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As The Jerusalem Post reported on Sunday, more than 100 Jewish leaders and Holocaust scholars have petitioned the US Holocaust Memorial Museum to tell the story of the Bergson Group in its main exhibit. They are quite right, because this historical episode holds powerful lessons for the world situation today.
The Bergson Group, also known as the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, was led by Hillel Kook, the nephew of the chief rabbi of Palestine, who took the pseudonym Peter Bergson. Bergson had come to the US to organize on behalf of the Zionist cause. This changed when, in November 1942, he read a small news report buried in the Washington Post confirming that at least two million Jews had been murdered by the Nazis. "It was the most traumatic day of my life," he later recalled.
Obsessed with trying to save the lives of millions of Jews whose fate still hung in the balance, Bergson faced three obstacles, according to a paper by Rafael Medoff for the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies (which organized the petition to the museum). First, Americans were largely unaware of the Holocaust, since major newspapers did not consider it front page news. Second, President Franklin Roosevelt opposed taking any special action to save Jews, believing that the only thing that could be done on their behalf was to win the war. Finally, many US Jewish leaders opposed organizing protests on behalf of European Jewry, fearing it would spark anti-Semitism.
In 1943-44, for example, the Bergson Group ran some 200 advertisements in newspapers across the country, many of them written by playwright Ben Hecht and using headlines like, "How Well Are You Sleeping? Is There Something You Could Have Done to Save Millions of Innocent People from Torture and Death?" and "Time Races Death: What Are We Waiting For?"
"One of their ads was delayed," Medoff writes, "when American Jewish Committee president Joseph Proskauer warned Bergson that the ad's criticism of ... disinterest in the Nazi massacres would be perceived as 'anti-Christian [and] could well bring on pogroms in the USA.'" Bergson held back on condition that Proskauer mobilize Jewish leaders to press for US rescue action. After giving Proskauer six months to act, the Bergson Group went ahead with the ad, which, needless to say, did not result in pogroms.
Bergson, together with the Va'ad Hatzala (Orthodox rescue committee), also organized 400 rabbis to march in Washington, demanding action. Roosevelt, under the advice of Jewish leaders, did not meet with the rabbis, but Bergson's efforts led to Congressional pressure for the creation of the War Refugee Board in 1944. The WRB was credited with saving 200,000 Jews and 20,000 non-Jews.
Some believe these lessons from the Holocaust era are irrlevant today. According to Nichola Torbett, director of national programs for Tikkun, a progressive Jewish organization, "Any language that compares a current regime to Hitler or the Nazis" is a "false analogy." She said to Fox News, "As far as I know, Iran hasn't killed 6 million people ... so that comparison doesn't hold up." True, there is a major difference between the Nazi Holocaust and the Iranian genocidal threats: the first has occurred, the second is still preventable.
While President Bush struggles with political troubles at home, the Iranian regime is gaining the time it needs to build nuclear weapons for the pursuit of their jihadist ideology, an ideology committed to Israel's destruction and the subjugation, through terrorism, of the Western world. This process will, along the way, obliterate the nuclear arms control regime of the last half century, resulting in many more nuclear powers, particularly in the Middle East.
It is mind boggling that people calling themselves "progressive" seem not only disinterested in standing up to the rise of Islamofascism, but are motivated to oppose anyone who will. This opposition is just one component of the isolationist trend in the US, which is highly reminiscent of the US isolationism in the 1930s, as Hitler geared up for war.
Part of Bergson's genius was his ability to form a broad coalition that cut across political, ideological, religious and ethnic lines, belying the opinion that Holocaust rescue was too divisive an issue. Currently, both American Jews and the Israeli government are concerned about not making Iran a "Jewish issue." This cannot be an excuse for inaction; not then, and not now.
The Jewish world must mobilize itself to build a Bergson-style broad coalition to stop Iran, by sanctions if possible and by other means if necessary. To do so, it must overcome fears of being labeled warmongers or parochial; stopping Iran is the opposite of both. Like Hitler, Iran's mullahs will not stop until they have forced war on the powers who failed to stop them when they had the chance.