The failure of the liberal Jewish establishment, then and now

400 mostly Orthodox rabbis march to the White House on October 6, 1943. Roosevelt avoided meeting with them.

400 mostly Orthodox rabbis march to the White House on October 6, 1943. Roosevelt avoided meeting with them.

By Victor Rosenthal

It’s well-known that the Roosevelt Administration did little to help European Jews during the Holocaust. Unfortunately, part of the blame falls on American Jewry, which was sharply divided about how to respond — a fact which caused good men in the government to hesitate, while it gave antisemites an excuse to resist.

The NY Times has published a piece by Isabel Kershner that may bring more attention to the shameful stupidity of the Jewish establishment during that period:

The Bergson group formed in 1940 when about 10 young Jews from Palestine and Europe came to the United States to open a fund-raising and propaganda operation for the Irgun, the right-wing Zionist militia. The group was organized by Hillel Kook, a charismatic Irgun leader who adopted the pseudonym Peter H. Bergson. [Samuel] Merlin was his right-hand man.

The group began by raising money for illegal Jewish immigration to what was then the British Mandate of Palestine and promoting the idea of an army composed of stateless and Palestinian Jews. But the mission abruptly changed in November 1942 after reports of the Nazi annihilation of two million European Jews emerged. Like earlier reports of the mass killing of Jews, the news barely made the inside pages of major American newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post.

The Bergsonites were appalled by what they saw as the indifference of the Roosevelt administration and the passivity of the Jewish establishment, which staunchly supported the administration and largely accepted its argument that the primary American military objective was to win the war, not to save European Jews. The group embarked on a provocative campaign to publicize the genocide and to lobby Congress to support the rescue of Jews, roaming the hallways of Capitol Hill and knocking on doors, displaying a degree of chutzpah that made the traditional, pro-Roosevelt Jewish establishment uncomfortable.


The establishment, led by Reform Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, fought Kook’s group tooth and nail. Writer Ben Hecht, recruited by Kook to stage a huge pageant in Madison Square Garden in March 1943 (“We will never die”) to raise awareness and embarrass the government into action, described one encounter:

I first became aware that there was annoyance with me among the Jews when Rabbi Stephen Wise, head of the Jews of New York, head of the Zionists and, as I knew from reading the papers, head of almost everything noble in American Jewry, telephoned me at the Algonquin Hotel where I had pitched my Hebrew tent.

Rabbi Wise said he would like to see me immediately in his rectory. His voice, which was sonorous and impressive, irritated me. I had never known a man with a sonorous and impressive voice who wasn’t either a con man or a bad actor. I explained I was very busy and unable to step out of my hotel.

“Then I shall tell you now, over the telephone, what I had hoped to tell you in my study,” said Rabbi Wise. “I have read your pageant script and I disapprove of it. I must ask you to cancel this pageant and discontinue all your further activities in behalf of the Jews. If you wish hereafter to work for the Jewish Cause, you will please consult me and let me advise you.”

Wise was a confidant of Roosevelt, and tried to use his influence to get the British to allow European Jews to enter Palestine, with no success. He was even unable to get Roosevelt to publicly speak out on the subject. According to Hecht, Kook told him that

The United States has a secret pact with Great Britain concerning the future of Palestine. It is intended to belong to the British. President Roosevelt will do nothing to violate that pact. He will not speak of Jews being massacred because that might excite popular opinion to rescue them–and result in their being sent to Palestine as a haven, which would be a violation of this pact [in December 1942, Roosevelt and allied governments did finally issue a declaration denouncing Hitler’s murderous project, but no concrete actions were taken — ed.].

When Kook organized a march of 400 mostly Orthodox Rabbis (but including Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, z”l, who had been ordained as a Conservative rabbi some months before) to the White House, Roosevelt left before they arrived, on the advice of Wise and others.

In Louis Rappaport’s words (“Shake Heaven and Earth: Peter Bergson and the struggle to rescue the Jews of Europe,” p. xi),

During the era, Zionist leaders like Rabbi Wise and Nahum Goldmann told the State Department that Kook/Bergson was as big a threat as Hitler to the well-being of American Jewry.

Wise did his best, in the tradition of the medieval ghetto community leader who protects his people by virtue of his relationship with the goyische prince, but he failed utterly. And then he did his best to sabotage the more aggressive, public efforts of Kook. His publicly stated reason was that he feared that Kook’s actions (which included criticism of Christians who did not intervene) would stimulate an antisemitic reaction in the US.

But there was another motive, too. Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College (in part founded by Wise), explained it in a September, 2008, talk:

“In the 1930s, it was Wise who led the rallies against Hitler, so why did he fail so horribly in the 1940s?” Ellenson asked at a Holocaust conference organized by the Washington-based David S. Wyman Institute …

He said part of the explanation lies in Wise’s “absolute and complete love” for president Franklin D. Roosevelt, as well as his antipathy toward the Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and toward the Bergson Group, whose leaders were followers of Jabotinsky, something that “helped blind him” to the need for more activism.

Ellenson said concerns of provoking an anti-Semitic backlash should not have thwarted the American Jewish leadership from actively working to prevent the extermination of six million Jews. “Jewish leaders have an obligation to be sufficiently flexible and imaginative to deal with unprecedented situations,” he said. He said he hoped that today’s leaders would respond more effectively to contemporary dangers facing the Jewish people, such as the Iranian nuclear threat.

“Stephen Wise spent too much time trying to protect FDR from criticism, and not enough time focusing on how to convince Roosevelt to help rescue Jews from Europe,” said Wyman Institute director Dr. Rafael Medoff. “Rabbi David Ellenson is to be commended for acknowledging the mistakes of his predecessor and trying to ensure that the failures of the 1940s will not be repeated.”

It seems to me that this is almost exactly what is happening today, with the liberal Jewish establishment in America cleaving to its President, Barack Obama, while the latter pursues policies inimical to Jewish survival. It is ironic that Rabbi Ellenson criticized Rabbi Wise in this way, and then three years later viciously attacked opponents of the nomination of J Street and New Israel Fund activist Rabbi Richard Jacobs as head of the Union for Reform Judaism!

Kook and Merlin, by the way, both sailed to Israel in 1948 on the ill-fated Irgun arms ship Altalena, which was fired on by IDF forces on the orders of David Ben-Gurion (Merlin was wounded, as the Times article notes). Interestingly, later in life, Ben-Gurion said that he regretted the decision, which he would not have made had he known Irgun leader Menachem Begin as well as he had since come to know him.

I don’t know if Wise regretted his actions in regard to Kook, although he apparently understood that he had failed in his responsibility toward the Jews of Europe. Toward the end of his life, he wrote,

I have seen and shared deep and terrible sorrow. The tale might be less tragic if the help of men had been less scant and fitful.

Today’s establishment still has time to choose the right path.

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2 Responses to “The failure of the liberal Jewish establishment, then and now”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    I am somewhat uncomfortable with this comparison. FDR did not rescue Jews who were being murdered. Obama has pressured Israel to make withdrawals which many believe are conceivably dangerous to Israel. Obama would contend he is doing this in the hope of providing Israel with the security of peace. One situation was a factual reality the second is a hypothetical one.

  2. Vic Rosenthal says:


    My point is not that Obama is the same as FDR. It is that the liberal Jewish establishment appears more concerned to support the president than with the welfare of the Jewish people.