Chapters in American Jewish History are provided by the American Jewish Historical Society, collecting, preserving, fostering scholarship and providing access to the continuity of Jewish life in America for more than 350 years (and counting). Visit www.ajhs.org.
Emanuel Celler was born in Brooklyn in 1888. His father, Henry, owned a whiskey business; during Emanuel’s childhood, the Cellers basement held a 25,000-gallon whiskey tank filled with the family brand, Echo Spring. When Henry Celler’s whiskey business failed, he was forced to find employment selling wine door-to-door. Soon after Emanuel graduated from public high school and entered Columbia College, his father died and his mother, Josephine, passed away five months later. In his autobiography, You Never Leave Brooklyn, Emanuel Celler wrote, “I became the head of the household . . . I took up [my father’s] wine route. I went to school in the morning and sold wines all afternoon until seven o’clock in the evening.” Despite these burdens, Emanuel Celler was a star student at Columbia and Columbia Law School, graduating from the latter in 1912.
From the very first, Manny Celler’s career reflected his lifelong interest in the plight of refugees and immigrants. Some of his earliest clients were his wine customers, most of whom were immigrants. More than one fell afoul of the immigration laws and Celler worked hard to keep them from being deported for minor infractions. During World War I, Celler served as an appeal agent for his local draft board. After the war, Celler’s law practice flourished and the successful attorney organized two banks and served as a director of two others.
In 1922, a political acquaintance convinced Celler to run for Congress as a Tammany Hall Democrat. Celler enlisted friends, relatives and neighbors to canvass for him door-to-door. Although the district had never before elected a Democrat, by stressing “the evils of Prohibition and the virtues of the League of Nations” Celler won the election by some 3,000 votes. In March of 1923, he assumed a seat he would hold for 49 years and 10 months, the second longest term in Congressional history.
Celler’s made his maiden speech on the House floor during consideration of the Johnson Immigration Act of 1924. Three years earlier, Congress had imposed a quota that limited immigration for persons of any nationality to 3 percent of that nationality’s presence in the United States in 1910, with an overall annual admission limit of 356,000 immigrants. This “national origins” system was structured to discriminate against Eastern and Southern European immigrants such as Italians, Russians, Poles, Slavs and, of course, Yiddish-speaking Jews. The Johnson Act of 1924, which Celler opposed, sought further restriction by cutting the total annual number of immigrants and limiting each nationality to 2 percent of its total number in 1890, virtually eliminating immigrants who were not from England, France, Ireland, or Germany.
The Johnson act passed the isolationist Congress and was signed into law. Despite this setback, Celler had found his cause and, for the next four decades, he advocated eliminating national origin as a basis for immigration restriction. At no time were his efforts more critical than in the 1930s, when the United States, England, and France, among others, proved unable or unwilling to open their doors to victims of Nazi persecution.
Celler’s determination to fight U. S. immigration quotas was particularly reinforced one Saturday during World War II, when a bearded rabbi came to his home. Celler always left the door unlocked on the Sabbath so his constituents could enter without ringing or knocking. The rabbi in black hat and long coat, clutching a cane, spoke forcefully to Celler. “Don’t you see, can’t you see?” the rabbi asked, “Won’t you see that there are millions being killed. Can’t we save some of them? Can’t you, Mr. Congressman, do something?” Celler equivocated, averring that President Roosevelt had told him that he sympathized with the Jewish plight but could not divert ships being used to transport war materiel and soldiers to bring in refugees. The rabbi’s reply moved Celler to tears: “If six million cattle had been slaughtered,” he observed, “there would have been greater interest.”
After the war, as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Celler resolved to liberalize the immigration laws. In 1946, Congress so restricted the number of Displaced Persons who could enter the U. S. that, despite the starvation in Europe, fewer than 3,000 DPs actually emigrated here. Celler’s determined efforts led to the passage, in 1948, of a bill which allowed 339,000 DPs, many of whom were Jewish, to enter the country. Finally, in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law an act that eliminated national origins as a consideration for immigration, culminating Celler’s 41-year fight to overcome discrimination against Eastern European Jews and Catholics.
In 1981, at the age of 93, Emanuel Celler passed away. Today, approximately 75% of American Jews descend on at least one side of their family from Eastern European immigrants. Since 1965, the United States has become a haven for Jews escaping discrimination in the former Soviet Union. Their safe arrival ratified Emanuel Celler’s efforts to make America a promised land for Jewish immigrants, and for all victims of persecution.