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  • Why Mrs. Brandeis Endorsed the Irgun: An Episode in Holocaust-Era American Jewish Politics
  • Rafael Medoff (bio)

On a sunny April morning in 1944 the mailman brought a fascinating item to the New York headquarters of the American League for a Free Palestine (ALFP), a militant Jewish statehood group established by US supporters of Menachem Begin’s Irgun Tzvai Leumi underground. It was a membership card signed by Mrs. Alice Brandeis, widow of the famed jurist and Zionist leader, together with payment of her annual membership dues. To the ALFP, Mrs. Brandeis’ membership was a pleasant surprise; to the mainstream Zionist leaders with whom Mrs. Brandeis normally associated it was a horrifying shock. The ensuing campaign by the established Zionist leadership to bring about Mrs. Brandeis’ withdrawal from the ALFP turned out to be more than just another colorful exercise in intra-Zionist rivalry. It provides a vivid illustration of a broader trend underway in the American Jewish community during the 1940s: the embrace of militant Zionism by growing numbers of American Jews in response to the Holocaust and the British shutdown of Palestine immigration.

The arrival of Mrs. Brandeis’ membership card was more a pleasant surprise than a shock to Harry Louis Selden, the author and publicist who served as volunteer president of the maverick ALFP. 1 After all, the previous year Mrs. Brandeis had joined the ALFP’s affiliate, the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe. 2 Both groups—and several others like them—were the brainchild of Peter Bergson (the alias used by Hillel Kook), a Revisionist Zionist emissary from Palestine who had been dispatched to the United States in 1940. Bergson and his handful of colleagues had a flair for public relations. Their use of full-page advertisements in the American press helped raise public consciousness about the plight of European Jewry and attracted the sympathy of a broad cross section of prominent Americans, including members of Congress and leading artists, writers and intellectuals. Bergson’s backers included the actors Marlon Brando, Eddie Cantor and Edward G. Robinson; Christian theologians Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich; [End Page 29] national labor leaders such as AFL President William Green and CIO President Philip Murray; publisher William Randolph Hearst; Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes; and former president Herbert Hoover, to name just a few. Bergson and his colleagues established the ALFP in early 1944 to lobby for immediate Jewish statehood and to seek American public support for the recently-launched Irgun revolt against the British Mandatory regime in Palestine.

Most mainstream American Jewish leaders greeted Bergson’s activity with disdain. They regarded him as a rival, worrying—with justification—that the Bergsonites’ militant message was resonating with grassroots American Jews. 3 In addition, Jewish leaders feared that Bergson’s public criticism of American refugee policy would sour Jewish relations with the Roosevelt Administration and perhaps even cause anti-Semitism.4 Leaders of the American Jewish Congress and the American Zionist Emergency Council (the coalition of mainstream US Zionist groups) frequently approached politicians, intellectuals and rabbis who had endorsed the Bergsonites and pressured them to sever their connection. They often succeeded. 5

The Bergson group’s first major challenge to the Roosevelt Administration was a full-page ad in the New York Times responding to the [End Page 30] failure of the 1943 Bermuda refugee conference to produce any concrete rescue plans. The ad’s headline blared: “To 5,000,000 Jews in the Nazi Death-Trap, Bermuda Was a ‘Cruel Mockery.’” The controversy sparked by the ad gained additional (and, from Bergson’s viewpoint, unwanted) momentum when it turned out that the 33 US senators whose names appeared in the ad had not been consulted about its text. They had signed on, a year or so earlier, as endorsers of Bergson’s campaign for the creation of a Jewish army to fight against the Nazis. Since the Bermuda ad was officially sponsored by the same Bergson group, the Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews, the senators’ names duly appeared as part of the Committee’s list of supporters. Although only two of the 33 Senators publicly dissociated themselves from the Bermuda...

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