We are currently commemorating the second yahrzeit of Hillel Kook, a remarkable person who carried out a one-man campaign to arouse the conscience of the world to the terrible plight of the Jews in Europe during the Holocaust.
It is undeniable that leaders of the free world came to be aware of the systematic murder of European Jews. I hazard to think that their attitude of indifference to Jewish pain has certain parallels with our current situation.
I refer to the moral obtuseness and double standards employed toward the Jewish state: the reference to cycles of violence and the surreal equivalence this implies between the murderers and their victims. Who can say for sure that were Jews ever again to become powerless, most of the world would not replicate the behavior displayed during those terrible years of the Holocaust?
But that begs another question: Where were the Jews of the free world, when those in Europe were being gassed? Where was the American Jewish community? Its apologists argue that it is unfair to apply contemporary standards in judging the behavior of Jews of the free world then; that in those days anti-Semitism was rampant at every level; that there was a genuine fear among American Jewish leaders that going to the barricades on behalf of their murdered kinsmen would unleash additional waves of anti-Semitism at home.
In short, before the existence of the State of Israel Jews did not have the self-confidence to act they have today.
But those factors can never negate the reality: Jewish behavior during that terrible period amounted to a shameful dereliction of responsibility and lack of courage.
I can still hear my former World Jewish Congress colleague, the late Gerhardt Riegner, telling me about the famous telegram he received when he was secretary-general conveying the terrible news of the Holocaust. What he failed to explain was why he and his colleagues did not initiate a campaign to cry from the rooftops when this chilling telegram exposing the mass murder of our people lay buried in a State Department filing cabinet.
We know how Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Congress, responded. Here was the greatest Diaspora Jewish leader of his time, who prided himself on being a friend and confidante of the American president; yet when he informed Roosevelt of what was happening, the president told him that the Jews should be quiet or they would unleash waves of anti-Semitism upon themselves.
“The only way to stop the slaughter,” Roosevelt insisted, “was to win the war. Tell your Jewish associates to keep quiet.”
This is a matter of record. Not only did Wise hearken to Roosevelt and remain silent, he also ruthlessly muzzled the entire Jewish leadership and branded those who insisted on crying out for help irresponsible extremists.
One such extremist was an emissary from Palestine, Hillel Kook, a nephew of the chief rabbi. He was a Revisionist, a follower of Jabotinsky, and he initiated a one-man campaign in America. In conjunction with the talented author Ben Hecht, operating on a shoestring budget and begging money from anyone who would listen, they drew up petitions and placed media advertisements, creating such a hullabaloo that Jews in the street demanded action.
As a consequence the War Refugee Board was created. But while a number of Hungarian Jews were saved because of pressure on the Hungarian Government, it was a matter of too little, too late.
Jewish history does have a habit of repeating itself and, regrettably, some Jewish leaders in the postwar era continued to bury their heads in the sand. I recall my passionate debates as a youngster in the 1960s with World Jewish Congress president Nachum Goldmann on the plight of Soviet Jews. Then too, the Jewish establishment preached shtadlanut silent diplomacy.
Dr. Goldmann opposed demonstrations. But it is a fact of history that it was only after Meir Kahane’s followers embarked on extremist acts against Soviet representatives in the US, and the subsequent Soviet reaction, that the Jewish establishment finally threw its weight behind the activist Soviet Jewry movement.
WHICH BRINGS me to the situation today. The performance of some Diaspora Jewish leaders is at best lackluster in its support of Israel. When the intifada was unleashed initially many Diaspora leaders opposed demonstrative actions in making Israel’s case. Not until large numbers of ordinary Jews demanded that the Jewish voice be raised did they endorse public acts of support.
But a few weeks ago the president of the World Jewish Congress, Edgar Bronfman, also failed to defend Jewish interests in an hour of need.
Instead of standing up for the Jewish state, he lobbied the president of the United States to oppose steps which the government of Israel deemed crucial to its security. And then, to compound matters, he subsequently told the media that if only the Palestinians would have concentrated exclusively on killing Jews over the Green Line and avoided attacking Jews in Israel itself, they would today have a Palestinian state and enjoy the support of the entire world.
Fortunately, unlike the 1940s, there are today hundreds of thousands of grassroots Jews within the American Jewish community who have nurtured leaders willing to galvanize their organizations to stand up and defend Jewish rights even if that should necessitate a confrontation with their own government.
The moral of the story: The memory of Hillel Kook should be enshrined and upheld as a role model of Jewish leadership in this time of challenge. Again and again we must remind ourselves that Jews are responsible for one another.
Wherever our people are threatened, Jewish leaders must speak out. Should they fail to act, they must be publicly confronted by the power of the people.