Remembering Yoram Kaniuk, and the Legacy of the Bergson Group

June, 20 2013

Yoram Kaniuk, the prize-winning Israeli author and peace activist who passed away last week, often ventured well beyond the national consensus with his controversial views on issues such as the role of religion in public life and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But when it came to the question of America’s response to the Holocaust, Kaniuk was one of the outstanding representatives of an important but often-overlooked right-to-left consensus in the Jewish world.

Kaniuk was one of the featured speakers at a 2008 conference in Tel Aviv called “Rescue and Obstruction: The U.S. and the Destruction of European Jewry.” The event drew public attention to the activities of the Bergson Group, the 1940s Jewish activists who sponsored rallies, newspaper ads and lobbying to challenge the Roosevelt administration’s abandonment of European Jewry.

Probably a few of Kaniuk’s peers were surprised to see his name alongside those of former defense minister and Likud MK Moshe Arens and United Torah Judaism MK Rabbi Avraham Ravitz on a petition to Yad Vashem, urging recognition of the Bergson Group. But those who knew Kaniuk best knew that he was a man of principle who was able to set aside religious or political differences when the occasion required it.

Nor was he the only one. The petition was backed by a veritable rainbow coalition of prominent Israelis from across the political and religious spectrums: Meretz Party leaders Shulamit Aloni and Yossi Beilin, along with right-wing political figures Arieh Eldad and Shmuel Katz; left-wing cultural notables David Grossman and A.B. Yehoshua next to nationalist intellectuals such as Yossi Ahimeir of the Jabotinsky Institute and Yisrael Medad of the Begin Center; and the former president and deputy president of the Israeli Supreme Court, Meir Shamgar and Mishael Cheshin, respectively.

The following year, a separate petition to Yad Vashem on the same issue, but signed only by American rabbis, again reflected this remarkable consensus: its 400 signatories featured Union for Reform Judaism president Rabbi Eric Yoffie alongside Yeshiva University chancellor Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, Jewish Theological Seminary dean Rabbi Daniel Nevins, and Reconstructionist Rabbinical College president Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz.

These protests to Yad Vashem, and similar appeals aimed at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, have in recent years helped persuade those institutions to reconsider their omission of the Bergson Group and the shortcomings in their exhibits on America’s response to the Holocaust. The Washington museum ultimately decided to install a new exhibit recognizing the Bergson Group’s contribution to Holocaust rescue, and Yad Vashem commemorated the 70th anniversary of the group’s creation by holding its first-ever conference on the topic (co-sponsored with the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies).

At a time when there are all too few issues in the Jewish world on which there is wall-to-wall agreement, there is an often-overlooked consensus that the Roosevelt administration’s response to the Holocaust was severely flawed–and that there are important lessons to be learned from that experience. The idea that America should care about oppressed people elsewhere in the world, and not automatically abandon them just because U.S. economic or military interests are not directly at stake, is not the
exclusive property of the right or the left. It’s a noble concept that cuts across party lines.

Indeed, the Bergson Group itself was very much a bipartisan coalition. Although its core leaders were originally followers of Revisionist Zionist leader Zev Jabotinsky, its American supporters included many cultural figures who were prominent on the left (Ben Hecht, Stella Adler, Paul Robeson et al), not to mention political figures ranging from arch conservative William Randolph Hearst to Roosevelt’s own Interior Secretary, Harold Ickes. Rescue was one issue that transcended ordinary political labels.

This discussion is especially significant in view of recent attempts by some defenders of President Franklin Roosevelt to politicize the issue. For example, the new book FDR and the Jews, by Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman, claims that contemporary criticism of Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust is the handiwork of “conservative backers of modern-day Israel.” They cite statements by George W. Bush and Benjamin Netanyahu concerning the Roosevelt administration’s rejection of requests to bomb Auschwitz.

Yet it was Bill Clinton who pointed out (at the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Museum) that in the 1930s, “doors to liberty were shut and even after the United States and the Allies attacked Germany, rail lines to the [death] camps within miles of militarily significant targets were left undisturbed.” And it was Nancy Pelosi who, in her recent autobiography, recalled with pride how her father, a Democratic congressman in the 1940s, supported the Bergson Group and opposed FDR’s policy toward European Jewry.

The recent attempts to politicize the debate over America’s response to the Holocaust are an unfortunate throwback to a bygone era, when criticism of FDR was unthinkable and dissidents such as the Bergson Group were shunned and written out of the history books.

Times have changed, and many of the right-versus-left squabbles of yesteryear are simply no longer relevant. Thank you, Yoram Kaniuk, for helping us to remember that.

Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. Jeremy Ben-Ami is founder and president of J Street and a member of the Wyman Institute’s board. His father, the late Yitshaq Ben-Ami, was one of the leaders of the Bergson Group.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *