How Peter Bergson Brought Activism into the Mainstream

by Rafael Medoff

A major new novel features a Jewish activist organizing protests against the Roosevelt administration’s abandonment of European Jewry. A recent off-Broadway play depicted Jewish activists and leaders clashing over Holocaust rescue. And the play is now being made into a movie by an Academy Award-winning actor and director.

With his appearance in literature, theater, and film, the once-controversial Peter Bergson (1915-2001) is finally entering the popular culture. And, one might add, the U.S. Jewish community at long last seems to be coming to grips with one of the most painful chapters in its history.

Seventy-five years ago this summer, Bergson (real name: Hillel Kook) and a handful of colleagues –all of them recent arrivals from Europe or Palestine– launched what would become perhaps the most dramatic political action campaign in American Jewish history.

To advance their demands to rescue Europe’s Jews and create a Jewish state in Palestine, these activists placed hundreds of full page ads in newspapers, lobbied in Congress, and organized a march by 400 rabbis to the White House. Such protest tactics may be commonplace today, but they were radical steps for Jews in the 1940s. Many immigrants and children of immigrants, still nervous about their place in American society, were uneasy about broadcasting Jewish concerns in the pages of the major daily newspapers.

Bergson liked to call himself  a “nuisance diplomat,” and his group’s activities did prove to be quite a nuisance to the Roosevelt administration, which insisted that rescue of European Jews was impossible. The Bergsonites mobilized enough congressional and public pressure on President Franklin D. Roosevelt to help force him to create a new U.S. government agency, the War Refugee Board, in early 1944. During the final fifteen months of World War II, the board played a central role in rescuing some 200,000 Jews from the Nazis.

Established Jewish leaders such as Rabbi Stephen S. Wise despised the Bergson Group. Wise at one point declared that Bergson was “worse than Hitler” because provocative protests such as marching through the streets of Washington D.C. might lead to increased antisemitism. A reasonable person could have made that argument only prior the rabbis’ march, in October 1943. After the march took place, and no pogroms ensued, it was absurd for Jewish leaders to continue making such claims. Yet well into 1944, Wise and other Jewish leaders were so resentful of Bergson that they sought to convince the administration to “draft or deport” him.

Some of the Jewish leaders’ opposition to Bergson was motivated by sheer pettiness. They worried that Bergson’s headline-grabbing tactics were, as one Jewish official complained, “stealing our thunder.” They were jealous that he was getting the attention of the news media and government officials, taking some of the spotlight away from them. Some Jewish groups took a lot of time away from genuine causes (such as the rescue issue) to devote to fighting Bergson. Sadly, even today one sometimes finds Jewish leaders picking fights with fellow Jews instead of focusing on the big picture.

Some of the Holocaust-era bitterness between the Jewish establishment and the Bergson dissidents spilled over into the postwar era. Mainstream Jewish leaders wrote or sponsored accounts of the period that left out the Bergson Group. Holocaust museums ignored Bergson, too. During a debate in Midstream magazine in 1981-1982 over the Bergson Group and the Jewish leadership, one veteran of the 1940s fight, Marie Syrkin, went so far as to accuse Bergson’s sympathizers of “necrophilia.”

How, then, did we manage to get from the mud of that partisan swamp, to a point today when the Bergson Group’s achievements are widely acknowledged by the powers that be in the Jewish world?

Bringing the Bergsonites back into history required a gradual process that stretched over several decades. It began in the late 1970s, when a new generation of scholars, led by professors David S. Wyman and Monty Penkower, began writing about the Bergson Group. Demographics were also a factor: American Jews who came of age in the 1970s-1980s-1990s had no memory of the intra-Jewish feuds of the 1940s. They were not interested in re-fighting their parents’ battles.

The Soviet Jewry protest movement, and the rise of pro-Israel activism, also contributed significantly to this process. The Bergson tactics that were once considered radical by American Jews were adopted by contemporary Jewish protesters. As activism gained widespread acceptance in the Jewish community in the 1970s and beyond, the activism of the 1940s in effect gained validation.

The combination of these factors has put the Bergson group on the map. It took a series of protests and petitions, but the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum finally added Bergson materials to its permanent exhibit, and other Holocaust museums have followed suit. Yad Vashem joined the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in co-hosting a public conference on the Bergson Group. An off-Broadway play by Bernard Weintraub, “The Accomplices,” brought the Bergson story to new audiences, and now it is being made into a full-length film co-starring, and directed by, the Oscar winner Edward James Olmos.

And with the publication of the critically-acclaimed novel “The Houseguest,” featuring a character whom the author has said is modeled on Bergson, the activists have truly entered mainstream culture.

“The irony is that my father wasn’t interested in gaining recognition–he didn’t even use his real name,” Dr. Rebecca Kook of Ben-Gurion University, Bergson’s daughter, told me in a recent interview. “But he would have been glad to know that he played some role in helping American Jews realize that they should not be afraid to lobby and demonstrate and speak out loudly against injustice.”

June 2016