According to a growing number of academics and political extremists, Jews have too much power in America.
This backlash against the so-called Israel Lobby has predictably caused many to wonder whether the assertive voice of contemporary Jewish political activism is too loud, too brash and, most of all, too pushy in making its case.
Those who wonder what the world would be like if only those pushy Jews listened to their critics need not engage in science fiction. All you need is a history lesson about how American Jewish organizations and leaders – the predecessors of the ones that are today considered the take-no-prisoners cornerstone of “the lobby” – acted during the Holocaust. And to do that, a visit to an off-Broadway theater this month will do nicely.
In Bernard Weinraub’s new play “The Accomplices” at the New Group’s Acorn Theater on Manhattan’s 42nd Street, the eminent Rabbi Stephen Wise is confronted by an obnoxious young foreigner. The young man, who goes by the name of Peter Bergson, is frustrated by the unwillingness of the most influential American Jew of his era to use his power to speak up to save European Jews slated for death by Hitler’s Nazis.
Explaining his reluctance to confront an American president whom he considers a “god,” Wise says that American Jews are just too scared to make a stink about rescue. “We don’t shout,” says Wise. “We work quietly. We don’t draw attention to ourselves.”
Bergson was the assumed name of Hillel Kook, a member of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the pre-Israel underground resistance movement. And he’ll have none of it. A stranger to America, he was mystified by the supine attitude of an American Jewry living in comparative security.
He could not comprehend how deeply intimidated Jews and their leaders were by American anti-Semitism. While Bergson saw only a prosperous group who need not fear the assaults of Cossacks, even a powerful figure like Wise trembled at the thought of the hatred expressed by radio personality and anti-Semite Father Charles Coughlin.
“Don’t judge me!” Wise implores as Bergson prepares to launch a noisy public campaign.
Sadly, for Wise, posterity has done little but that ever since.
Weinraub, a longtime reporter for The New York Times who retired a few years ago to try his hand at playwriting, may be exploring familiar territory for those scholars who have been picking at this ugly scab on our communal conscience for decades, but his riveting play has the ability to tell this story for an audience that may never crack open a history book. In resurrecting this confrontation for the stage, he has tapped into a message that is as timely as it is dramatic.
Set in New York and Washington during the years of World War II, the action of “The Accomplices” switches back and forth between scenes in a small New York apartment and the corridors of power in the capital.
In New York, a couple of “nobodies from nowhere” – Bergson and his colleague, Samuel Merlin – try to organize a movement for rescue. At the same time, we see how President Franklin Roosevelt’s appointment of Undersecretary of State Breckenridge Long – a man hostile to Jews and opposed to any thought of allowing refugees into the United States – has made this country an “accomplice” in some ways to the desire of the Nazis to kill those who can’t escape their clutches.
But as much as the roles of FDR and Long in this scenario are central to understanding how events preceded, our attention is inevitably drawn elsewhere. It is the failure of Jewish leaders like Wise, the preeminent spokesman for Jewry of his era, and Jewish insiders like Samuel Rosenman, one of FDR’s top advisers, to risk their own standing in the president’s inner circle to advocate for rescue, that seems to constitute the most shameful aspect of the story.
The willingness of Bergson to go public with his frustration about indifference to the ongoing slaughter of Jews appalls Wise. He is willing to swallow any indignity and failure rather than challenge the president. Instead, he sees Bergson, the Jew who is willing to “shout,” as more of an enemy than even the Germans.