Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal
The Man Who Would Not Be Silenced

The Unapologetic Activism of Peter Bergson
Beryl P. Wajsman 1.September.2003  

(Bergson in Paris in 1939)

August 18th marked the second anniversary of the passing of one of the most compelling political figures of the twentieth century. Charismatic, indefatigable, loved by those who were suffering, reviled by those too smug and complacent to care, he became, in Malraux's words, the man who "turned life to account" while so many others wallowed in self-pitying despair and engagd in opportunistic manipulations to protect heir own status.

Peter Bergson was described by his friend and ally Ben Hecht as being  ''as persistent as a force of nature.'' He will be forever known to history as the man who would not shut up in the years of the Holocaust. During World War II, faced with an American Jewish establishment that was too docile to raise hell about the fate of doomed European Jews and too infatuated with Franklin Roosevelt to stand up to the president, Bergson, along with a few associates, refused to be silenced.

Born Hillel Kook into a distinguished family that included Palestine’s first Ashkenazy Chief Rabbi, he was a co-founder of the Irgun with David Raziel. Bergson adopted his new name to shield his relatives from any repercussions from his work. In 1937 Bergson, as political head of the Irgun, was sent to Poland to help the Revisionist Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky set up networks to smuggle Jews into Palestine. He first came to the United States in June 1940 together with Sam Merlin and Mike Ben-Ami to set up the Committee for a Jewish Army (CJA) to join the fight against Hitler.


Playwright Ben Hecht wrote of these three that “They sat solemn with energies, like a group of knights dedicated to the rescue of  maidens in distress. The maidens were the Jews of Europe and the soul of the world.“ Hecht agreed to help them rally Hollywood to their cause.


By late 1942, Jabotinsky had died and Bergson’s focus had shifted. On Nov. 25, 1942, a small article appeared on Page 10 of The New York Times with the first official news that, up to that point, two million Jews had been killed in Europe. From then on, his talents at fund-raising and garnering publicity were devoted to the campaign to rescue European Jews.


With Hecht, Bergson set up the Emergency Committee to Save the Jews in Europe in 1943 in response to what he considered to be feeble official efforts to response to the killings. To get attention for their cause, they held plays and mass pageants, including Hecht's ''A Flag Is Born'' and ''We Will Never Die,'' which toured the country after attracting 40,000 to Madison Square Garden in March 1943. Edward G. Robinson, Marlon Brando, Stella Adler, Kurt Weill, Billy Rose, Moss Hart, and Paul Muni were among the dozens who took part.


Some thirty-three Jewish organizations were invited to join in supporting this event, with the Bergsonites going so far as to promise that they would remain anonymous because they were so controversial. Support was not only denied, but Bergson’s group was castigated as reckless and sensationalist, and leaders of the  American Jewish community, in typically fratricidal fashion, then went on to try to sabotage the effort by planning their own rally.


Hecht and Bergson took their pageant to Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston and Hollywood. In Washington it was attended by Eleanor Roosevelt, several Supreme Court Justices and some 300 Senators and Congressmen. But this enthusiasm raised the ire of other members of the Jewish community once again and a telephone and letter campaign vilifying the Bergson committee influenced the financial sponsors needed to carry on. Plans for the pageant to be shown in other cities had to be cancelled.

During the rest of 1943, despite these setbacks, the Emergency Committee continued to press for a government rescue agency. Most controversial were the committee's full-page advertisements in major newspapers, including one that appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post. It said: ''For sale to humanity: 70,000 Rumanian Jews, Guaranteed Human beings at $50 a Piece.'' Hecht, whose signature appeared on the ad, wrote “Rumania is tired of killing Jews. It has killed one hundred thousand of them in two years. Rumania will now give Jews away practically for nothing.” He urged people to act while there was still time.


On another occasion, two days before Yom Kippur in October 1943, Bergson persuaded 400 orthodox rabbis to march on Washington to protest what they thought was the Roosevelt administration's indifference to the plight of the European Jews. He later said that he had invited clergymen of all faiths to take part, but only the rabbis had agreed to come.


President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not receive the marchers, having been told by Jewish advisers that the committee did not represent the mainstream of American Jewish opinion. But the marchers met with others in the capital. To many historians, the event helped force Congress to hold its first hearings on the plight of Jews in Europe.


Establishment Jewish leaders were predictably outraged. And Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, head of the American Jewish Congress, issued a virulent condemnation. Fortunately the attacks had no lasting effect.


By November, advisory legislation calling for President Roosevelt to form such an agency was before Congress. Bergson, who had become an accomplished lobbyist as well as publicist, had gathered impressive support on the Foreign Relations Committee. But all along the way, his efforts continued to be hampered by entrenched Jewish leaders, this time in the form of the American Jewish Committee. In December it went so far as to publicly denounce him just when the Rescue Resolution hung in the balance, by saying that the resolution was “in complete disregard“ of the agenda that the traditional Jewish organizations had been promoting.


On January 23,1944, Roosevelt finally issued the executive order setting up the War Refugee Board. In his book, Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945, David S. Wyman attempts to analyze the reasons behind the resistance of the official American-Jewish organizations to the Bergsonite’s dynamic and effective initiatives. Looking into the records of those years, he discovered that the main cause of their disaffection was fear that Bergson’s movement would attract funds and members away from their organizations to his. According to Wyman, it was the Bergsonite Emergency Committee which brought the War Refugee Board into existence because of its “energy, publicity skills, fund-raising proficiency and the capacity to win friends in Congress and elsewhere in Washington.“ How much sooner would the Board have been established, and how much more effective would it have been, had cooperation been offered by the powerful, experienced, and wealthy American Jewish community.


''He was a master of public relations at a very young age,'' said his daughter Rebecca Kook, who teaches political science at Ben Gurion University in Be'er Sheva, Israel. ''In many ways, he established what many consider to be the first example of a modern political lobby in Washington using people power and media savvy in addition to traditional behind the scenes networks and connections.''

After the creation of the War Refugee Board, Bergson and his group shifted their focus back to events in Palestine. They raised funds to sneak refugees past the British and ship arms for the Irgun, by that time headed by Menachem Begin.

As Hillel Kook, he returned home in May 1948 with Israel's declaration of independence and was elected to the Constituent Assembly. But he later resigned his seat in protest when the Ben-Gurion government turned the assembly into the first Knesset before it had written a constitution as Ben-Gurion had promised. Israel is still without one.  In 1951, he returned to the United States and withdrew from politics.


In 1970 Bergson came back to Israel. He picked up some of his old causes, including his campaign for an Israeli constitution built on a strong division between religion and government. Louis Rapoport wrote of  Bergson's retirement years in Shake Heaven & Earth: Peter Bergson and the Struggle to Rescue the Jews of Europe ''The bearded, impeccably dressed Kook looks every inch the elder statesman, a Trotsky in Mexico whose brilliant theories have been filed away.''

Bergson’s most profound impact was his demonstration that in appealing to the instinctive yearning for redemptive change through broad alliances and creative advocacy, a movement can tap into powerful support even for the most unempowered and disenfranchised victims of hate.

In his refusal to be silent, Kook not only set in motion the chain of events that helped save many lives but also helped perfect the political paradigm and universal model of unapologetic activism that has been used in the struggles for human justice and dignity the world over in the past fifty years from the Civil Rights Movement to the struggle for Soviet Jewry to the battle against Apartheid. Though still largely unknown to most, it can fairly be said that he , as much as anyone, gave identity to the foundational principles of how to stand up and speak truth to power.

As Ben Hecht wrote of Bergson’s work, « It took a dozen different forms and a dozen different titles. In the end it howled down an empire, saved hundreds of thousands of lives, and armed a revolution. May we be privileged to rise to our challenges with the honor and valor he showed. »