Rescuing Jews Amid World War

  • Overseas
  • 1914

When World War I broke out in 1914, about 60,000 Jews were living in Palestine under the rule of the Turks (who sided with Germany). The outbreak of hostilities left these Jews, many of them recent immigrants from Europe who depended upon assistance from Jews in other countries, isolated and destitute. When U.S. ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau discovered their misery he sent an urgent telegram to Jewish philanthropist Jacob Schiff in New York City: “Palestinian Jews facing terrible crisis…belligerent countries stopping their assistance…serious destruction threatens thriving colonies…$50,000 needed.” The U.S. ambassador, in other words, was begging private donors to rescue this vulnerable population.

Three U.S. Jewish charities quickly set up what they called the Joint Distribution Committee to raise the necessary money from individuals, synagogues, and community philanthropies, then dispatch it abroad. As World War I dragged on, and pogroms in Russia flared up and other threats appeared, the JDC found plenty to do. Between 1914 and 1925 the committee collected $59 million and sent it overseas to aid besieged foreign Jews in a variety of lands. When World War II arrived, the group began operating secretly in Nazi-occupied Europe, helping hundreds of thousands of Jews to emigrate, smuggling aid into prison camps, and financing the Warsaw ghetto uprising. After the war, the committee mobilized to sustain surviving Jews in refugee camps, to relocate many to Israel or other havens, and to provide emergency aid during the difficult early years of the Israeli state.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee still operates today as a thriving nonprofit. In 2015 it spent $339 million to aid poor and threatened Jews overseas. Fully 42 percent of that was spent in the former Soviet republics, and 38 percent in Israel.