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Wanted: A Few Good History Lessons
A minor scholarly controversy came to a successful conclusion last week when the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum finally relented, and agreed to include a mention of Jewish activists who pushed for rescue of European Jewry in its permanent exhibition.
The decision is yet another posthumous honor for the late Hillel Kook, who was known in this country as Peter Bergson. His "Bergson Group," as it is often called, ran afoul of the leadership of American Jewry during World War II because of its decision to aggressively lobby the government to help Jews trapped in Nazi Europe. Kook, a Jew from what was then known as Palestine, organized a nationwide campaign that embarrassed the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his supporters, who controlled the major organs of Jewish life in this country at that time.
Rather than aiding Kook's effort, prominent Jews like Rabbi Stephen Wise -- the famous orator, social activist and friend of FDR -- did all they could to stop him. Undaunted, the activists braved the storm of opprobrium directed at them from Jewish sources, and mobilized a wide spectrum of public opinion on behalf of their cause. Their rallies, pageants, newspaper ads and a march on Washington of rabbis orchestrated by Kook proved a crucial factor in leading to the creation of the War Refugee Board in 1944. Though belated and poorly funded, the board helped save hundreds of thousands of Jews in the war's final year.
Thus, it is only appropriate that the most prominent museum dedicated to the Shoah give Kook and his companions their due. This comes after a five-year campaign by the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, a research group that has done much to spread knowledge of this chapter of Jewish history.
But what's most interesting about this incident is that now that the museum has relented, the decision is being criticized because of the institute's tactics. Some, such as the distinguished historian Deborah Lipstadt, who herself agrees that the Bergson group deserves mention at the museum, doesn't like the fact that the public petition and protests used by Wyman have succeeded. She and others don't like the example of institutions being influenced by public opinion.
While Lipstadt and those who agree with her are wrong to characterize what the Wyman Institute has done as political, it's no small irony that it is being bashed by prominent Jews for not playing by establishment rules, just as Kook was.
But there is a broader moral here that should interest everyone, not just the small number of scholars who focus on the Holocaust.
The lesson of the Bergson group is that while most of American Jewry was either silent or acquiescing in the destruction of European Jewry, they spoke up and did something about it. It's no exaggeration to say that in the darkest hour of our history, this ragtag band of malcontents not only helped save lives, but redeemed the honor of U.S. Jewry.
Their example is important because it helped inspire future generations of Jewish activists who similarly caused trouble when it was necessary. The movement to free Soviet Jewry, as well as contemporary pro-Israel activism, can be directly linked to the actions of Kook. Rather than merely wait for the intercession of powerful individuals, the community now openly and aggressively advocates for Jewish issues. Rather than shrink from notice and the focus of our foes, Jews now have the self-confidence that our World War II-era forebears lacked.
Perhaps there are still many of us whose fears overcome their courage when it comes to speaking out for Israel. But we must never go back to a situation where our community lacks the will and the guts to speak up, even in the face of criticism, for what's right.