Harris, Replying to Gergel, Defends Icor Commission Against His Charges
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Harris, Replying to Gergel, Defends Icor Commission Against His Charges

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The assertion made by Dr. N. Gergel of Berlin in one of the recent editions of the Jewish Daily Bulletin that the report of the American Icor Commission sent last summer to Bira Bijan to investigate possibilities for Jewish colonization there was biased and partial, was denied today in an open letter addressed to Dr. Gergel through the Jewish Daily Bulletin by Professor Franklin S. Harris, the president of the Brigham Young University, who was the head of the Icor Commission against whom Dr. Gergel made these charges.

Professor Harris’ open letter reads as follows:

Dear Doctor Gergel:

A copy of your open letter to me as Chairman of the Icor Commission to Bira-Bidjan as published in the Daily Bulletin, has just reached me. In your letter you ask for a reply to certain questions; it is a pleasure to comply with your request.

You mention having met the Commission in Berlin and the confidence you had in the desire of the Commission to present a thoroughly unbiased and impartial report. I assure you that your confidence in the determination of the Commission to do its work well was not without foundation. No one who is acquainted with the men composing the Commission and their methods of work can fail to understand that they did the best they could in studying the question of settling the Jewish people in Bira-Bidjan and outlining methods of carrying on this colonization.


If you have been able to discover defects in the report I assure you that these defects have not arisen from any desire to present anything but the actual facts. I grant that there is always room for differences of opinion on the part of different individuals who observe the most simple phenomena and it is sometimes necessary to make a choice between two descriptions that may not be entirely harmonious.

It seems from your letter that Mr. Fink has made some statements that do not entirely conform to the spirit of the report of the commission. It may therefore be necessary for you to decide which is better authority, a group of well trained specialists who have had long experience in colonization and its problems, a group that spent a considerable period going over all the ground and looking into the problems involved, or a newspaper man without any particular scientific training and without experience in colonization who was out to find sensational copy.

Mr Fink was with us a few days in Bira-Bidjan. While we all enjoyed his genial personality, it was very evident that he was looking at the question not from the point of view of a problem involving the welfare of millions of people but rather as a journalist seeking dramatic incidents that would make sensational reading. Of course he was able to find such incidents. I can easily understand how one with imagination might be tempted to step out of the role of investigator and slip into that of a writer who could play up some ludicrous, pathetic, or dramatic incident into a colorful tale.

In your letter you alluded to bad management, filth, and immorality. I suppose it would be rather difficult to find any large community anywhere without a little of all three things. Let us consider them separately.


In the management, certainly there were things done which later experience would indicate to have been far from perfect. Each of us could no doubt better the record of previous years after the experience of those years. The officers of Ozet did not in every case use the exact management and procedure that would have been used by the members of the Commission. However, it seemed clear to us that the officers of Ozet and Comzet were carrying on the colonization just as well as they knew how with the experience they had had, and all in all I believe they did as well as any group of men that could be found in Russia would have done. We found every evidence of sincerity and devotion to the work.

As to the lack of sanitation, there is no doubt that throughout Russia there is very much to be desired in this respect. As a matter of fact this can be said of all parts of Europe if we compare them with modern sanitation standards. Even in such cities as Berlin and Paris one is constantly being shocked by the lack of cleanliness and certainly in all parts of Russia one finds sanitary situation that are open to criticism.

In Bira-Bidjan we found just about the same situation that we encountered everywhere in Russia, and certainly in a new country where plumbing has not been developed there is much more difficulty in maintaining sanitary conditions. It was our observation, however, that the colonization officers were doing all they could to promote sanitation and the general welfare and health of the colonists.


In your letter you refer to prostitution. As a matter of fact the Commission saw no evidence whatever of anything of this kind in Bira-Bidjan. More evidence of prostitution could be seen during half an hour along important streets of Berlin than we saw in months in Russia. Of course one can not say that there is no such thing as immorality in any community but I must say that we found among the Jewish people, particularly the settlers in Bira-Bidjan, every evidence of a desire to live upright moral lives. These people seemed to be very much in earnest in their desire to establish themselves on a firm financial, social, and political foundation in their new home.

Of course there are many minor items that can be subjected to criticism. The colonization of every new country

has been attended with difficult problems. People who are used to living in cities have difficulty adjusting themselves to living in unsettled regions, but the problems encountered in Bira-Bidjan are the problems that are found in any new country. None of these problems is too difficult to be over-some with perserverance and intelligent effort.

I have great confidence in the Jewish people and their ability to adapt themselves to what ever situation they find themselves in. I am sure that some of them will make mistakes in management; some of them will fail to maintain a completely sanitary environment; and some of them may even fall short of moral rectitude but on the whole they can be depended on to build up a thoroughly wholesome and efficient civilization wherever they have an opportunity to live.

Bira-Bidjan has its difficulties but these can be overcome and certainly the people we saw there are living under more favorable circumstances than many of the Jewish people we saw in the Ukraine. White Russia and other parts of the Soviet Union.

If our Commission differs with Mr. Fink, it is probably from the fact that he drew his conclusions from a few isolated and dramatic incidents whereas the Commission made its report on the basis of the entire problem.

I hope that I have satisfactorily answered the questions you raised.

Very sincerely yours.

(Signed) Franklin S. Harris.

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