To appreciate what a wonderfully reckless Jew Peter Bergson was for his time (or really any time) it’s worth listening to him describe a meeting with Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House in the early 1940s. He was bringing his case to her as he had, tirelessly, to anyone who would listen in those years: Stop the liquidation of European Jewry. Eleanor, sitting with him a few feet from the oval office, told him that some of his tactics — like taking out ads meant to shame the president — hit below the belt. Bergson said he answered like this: “If I were to break through that guard that’s sitting there, go into the president’s office and run berserk and shoot everyone in sight, including the president, even this wouldn’t be hitting below the belt.”
Bergson, whose real name was Hillel Kook, was a young Palestinian Jew living in America who more than any other person during the war years helped draw mass attention to what we would later call the Holocaust. His perceived radicalism (though always nonviolent) got him blacklisted and vilified by the American Jewish establishment — Rabbi Steven Wise, a confidant of Roosevelt’s, even tried to get him deported or drafted. But Bergson nevertheless managed on his own, through bombastic ad campaigns and the one public Jewish demonstration of the war, in which 400 rabbis descended on Washington, to push the genocide of the Jews somewhere into Americans’ field of awareness.
He has not exactly been forgotten. There has been a PBS documentary, a couple of books, and a new film, “Not Idly By – Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust,” that was just released. But there is something about his spirit that feels as alien to the American Jewish community today as it was in his time.
Bergson was part of a circle of people heavily influenced by Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of revisionist Zionism, and the man claimed by Likud as their intellectual forefather. Jabotinsky believed the Jewish people had to flex its muscle militarily and not compromise in any way when it came to territory. But he was also a democrat, and thoroughly so. He would certainly not approve of the barrage of anti-liberal legislation that has recently overtaken the Knesset from the right. As one of Jabotinsky’s immediate disciples, Bergson emulated both his stridency and his liberalism. After the war Bergson immigrated to Israel and was in the first Knesset, but then resigned and eventually left the country. As his daughter Astra recently told me, he become deeply disillusioned with Israel’s lack of a constitution and at the troubling intertwining of religion and state.
What Bergson inherited from Jabotinsky — and the part of his heritage it would be good to remember — was the kind of crazy conviction, the moral outrage of a prophet, that we’ve seen only a few times in our American Jewish history. Abraham Joshua Heschel had it. So did the grassroots activists of the Soviet Jewry movement. And Elie Wiesel, when he stood up to President Ronald Reagan and told him to his face not to visit the Bitburg cemetery, which contained the graves of SS officers.
Astra said that her father never perceived his activities during the war as heroic. After he read in late 1942 the first confirmation that two million Jews had already been killed, “it wasn’t a choice, this is what he felt he had to do,” she said. He also never stopped feeling an abiding sense of failure about not having succeeded in doing more. Still the pressure he applied on the Roosevelt administration did help lead to the creation of the War Refugee Board, the one American initiative directed at Jewish rescue, credited with saving 200,000 Jews in the last year of the war. It was Roosevelt’s Jewish Treasury secretary, Henry Morganthau, who made it happen, but he wouldn’t have had an argument to make with the president unless he could say that the American people were agitating for such an action — Bergson provided the agitation.
How quixotic this must have seemed, one man and his small group of friends asking that the United States include saving Jews as part of its war objectives.
I know we aren’t talking about genocide today, but isn’t it worth asking where the Bergsons are? Where are the reckless people setting unreasonable goals because their principles demand it? We’ve seen a hint of what this could look like in Occupy Wall Street and its offshoot protests, but even then the bigger issues at stake — the unequal distribution of wealth — seemed to have gotten drowned out by the more parochial concern over whether protestors can camp out in a certain city park.
Bergson would have aimed higher, and he would have been relentless.