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Combating Anti-Semitism: An Action Plan Based on the Leadership of Hillel Kook

June 29, 2020

By Holly Seidenfeld

1. America, Israel, and Europe.

In 1940, Hillel Kook migrated to the United States with Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the leader of the Revisionist Zionists. Initially campaigning for the existence of a Jewish army in the increasingly dangerous situation developing in Palestine, Kook quickly shifted his attention to publicizing the plight of European Jews as he learned more about the atrocities being committed overseas. As he gained more notoriety and influence on the American scene, he adopted the pseudonym Peter Bergson and continued to campaign on behalf of the struggling Jews in the Middle East and of those in Europe.

A trap in the thinking of modern anti-Semitism is the belief that the stories of Jewish communities around the world are disconnected. The anti-Semitic statements of American representatives like Ilhan Omar are connected to the anti-Semitic platforms of the British Labour Party which are connected to anti-Zionist beliefs of members of Hadash in the Israeli Knesset. The first step in fighting modern-day anti-Semitism is understanding what Kook knew: we are one Jewish community. It may take different forms in different geographical places, but Jews across the world must advocate for one another against this common enemy.

2. The We Will Never Die Pageant.

Kook was not afraid to make a scene. He began taking out full page advertisements in The New York Times which featured unapologetic and often sensationalist condemnations against the public for its silence on behalf of the Jewish people. In addition to his written campaign, Kook joined forces with Ben Hecht, an American screenwriter, to produce a live action play. On March 9, 1943, We Will Never Die debuted at Madison Square Garden in front of 20,000 onlookers. The performance included a scene in which the ghosts of Jewish victims of the Holocaust described how they had been murdered, and then culminated in a recitation of the kaddish, a Jewish prayer recited for the dead. After its success and positive reception, the play was performed across the country and attended by influential members of American society, including the First Lady and
several Supreme Court Justices.

While entertainment sources like television may seem trivial next to a legislative bill against anti-Semitism or the intellectual debates happening at a local university, culture is actually where we must begin. This is the vehicle that reaches millions of people and occupies hours of their time and thoughts throughout a given day. In order to raise awareness, we need to acknowledge that this is the medium which is most influential. Kook used a play to gather tens of thousands of people and was then able to promote his agenda. Based on his example, we should be inspired: perhaps we should produce a Hollywood script for a box office film that displays the consequences of anti-Semitism, or we should publish a captivating narrative of what happened at the Tree of Life so that Americans don’t simply forget it as they may another news story. While the word ‘entertainment’ may initially seem inappropriate as an answer to stopping anti-Semitism, Kook’s actions demonstrate the success of his method in raising awareness.

3. Convincing President Roosevelt.

As Kook’s messages gained traction among the American public, many activists began advocating on his behalf. In addition to his group of loyal followers (the “Bergson Boys”), Kook earned the support of many, while also earning the criticism of others. Yet, his message remained clear and focused: we needed to protect the Jews of Europe by pressuring the American government to enact new policies. In one failed attempt, Kook organized a group of hundreds of rabbis to march to the capital and meet with the President; despite congressional interest in the large showing, Roosevelt turned down the request but Kook was undeterred. He tirelessly fought to convince Roosevelt to act on behalf of the European Jews. Eventually, his efforts were realized when Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board in 1944, the only official American response to the crimes against the Jewish people during the Holocaust. Kook was credited with being a primary influence in Roosevelt’s decision.

We must use the political sphere to push forward policies that combat anti-Semitism. Lobbying groups are essential in continuing the political protections of the Jewish people. This includes but is not limited to: identifying anti-Semitic attacks as hate crimes and protecting the Jewish victims of Arab terror in Israel. While the cultural sphere is the best way to raise awareness and public support, the political sphere is where plans are able to be enacted and carried out. Therefore, policy must be unequivocally supportive of the Jewish people against anti-Semitism. Kook understood the importance of political support and worked endlessly and successfully to influence the actions of Washington and later of the Knesset in Israel.

4. Joining Forces.

As with all influential figures, Kook was controversial and hated by many. His opponents included notable Jewish leaders, including David Ben-Gurion in Israel and Rabbi Stephen Wise in America. Likely it was Kook’s association with the Irgun and Jabotinsky which alienated or frightened many Jewish American figures, but it was also this disunity that Kook said continued to haunt him in his later years.

Unfortunately, we cannot reflect on Kook’s success in unifying with other Jewish leaders and organizations to combat anti-Semitism; instead, we must learn from his intentions. In both Israel and America, the Jewish community is politically polarized; however, we must look beyond those differences and maintain that the fight against anti-Semitism is a bipartisan issue. With a unified front and the joining of forces, we will be able to influence more change than if we operate separate from one another or, even worse, opposed to one another. Even though it may be difficult, we must learn from Kook – a highly opinionated individual – that we must set aside our differences and fight anti-Semitism together.

“Why did we [I and my supporters] respond the way we did? The question should be, why didn’t
the others?”
-Hillel Kook, 1973

Holly Seidenfeld is a Jewish educator and doctoral student at New York University. Her piece, “Combating Anti-Semitism: An Action Plan Based on the Leadership of Hillel Kook”, was selected as a winner of the Combat Anti-Semitism Movement’s Natan Sharansky Advocacy Award.