Commentary Magazine


A Time to Be Heard

News reports indicate that the president will be meeting with heads of Jewish organizations at the White House on Monday. One can imagine that Iran and the U.S. position on Israeli settlements will be on the agenda. We now have “a test,” as Moshe Arens wrote recently, of whether Israel’s self-proclaimed friends in the U.S. have the nerve to tell the president that his policies, if continued, will imperil the security of the Jewish state and do damage to the historic relationship between the U.S. and Israel. 

It is tempting and natural for Jewish leaders, many of whom are Democrats and supported the president’s campaign, to pull their punches. Who wants a confrontation with the president? Really, might not the president’s policies “improve” with time? As Jonathan Tobin aptly detailed in his discussionof Alan Dershowitz’s defense of Obama’s Israel policy, the temptation to apologize and rationalize is great. But it is also foolhardy and dangerous. Israel faces an existential threat and U.S.-Israeli relations are at a crossroads. Muteness by American Jewish leaders, or even worse, encouragement of a U.S. policy that is more hostile toward Israel than any in recent memory, may have tragic consequences. 

So the question remains: is there a Peter Bergson for the 21st Century? For those needing to freshen up their knowledge of history, this story summarizes how Bergson and a small group of American Jews made a difference at a time when world Jewry also faced an existential threat:

On the morning of November 25, 1942, a small but shocking article in “The Washington Post” grabbed the attention of Peter Bergson, a young Jewish Palestinian who was staying in Washington, D.C. The headline read “Two Million Jews Slain.” The story went on to explain that World Jewish Congress Chairman Rabbi Stephen Wise had confirmation from the State Department that the Nazis were planning to annihilate the entire Jewish population of Europe. The 32-year-old reader was not only dismayed at the content of the article, he was also extremely distressed that it had been buried on page six of the paper. It made such an impact on him that it would drastically change his mission in the United States, making him take a course of action that would ultimately play a decisive role in President Roosevelt’s decision to create a government agency devoted to saving Jews. 

[. . .] 

Almost immediately, Bergson and his followers’ unorthodox methods caught the attention of the public and caused tension within the Jewish community. In response to a report that the Rumanian government was prepared to ship 70,000 Jews to a safe haven as long as the Allies covered the expenses, the Bergson group took out an attention-grabbing advertisement. Under the shocking headline FOR SALE TO HUMANITY 70,000 JEWS, GUARANTEED HUMAN BEINGS AT $50 A PIECE, the group demanded that the Allied countries “immediately appoint an inter-governmental committee” to devise plans to end the Holocaust. The established American Jewish leadership, Zionists included, was horrified: they accused the “Bergson Boys”, as the young men were known, of sensationalism and recklessness; and they argued the foreigners had no mandate to speak for American Jews.

Bergson, with scriptwriter Ben Hecht, mounted a pageant in Madison Square Garden to raise awareness of the 2,000,000 European Jews who had already been murdered. It also played in five cities including Washington D.C. before First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, six Supreme Court Justices and 300 senators and congressmen. Although tens of thousands saw the performance, neither the American government nor established Jewish organizations were moved. Bergson persisted. He took out a full page ad in the New York Times decrying the British-U.S. Bermuda Conference in March 1943 (which had failed to address the slaughter of European Jews). He held conferences and lobbied Congress to create an agency to save European Jews. In November 1943, Bergson and his allies managed to introduce resolutions in Congress, recommending that FDR set up an agency to rescue Europe’s Jews.

Only then did FDR set up the War Refugee Board, “in part because the Treasury Department had just presented him with a searing indictment of the State Department’s continuous obstruction of all rescue efforts.” Without Bergson’s group, it is unclear whether U.S. policy, however belated and inadequate, would have changed:   

Although the War Refugee Board suffered from inadequate funding and lack of cooperation from other government agencies, it probably saved about 200,000 lives. Scholars the “Bergson Boys” deserve some credit for that. They had arrived in the U.S just a few years earlier without a network of followers or any financial support. Within months of hearing about the Nazis’ plan to destroy European Jewry, they had created a mass movement — the Emergency Committee itself would ultimately boast more than 125,000 active members and supporters. The Bergsonites enjoyed greater success than most American Jewish activists because they were unfettered by allegiances to existing political organizations. And, unlike American Jewish leaders who were at times hesitant to be too vocal for fear of exacerbating anti-Semitism, they had no qualms about whom in America they offended. Ultimately, Bergson and his followers were driven by one belief: the need to act with all haste to save the remaining Jews in Europe. They never questioned their right to agitate within the U.S. for government action. When others asked with what authority they did so, they would reply we have “the mandate of conscience.”

Jewry again faces a critical juncture. Who will stand up and be counted? Who will be an irritant, if necessary, to established voices in the Jewish community and to the administration, which would rather not hear voices of dissent? As Moshe Arens wrote, the American Jewish community is being tested. Let us see who, if anyone, rises to the occasion.

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