Washington — World War II was at its height; American forces were fighting on two fronts, and the government cast its intelligence nets as widely as they could for any bit of information on the moves and intentions of the country’s enemies — and even its friends. A vast information gathering operation — part clandestine and part open — was set up, and within it, in a forgotten corner of a small agency, a handful of American intelligence gatherers were tasked by the nation with spying on America’s Jews.
What they found varied wildly in its significance: real-time reports of the Nazis’ mass persecution of European Jewish populations that would later be understood cumulatively as the Holocaust; accounts of meetings between leaders of Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionism movement and Republican Party leaders about their shared distrust of the Roosevelt administration’s close wartime ally Great Britain; multiple Jewish informants denouncing World Jewish Congress founder Nahum Goldmann as a scoundrel; a future leader of the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, conveying information about American Jewish diplomatic activities in the lead-up to the founding of the United Nations, and even a plan bruited by Zionist leaders to finance the establishment of Arab settlements in Iraq to which Arabs living in Mandatory Palestine and Transjordan could be removed.
These and other nuggets are in secret U.S. government documents, declassified in the 1980s and being analyzed only now for the first time. Collectively, they disclose a widespread domestic spying operation during WWII that targeted Jews, Jewish organizations and Zionist activity.
Since their routine declassification, these documents have sat, unexamined by anyone. But the Forward’s review of them shows that no piece of information was too small and no Jewish leader too obscure for the “Palestinian Desk” operated by the Foreign Nationalities Branch of the CIA’s precursor agency, known as the Office of Strategic Services.
Perhaps most surprising, the spy agency’s primary source for much of this intelligence was other Jews, some of them highly placed officials in Jewish agencies who, in a wartime context, saw providing such information as an act of patriotism.
“The fact that Jews would be on the radar scope of American intelligence operations should not surprise us,” said Eli Lederhendler, a professor of American Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “In fact, it’s a very good sign that the OSS was tracking the Jewish organizations, because it shows that Jewish organizations were worth tracking.”
The American Jews who were part of the OSS Palestinian Desk operation — salaried staffers, paid informants and ordinary Americans happy to volunteer information — did not view themselves as turning on their own community. On the contrary, their work was seen as an essential part of the war effort. “It is I who am grateful to your office for having vouchsafed me an opportunity to make some small contribution to the national cause at this time,” wrote Isaac Rabinowitz, a Brooklyn College Hillel director who led the OSS’s ethnic Jewish news gathering operation, in an April 1942 letter to FNB chief DeWitt Poole.
Nor was serving in the OSS spying operation viewed as problematic in any way by the Jewish community itself. After the war, communal agencies embraced those who served in the “Palestinian Desk.” Many went on to fill key positions in communal life.
The individuals on whom FNB collected information in the few years of its operation could easily make up the Jewish community’s wartime who’s who list. Examples of documents reviewed by the Forward show an attempt to comb through the entire American Jewish establishment in an effort to glean information that could help America’s military and diplomatic endeavors.
FNB files feature “meeting reports” on some of the more famous events of the time, including the Biltmore Conference, where David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first prime minister, famously demanded that “Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth.”
Reports were also filed on a now famous “Stop Hitler Now” demonstration at Madison Square Garden in March 1943, and on the performance there of “We Will Never Die,” a pageant attended by an estimated 40,000 people. According to the FNB reporter, during the performance the crowd “stood spontaneously for the Jewish song of mourning,” accompanied by “much actual wailing.”
Many reports feature pungent commentary by FNB operatives, including one agent who reported on a 1944 address by Zionist leader Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver. In his speech, Silver decried the Allied effort to rescue European Jewry as “too little and too late,” leading an agent to comment, “A non-Jewish outsider at the conference might be inclined to ask, as I did silently myself, by what means large numbers of the Jews might actually have been rescued from under the very shackles of the Nazis, the Gestapo and the German Army.”
FNB covered a wide range of Jewish activity, personalities and organizations, including the anti-Zionist American Council on Judaism, the Jewish Labor Bund and Jewish Labor Committee, and assorted “Anti-Fascist Front” groups. But the bulk of their work focused on Zionists. The reason was simple: The United States served as a beehive of Zionist agitation then and, as Poole observed, Zionism “impinged” on U.S. relations with Britain, which ruled the territory in which the Zionists sought to establish their state.
Howard Sachar, professor emeritus at The George Washington University, in Washington, noted that when Harry Truman became president in April 1945, “annoyed as he was at American Jewish ‘hectoring,’ he made no effort to cooperate with British interception.”
But in the heat of the war, the United Kingdom was a key strategic ally, and helping it contain the Zionist movement was a worthy effort in the eyes of American leaders.
In 1943, Albert Parry, an FNB informant code-named “W,” provided his handlers with valuable information about right-wing Zionists operating in the United States. Parry, a Russian-born freelance writer and author was at the time “engaged with some work at the University of Chicago, which left him with a good deal of leisure,” according to a 1942 FNB document. This afforded him the opportunity to forge ties with a Revisionist Zionist leader named Eliahu Ben-Horin. Thanks to this relationship, Parry was able to alert his FNB handlers in 1943 of the nascent contacts between Zionist Revisionists and national leaders of the Republican Party.
Ben-Horin reported to Parry—and Parry relayed to the FNB—on Ben-Horin’s “consultations” in Topeka, Kansas, with 1936 presidential candidate Alfred Landon, who according to the Zionist leader, shared his “mistrust” of the British. Via Parry, the FNB learned, too, about Ben-Horin’s recent contact with former president Herbert Hoover, a Republican.
But while FNB seemed to be after Zionist activity in America, it did not shy away from collecting juicy details on American Jews that came up in its wide gathering net.
Goldmann, the World Jewish Congress leader, was characterized in particular as an “agent provocateur” by Bernard Postal, an FNB informant whose day job was as a public relations manager at B’nai B’rith. Goldmann, Postal told the OSS, had been kicked out of Germany in the early 1930s prior to Hitler “because of some shady financial deals, and is now a Honduran citizen.” In fact, Goldmann left Germany in 1935, two years after Hitler came to power, after the Nazis stripped him of his German citizenship.
But Postal was not alone. In a November 1943 conversation, Paul Baerwald, honorary chairman of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, denounced Goldmann as a “dangerous man, an unscrupulous individual and a liar who is said to be traveling on a Honduras passport.”
FNB files also feature records from British intelligence, including a sweeping December 1943 report on world Jewry, culled in British controlled Mandatory Palestine from intercepted overseas cables and correspondence. The survey includes detailed conditions of the Jews in Europe, including reports “that the Germans have killed practically all Jews in Riga [Latvia].” The report tells of “extremely bad” conditions for Jews in Northern Italy and “a new wave of persecution” in France. “Neutrals have reported scenes of brutality and deportation,” the report related—providing yet more information on how much the Allies, including America, knew in real time about about the Nazis’ mass persecution of Jews.
FNB staff also cultivated ties with Jewish officials overseas, including Reuven Zaslani, a senior Jewish Agency official who later changed his name to Reuven Shiloah and became the first head of Israel’s Mossad. This relationship proved fruitful as Zaslani provided FNB with important diplomatic information regarding the U.N. activity of American Jewish groups. He also told the agency that Julian Meltzer, the New York Times correspondent in Jerusalem, “was in the pay of the British Intelligence Service.” (No other sources could be found supporting this charge.)
But while American Jews were the subject of this monitoring activity, they were not its target. Poole and others sought to supplement overseas intelligence with “political intelligence” on groups in the United States. Poole felt strongly that the political activity of émigré groups offered insight into the political landscape of their home countries. And though its intelligence gathering was covert, FNB’s focus was on so-called “open sources,” such as public meetings, demonstrations and protests, and press reports. Unlike the FBI and other branches of the OSS, Poole was not in the business of collecting information on subversive activity.
The OSS was established in 1941 as a first attempt to follow the British model and centralize intelligence operations, which had been scattered in various government and military agencies. Headed by Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan, a charismatic WWI veteran, the OSS struggled to gain authority against attempts by the military to limit its access to wartime intelligence. Donovan created an operation, employing at its peak 24,000. Its activities included recruiting and handling agents overseas, training rebel forces fighting against the Nazis and the Japanese, and carrying out secretive commando raids, which inspired the 2009 film “Inglourious Basterds.” The operation also had branches in charge of “morale operations” and “censorship and documents.” The OSS employed leading American scholars in its effort to research and analyze enemy intentions.
As FNB’s director-in-chief, Poole, a former State Department official turned academic, recruited a network of “volunteer readers” strategically located at colleges and universities nationwide, along with private contractors and paid undercover informants, to collect political intelligence on a wide array of European and Middle Eastern émigré groups and communities. A small desk within this operation focused on American Jews.
FNB had close ties in particular with the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton. New Jersey, where Poole last worked before he assumed his position with FNB. The institute served as the hub for FNB’s “volunteer readers” of ethnic press.
Records show that the OSS’s coverage of the ethnic Jewish press was spearheaded by Rabinowitz, Hillel director at Brooklyn College. Rabinowitz, in turn, recruited I. Edward Kiev, the chief librarian at New York’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Rabinowitz’s OSS handler heaped much praise on his “able collaborator” and assured Rabinowitz that his reports were shared with other government agencies. He also held out the promise to Rabinowitz of a future career with the State Department.
FNB also contracted the services of Jacob Landau, the Austrian-born founder of the Jewish Telegraph Agency, for $1,000 a month, a considerable sum at the time. Landau provided the spy agency with his Overseas News Service weekly digest of the ethnic and foreign language press. He was also undoubtedly valued for his connections. In addition to the OSS, Landau’s subscribers included Great Britain’s intelligence liaison office in Washington, the World Jewish Congress, the Jewish Agency for Palestine, the Soviet Union’s TASS News Agency, the Soviet Embassy and the Lithuanian Consulate.
Landau’s thick OSS file is a mixed bag of praises for him as “an excellent reporter and a good student of social and political conditions,” and reports from his detractors, who called Landau the “greatest schnorrer [beggar] I ever met in my life” who serves up “old stuff warmed over” and news dispatches “full of sensationalism and inaccuracies.”
By and large, information was provided to FNB willingly and voluntarily. “I am herewith enclosing another one of my reports to you,” Postal wrote ceremoniously on official B’nai B’rith stationery when sending Poole his latest report on the ins and outs of American Zionist politics.
Some of FNB’s work, however, reached into the realm of the cloak- and-dagger world, including paying informants for their cooperation, and having agency operatives befriend communal leaders to learn about their actions.
The staff running FNB’s information gathering operation on American Jews came from the heart of the Jewish community, and key to them was Moses “Moe” Beckelman, who headed the operation from June 1942 to July 1943. Born in New York in 1906, Beckelman built his entire career around Jewish communal work, first as a social worker and later as a senior staff member at the JDC. He supervised funding for refugees in Eastern Europe during the war, oversaw operations in Morocco and surveyed the Jewish communities of South America before stepping away to join the OSS.
Beckelman’s overseas work for the JDC and his “unusual qualifications” as a “Jewish affairs” expert garnered much praise from his superiors at the OSS, as well as numerous deferments from military service, including a personal letter sent on Beckelman’s behalf to President Roosevelt from Donovan in which he appeared to embellish Beckelman’s educational background.
But his tenure was cut short by an unexplained internal investigation launched by the OSS security department. Documents show that Poole vouched for Beckelman, stating, “Of Mr. Beckelman’s loyalty to the United States I think there can be no question.” This was not enough. The investigation, which is not detailed in the unclassified documents, ended Beckelman’s OSS career.
But in the Jewish world, Beckelman moved on to become one the most prominent officials of his time. He initially joined international refugee operations and then rejoined the JDC as second in command in the group’s Paris headquarters. It was the organization’s busiest time, dealing with hundreds of thousands of displaced Holocaust survivors. Beckelman played a key role in running the vast operation, raising funds and maneuvering postwar global politics. In 1951 he was promoted to director general of the JDC, and in 1953 he was awarded the French Legion of Honor medal.
Beckelman died of a heart attack in 1955 at the age of 49. In his obituary, the JDC acknowledged his service at the OSS only in passing, and made no mention of his key role at the “Palestine desk.”
But Beckelman, just like his successor, Abraham Duker; Landau; Rabinowitz; Postal, and others, suffered no adverse impact for his work at FNB. Running an operation aimed at gathering information on American Jews did not stifle their careers in the Jewish world. It could have even been seen as a badge of honor.
“It was open source work, so it clearly doesn’t fall under the category of snitching,” said Lederhendler, who added that “Jews were 100% behind the war effort, so collaborating with the OSS is something many Jews could see as a mitzvah.”
Duker, who stepped into the job after Beckelman’s abrupt departure, was a Polish-born U.S. Army sergeant and a scholar of modern Jewish history. His position at the “Palestinian desk” was deemed so sensitive that he was granted permission by military authorities to wear civilian clothes for an “indefinite period.”
“With reference to his particular ethnic group,” the letter requesting this special permission states, “it is necessary for Sgt. Duker to interview personages of high standing; to attend various meetings of a political character sponsored by those groups….
His appearance in uniform in a good many situations creates a positive hindrance to the accomplishment of his work.”
FNB’s focus on the Zionist movement led to some candid moments documented in the declassified files. Such is the case of Moshe Shertok, at that time head of the Jewish Agency’s political department. Later, after changing his name to the Hebrew-sounding Sharett, he became Israel’s second prime minister. An FNB operative reported on a “surprising frank” conversation he had with Shertok in London on February 6, 1944. In the meeting, Shertok “laid claim to all lands occupied at any time by the 12 tribes of Israel,” and “told a story of how the agency had obtained an option on certain large tracts of land lying to the east of the Jordan Valley in Transjordan.” The Jewish Agency had paid a “fat sum of money” to Transjordan’s Emir Abdullah, Shertok told the FNB operative, “but was never able to take up the option or make any further progress in the transaction after Abdullah pocketed the money.” This detail has not been corroborated by other historical accounts.
Shertok, the operative noted, “spoke enthusiastically of a scheme to raise 50,000 pounds or more among wealthy Jews in order to provide a magnet attracting the Arabs from Palestine into Iraq,” and said that “the agency would be only too glad to pay this cost, not only of removing Arabs from Palestine and parts of Transjordan into Iraq, but also of financing the establishment of those new Arab settlements beyond the borders of greater Palestine.”
This idea was not unusual for the time, said Israeli historian Benny Morris, who is a visiting professor at Georgetown University. He said other Zionist leaders, including Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann, entertained similar thoughts, basing the idea on population transfers that took place between Greece and Turkey and later on among Russia, Germany and Czechoslovakia.
“It was not viewed negatively as it is today,” Morris said. “Many Zionist leaders supported the idea because they saw how the minority problem brought about disaster to Europe.”
The OSS was dissolved in October 1945, and its responsibilities were divided between the State Department and the Department of War. Two years later, the CIA was established based on much of the organizational knowledge acquired by the OSS.
The Foreign National Branch activities were not carried over to the new operation, and in 1975, under the leadership of William Colby, the CIA ceased all its domestic information gathering operations, which were placed solely under the FBI’s responsibility.
What is left of FNB’s “Palestine desk” are troves of documents that shed some light on the views and actions of American Jews but speak volumes more about the times when America believed gathering information on its Jewish citizens was fair game, and when American Jews willingly agreed to cooperate.
David Gurvitz is a freelance researchers and licensed private investigator, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com or on Twitter, @nathanguttman