February 18, 2004
Harry Louis Selden, an editor who set aside his profession in order to promote the rescue of Jews from the Holocaust and establish a Jewish homeland, passed away in Rockville, Maryland, on February 14. He was 96.
“People like Harry Selden are all too rare,” said Dr. Rafael Medoff, director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies (www.WymanInstitute.org), which holds the Harry Selden Papers, a collection of documents about his work. “At the very peak of his career, he gave up his job in order to devote himself to the rescue of Jewish refugees from Hitler. He was truly an unsung hero.”
Selden was born in Brooklyn in 1907 and grew up in Yonkers, NY. He worked as a reporter for the Long Island Daily Press (1931-1934) and was an associate editor at Newsweek (1934-1936) before becoming managing editor of the humor magazine ‘Judge’.
His life changed dramatically in 1939 after reading William Ziff’s The Rape of Palestine, a hard-hitting critique of the pro-Arab shift in British policy in Mandatory Palestine. The book led Selden to became active in a group with which Ziff was associated, the American Friends of a Jewish Palestine (AFJP).
The AFJP, which had been established by followers of the militant Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, raised funds to smuggle European Jews to Palestine in defiance of British restrictions. Forsaking his career as an editor, Selden became a “dollar-a-year-man” for the AFJP, writing and editing its publications and other literature.
The group changed direction after the outbreak of World War II, when an emissary from Jerusalem, Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook), became its leader. Bergson transformed it into the Committee for a Jewish Army, which sought the creation of a Jewish armed force to fight alongside the Allies against the Nazis. When news of the Holocaust reached the West in 1942-1943, Bergson created the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, to press the Roosevelt administration to rescue Jews from Hitler. Selden continued as Bergson’s right-hand man.
Later, Bergson established the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation and the American League for a Free Palestine, which helped mobilize American public support for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine as a haven for Holocaust survivors.
The Bergson group was one of the first Jewish organizations to utilize such now-familiar protest tactics as full-page newspaper advertisements, public rallies, and lobbying on Capitol Hill. Selden played a key role in this work, helping to write newspaper ads and composing speeches for sympathetic Members of Congress.
It was Selden who conceived the Bergson group’s publicity tactic of comparing the Jewish fight for independence in Palestine to the American Revolution. Their newspaper ads and publications portrayed the Jewish fighters as “modern-day Nathan Hales,” denounced London’s policy of “taxation [in Palestine] without representation,” quoted Thomas Jefferson’s memorable phrase, “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God,” and used the motto, “It’s 1776 in Palestine!”
In 1946, Selden took former U.S. Senator Guy Gillette on a highly-publicized “fact-finding mission” to Palestine. They inspected British ships used to deport Jewish refugee immigrants, and met with the British High Commissioner to warn him that American public opinion was turning against England over the Palestine issue.
Back in the U.S., Selden organized coast-to-coast screenings of “Last Night We Attacked,” a short film about the Jewish underground fighters in Palestine. He recruited Marlon Brando, then a rising young Broadway star, to give pro-Zionist speeches at showings of the film. Brando also co-starred in “A Flag is Born,” a Ben Hecht-authored play that the Bergson group used to publicize the Jewish fight for statehood.
Selden noted with pride that the Bergson committee was one of the few Jewish organizations to ever have voluntarily dissolved itself. The group had been established to deal with a specific emergency situation –the plight of Europe’s Jews– and after the creation of Israel in 1948, he and his colleagues closed it down and returned to their private lives.
In later years, he was a founder of the National Committee for an Effective Congress, served as publisher and editor of Book Previews, was vice chairman of the Fair Campaign Practices Committee, and worked for the U.S. government Office of Education (1965-1983).
He is survived by his wife of 67 years, Florence, and their daughter, Judith.