I am fed up with Holocaust Memorial Day. I think the whole concept is flawed. Memorialising the most horrendous episode of human history has not prevented other genocides to happen and has not made us more sensible, or more ready to act in order to prevent genocides. Neither had it done that much to counter anti-Semitism. On the contrary, in the UK every year the number of reported anti-Semitic episodes is higher than the previous year, and the current year is no exception.
Therefore I am a bit sceptical regarding Holocaust Memorial Day. And I still am. Except that, precisely because of Holocaust Memorial Day, the Center for German Jewish studies, at Sussex University has set up a very interesting event, (which was last Wednesday), during which a fascinating documentary had been screened. “Not Idle by: Peter Bergson. America, and the Holocaust”. Had it not been for Holocaust Memorial Day, I doubt that such a documentary would have ever been screened, given its uncomfortable subject.
Hillel Kook or Peter Bergson, (the name which he adopted in the USA), was a Revisionist Zionist, a member of the Irgun, (yes, the Right-wing, the bad guys), who arrived in 1940 in the USA, together with a group of militants, led by Vladimir Jabotinsky. Their initial goal was to fundraise for the Jewish Army, but as soon as information about the Nazi genocide started arriving in the USA, their goal became to raise awareness about the fate of European Jewry.
They put advertisements in newspapers, such as “For Sale to Humanity 70,000 Jews, Guaranteed Human Beings at $50 a Piece”, in response to an offer by Romania to send their Jews to safety if the travel expenses would be provided. They produced a pageant written by Ben Hecht, “We will never die!” memorializing the 2,000,000 Jews who had already been murdered. When the show toured the USA, in places such as Georgia and Alabama, they refused to segregate the public and for the first time, in the Deep South, the Afro American public was allowed to enter theatres, previously “white only”.
Despite the group’s restless activism, nothing was achieved. The Allies for example did not bomb the railways on which the cattle trains travelled towards Auschwitz. The USA did not pay the travel expenses for the Romanian Jews.
The most uncomfortable part of the story is the opposition of American Jewish leadership. They were clearly not happy with such a campaign. They feared that anti-Semitism would increase in the USA because of this kind of propaganda. They were afraid that the public opinion would perceive the war as a “Jewish war”, hence denying support. As the documentary tells, painfully and clearly, there had been attempts to have Kook expelled, to put the group finances’ under scrutiny, to silence their voices.
The hostility towards Peter Bergson was and is a long-standing one. Even now American Jewish leaders don’t like been told that they knew what was going on in Europe during the war and refused to intervene. But, sadly, this is the truth. Nor is it a purely American problem. Until 2011, Yad Vashem publications did not mention Hillel Kook. Which is hilarious. Even now, they devote more space to the German Catholic opposition to the Nazi Regime, than to this group of Jews. And I personally experienced a certain degree of hostility in Rabbinical schools and associations whenever Hillel Kook and his group happened to mention.
The reason for such hostility is that Hillel Kook does not tick all the proper boxes. He was a Revisionist, a Right-winger. He returned to Israel in 1948 to be put under arrest by the Haganah because he was on the Altalena, the ship carrying weapons for the Jewish fighters in Jerusalem. Ben Gurion, like certain Lefties today, was willing to leave Jerusalem to the Arabs. Not so Hillel Kook. He always made it clear that a Palestinian State already existed, it’s called Jordan. No need for a Palestinian State. But at the same time, Hillel Kook opposed any discrimination against Arab Israelis. He advocated for a Constitution on the American model, with a clear separation between religion and State. It does not make you popular in Jewish circles if you happen to mention Hillel Kook. Whenever I mention him I discover he is still “persona non grata”.
Periodically, we hear personalities who pretend to be troublemakers only because they parrot inside the Jewish world, the same arguments you can read in The Guardian. As if they were unpopular. Look at Peter Bergson/Hillel Kook, and his group, which included Ben-Zion Netanyahu, father of Benjamin. Because of hostility from the Jewish establishments, they were threatened to be expelled from the USA, in the 40s! Which is slightly more uncomfortable than having your views openly challenged at Limmud or at the Board of Deputees!
With all the problems I have with Holocaust Memorial Day, I am grateful because such a day has given the opportunity for Brighton Jewry to know more about this fascinating and controversial personality. Which leaves us with the question. What can we learn from Hillel Kook? What does his story teach us and the opposition of Jewish leaders to the mobilisation of the American public opinion in favour of the Jewish State?
I believe it should be a warning against complacency. Too often, and for well known historical reasons, Jewish leaders prefer to act behind the scenes, trusting their own influence on the non-Jewish authorities. Too often the grassroots militancy, such as Sussex Friends of Israel, are looked upon with suspicions and fear of consequences. It is a sort of automatic reaction. Something wrong may happen if we ally too closely with the wrong kind of people: we may lose friends in the Left, in the Right, in the above…This was not the concern of Hillel Kook.
A man of integrity, a Zionist, a Jew whose voice went sadly unheard. Despite his calls, the Allies did not bomb the railways to Auschwitz. This is a permanent moral stain on the Jewish leadership of his age.
And it must be a warning to us, to avoid the same, tragic mistakes. As per the anthem of the Revisionists shekhet hu refesh, silence is despicable. On Holocaust Memorial Day, and all the days of the year, let us not forget.
[10 February 2018]