When the U.S. Government Spied on American Jews (long version)

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

The Bush administration’s eavesdropping policy has aroused considerable controversy. What few remember, however, is that the Roosevelt administration undertook some questionable eavesdropping of its own–and Jewish activists were the target.

The object of U.S. government wrath in the 1940s was the Bergson group, which had initiated a series of political action campaigns seeking U.S. rescue of Jews from Hitler and the establishment of a Jewish state. Its leader, Hillel Kook, had been active in the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the underground militia in British Mandatory Palestine that followed Revisionist Zionist leader Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Dispatched by Jabotinsky to the U.S. in 1940, Kook adopted the nom-de-guerre Peter Bergson to shield his family (including his uncle, the chief rabbi of Palestine) from publicity.

Bergson’s work in the United States focused initially on the goal of creating a Jewish army to fight against the Nazis. Although this goal was, broadly speaking, shared by most of the existing Jewish organizations, Bergson’s Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews used unorthodox methods to publicize its message. It splashed its demands across full-page newspaper ads in the New York Times and elsewhere, a tactic unheard of in the American Jewish community at the time. It successfully solicited endorsements from more than two thousand prominent intellectuals, Members of Congress and other political figures, entertainers, union leaders, and newspaper publishers, most of them non-Jews and ranging across the political spectrum.

Even Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, and Knox’s deputy (and later Democratic nominee for president) Adlai Stevenson expressed support for the Jewish army campaign. Lord Halifax, the British ambassador in Washington, noted with dismay “the large collection of eminent Americans whom [the Bergson group] has managed to persuade to sign its proclamations … misguided humanitarians of every stripe and colour [are responding to its] simple and moving plea that many thousands of Jews [are] anxious to fight and die in the war against Hitler…” [1]

The British were losing in North Africa to Rommel’s Afrika Korps, and the addition of a fighting force made up of highly-motivated Jews from Europe and Palestine surely would have boosted the Allied war effort. Yet the British resisted the proposal. London feared that a cadre of trained Jewish officers and soldiers might cause problems for the British administration in Palestine after the war, and that the very existence of a Jewish army would intensify the pressure for establishment of a Jewish state.

Nevertheless, the Bergson group’s public protests, combined with behind-the-scenes lobbying by mainstream Zionist leaders, eventually persuaded the British to establish the Jewish Brigade, in late 1944. Its soldiers fought against the Germans near the end of the war, then later helped smuggle Holocaust survivors to Palestine and participated in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

After the Allies’ confirmation, in late 1942, of the Nazi genocide, the Bergson group shifted its focus to the need for rescuing Jews from Hitler. Once again, Bergson used full-page newspaper ads, public rallies, and lobbying on Capitol Hill to challenge Allied policy.

The rescue campaign, like the earlier Jewish army effort, attracted support across party lines. A New Leader columnist reported that he “nearly fell through the floor” when he discovered, “nestling cheek by jowl” on the letterhead of Bergson’s Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe “the names of Louis Adamic (fellow-traveller) … Congressman James Domengeaux (bitter Southern reactionary) … Lowell Thomas (Big Business propagandist) … Mary Van Kleeck (leading CP fellow traveler) … ” [2] Conservative critics of FDR, like Herbert Hoover and William Randolph Hearst, lent their support to Bergson’s rescue campaign alongside Roosevelt supporters like Interior Secretary Harold Ickes and New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Prominent African-Americans such as authors Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, and singer Paul Robeson also supported the rescue committee.

There was also substantial grassroots support in the Jewish community for Bergson’s work. A private survey by American ZIonist leaders covering 1942 and the first half of 1943 concluded that “the popularity of … the irresponsible Bergson committees … zoomed during this period of Zionist political inadequacy.” [3]

Bergson attracted similarly broad support from public figures, celebrities, and the Jewish community when, near war’s end, he established two new political action committees: the American League for a Free Palestine, to mobilize American public support for Jewish statehood, and the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation, which declared itself the representative of the Jewish fighters in Palestine and would-be European Jewish immigrants to the Holy Land.

But there was also substantial opposition to Bergson’s activity, emanating from three sources: mainstream Jewish organizations, the British government, and the Roosevelt administration.

Jewish leaders feared that Bergson’s growing prominence was usurping their position in the Jewish community and in the eyes of government officials. They also worried that the Bergson group’s public criticism of America’s refugee policy could provoke antisemitism, and that U.S. Jews might be accused of undermining the government during wartime.

Efforts by the established leaders to oppose Bergson initially focused mainly on pressuring figures of prominence to stay away from Bergson. Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress and the most prominent Jewish leader of the era, pleaded with Episcopal Bishop Henry St. George Tucker to cancel his planned speech at a Bergson conference and urged Interior Secretary Harold Ickes to resign his chairmanship of the Washington, D.C. division of Bergson’s rescue committee. [4] When Bergson announced plans to bring four hundred rabbis to protest at the White House in October 1943, he and FDR aide Samuel Rosenman, a prominent member of the American Jewish Committee, persuaded President Roosevelt to refuse to meet the marchers. [5] Wise’s aide Lillie Shultz convinced the political newsweekly The Nation to refuse Bergson’s advertisements, [6] while Hadassah leaders pressed Mrs. Louis Brandeis to cut her ties to Bergson. [7] Congress officials also pressured local Jewish groups in upstate New York, Baltimore, and Gary, Indiana to drop plans to stage “We Will Never Die,” a Ben Hecht-authored pageant about the plight of Europe’s Jews under Hitler. [8]

As Bergson’s activity escalated, Jewish leaders’ opposition intensified and they began to turn to U.S. authorities to intervene. The Bergson group had become “a public menace and everything must be done to liquidate them,” Nahum Goldmann, co-chair (with Wise) of the World Jewish Congress, wrote to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr.’s secretary in May 1944. [9] Goldmann met with State Department officials to explain how much “it distressed him to see Bergson received in high places and given facilitites by this Government.” According to Goldmann, Rabbi Wise “regarded Bergson as equally as great an enemy of the Jews as Hitler, for the reason that his activities could only lead to increased anti-Semitism.” Goldmann said “he could not see why this Government did not either deport Bergson or draft him.” [10]

American Jewish Committee vice president Morris Waldman, meeting with State Department officials in early 1944, likewise emphasized that “it was unfortunate that [Bergson] and his group should have been received so cordially by certain members of this Government, particularly members of Congress.” Waldman raised the idea of deporting Bergson, and discussed the possibility of having the FBI investigate Bergson for “racketeering.” [11]

Meanwhile, U.S. Congressman Sol Bloom (D-NY) was pressing the FBI to find grounds to deport Bergson, on the grounds that “if Kook were not deported from the United States, he would eventually provoke sufficient antagonism among the citizens of the United States to cause anti-Semitic pogroms.” [12] Bloom, a staunch defender of the State Department’s handling of refugee matters, had been a frequent target of criticism from the Bergson Group, particularly for his role as a member of the U.S. delegation to the Bermuda refugee conference. At Bermuda, Bloom and his fellow-delegates had failed to produce any meaningful plans to rescue refugees from Hitler.

The British, who dubbed Bergson “a Semitic Himmler,” [13] likewise urged U.S. officials to draft or deport Bergson, but thought the chances of that happening were unlikely “in view of the influential friends who seem to be able to protect him.” [14] Counter-pressure from Bergson’s allies in Congress, combined with the State Department’s fear that such action would “make a martyr out of Bergson,” did indeed stymie consideration of drafting or deporting him. [15]

But there were other avenues of action, and the Roosevelt administration did not need much prodding from Jewish leaders or British officials to go after Bergson. The president himself was reported to be “very upset” about a Bergson advertisement which he felt was “hitting below the belt” because it accused the administration of ignoring the Nazi genocide. [16] Roosevelt was also said to have been “much displeased” by the rabbis’ march. [17]

State Department officials in particular deeply resented Bergson’s activities. Breckinridge Long complained that the group’s newspaper ads “made it very difficult for the department,” while Robert Alexander insisted that the slogan used in one Bergson ad, “Action–Not Pity,” had actually been invented by the Nazis to embarrass the Allies. Hitler himself was the one “behind the [pro-refugee] pressure groups,” Alexander claimed, because opening the U.S. or Palestine to refugee immigration would “take the burden and curse off Hitler!” [18]

Irritated by Bergson’s campaigns, the Roosevelt administration sent the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service to squash him. Although they were ostensibly pursuing evidence of criminal wrongdoing, it is clear that political motives were the impetus. “This man has been in the hair of Cordell Hull,” an internal FBI memo bluntly noted in 1944, in its explanation of the reasons for U.S. government action against Bergson. [19]

The FBI’s investigation of Bergson proceeded along two tracks simultaneously–to find evidence that the Bergson group was assisting the Irgun, and to determine if the Bergsonites were Communists.

If Bergson were found to be providing financial assistance to the Irgun, it would mean he had violated federal regulations concerning the registration of foreign agents, because the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation had registered itself as an agent of “the Hebrew Nation,” rather than of the Irgun. [20]

More than one thousand pages of internal FBI documents, obtained by this author under the Freedom of Information Act, detail the administration’s campaign against the Bergson activists. FBI agents began by contacting what they called “persons in New York City who are familiar with Israelite matters,” such as officials of rival Jewish organizations. What the agents soon discovered was that Bergson’s critics were long on suspicions, but short on evidence. An official of the Anti-Defamation League “stated [the Bergson group] is espousing the cause of the Irgun but he had no facts available to substantiate this statement,” one agent reported. Similarly, a representative of the American Jewish Congress asserted that he “had no evidence that the [Bergson group] is active on behalf of Irgun but stated that in his opinion this connection is a fact because they were all members of the Irgun at one time in Palestine.” [21]

At the same time, the FBI employed many of the more clandestine methods for which it has become known, including eavesdropping on the telephone conversations of Bergson activists, opening their mail, sifting through their trash, and using informants to gather information and steal documents from Bergson’s office. [22]

Ultimately, however, the eavesdropping and other tactics failed to uncover a smoking gun–because, it seems, there was no smoking gun to find. Although a handful of individual Bergson group members were involved in smuggling weapons to the Irgun, there is no evidence that Bergson or other leaders of the group took part in, or were specifically aware of, such activity. Bergson and several other members of the group’s inner leadership circle had been active in the Irgun in the 1930s, but they considered their work in the United States since 1940 to be completely independent of the Jewish underground and they did not take orders from the Irgun high command.

In any event, the activists expected that they were being listened to, and tailored their conversations accordingly. “Bergson always assumed that the phones were tapped,” recalled Jack Yampolsky, whose parents, Louis and Betty, were among the leaders of the group’s Philadelphia branch. In an interview many years later, Bergson told Prof. David S. Wyman that after the group published an advertisement in the New York Times strongly criticizing the Bermuda conference, U.S. Senator Edwin Johnson (D-CO), one of Bergson’s staunchest allies in Congress, told him confidentially that “the FBI is listening to your telephone.” Johnson said he learned that the FBI had obtained a court order to eavesdrop on Bergson at the request of Senator Scott Lucas (D-IL), who had chaired the U.S. delegation to Bermuda. [23] Ben Hecht, for his part, was convinced that Soviet and British agents “eavesdropped at the swimming pool” behind his Nyack, NY home where Bergson activists “were wont to gather for disputation.” Perhaps future historians will yet uncover documents that will shed light on Hecht’s suspicion. [24]

The FBI’s other goal was to find a link between Bergson and Communists. It was true that many of the group’s leading activists had been active on the political left. Ben Hecht had been involved in various leftwing causes over the years, leading J. Edgar Hoover himself to label Hecht a Communist. The renowned artist Arthur Szyk, who illustrated Bergson’s publications and advertisements, would later find himself accused by the House Un-American Activities Committee of signing petitions sponsored by Communist front groups. Some of Szyk’s friends attributed the fatal heart attack he suffered shortly afterwards to the stress caused by the HUAC investigation. Stella Adler, too, had been sufficiently active in leftwing circles to come under suspicion during the McCarthy era, and was at one point blacklisted in Hollywood for refusing to give HUAC the names of suspected Communists. [25]

Alex Wilf, owner of a Philadelphia carpet store and leading member of the Bergson’s local branch, was cited in one FBI memo because his name was found “on the mailing list of Tom Paine School of Social Sciences, Philadelphia, a Communist dominated organization.” Another Philadelphia activist in the Bergson group, Maurice Rifkin, came to the FBI’s attention because his firm, Global Travel Service, was “the only organization in Philadelphia at that time which had an export license to send gift packages to the Soviet Union.” [26]

“What the FBI apparently didn’t realize was that Rifkin was a refugee from the Russians, not an agent of the Russians,” according to Jack Yampolsky. “In fact, when he obtained the license in the 1930s it was useless, because the USSR didn’t permit gift packages to be sent from the United States. Only after the death of Stalin 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 who were trapped in the Soviet Union–including Rifkin’s own sister, as well as my father’s two sisters. For the FBI to see the license as something sinister was absurd.”

Yampolsky came to be well acquainted with the U.S. authorities’ investigations, because he spent much of 1945-1946 helping to fend off an Internal Revenue Service inquiry of the Bergson group’s finances. The goal was to find financial irregularities that would enable the administration to revoke Bergson’s tax-exempt status. 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. Louis Yampolsky was the accountant for the Bergson group, and he and Jack were compelled to dig out and reconcile every piece of financial information in the group’s records. “Our pro bono representation of the Bergson group overwhelmed our small practice,” according to Jack. “There were only three of us. The IRS’s demands required more of our limited manpower than all the rest of our clients combined. In this, my father was like many others who let their business life suffer while throwing themselves into Bergson’s work.”

“There were no photocopy machines in those days,” Jack recalls. “We had to hand-copy every disbursement and every receipt that was given for every donation. And because the Bergson group had enormous grassroots appeal, it received literally thousands of one-dollar or two-dollar donations from people all over the country.”

Not only were the IRS investigators unable to find evidence of any wrongdoing, but, according to Bergson, 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.”

The sympathy expressed by the IRS agents contrasted sharply with the sentiments expressed in some of the FBI documents about Bergson which I obtained, especially those pertaining to Maurice Rosenblatt, Bergson’s chief lobbyist in Washington from 1945 to 1948. Rosenblatt had been the last surviving member of the Bergson group leadership circle, until his recent passing. Rosenblatt’s resume made him something of a magnet for FBI agents looking for Communists under Bergson’s bed, so to speak. In the 1930s, Rosenblatt had been a civil rights activist in Harlem and a leader of the leftwing Coordinating Committee for Democratic Action, which FBI officials derided as “this Semitic Committee.” (The FBI men complained that the committee was trying to “smear” Nazi sympathizers.) One FBI memo made much of the fact that Rosenblatt “and his Russian-born mother” had once breen members of the American Labor Party. After the establishment of Israel in 1948, Rosenblatt worked with Eleanor Roosevelt, fellow-Bergson Group leader Harry Selden, and others to create the National Committee for an Effective Congress, a liberal political action committee. In 1953, at the height of McCarthy’s anti-Communist campaign, Rosenblatt established what he called the Anti-McCarthy Clearing House, which played a key role in exposing false statements by McCarthy and mobilized members of Congress to oppose him. [27]

Despite assorted blunders and gaffes –such as referring to the “We Will Never Die” pageant as “We Kill, Never Die”– the FBI’s inquiry had all the earmarks of a serious investigation. Senior FBI officials would later describe the bureau’s pursuit of the Bergson group as “most extensive,” and its reports on the subject eventually filled “an eleven-volume case file.” [28] But in the end, the FBI’s final report concluded that “no discrepancies” could be found in the Bergson group’s financial records, there were “no concrete indications” that Communists infiltrated the group, and “the investigation failed to evidence any tieup in this country” between the Bergsonites and the Irgun. [29] The FBI’s campaign against Bergson drew to a quiet close in 1950, when the FBI finally realized that Bergson’s committees had dissolved themselves more than a year earlier. [30]

“When there is a genuine threat, governments sometimes have to do things like eavesdrop,” Jack Yampolsky concedes. “But if they invade people’s privacy for political reasons, that’s another story. The fact that we disagreed vocally 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.”


1. Halifax to Eden, 13 January 1943, 371/35031, Records of the British Foreign Office, Public Record Office [hereafter PRO], London.

2. New Leader, 8 April 1944, p.10

3. Annual Report to the Zionist Organization of America–47th Annual Convention, October 14-17, 1944, Atlantic City, New Jersey,” p.59, 1753, Central Zionist Archives [hereafter CZA], Jerusalem.

4. Welles to Taylor, 23 June 1943, Myron C. Taylor Papers, Box 5, Correspondence 1938-1954, FDRL; Wise to Ickes 23 December 1943, Stephen S. Wise Papers; cited in David S. Wyman, ed. American and the Holocaust [13 vos.](New York: 1990).

5. William Hassett, Off the Record with FDR (New York: 1958), 209.

6. Shultz to Weisgal, 16 August 1944, Z5/868, CZA.

7. Leibel to Tourover, 26 May 1944 and Tourover to Leibel, 29 May 1944, Box 1, Folder 3, Denise Tourover Ezekiel Papers, Hadassah Archives, New York.

8. “Report on Attempts to Stage We Will Never Die in Kingston, Rochester, Buffalo, Baltimore, Gary, and Pittsburgh,” 13:57, Palestine Statehood Groups collection [hereafter PSGP], Yale University.

9. Goldmann to Klotz, 19 May 1944, Z5/395, CZA.

10. Department of State, Memorandum of Conversation, 19 May 1944, p. 1, 867N.01/2347/PS/LC, National Archives

11. Department of State, Memorandum of Conversation, 10 January 1944, p.5, 3:67, PSGP.

12. Alden to Ladd, 24 March 1945, FBI Files (in the possession of the author).

13. A.H.Tandy, British Embassy, 10 September 1945, “Memorandum on Jewish Affairs in the United States at the Termination of the World War,” Records of the British Colonial Office, PRO.

14. Halifax to Foreign Office, 24 May 1944, FO 371/40131, PRO.

15. Ladd to Tamm, 23 May 1944, FBI Files.

16. Ben Hecht, A Child of the Century (New York: 1954), 580; David S. Wyman and Rafael Medoff, A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America, and the Holocaust (New York: 2002), 139.

17. It is not clear from the document whether the actual source is Isaiah Berlin quoting Nahum Goldmann, or Berlin quoting Goldmann’s paraphrase of a statement by Samuel Rosenman. The text of Berlin’s report appears in Conversation between Nahum Goldman and Isaiah Berlin, 11 November 1943, FO E 7355/87/31, PRO.

18. Long to Rosenman, Roseman Papers, Refugees File, 15 October 1943, Franklin D. Roosevelt Liberary; Alexander to Long, 7 May 1943, Breckinridge Long Papers 203; cited in David S. Wyman, ed. American and the Holocaust [13 vos.](New York: 1990).

19. Ladd to Tamm, 23 May 1944, FBI Files.

20. Ladd to Director, FBI, 22 August 1951, 1-2, FBI Files.

21. Report: Hebrew Committee of National Liberation, 18 February 1946, FBI Files.

22. FBI Washington, Report on Hebrew Committee of National Liberation, 1 May 1947, 30, 44, FBI Files; Report by New York FBI Office, 24 October 1945, “Hebrew Committee of National Liberation – Registration Act Internal Security,” FBI Files.

23. Wyman and Medoff, 82-83.

24. Hecht, 508.

25. Hoover to Smith, 13 April 1943, FBI Files.

26. FBI Philadelphia Report, 1 June 1945, “Hebrew Committee of National Liberation – Registration Act Internal Security,” 2-3, FBI Files.

27. FBI New York Report, “HCNL Registration Act,” 14 March 1951, 8, II, FBI Files.

28. FBI Washington, Report on Hebrew Committee of National Liberation, 1 May 1947, 30, FBI Files.

29. Buckley to Ladd, 23 May 1944, FBI Files; Memo from J. Edgar Hoover, “Hebrew Committee of National Liberation,” 18 February 1946, FBI Files; Ladd to Tamm, 23 May 1944, FBI Files; Internal Security Report, “Hebrew Committee of National Liberation,” 25 January 1945, FBI Files.

30. FBI New York Report, “HCNL Registration Act,” 14 March 1951, FBI Files.

(As published in Midstream – November / December 2006)

November 2006