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  • The "Bergson Boys" and the Origins of Contemporary Zionist Militancy
  • Aaron Berman (bio)
The "Bergson Boys" and the Origins of Contemporary Zionist Militancy. By Judith Tydor Baumel. Translated from the Hebrew by Dena Ordan. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005. xxx + 331.

Judith Tydor Baumel, a historian at Bar Ilan University, presents a well-written and informative study of one of the most controversial movements in modern American Jewish history. The Committee for a Jewish Army, the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation, and the American League for a Free Palestine captured the imagination of some Americans while earning the hatred of almost the entire American Jewish leadership of the World War II era. A small delegation of emissaries of the Irgun Zeva'i Leumi established all these organizations. Historians and the descendents of the wartime American Jewish leadership still hotly debate the effectiveness of the delegation. Baumel is to be credited with producing a comprehensive portrait and balanced analysis of the Irgun group.

Hillel Kook, an Irgun officer who adopted the nom de guerre Peter Bergson, led the small delegation whose other members included Samuel Merlin, Arieh Ben-Elizer, Alexander Rafaeli, Yitzhak Ben-Ami, and Eri Jabotinsky, the son of right-wing Zionist ideologue Vladimir Zeev Jabotinsky. With extremely limited resources and cut off from their comrades in Palestine by the war, this small group of young men championed the rescue of European Jews facing extermination by the Nazis and advanced a bold and somewhat heretical brand of Zionism in the United States.

Baumel's ability to analyze the activity of the "Bergson Boys" within the contexts of American, European, and Yishuv history is noteworthy and valuable. Kook was close to David Raziel, the prewar leader of the Irgun. Raziel's death, in 1941 on a covert mission for the British Army, left the Irgun leaderless and Bergson without a crucial ally. Bergson and [End Page 478] most of the lieutenants would never have the same close relationship with Menachem Begin, who assumed command of the Irgun in 1944. Baumel's description of the strained relationships between the Bergson Boys and the Revisionist Zionist movement in the United States is valuable. Her portrayal of the particularly complex relationship between the Irgun delegation and Zeev Jabotinsky, the charismatic "father" of the Zionist right wing, is particularly effective and even moving. Jabotinsky, who spent the last months of his life in the United States [he died in August 1940], grew increasingly angry at the unwillingness of his young protégées to follow his direct orders. The members of the delegation respected Jabotinsky as a sage but bristled at accepting him as a commander.

Baumel correctly credits the Irgun delegation with championing a new style in American Jewish political activity. While traditional American Jewish leaders made "requests," the Bergson Boys issued "demands." As Baumel correctly notes, Kook and his comrades made brilliant use of public relations. Cultivating the press and the media, they effectively employed newspaper advertisements, publications, and pageants to present their case. The Bergson Boys had a talent for finding influential supporters. Ben Hecht, a highly successful Hollywood screenwriter, was among the delegation's most ardent supporters, and he authored some of their most potent advertisements.

Baumel effectively argues that the Irgun delegation modeled a public relations strategy that the established American Jewish and Zionist organizations followed. This new style, born during World War II, still characterizes American Jewish political activity. However, Baumel may underestimate the political effectiveness of the Bergson Boys. For example, the confidential report outlining American "acquiescence" in the murder of European Jewry delivered by Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau to President Franklin Roosevelt in 1943 certainly contributed to FDR's decision to establish the War Refugee Board. However, Roosevelt, the consummate charmer, might have been able to deflect Morgenthau had it not been for the pro-rescue public relations campaign of the Irgun delegation.

After the creation of the War Refugee Board, the Bergson group turned its attention to Palestine. Under the banner of the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation, the group called for the independence of the Hebrew state in Palestine. The concept...


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