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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2008
Number 69
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Peter Bergson’s Mission Impossible

The ‘Bergson Boys’ and the Origins of Contemporary Zionist Militancy by Judith Tydor Baumel. Syracuse University Press.
A review by Rafael Medoff

During the early months of World War Two, a handful of militant Zionist emissaries from Palestine came to the United States on a seemingly impossible mission: to convince America, despite its strongly isolationist mood, to aid European Jewish refugees and support the building of a Jewish Palestine. Judith Tydor Baumel’s new book, The Bergson Boys’ and the Origins of Contemporary Zionist Militancy, asks, “[H]ow did these six young men, working in a foreign environment and speaking a foreign language,” manage “to create an apparatus that made those around it stand up and take notice”?

Baumel’s study comes at time of growing public and scholarly interest in the work of these young activists, popularly known as the Bergson Group. In addition to this author’s books, A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America, and the Holocaust (2002; co-authored with David S. Wyman) and Militant Zionism in America: The Rise and Impact of the Jabotinsky Movement in the United States, 1925-1948 (2002), recent scholarship includes the first-ever biographies of the artist and Bergson group activist Arthur Syzk (Joseph P. Ansell, Arthur Szyk: Artist, Jew, Pole [2004])]; the Bergson Group’s Capitol Hill lobbyist (and later anti-McCarthy activist), Maurice Rosenblatt (Shelby Scates, Maurice Rosenblatt and the Fall of Joseph McCarthy [2006]); and the 1930s boxing champion Barney Ross, whose work with the Bergson Group has recently come to light (Douglas Century, Barney Ross [2006]).

In the public realm, recent developments have included a commemoration on Capitol Hill of the Bergson Group’s “We Will Never Die” pageant, which alerted America about the Holocaust; the naming of a street in Chicago after Ben Hecht, the playwright and screenwriter who was one of the group’s most important participants; the gubernatorial proclamation of Elbert Thomas Day, in Utah, in recognition of Senator Thomas’s work with Bergson for Holocaust rescue; and panels at several scholarly conferences on related topics. [1]

Prof. Baumel’s new book ably traces the paths followed by Bergson (real name: Hillel Kook) and his comrades, beginning with their smuggling of Jews from Europe to Palestine in the late 1930s. Known as aliyah bet (unauthorized immigration), this venture, undertaken by the Irgun Zvai Leumi, brought more than 20,000 Jews to the Holy Land, in defiance of British immigration restrictions. The onset of war in Europe made it nearly impossible to continue arranging such clandestine journeys.

During 1939-1940, the activists’ mentor, Revisionist Zionist leader Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, dispatched Bergson and others to the United States to seek political and financial support for aliyah bet and the creation of a Jewish army to fight alongside the Allies against the Nazis.

Although the Jewish army campaign has been chronicled previously by other historians --most notably Monty N. Penkower-- Baumel does present new information about some of its aspects, such as the Bergson committee’s alliance with Irish-Americans, whose own antipathy for the British moved them to become Bergson’s political bedfellows. Baumel also makes effective use of interviews she conducted with the leaders of the Bergson Group, especially Alex Rafaeli. Reading their perspective on the controversies, in their own voices, helps bring this chapter of history alive. Rafaeli, Yitshaq Ben-Ami, Samuel Merlin and Eri Jabotinsky are not as well known as Bergson, but they held crucial leadership roles in the committee and were indispensable to the group’s successes.

The Jewish army campaign brought to the fore Bergson’s two most notable political skills: coalition-building and innovative publicity tactics. Mainstream Jewish leaders sometimes underestimated the breadth of non-Jewish sympathy for their causes. The Bergsonites, by contrast, perceived the existence of “a large reservoir of good will” among Gentiles (p.53) and thus devoted considerable energy to seeking endorsements from entertainers, intellectuals, and politicians of both parties for the Jewish army cause. The Bergson Group turned those celebrity endorsements into political leverage by plastering them on full-page advertisements that they placed in the New York Times and other major newspapers. More than two hundred such ads appeared between 1941 and 1945.

“I think the most effective technique of all of the methods we used was the ads,” recalled Congressman Will Rogers, Jr., a Bergson Group supporter and son of the famous entertainer. “They were hard-hitting and they carried tremendous impact ... I can remember when they appeared in the paper, around the halls of Congress, there was conversation...I would go down to the floor of Congress and they would be talking about it ... Look at this’ or Isn’t this outrageous?’ or Shouldn’t something be done’ Very effective. Very effective.” [2]

In part to avoid being usurped by the Bergsonites, established Jewish organizations in 1942-1943 took an increasingly active role in promoting the Jewish army idea, mostly through quiet lobbying efforts. The combination of Bergson’s public pressure and the establishment’s backstairs diplomacy eventually persuaded the British, in late 1944, to create the Jewish Brigade. This all-Jewish unit fought the Germans near war’s end, and many of its veterans later took part in Israel’s War of Independence.

When news of the Germans’ systematic annihilation of European Jewry was confirmed in the United States in late 1942, the Bergson Group shifted its focus from the Jewish army to the need for immediate U.S. action to rescue Jews from Hitler. The group changed its name from the Committee for a Jewish Army to the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, and the goal of rescue was energetically promoted through rallies, theatrical pageants, lobbying on Capitol, a march by four hundred rabbis in Washington, D.C. and newspaper ads. These efforts culminated, in late 1943, in the introduction of a Congressional resolution urging President Franklin Roosevelt to establish a rescue agency. The administration tried to block the resolution, but the controversy in Congress and the media, the publicity generated by the Bergsonites, and behind-the-scenes lobbying by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and his staff combined to compel FDR, in early 1944, to create the War Refugee Board. During the last fifteen months of the war, the Board played a major role in rescuing more than 200,000 Jewish refugees and others.

Baumel discusses, in appropriate detail, the array of obstacles that the Bergsonites faced along the way. Most notable were the variety of attempts by mainstream Jewish leaders to hamper the activists. These included urging the committee’s celebrity supporters to withdraw their backing, spreading unfounded rumors of financial irregularities, and urging the government to draft or deport Bergson. Rabbi Stephen Wise, longtime leader of the American Jewish Congress and Zionist Organization of America, went so far as to tell U.S. officials that Bergson was “as equally as great an enemy of the Jews as Hitler, for the reason that his activities could only lead to increased anti-Semitism.” [3]

One aspect of the opposition to Bergson that Baumel barely touches, however, is the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s extensive spying on the group, as part of the government’s search for grounds to shut them down. Her request for U.S. government files on Bergson, submitted years ago under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts, was still not fulfilled at the time she was writing her manuscript. This points to one of the disadvantages from which Baumel’s book suffers (due to no fault of hers) as a result of the long gap between the completion of her research and its publication. The most recent items listed in her bibliography and footnotes are dated 1998, and the book was first published in Hebrew in 1999; but this English-language edition was not published until 2005. Thus Baumel’s narrative seems to have been composed without the benefit of the considerable body of Bergson-related scholarship that appeared between those years. That scholarship included a book detailing the FBI’s efforts against Bergson, based on over one thousand pages of FBI documents. [4]

Another of the book’s handicaps is Baumel’s strong interest in viewing Bergson through the lens of traditional sociological patterns and definitions. Students of sociology will be interested --but other readers less so-- in her frequent references to how a particular Bergson Group activity exemplifies the theories of a particular sociologist. These digressions unfortunately interrupt the flow of the narrative. Nor are matters helped by Baumel’s occasional use of heavy sociological jargon like “synchronous multilayered significations with distinctive associations.”

At the same time, Baumel’s sociological analysis contributes the important observation that the Bergson Group was not just a phenomenon of passing curiosity in American life, but rather “a prototype of an American ethnic/protest group.” (p. xxi) She finds that the group’s high-profile publicity tactics influenced other ethnic lobbies in the United States, such as the Irish and the Cubans. As for the Bergsonites’ influence within the Jewish community, Baumel concludes that they “must be credited with giving birth to the operational and propagandizing patterns utilized by many Jewish and Zionist organizations in Israel and the United States to the present.” (p. xxv)

While there is scant evidence connecting the Bergson committee to specific Jewish activist groups of the next generation, there is ample evidence that, as Baumel puts it, “many Jewish and Zionist organizations” in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s used protest tactics that were made legitimate by Bergson. The Soviet Jewry protest movement is the most obvious example of this, and former Soviet Jewry activists are the first to cite the lessons of the Holocaust years as a major influence.

Much has been written about the Bergson Group. Much remains to be written. Baumel’s book occupies a particular niche in the historiography. It will take its place alongside previous and forthcoming works that help fill in the gaps as this fascinating chapter of American and American Jewish history continues to unfold.

Notes:

  1. For example, the panel on Fiorello La Guardia’s response to the Holocaust (including his ties to the Bergson Group) at “America and the Holocaust: Politics, Art, History,” the Third National Conference of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, Fordham University School of Law, September 18, 2005; and the panel on the creation of the War Refugee Board (including the Bergson Group’s role) at “Blowing the Whistle on Genocide: Josiah E. DuBois, Jr. and the Struggle for an American Response to the Holocaust,” the Fourth National Conference of the The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, University of Pennsylvania School of Law, June 11, 2006.
  2. Martin Ostrow interview with Will Rogers, Jr., 17 February 1992, Tubac, AZ, quoted in David S. Wyman and Rafael Medoff, A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America, and the Holocaust (New York: The New Press, 2002), 74.
  3. Wise, quoted by Nahum Goldmann, in “Attitude of ZIonists toward Peter Bergson,” Department of State Memorandum of Conversation, 19 May 1944, 867N.01/2347, National Archives.
  4. The book was my own Militant Zionism in America: The Rise and Impact of the Jabotinsky Movement in the United States, 1925-1948 (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2002)
______________________________________________________________________________

Dr. Medoff, a contributing editor, is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, www.WymanInstitute.org.

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