When American Jews Were Divided and Weak
MILLIONS OF JEWS TO RESCUE: A Bergson Group Leader’s Account of the Campaign to Save Jews from the Holocaust
by Samuel Merlin, edited by Rafael Medoff
The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, 2011
It’s extraordinary to see how different the contemporary American political climate is for Jews than it was seventy years ago. Today, the “Israel lobby” is widely regarded as all-powerful, and all but one of the 2012 Republican Presidential contenders—along with the Democratic incumbent—have eagerly sought Jewish support. In the 1930s and early ’40s, Jewish lives were barely worth a mention for most Americans.
The authors of these two books address this subject from opposite vantage points on the political spectrum. Samuel Merlin, author of Millions of Jews to Rescue, was a member of the Irgun Zvai Leumi (the National Military Organization or Irgun)—the right-wing “Revisionist” underground associated with Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin. Ariel Hurwitz, author of Jews Without Power, immigrated to Israel from the United States as a member of the radical-left Hashomer Hatzair (The Young Guard) youth movement; he has lived on a kibbutz since the 1950s and is the author of Against the Stream (1994), a history of Hashomer Hatzair in North America.
Merlin (1910-1996), born in Kishinev, Russia, labored for decades on what, as an actual Bergson Group participant, must have been an emotionally difficult task. Although he succeeded in writing one other book for publication in 1969 (The Search for Peace in the Middle East), this second book was not published until 2011, fifteen years after his death. Ably edited and annotated by Dr. Rafael Medoff, it is the author’s account of the Bergson Boys (also called the Bergson Group) led by Hillel Kook—better known by his alias, Peter Bergson. Bergson and his comrades, all veterans of the Irgun in their twenties and thirties, first came to the United States from Palestine to agitate for a Jewish army, but later achieved fame rallying American opinion for the rescue of Europe’s Jews from Hitler’s genocide.
Merlin looks back to his activist years as one of the Bergson Boys with passion and certitude. Dr. Hurwitz writes as a professional historian, carefully weighing facts and complexities. Thus, Hurwitz’s book is less judgmental and more comprehensive, but Merlin’s straightforwardness is compelling.
The initial objective of the Bergson Boys—Bergson, Merlin, Eri Jabotinsky (son of the founder of Revisionist Zionism), Alex Rafaeli, and Yitzhak Ben-Ami (father of J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami)—the creation of an army of “Palestinian and stateless Jews” to fight Hitler, merits further exploration. (Interestingly, from the other end of the spectrum, Hannah Arendt had also strongly favored the creation of such a force.)
Merlin states that 133,000 to 135,000 Palestinian Jews had volunteered to fight, but the service of most was refused because of the British insistence that Palestinian Arabs join on the basis of one-to-one parity. Palestinian Jews would presumably have been happy to serve in either the British armed forces or a separate Jewish army—more motivated (for obvious reasons) to fight the Nazis than were most Palestinian Arabs, who volunteered in much smaller numbers. Most Jews were turned down because the British didn’t want their fight against the Axis powers to be known among Arabs as a pro-Jewish cause.
An additional 100,000 to 200,000 Jews under arms could have significantly aided the Allies in North Africa and elsewhere in the Mediterranean; this force might have been able to launch more operations for rescue and resistance (such as the missions of Hannah Senesch and other Hagganah commandos dropped behind enemy lines) that other national forces were unwilling to pursue. The British eventually allowed the formation of a single Palestinian Jewish brigade that fought in northern Italy. These soldiers also assisted displaced Jews and smuggled some into Palestine.
Seliger, Ralph. 2012. When American Jews were Divided and Weak. Tikkun 27(3): 45.