As public debate grows over the Bush administration's eavesdropping policy, some American Jews are recalling a time when the Roosevelt administration undertook some questionable eavesdropping of its own - and Jewish activists, including some in Philadelphia, were the targets.
The year was 1944, and the object of U.S. government wrath was the Bergson group, a political action committee led by Hillel Kook who went by the name of Peter Bergson in this country. Kook, a resident of British Mandatory Palestine, came to the United States in 1940, and led a series of political action campaigns seeking U.S. rescue of Jews from Hitler and the establishment of a Jewish state.
Through full-page newspaper advertisements, theatrical productions, rallies and lobbying on Capitol Hill, the Bergson group gained national attention for its cause. "We Will Never Die," its dramatic pageant about the Nazi genocide, was viewed by more than 100,000 Americans, including some 15,000 who attended the performance at Philadelphia's Convention Hall in April 1943.
Just before Yom Kippur that year, the Bergson group mobilized more than 400 rabbis to march to the White House to plead for rescue of Jewish refugees. One of the leaders of the march was Rabbi Bernard L. Levinthal of Philadelphia.
The group's activity made it a thorn in the side of the State Department, which resented pressure to aid Hitler's victims, and opposed criticism of England's closure of Palestine to Jewish refugees. Irritated by Kook's campaigns, the Roosevelt administration sent the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service to squash him.
"This man has been in the hair of Cordell Hull," an internal FBI memo bluntly noted in 1944, in its explanation of the reasons for U.S. government action against Kook and his confederates.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, I was able to obtain more than 1,000 pages detailing the administration's campaign against the Bergson activists. The FBI's tactics included eavesdropping on their telephone conversations, opening their mail, sifting through their trash, and using informants to gather information and steal documents from Bergson's office.
FBI investigators hoped to find evidence that Bergson was providing assistance to the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the Jewish underground militia led by Menachem Begin, which was fighting to oust the British from Palestine.
Despite years of hunting, the FBI never found that smoking gun.
Louis Yampolsky was a leader in the group's Philadelphia chapter. He was also the accountant for its national headquarters in New York City. When the IRS launched a full-scale inquiry into the group's finances in 1945, seeking to revoke the group's tax-exempt status, Kook urgently summoned him to New York. Louis' son Jack, who is today a retired accountant, accompanied his father on what turned out to be an almost yearlong ordeal.
IRS agents repeatedly visited the Bergson group's office. The Yampolskys were compelled to dig out and reconcile every piece of financial information in the group's records.
"There were no photocopy machines in those days," recalls Jack. "We had to hand-copy every disbursement and every receipt that was given for every donation. And because the group had enormous grass-roots appeal, it received literally thousands of $1 or $2 donations from people all over the country."
Not only were the IRS investigators unable to find evidence of any wrongdoing, but, according to Bergson, as the IRS team became familiar with the group's work, they came to sympathize with it, and "when they finished, [they] made a contribution between them - every one of them gave a few dollars."
Although its investigations came to naught, the FBI did manage to score one minor victory when it helped convince the Pennsylvania State Board of Censors to take action against a film prepared by the Bergson group.
The 18-minute movie, which the group showed at its public meetings, included footage of Holocaust survivors, scenes of British brutality against Jews in Palestine, and an appeal for funds to support the Jewish struggle for independence. The board ruled that the request for funds was "not proper and in the judgment of the board tends to corrupt morals," and deleted that portion from screenings in Pennsylvania.
"When there is a genuine threat, governments sometimes have to do things like eavesdrop," concedes Jack Yampolsky. "But if they invade people's privacy for political reasons, that's another story. The fact that we vocally disagreed with U.S. government policy regarding the Holocaust and Jewish statehood was not a valid reason for the Roosevelt administration to enlist the FBI and the IRS in a war against the Bergson group."
Rafael Medoff is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.