The group began by raising money for illegal Jewish immigration to what was then the British Mandate of Palestine and promoting the idea of an army composed of stateless and Palestinian Jews. But the mission abruptly changed in November 1942 after reports of the Nazi annihilation of two million European Jews emerged. Like earlier reports of the mass killing of Jews, the news barely made the inside pages of major American newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post.
The Bergsonites were appalled by what they saw as the indifference of the Roosevelt administration and the passivity of the Jewish establishment, which staunchly supported the administration and largely accepted its argument that the primary American military objective was to win the war, not to save European Jews. The group embarked on a provocative campaign to publicize the genocide and to lobby Congress to support the rescue of Jews, roaming the hallways of Capitol Hill and knocking on doors, displaying a degree of chutzpah that made the traditional, pro-Roosevelt Jewish establishment uncomfortable.
The establishment, led by Reform Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, fought Kook’s group tooth and nail. Writer Ben Hecht, recruited by Kook to stage a huge pageant in Madison Square Garden in March 1943 (“We will never die”) to raise awareness and embarrass the government into action, described one encounter:
I first became aware that there was annoyance with me among the Jews when Rabbi Stephen Wise, head of the Jews of New York, head of the Zionists and, as I knew from reading the papers, head of almost everything noble in American Jewry, telephoned me at the Algonquin Hotel where I had pitched my Hebrew tent.
Rabbi Wise said he would like to see me immediately in his rectory. His voice, which was sonorous and impressive, irritated me. I had never known a man with a sonorous and impressive voice who wasn’t either a con man or a bad actor. I explained I was very busy and unable to step out of my hotel.
“Then I shall tell you now, over the telephone, what I had hoped to tell you in my study,” said Rabbi Wise. “I have read your pageant script and I disapprove of it. I must ask you to cancel this pageant and discontinue all your further activities in behalf of the Jews. If you wish hereafter to work for the Jewish Cause, you will please consult me and let me advise you.”
Wise was a confidant of Roosevelt, and tried to use his influence to get the British to allow European Jews to enter Palestine, with no success. He was even unable to get Roosevelt to publicly speak out on the subject. According to Hecht, Kook told him that
The United States has a secret pact with Great Britain concerning the future of Palestine. It is intended to belong to the British. President Roosevelt will do nothing to violate that pact. He will not speak of Jews being massacred because that might excite popular opinion to rescue them–and result in their being sent to Palestine as a haven, which would be a violation of this pact [in December 1942, Roosevelt and allied governments did finally issue a declaration denouncing Hitler’s murderous project, but no concrete actions were taken — ed.].
When Kook organized a march of 400 mostly Orthodox Rabbis (but including Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, z”l, who had been ordained as a Conservative rabbi some months before) to the White House, Roosevelt left before they arrived, on the advice of Wise and others.
In Louis Rappaport’s words (“Shake Heaven and Earth: Peter Bergson and the struggle to rescue the Jews of Europe,” p. xi),
During the era, Zionist leaders like Rabbi Wise and Nahum Goldmann told the State Department that Kook/Bergson was as big a threat as Hitler to the well-being of American Jewry.
Wise did his best, in the tradition of the medieval ghetto community leader who protects his people by virtue of his relationship with the goyische prince, but he failed utterly. And then he did his best to sabotage the more aggressive, public efforts of Kook. His publicly stated reason was that he feared that Kook’s actions (which included criticism of Christians who did not intervene) would stimulate an antisemitic reaction in the US.