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Jewish World Review Dec. 10, 2002 / 5 Teves, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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In praise of troublemakers

Kook's 'race against death' reminds us of our duty to speak out | In the cozy world of Jewish organizational life, there is no creature more despised than a troublemaker.

Troublemakers come in a variety of political affiliations as well as personal agendas. But to the powers that be they tend to all look alike. Anyone who is more interested in one issue than anything else is liable to run afoul of the omnipresent forces that guard the status quo of the day.

The thing that troublemakers in the Jewish world have most in common is their contempt for what is generally referred to as "process."

"Process" is the delicate term we use to refer to the way groups and organizations govern themselves. It involves committees and letterheads jampacked with names of donors, community big shots and behind-the-scenes power brokers. Thus, it is no surprise that another word that can define "process" would be "inertia."

One man who ran afoul of our communal "process" is the subject of an important new book, "A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust". Interesting in its own right, Bergson's story is nevertheless particularly instructive for American Jews today.

Though 60 years have passed since the upstart Bergson (whose real name was Hillel Kook) took on the Jewish establishment of the day, the question of what American Jews did and did not do during the Holocaust is one that continues to haunt us.

Written by David Wyman (author of the seminal The Abandonment of the Jews) and Rafael Medoff (author of The Defeaning Silence: American Jewish Leaders and the Holocaust 1933-1945), the book grew out of lengthy interviews conducted by Wyman with Bergson and other survivors of this dramatic battle to mobilize American public opinion to support efforts to try to rescue those European Jews who had not yet been murdered by Hitler and his collaborators.

A Zionist activist who had grown up in Jewish Palestine, Bergson/Kook came to America at the start of World War II in the service of the underground Irgun Zvai Leumi. His mission was to organize support for a Jewish Army to fight against Hitler with the Allies. This project was still floundering when he read the first confirmed published accounts at the end of 1942 of the German plan to exterminate all European Jews.


As Wyman and Medoff report, this earth-shaking news "appeared in The New York Times in a seven-and-one-half-inch report on Page 10. The Washington Post allotted the news less than three inches, buried on page six. Coverage in the rest of the American press was similarly sparse."

Over two million Jews were already known to be dead, with millions more ready for the slaughter, but no one in America was saying much about it, especially not Jews.

There were many reasons for this failure. Lack of media coverage handicapped efforts to garner a response. The priority given to news of the progress of the war diverted a Jewish community whose young men were mostly in uniform. A genuine fear of anti-Semitism also deterred many from speaking up.

Yet that should have been no impediment to those Jewish leaders who were in the know and positioned to do something about it. Unfortunately, they, too, were more fearful of the prospect of American anti-Semitism than they were horrified by accounts of Nazi slaughter. Some, like the American Jewish Congress' Rabbi Stephen S. Wise were fearful of alienating President Franklin Roosevelt and thereby losing their privileged status to forcefully protest American inaction.

Yet somehow, Bergson (who operated under an alias so as to avoid involving his prominent rabbinic family in his protests of British policies against the Jews to Palestine) was motivated to drop everything else and make the battle for rescue his one and only priority.

Others, such as famed writer and journalist Ben Hecht, soon joined him in his Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe. He excelled in getting non-Jews, including those thought to be hostile to Jewish causes to join in the effort.

In the end, through his genius for public relations, theatrics and sheer determination, Bergson created a movement that eventually forced the Roosevelt administration to act. In January 1944, FDR created the War Refugee Board (WRB).

This reversal of American policy (a U.S. Treasury Department report on American policy towards Hitler's Jewish prey was titled "Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews") was an enormous achievement. Perhaps as many as 200,000 Jews were saved by WRB (for example, the efforts of Swedish hero Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest were subsidized by the board). But, as the board's own director admitted, its efforts were "late and little." In fact, only a small percentage of the WRB's budget was funded by the U.S. government, instead depending on contributions from Jewish groups like the Joint Distribution Committee. Had the board been created sooner and been better supported, it is impossible to tell how many more lives could have been saved.

This story is by now well known, thought it is certainly worth re-telling. What makes it important for us today is learning one of the chief reasons why Bergson/Kook was unable to fully succeed: the obstruction and sabotage of his campaign by the Jewish establishment.

Wyman and Medoff's book lays out in heartbreaking detail the vicious campaign to undermine the Jewish Emergency Committee. Caring more about turf than the fate of their endangered brethren, most of the influential Jews of the day did their utmost to defeat the Emergency Committee. They rejected his offers of cooperation and even conspired to have him deported.

Hillel Kook, who died in Israel in August 2001, went to his grave still bitter at this betrayal, still lamenting the Jews who might have lived had his campaign been heeded.


Six decades later, the situation of world Jewry has markedly improved, and American Jews remain the most powerful and prosperous diaspora community in Jewish history.

But with a terror war being waged against the Jewish state that Bergson/Kook (he served in Israel's first Knesset from 1949-1951) as well as Wise strove to create, the need for Jewish activism is undiminished.

Yet the forces of inertia and indifference are still with us today. Israel needs a motivated, active and sometimes brash American Jewish community to continue to speak up on its behalf. Troublemakers are needed to take on a media which is the bastion of a journalistic culture of bias against Israel as well as an academic establishment that treats Israel-bashing as a form of honored study.

Yet, no less an authority than Forward editor J.J. Goldberg asserted in a panel discussion at last month's General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities that concern for the fate of Israel was merely the province of an activist-minority while the majority of American Jews remained relatively indifferent to the issue.

Liberals are horrified at the efforts of other Jews to mobilize conservative religious Christians on Israel's behalf (a heartening reminder of the righteous activism of those non-Jews who helped Bergson). Other Jews won't support an Israel run by a party that is descended from Bergson/Kook's right-wing political comrades, and still others question the validity of Zionism itself.

We cannot save the lost millions of the Holocaust. But we can do something about helping the Jews of Israel fight back against those who would destroy them. The memory of the ragtag effort to save the Jews of Europe must continue to inspire American Jews in the years and decades to come.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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