By Rafael Medoff
When Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, stepped to the podium at a Knesset dinner during her visit to
Not only was she the first woman House speaker to address Israel's lawmakers, Rep. Pelosi (D-San Francisco) was also addressing the parliament of a country whose creation her own father championed at the risk of his career -- and perhaps her career, as well.
Pelosi's father, the late Rep. Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. of
D'Alesandro was one of the congressional supporters of the Bergson Group, a maverick Jewish political action committee that challenged the Roosevelt administration's policies on the Jewish refugee issue during the Holocaust and later lobbied against British control of
The Bergson activists used unconventional tactics to draw attention to the plight of
Some of those ads featured lists of celebrities, prominent intellectuals and members of Congress who supported the group -- including D'Alesandro.
D'Alesandro's involvement with the Bergson Group was remarkable because he was a Democrat who was choosing to support a group that was publicly challenging a Democratic president.
D'Alesandro also was not one of the conservative
Until late in the Holocaust, the
Bergson's strategy for changing
The Bergson Group's Holocaust campaign culminated in the introduction of a congressional resolution in late 1943 urging creation of a government agency to rescue refugees. Sen. Tom Connally (D-Texas), a loyal FDR supporter and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, blocked the committee's consideration of the resolution.
However, when Connally was out sick one day, his replacement, Sen. Elbert Thomas (D-Utah), quickly ushered the resolution through. In the House, too, there was growing support for the rescue resolution.
The congressional pressure helped influence
After the war, D'Alesandro continued supporting the Bergson Group as it campaigned for the establishment of a Jewish state in
Every member of Congress who supported the Bergson Group had his own particular reasons for doing so. Thomas, for example, was a Mormon, and his kinship with the Jewish people had been forged by both his community's experiences as a mistreated minority and his religious convictions about the Jews and the
D'Alesandro was a Catholic and the son of Italian immigrants. Perhaps those factors fueled his sympathy for religious minorities and refugees. Or perhaps it was just the simple humanitarian instinct of every sensitive person who hears of innocents being persecuted and wants to help, regardless of political considerations.
Whatever his motives, D'Alesandro was taking a big risk. He knew that by defying Roosevelt and Truman, he might be making enemies in the White House. In 1947, at the very moment he was breaking ranks with Truman over
The 12 years that D'Alesandro served as mayor of
Throughout high school and into her college years, Pelosi was at the center of her father's intense political world. As a result, she was a political veteran long before she even entered politics. She was fortunate to have as her role model a man who courageously put his humanitarian principles above his narrow political needs.
Rafael Medoff is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.