members.

Analysis of the grassroots level of protest work also illuminates the myriad, at times overlapping, factors that inspired American Jews to join the anti-Nazi movement. The Women's Division defined boycott work as important not only to protect the interests of Jews abroad but also in helping to preserve democratic ideals and protect women's rights under fascist regimes. The protest activities of the Women's Division thus arose out of several sets of concerns, reflecting many facets of American Jewish women's identity at midcentury. [End Page 106]

The Founding of the Women's Division

"When the catastrophe of Hitler's coming to power occurred," the Yiddish poet...


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