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The Jewish Establishment’s Focus on Palestine: Did It Distract from Holocaust Rescue Efforts?

Peter Egill Brownfeld
Summer 2003

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bergson killed. I wouldn’t,” said Ansel Luxford, an official of the U.S. government’s War Refugee Board in 1944. Peter Bergson was a Palestinian Jew whose campaign to save European Jewry from the holocaust had aroused such anger from organized American Jewry that his life may have been in danger. Similarly, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the most influential American Jewish leader of the time, told another War Refugee Board official that he feared Bergson might kill him.  

Although Peter Bergson was an avowed Zionist, who had served with the Irgun, the militant underground Zionist organization, it was largely over the issue of dedication to Zionism that Bergson and organized American Jewry fought. Bergson established an audacious publicity campaign to get Americans engaged in the suffering of European Jews. He ran full-page advertisements, staged theatrical productions, held conferences, and lobbied on Capitol Hill. Jewish leaders like Wise were enraged at Bergson not only because of the daring nature of his tactics and the fact that he was usurping their power, but also, and perhaps most importantly, because he made rescuing European Jewry a higher priority than establishing a Jewish state.  

Bergson’s Background  

Peter H. Bergson, born Hillel Kook in Lithuania in 1915, moved to Palestine as a child with his family. In the late 1920s, he attended the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In Palestine, Bergson joined a group of “revisionist” Zionists. The Revisionists, who were led by Vladimir Jabotinsky and seceded from the World Zionist Organization in 1933, advocated militant political action to push for the establishment of a Jewish state. This idea ran counter to the prevailing attitudes in traditional Zionism.  

Before he was twenty, Bergson joined the Irgun. In the 1930s, he and his friends subverted British immigration laws and helped smuggle Jews into Palestine. In 1938 and 1939, Bergson worked in Poland helping Jews emigrate to Palestine. At Jabotinsky’s suggestion, on July 7, 1940, Bergson went to work in the United States.  

Bergson joined four Irgun colleagues who were already working to build a Jewish army to fight the Axis powers. In the fall of 1941 they formed the Committee for a Jewish Army (CJA), which was headquartered in New York City. They rallied support through a monthly magazine, radio broadcasts, newspaper advertisements, and rallies. As a result of extensive lobbying they found support on Capitol Hill. One CJA advertisement, a full-page in the New York Times, read “JEWS FIGHT FOR THE RIGHT TO FIGHT.” Among the advertisement’s 133 signatures were those of three U.S. senators and fourteen members of the House of Representatives.  

Shift in Strategy  

In 1943, the first verified information about the holocaust emerged from Europe. The news garnered little press attention and was buried in all of the major newspapers. It appeared in the New York Times in a seven and a half inch report on page ten. The Washington Post gave it just three inches on page six.  

Bergson and his colleagues - young Jewish activists, many of whom were from Palestine - changed their focus when this news came out. Bergson’s group began to concentrate on publicizing the German efforts to annihilate the Jews. They formed a new organization to take the place of CJA - the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe.  

Bergson recalled that after his group learned about what was happening in Europe, its first inclination was to work with the mainstream Jewish organizations. “After the story in the Washington Post, the first thing we did was try to go to them and were flabbergasted when we couldn’t move them,” Bergson recalled. “We said, `look, something has to be done - there’s a fire. Something has to be done about saving the Jews.’” But Bergson found their passivity impossible to work with. When he asked for help from the leading Jewish organizations, he found no interest for the kind of radical push for rescue in which he was interested.  

Emergency Committee Conference  

To kick off the Emergency Committee, Bergson’s group held a conference on July 20, 1943, which included military, economic, and diplomatic experts to formulate a realistic rescue plan. The conference brought together 1500 delegates, including former President Herbert Hoover and New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. The delegates ultimately developed an eight-point rescue program. The primary recommendation was the creation of a United States government agency specifically charged with the task of saving European Jews. Attendees at the conference urged the United States to let in refugees for temporary asylum and pushed for Britain to open up Palestine to Jews fleeing the holocaust. They wanted Washington and London to threaten Germany and Nazi satellites with postwar retribution for their attacks on the Jews. They also pushed for the allies to immediately attack the concentration camps and the railroad lines leading up to them.  

The conference sought to avoid a divisive debate over the establishment of a Jewish state. Bergson realized that this was an inflammatory issue and that Zionist rescue proposals angered Arabs and alienated government support. As a result, he divorced the two goals and focused on the more urgent question of rescue.  

Bergson’s desire to dodge this issue got him in trouble with the organized Jewish community. In addition to being a young, foreign Jew attempting to usurp the position of the established Jewish leaders, Bergson sought to divert Jews’ focus from Zionism. Jewish leaders actively undermined Bergson’s conference. Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles noted in a July 23, 1943, letter, “Not only the more conservative Jewish organizations and leaders but also such leaders as Rabbi Wise, who was with me this morning, are strongly opposed to the holding of this conference, have done everything they could to prevent it, and are trying to get Bishop Tucker and one or two others who have accepted this invitation to withdraw their acceptances.”  

Dispute within Judaism  

In A Race Against Death (The New Press, 2002), a new volume containing interviews with Peter Bergson and some of his allies, David S. Wyman, the author of The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945 (Pantheon, 1984), and Rafael Medoff have drawn attention to this important dispute within Judaism. They write, “Although mainstream Zionists chastised Bergson for downplaying Zionist principles, Bergson believed that finding the lowest common denominator was the key to attracting support necessary to effect change. The Emergency Committee’s simple plea to rescue the oppressed resonated across a broad spectrum of Americans, and that impressive range of support, in turn would increase the pressure on the Roosevelt administration to respond.”  

Mainstream Jewish organizations held a relatively low profile during the war. They wanted to avoid the appearance of controlling a Jewish lobby, separated from other American interests. In a climate of worldwide anti-Semitism - something that had also grown in America in the 1930s - they feared the impact of any actions other than patriotically concentrating on victory. Bergson rejected this strategy. He saw European Jewry facing extinction and believed not only that it was time for dramatic tactics, but also that Americans would respond to them.  

Bergson’s Tactics  

Deliberately taking a high profile, Bergson engaged in what was, for the time, audacious, attention-grabbing behavior. One of Bergson’s primary tactics was to run sensational full-page newspaper advertisements. On November 5, 1943, an advertisement in the New York Times pleaded, “HELP Prevent 4,000,000 People from Becoming Ghosts.” Another, published in the New York Times three weeks later, asked, “HOW WELL ARE YOU SLEEPING?” One published on November 29, 1943 in the Chicago Sun, bore the headline, “THIS IS STRICTLY A RACE AGAINST DEATH,” and continued in smaller letters: “Is there something you could have done to save millions of innocent people - men, women, and children - from torture and death? ... Perhaps you will recoil. It may disturb your sleep at night. But it may also fill you with anger, with zeal to do something to stop such atrocities, to rescue the Jews who survive.”  

Bergson’s group held a number of public events, including rallies and a march of 450 Orthodox rabbis to the White House and the United States Capitol. The most prominent of such events was the staging of a play titled “We Will Never Die,” to publicize the plight of European Jewry. It was authored by famed Academy Award- winning screenwriter Ben Hecht (“Gone with the Wind,” “Scarface”). As a result of Hecht’s Hollywood connections, Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, Sylvia Sydney, and Luther Adler performed in the starring roles. Lasting ninety minutes, the play’s three acts dramatized the major events in Jewish history, chronicled Jewish contributions to world civilization, and addressed the current plight of Jews in Europe. Its two opening performances in Madison Square Garden played to audiences of more than 40,000 people. When the play came to Washington, it was viewed by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, hundreds of members of Congress, cabinet members, and Supreme Court Justices. Wyman and Medoff write, “The pageant struck the first major blow at the wall of silence surrounding the Nazi genocide, and thus it played an important role in raising public consciousness about the plight of European Jewry. This was crucial to the initial phase of the rescue process: The public first had to be made aware of the dimensions of the slaughter before it would be seen as a problem requiring the attention of the American government.”  

Attacks from Organized Jewry  

Despite the vital role that the play served, it faced significant attacks from organized American Jewry. Zionist organizations, such as the American Zionist Emergency Council, instructed their members to agitate against the Bergson group. One group explained its opposition: “The United Palestine Appeal is very much opposed to any new small group attempting to compete with it and detract from the complete unity of its support by the American public.” Such organizations resented the attention Bergson was receiving, regarding him as a threat to their own power. They were also concerned that his bold publicity tactics would alienate, not attract support. Bergson supporters in such cities as Buffalo, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh reported that local mainstream Jewish organizations attempted to block the production of “We Will Never Die.” Local leaders were told that the play was put on by extremists attempting to undermine the established Jewish leadership.  

Melvin I. Urofsky, in his biography of Wise - A Voice That Spoke for Justice: The Life and Times of Stephen S. Wise (State University of New York Press, 1982) - defends the Zionists’ reaction. Linking Bergson’s group and the American Council for Judaism as “extremist” groups operating outside mainstream Jewish organizations, Urofsky writes of the Bergsonites, “Bergson and Hecht, under no discipline, could issue the most outrageous statements, well aware that they would face no reprisals. While the regular Zionists discounted so-called Arab might, for example, they at least tried to avoid unnecessarily offending Arab opinion; Bergson damned everyone, scornful of the consequences, indifferent to the fact that potential friends in the government were being alienated. Wherever the Zionists went, they and not the Bergson group reaped the reproaches for the latter’s inflammatory advertisements and distorted press releases.”  

Opposition from Wise  

Opposition from Wise and others had a real impact on the play’s success. Commenting in the Jewish Review and Observer, Israel I. Taslitt wrote about the play, the “most powerful single weapon yet produced to awaken the conscience of America” had, “because of the inexplicable intricacies in Jewish political life,” been subjected “to action to wreck” it. One Bergson activist, Alexander Rafaeli, who would later become a soldier, recalled after the war, “I can easily say that my struggle during those years was often harder, more tense and more depressing than the battles I was to know on the beaches on Normandy, in the flatlands of southern Holland and in Bastogne in Belgium. ... We fought against narrow minds. ... The [American] Jews were scared to demand help for European Jews and were frightened to fight against anti-Semitic politicians, primarily in the State Department.” He was amazed at the level of fear among Jews “in the middle of the 20th century, after the Jewish community had attained significant achievements and made an important contribution to the strength and welfare of the American public.”  

Congressional Resolution  

Bergson’s most significant effort was the introduction of a resolution in the House and Senate urging the development of a plan to help save the Jews. In the fall of 1943, Bergson asked Senator Guy Gillette (D-IA) to introduce a bill in the Senate while representatives Will Rogers, Jr. (D-CA) and Joseph Baldwin (R-NY) introduced an identical resolution in the House. The full text of the bill introduced in the House and the Senate on November 9, 1943, read:  


“Whereas the Congress of the United States, by concurrent resolution adopted on March 15 of this year, expressed its condemnation of Nazi Germany’s `mass murder of Jewish men, women, and children,’ a mass crime which has already exterminated close to two million human beings, about 30 per centum of the total Jewish population of Europe, and which is growing in intensity as Germany approaches defeat; and  

“Whereas the American tradition of justice and humanity dictates that all possible means be employed to save from this fate the surviving Jews of Europe, some four million souls who have been rendered homeless and destitute by the Nazis: therefore be it  

“Resolved, That the House of Representatives recommends and urges the creation by the President of a commission of diplomatic, economic, and military experts to formulate and effectuate a plan of immediate action designed to save the surviving Jewish people of Europe from extinction at the hands of Nazi Germany.”  

Nonbinding Resolution  

The resolution was presented as nonbinding, as it would have been unrealistic to expect the Congress to compel the president to take a war-related step. Gillette stressed that the bill focused only on rescue: It “is not to be confused with the dispute over the future of Palestine, over a Jewish state or a Jewish army. The issue is non-sectarian. The sole object here is to rescue as many as possible of the Hitler victims, pending complete Allied victory.”  

Again, Wise battled Bergson, and he tried to persuade the sponsors to withdraw support from the resolution. When he failed, he testified that the resolution was “inadequate” because it did not urge the British government to open Palestine to Jewish refugees. The sponsors had consciously omitted Palestine because of the controversial nature of this issue and because they wanted to avoid an argument between America and Britain.  

Samuel Merlin, one of Bergson’s colleagues, described the reaction of Wise and other American Zionist leaders. They “were unhappy with the Gillette-Rogers rescue resolution for two reasons. One was, it was our resolution. This was enough. Second, and perhaps this was even more important to them, that this resolution didn’t mention Palestine. When Stephen Wise testified before Sol Bloom’s [House Foreign Affairs] Committee, he said it is a fine resolution except it doesn’t go far enough. It is inadequate and it doesn’t go far enough because it doesn’t specify that the only practical solution to save the Jewish people of Europe was to open the gates of Palestine and to do away with the British White Paper.”  

Zionist Obstructionism  

Rogers saw the Zionists’ obstructionism in a similar way and was impressed with Bergson’s singular focus on rescue. He said, “After I got to know Peter Bergson fairly well, and after we sat down to work out parts of the resolution, I was even more impressed by him because he came from Palestine, his whole life was bound up with Palestine, and yet he was willing to forget the Palestine issue completely in order to save Jewish lives. He went after the main point, and I thought that was a really good judgment. He was awfully good on that. And I admired him very much for doing that. ... I knew as well as Rabbi Wise knew that putting Palestine in [the rescue resolution] was just going to kill it. It was a method, a means, which he used to try and kill this resolution. He did not openly oppose it. He really couldn’t. There was no way, nobody can openly oppose trying to be a humanitarian. But they just wanted to wiggle around and sabotage and change the wording or do something else.”  

Rogers also faced personal opposition from Zionist leaders. “When it was known that I was becoming a member of the Bergson group,” Rogers recalled, “there was a terrific amount of pressure from all sorts of areas. I went back to Beverly Hills and I remember meeting with Rabbi Stephen S. Wise in a synagogue. ... He took me aside and he said, `Now, young man. I knew your father very well. Now you are getting confused, you are getting mixed up with the wrong type of people. Let me tell you and steer you clear when you come on the Jewish problem, or want to meet the right people, the responsible people.’ He put the heat on me very, very heavy, but very, very suave, very indirect. He was quite the diplomat. He didn’t say, `If you do get mixed up with them, you are not going to be reelected.’ He wasn’t that direct, but he certainly made every pressure that he could, and where he knew it would be effective. I greatly admired and respected him. And he used that, and he used our association and my father’s association with him as a means of trying to convince me to stop being connected with the Bergson outfit. ... The threat that establishment Jewry felt toward the Bergson outfit was that here were a bunch of upstarts, raising money, raising Cain. Getting readership and getting notice. Effective notice. And taking it away from the Jewish organizations. I think that they felt that Bergson was stealing their thunder.”  

Zionist Agenda  

Gillette also reported on Zionist obstructionism. Instead of focusing on rescue, they refused to allow the perceived Jewish agenda to be anything but Zionism. Gillette, who was himself a supporter of Zionism, discussed the opposition that he faced from Zionist leaders: “These people used every effort, every means at their disposal, to block the resolution. ... [They] tried to defeat it by offering an amendment, insisting on an amendment to it that would raise the question, the controversial question of Zionism or anti-Zionism. ... or anything that might stop or block the action that we were seeking.”  

Bergson, like Gillette and Rogers faced heavy handed tactics from the Zionists. He describes Jewish members of Congress, his natural allies in the fight to save the Jews of Europe, as ganging up on him and even threatening him. “In the Zionist effort to fight us, or to curb us, they stopped at nothing,” Bergson said. “This congressman, Samuel Dickstein, [(D-NY), chairman of the house committee on immigration and naturalization] he was bad news. And he was head of the Immigration Committee. One day, I get an invitation from Dickstein, whom I barely knew, to come at a certain hour to meet with a group of Jewish congressmen. About 5:00 or 6:00 in the afternoon in Dickstein’s committee office. I come in. It looked like an inquisition. ... Five of them there were - five or six: Dickstein, Celler, Klein, Sabath, and two more. Six. The spokesman was Dickstein. And he started talking this and that and he simply - to boil it down very simply, you know, he more or less said, `You either behave, or we’ll deport you.’ He didn’t say it in so many words, but he couldn’t have been more explicit. And he was chairman of the committee, and he stressed it a few times, and he said ... `One shouldn’t mistake democracy with lawlessness, and don’t feel that you can just come to this country without - on a temporary visitor’s visa and do whatever you wish, and this and that and so forth.’”  

Undermine Bergson  

The American Jewish leadership also sought to undermine Bergson and his organization in the eyes of their supporters. On the letterhead of the American Jewish Congress, Stephen Wise wrote to Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes on December 23, 1943, “I was very sorry to note, as were others among your friends, that you had accepted the Chairmanship of the Washington Division of the Committee to Rescue European Jews. ... I do not like to speak ill to you, not of us, concerning a group of Jews, but I am under the inexorable necessity of saying to you that the time will come, and come soon, when you will find it necessary to withdraw from this irresponsible group, which exists and obtains funds through being permitted to use the names of non-Jews like yourself.”  

On December 20, 1943, despite the lobbying of Zionist opponents, the bill passed out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously. Although such prominent individuals as Wendell Wilkie, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, Sigrid Undset, and others testified on the bill’s behalf, it did not meet with such success in the Senate. Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long, whose anti-Semitic policies had long been keeping America’s doors closed to Jewish refugees, testified against the bill. He insisted that “every legitimate thing” was already being done to rescue Hitler’s victims and additional action by the Congress would “be construed as a repudiation of the acts of the Executive Branch.” On December 26, the House committee shelved the resolution.  

War Refugee Board  

The State Department’s anti-Semitism did not go unnoticed. Treasury Secretary Henry J. Morgenthau commissioned his aides to compile an eighteen-page memorandum documenting the State Department’s obstruction regarding rescue efforts. On January 16, 1944, Morgenthau presented to the president this document titled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews.” Morgenthau urged Roosevelt to establish a rescue agency such as the one the congressional resolution had been calling for. He warned Roosevelt that the government would be held responsible for the State Department’s record. On January 22, 1944, the War Refugee Board (WRB) was formed.  

While Bergson was not involved in the Morgenthau-Roosevelt discussions, there is no doubt that he was instrumental in the creation of the WRB. Shortly after the establishment of the WRB, Morgenthau declared at a Treasury staff meeting, “The thing that made it possible to get the President really to act on this thing [was] the Resolution [which] at least had passed the Senate to form this kind of a War Refugee Committee. ... I think that six months before [the rescue resolution] I couldn’t have done it.” The Christian Science Monitor unequivocally declared that the creation of the WRB “is the outcome of pressure brought to bear by the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, a group made up of both Jews and non-Jews that has been active in the capital in recent months.”  

Bergson and his group were elated by the WRB’s creation. Bergson recalled, “During the euphoric period after the War Refugee Board was born, we thought that now, you know, not only we get up in the morning worrying about the Jews, but there’s a government agency worrying about them. The War Refugee Board gave us relief, like water to the thirsty ...” Yet Bergson would quickly become disillusioned with the WRB and ultimately regarded it as a “failure.” He felt that not only was it established far too late, but it also suffered from a lack of support at the highest level. Roosevelt had created it for political expediency and did not devote his energy to the WRB or the rescue of the Jews.  

Despite Bergson’s disappointment in the WRB, it undoubtedly did contribute to saving Jewish lives. Some sources credit the WRB with saving over 200,000 lives in the final months of the war. One of its major projects was financing the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.  

Emergency Shelters  

Never passive, Bergson, in 1944 began publicizing an emergency shelter plan proposed by New York Post writer Samuel Grafton. Grafton suggested a “system of free ports for refugees fleeing the Hitler terror.” These free ports would be similar to those in which goods could be stored temporarily without paying customs fees. Bergson publicized this idea through his familiar method of newspaper advertisements and pushing for a congressional resolution. The War Refugee Board picked up the idea and brought it to Roosevelt. Just one free port was established - in Oswego, New York. It housed 982 European refugees, 89 percent of whom were Jewish. The proposals for temporary havens to be established in Palestine and elsewhere were never implemented.  

This effort took place in the context of the particularly rapid assault on the Jews in Hungary. Sadly, this proposal ran into the same sustained resistance as Bergson’s previous effort. Wyman and Medoff write, “The Bergsonites saw the shelters plan as a way to open Palestine for the immediate emergency without getting the matter entangled in the politically complicated issues of the White Paper and Jewish statehood. Those questions, they concluded, could wait until after the war. The War Refugee Board sympathized with this approach, and a number of members of Congress endorsed the resolution, but opposition from the State Department and the mainstream American Zionist organizations blocked the resolution’s advance. The State Department warned that the passage of the measure would anger the Arabs and set off unrest in the Middle East; the Zionist groups feared that sending Jews to Palestine with the understanding that they might have to leave after the war would establish a precedent that could impair the Jewish claim to Palestine.”  

Not only did Bergson’s efforts face constant opposition from the American Jewish leadership, but he was also subjected to personal attacks. As noted earlier, the threat of deportation loomed over him. Another threat was that he would be drafted into the armed services. For political reasons, the Bergson group was also investigated by the IRS and FBI. In neither case was the group found to be at fault. In fact, after the charges were dropped, Bergson and his associate Merlin reported that investigators from both the IRS and FBI made personal contributions to the Bergson group’s funds.  

Lost Opportunity  

Bergson tried to shake Wise and his colleagues into action, first trying to work with them and then alone. He faced their wrath for challenging them and exposing their passivity, for drawing attention to a community whose leaders sought to keep a low profile, and, most importantly, for working to change the goals of many American Jews - from the long-term goal of the creation of a Jewish state to the immediate question of how to rescue European Jews.  

At every turn in this story, Wise placed Jewish unity, particularly so that American Jewry could form an effective Zionist lobby, at the forefront of his goals. This priority left holocaust rescue efforts in second place. Urofsky, Wise’s biographer, acknowledges this goal, “For Wise, the experiences with both the American Council for Judaism and the Bergson forces only reinforced his belief that solidarity remained the most important item on the American Jewish calendar...”  

Tragically, this story is rich with irony. Peter Bergson, a young foreigner with no money or political contacts, fought for an official American effort to save the European Jews. While handicapped in these ways, Bergson was also intensely opposed by most of organized Jewry, which was well positioned to wield influence in Washington. Organized Jewry not only had contacts at the highest level, from the regular meetings Wise had with Roosevelt through a presence in Congress and on Wall Street, but also had strong organizations and abundant funding. Sadly, these Jewish leaders seemed unable to shift their attention from Zionism to the most pressing Jewish issue of the time and perhaps in history.  

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