When the U.S. Government Spied on American Jews

by Rafael Medoff

As public debate grows over the Bush administration’s eavesdropping policy, some American Jews are recalling a time when the Roosevelt administration undertook some questionable eavesdropping of its own–and Jewish activists were the target.

The year was 1944, and the object of U.S. government wrath was the Bergson group, a political action committee led by Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook). Bergson, a resident of British Mandatory Palestine, came to the United States in 1940 and led a series of political action campaigns seeking U.S. rescue of Jews from Hitler and the establishment of a Jewish state.

Through full-page newspaper advertisements, theatrical productions, rallies, and lobbying on Capitol Hill, the Bergson group gained national attention for its cause. The Bergson group’s activity made it a thorn in the side of the Roosevelt administration, which resented pressure to aid Hitler’s victims and sought to avoid tension with England over its closure of Palestine to Jewish refugees.

Irritated by Bergson’s campaigns, the administration sent the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service after him. They were looking for evidence of criminal activity, but their motivation was political. “This man has been in the hair of [Secretary of State] Cordell Hull,” an internal FBI memo bluntly noted in 1944, in its explanation of the reasons for U.S. government action against Bergson.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, I was able to obtain more than one thousand pages detailing the administration’s campaign against the Bergson activists. The FBI’s tactics included eavesdropping on their telephone conversations, opening their mail, sifting through their trash, and planting informants to steal documents from Bergson’s office.

Part of the FBI’s goal was to prove that Bergson was secretly assisting the Irgun Zvai Leumi, a Jewish underground militia led by Menachem Begin, which was fighting to oust the British from Palestine.
In their newspaper ads and rallies, the Bergsonites made no secret of their sympathy for the Irgun’s fight.

And some individual Bergson group activists were arrested for smuggling guns to the Jewish fighting forces. But, despite years of hunting, the FBI never found evidence linking the Bergson group itself to such activity.

FBI agents also searched for a link between Bergson and the Communist Party. One FBI memo approvingly quoted a rival Jewish organization’s description of the Bergsonites as “a group of thoroughly disreputable Communist Zionists.” FBI director J. Edgar Hoover himself named playwright Ben Hecht and six other prominent Bergson group activists as “fellow travelers.” Maurice Rifkin, head of the Philadelphia-based Global Travel Service, came under FBI scrutiny because his was the only company in the city which had an export license to send gift packages to the Soviet Union.

“What the FBI apparently didn’t realize was that Rifkin was a refugee from the Russians, not an agent of the Russians,” says Jack Yampolsky, a retired Philadelphia accountant whose parents, Louis and Betty, were leaders of the Bergson group’s local chapter. “In fact, when he obtained the license in the 1930s it was useless, because the USSR didn’t permit gift packages to be sent. Only after Stalin’s death in 1953 were such packages allowed, and then Rifkin’s export license became a lifeline for Russian Jewish refugees in the U.S. to send aid to relatives trapped in the Soviet Union–including Rifkin’s sister. For the FBI to see the license as something sinister was absurd.”

Louis Yampolsky was also the accountant for the Bergson group’s national headquarters in New York City. When the IRS launched a full-scale inquiry into the group’s finances in 1945, seeking to revoke the group’s tax-exempt status, Bergson urgently summoned him to New York. Jack accompanied his father on the mission. IRS agents repeatedly visited the Bergson group’s office, once for a stretch where they stayed there from morning until night for more than two weeks. The Yampolskys spent nearly a year digging out and reconciling every piece of financial information in the group’s records.

In the end, the IRS investigators were unable to find evidence of any wrongdoing. Moreover, as the IRS team became familiar with the group’s work, they came to sympathize with it, and “when they finished, [they] made a contribution between them–every one of them gave a few dollars,” Bergson later told historian David Wyman.

The sympathy expressed by the IRS agents contrasted sharply with the sentiments expressed in some of the FBI documents which I obtained. One FBI report about Bergson activist Maurice Rosenblatt derisively referred to the leftwing Coordinating Committee for Democratic Action, in which Rosenblatt was active, as “this Semitic Committee.” The report complained that Rosenblatt and his colleagues were trying to “smear” Nazi sympathizers in New York City.

“When there is a genuine threat, governments sometimes have to do things like eavesdrop,” Jack Yampolsky concedes. “But in our case, they were doing it for political reasons, and antisemitism also played a role. The fact that we vocally disagreed with U.S. government policy regarding the Holocaust and Jewish statehood was not a valid reason for the Roosevelt administration to enlist the FBI and the IRS in a war against the Bergson group.”

January 2006