Hillel Kook (Peter Bergson): There is something unique, if I have to say it myself, about what we did some 30 or so years ago now. And it isn’t so much what we did, it is what we didn’t do. This is one historical claim I’m very proud of; unfortunately it’s quite unique, and this is that shortly after May the 14th, 1948, we liquidated, we disbanded to my knowledge for the first time, as they say, in 2000 years, a thriving, large mass movement which had on its list – it wasn’t a card-carrying membership organization, but at that point we had close to half-a-million Americans, Jews and non-Jews, but largely Jews. As a matter of principle we were not a Jewish organization (which I will explain in a little while).
We had at that point close to half-a-million people roaring to go. Furthermore, we had half-a-million dollars in the treasury, which was also a unique situation. And we disbanded, liquidated voluntarily, the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation, which was sort of a government-in-exile before Israel was established, which consisted only of what are now Israeli citizens but at that time were Palestinians-in-exile, and the American League for a Free Palestine, which was an American organization supporting them. There was also a Canadian League for a Free Palestine, a French League for a Free Palestine, and even a Latin American one, and these groups between them had about six newspapers and magazines. And all this was shut down and liquidated, true to a promise, and true to the inner purposes of the movement, which was a revolutionary movement, and this is that we were fighting for the independence of our country, that we were not a party, and that once the country is independent it will elect, we hoped in a duly democratic process, its government, and anyone of us who will be a citizen of that country will be free to do as he pleased, or not do as he pleased, at that time. And even though in 1948 only a part of Palestine was liberated and there was partition and there was fighting and God knows there were a million excuses, and I must say that the majority of our leadership here was for continuing the work. And if you think that today in the 1980’s the Jewish National Fund that was founded 100 years ago to buy land from the Turks is still existing and somehow always manages to adapt its existence to the needs -- so it stopped buying land from the Turks, it started buying land from the Arabs, now it’s buying land from the government of Israel, it’s doing something else – it exists. On a theater ticket to a movie in Tel Aviv, if you went there today, you’ll still pay two cents, or Israeli cents, Mas Keren Kayemet, “Keren Kayemet” tax, and nobody knows why it’s there or what’s being done with the money exactly, but it’s there – like many things in our life we are an ancient people and we tend to be anachronistic.
But let me tell you a little bit of what we have done, having told you what we have not done, and this is that we did not continue a reasoned, justified existence, but rather we knew when to quit. Let me tell you what we did when I believe that we knew what should be done. What really happened is like many things in life and in history, accidental to a large degree. I was head of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, which was one of the two then major underground organizations, there was the Haganah and the Irgun, and after a series of splits and all sorts of internal problems I became a member of the high command of the Irgun in 1937, at the ripe age of 21, or going on 22, and found myself at the end of that year for the first time as an adult, more-or-less, in Poland and introduced to the Jewish ghetto and remained in charge of, in command of Irgun operations abroad, which were rather expanded, including the so-called illegal immigration in those years which brought to Palestine some thirty-thousand people until the beginning of World War [II]. And in 1940 I found myself in this country [the USA] as part of these activities of the Irgun, except that when the War broke out there was hardly an Irgun left to speak of. And we were a group of five people here, at the time a “cut-off battalion” as the late great Jabotinsky called us. And we did what we thought was right under the circumstances to serve our country. We were Zionists of course, born or brought up in Palestine, and what we were doing at the time was promoting a Jewish Army to fight alongside the Allies in the war against the Germans. The United States was still neutral in that war at the time. And I remember a man, Mr. Alfred Strelsin, who is now a very important educational business executive (he is the president of a company called C__). He was then a young man, certainly much younger than I am today, and a simple American businessman, not a great intellectual heavyweight, and he said, “Why a Jewish Army? Why not a Palestinian Army?” And I gave him the usual Zionist answer, you know, “We are Jews, and we suffered as Jews, and our nation is Jews, etc., etc; and not a Palestinian army, we are not Palestinians, we are not Philistines, you know, we are Jews! We want a Jewish Army.” And while we were working on a Committee for a Jewish Army, Mr. Strelsin gave in, and my colleagues and I paid no attention to him. The United States got kicked in its south side and into the War through the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the Jewish boys, like all other Americans in the United States, started flocking into Army recruitment centers. And Mr. Strelsin came into an Executive Committee meeting [Committee for a Jewish Army] and said, “Well, what kind of a Jewish Army do you want now? Do you want American boys who are Jews to go to the American Army, or to your Jewish Army?” And suddenly we realized that Mr. Strelsin may have been a businessman, but maybe he was thinking better than we were, and we started scratching our heads. And we came up with an answer like good Jews, a little bit “to the thumb,” and we changed the name to “Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews.” We said, “Aha! That is the difference! You American Jews have a country, it’s called America. You want it and it wants you, you are free and equal, you are here of your choice. But we don’t have a country – our country is Palestine, ‘Eretz Yisrael.’ All the Jews of Rumania, the Jews of Poland, and the Jews of Russia who are wandering throughout Europe, they are stateless Jews: they don’t have a country, they don’t belong to the countries in which they live or have lived; they don’t want them and they’re not wanted there, and this is the difference.” Mr. Strelsin was happy, we were happy. The name was clumsy, but it set in motion some thinking. And, as all young people who read a little, who study a little, and I went to the Hebrew University and studied philosophy, and before that I studied the Talmud in the Yeshiva in Jerusalem. I have in a sense, not in an historical or not in a scientific sense, but in a pragmatic practical sense sort of “discovered America” as one says; I started looking around and I came to the conclusion that there is a big difference between the position of the Jews in Poland, where when I came for the first time as an adult (I came to Palestine at the age of eight, so for all intents and purposes I was Palestinian raised if not born), but when I came to Poland and discovered the masses of four-million Jews there, it suddenly struck me in that year 1941 in New York, ’42, that there’s a basic difference between a Polish Jew and an American Jew. And that the Zionist Movement refuses to recognize this difference, and this difference was never explained to me. And the difference was: a free choice, that the Polish Jew was a Polish citizen and a Pole, so to say, because he couldn’t get out, because his country, Palestine, today Israel, then as we called it in Hebrew Eretz Yisrael, was occupied by the British, who by force refused to let them go there. And the Poles did not regard him as a real equal citizen, nor did he really regard himself as a Pole. Because in Poland when the War broke out certain parts of Poland called “Silesia” where they lived, the Poles of German origin who lived there for 900 years in one day became German again. So they became German overnight, in their feelings, and in the feelings of the Poles towards them and in the feelings of the Germans towards them. In the United States, of course, Mr. Kennedy was the most popular President of the United States after one generation; in Germany Mr. Eisenhower would be regarded German or Swiss or whatever he was, and so I think Mr. Kennedy would be regarded as an Irishman. So this melting pot of the United States is a unique historical thing actually, and totally alien to the European way of thinking, of “ossified” nationalism, and we started talking and discussing and debating and what we came up with is a philosophy, a theory and a program which in my opinion played a very important part, unrecognized – totally – in the establishment of the Republic of Israel – I like the word “republic” better than “state” by the way, which is a limited word – and which still today is probably the only answer to many of the ills that beset Israel, the main one being, of course, the achievement of peace, peace with its non-Jewish populations (so-called Arab population) and peace with its surrounding non-Jewish neighbors (so-called Arab states).
But coming back to the years 1942, -‘3, in Washington and in New York, with the World War raging, with 5- to 10-thousand Jews a day being massacred by the Germans, with our little cut-off group at that time working on a committee called “The Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe,” we came to a realization that what we were doing in effect in Palestine when the Irgun was reorganized by Mr. Ben-Eliezar, one of our group whom we sent there for that purpose and who made Mr. Begin commander, I mean I appointed Mr. Begin as commander of the Irgun at Mr. Ben-Eliezar’s suggestion, as suggestion of the group of senior officers of the Irgun at the time, I being at that time the only member of the high command of the Irgun who was neither dead nor in jail; David Raziel being commander was killed in Iraq in 1941, Abraham Stern split away and formed the Lechi and he was killed by the British, and the other members of the high command were in jail in Eritrea or in the Sudan, wherever they were kept at the time. And I by seniority was at the age of twenty-something the elder statesman of the Irgun, so to say. And also because we were the only organized group here doing things which were of importance and of service, and word of which got to Palestine and gave great cheer and courage to the people there. We came to a conclusion that what we were doing was fighting what today is so easily described as a war of national independence, of national liberation. The war of independence is fought by people on the right of self-determination; a right of self-determination is the right of a person to choose his own identity and to determine his own life. We said we were Jews, Palestine was our country, and we want to have a Jewish government, and not a British government, and we want the British to get out.
And then came the questions. In Palestine there lived some people who were Arabs, who were Moslems, who were Christians, and between this problem and the problem that Mr. Strelsin raised about the role of the American Jews in the Jewish Army, we started then giving some very serious attention, in the year 1941, -‘2, to the character of the Jewish State when it attained its independence. And we were practical young people to whom a Jewish State was not a dream, was not a religious hope, was not “L’shana Haba-ah B’Yrushalayim,” which some of us prayed and all of us said at the [Passover] seder, but which was a practical, pragmatic program which we believed, and God knows there are tens of thousands of people living today in this country who heard me in those years at hundreds of meetings in this country proclaim, that at a maximum within five years after the end of the War Palestine will be a sovereign, independent Hebrew Republic, as we called it, and I’ll come in a minute to why. We started being bothered with the practical questions of sovereign life. And we came to a strange realization, and this is that the long history, the very unique and miraculous history of the Jewish people and our survival of almost nineteen-hundred years, two-thousand years the saying goes, of exile, abnormal, hostile-environment existence, this great historical feat also had some liabilities; like all assets there’s another side of the balance, that if we wanted to achieve independence, if we wanted to have a government of our own and an army of our own and a country of our own, and be a part of a modern family of nations in the twentieth century, that we could not remain, we could not turn the clock back, to the Jerusalem of before Christ, or the first century of Christ, and remain the same kind of a theocratic, unified state-church that we were; the whole world was theocratic at the time, so were we naturally. We said that one has to bring up-to-date the history of the Jewish people, that the existence of the Jews as a combination religion-nation or nation-religion, or people, or “peoplehood” as the late Rabbi Wise used to call it, that all these were palliatives, all these were shallow, superficial answers to deep questions which would work only as long as the anomaly of Jewish existence continues, as long as a Jewish nation normally – a government, a country, a sovereign country – doesn’t exist, then anything goes. That once such a country – and I remember a meeting with both Rabbi Wise and Rabbi Silver trying to convince them of what we were trying to do, and we were maligned and attacked and besmirched and called “defamers of the Jewish people” and God knows what, and I said if President Roosevelt were to call you in and tell you, “All right, you have your Jewish State – go ahead, make it, proclaim it,” I said you won’t call it a Jewish State, you’ll give it a name, I said, because you, Rabbi Silver, are a Jew, you’re a clergyman, you’re an American clergyman, you know, and you couldn’t call Palestine a Jewish State, and its Prime Minister will not be called “the Prime Minister of the Jewish State,” he’ll be called “the Prime Minister of something – Judea….” I didn’t think of “Israel,” I must say, and I don’t like the name by the way; there are too many synagogues called “Israel,” and I respect and love synagogues and I don’t think that a synagogue and a country should have the same name, and I don’t think that a synagogue and a tank, and an army should have the same name, and I don’t think that a synagogue and an air force should have the same name; and the air force of Israel and the prayers of Israel belong to two different worlds, to two different souls; and this is not said in any disrespect, God forbid, neither to the prayers of Israel nor to the air force of Israel, but rather of deep recognition of the paramount importance of either one of them, but separate. We came to the decision then, therefore, that we have to update the meaning, the structure, the political structure of the Jewish people; we didn’t touch the religious part. Religion then, as today I believe, is a matter between a man and his God, it’s a matter of the soul of every one of us, especially in Judaism where no hierarchy was ever recognized. Still today Judaism leads the world in the advancement of its religious basic principles, and the relationship between man and his God – no intermediaries, no hierarchies. “Rabbi,” as you well know, means “a teacher.” A simple, humble Jewish carpenter has as much religious authority as the Chief Rabbi of Israel, and my uncle was the Chief Rabbi of Israel and he was a great man, but he claimed no authority. When an older man than himself walked into his room, he used to rise and get up from his chair, because he said it says in the Bible you should honor older people. And when my father, who was his younger brother, used to walk into his room, he used to get up from his chair in his honor because he said he’s a learned man and it says in the Bible you should honor learned people. And he was the Chief Rabbi! – but he was not a Pope, and didn’t behave like a Pope.
So Judaism as a religion, we did not touch, and we could not touch. But, the Jewish people as a political force – we touched, very much. And we said that the time has come to define the political term and the meaning of the word “Jew” – Who is a Jew? which as you know is still being debated in Israel, and there is a famous Supreme Court decision that says, “A Jew is a Jew.” Period. Something like Gertrude Stein, who said, “A rose is a rose is a rose,” we say for the time being “a Jew is a Jew.” I say that in political terms, a Jew is a person who defines himself as being a member of the Jewish nation and no other nation. And the deciding is to each person and his own choice. And in the case of the identity between a Jew and Israel it is between each person and the laws of the Republic of Israel. And therefore back in the early 1940’s we suggested a distinction to simplify matters a little. We took the term “Hebrew” and said that “Hebrew” denotes the political aspect of the Jew, and “Jew, Jewish” denotes the religious aspect; we could have just as easily done it backwards, it makes no difference. Or it makes no difference whether you use today the word “Israeli,” as they were forced to do finally in 1948. “Israeli” denotes the political aspect of the Jew, “Jewish” denotes the religious. We said then, in establishing The Hebrew Committee of National Liberation as a sort of government-in-exile, we purchased the Iranian Embassy on Embassy Row in Washington (that’s Massachusetts Avenue) in 1944, April, in the middle of the Holocaust, in the middle of the murder, we proclaimed the independence of the Hebrew Republic of Palestine as a free and independent state, republic, and asked the world nations to recognize it. A year later I spent six hours with David Ben Gurion in the home of Dr. Emanuel Neumann, who got us together, who was then President of the Zionist Organization of America, and who was appreciative of the efforts we were doing here, while not exactly agreeing with them. He said, “You must work something out!” That these boys (as we were called) had to be brought into the framework of Jewish life here. And for six hours Ben Gurion and I talked alone (Neumann left), and I told him that the thing to do is not to debate whether or not there should be a Jewish State, which was what the Zionist Organization was doing, and that the debate with Jabotinsky that said that the aim of Zionism is the establishment of the Jewish State, I said that this was passé, that this was “old hat” as you would say today. That the issue was not to call for the creation of a Jewish State, but to establish one and to ask for recognition: the things that people and nations have to do for themselves and can’t ask others to do for them – which is what eventually happened in ’48. We [the Bergson Group] formulated, therefore, then, in the ‘40’s, a simple thing which an American child, Jewish or not (maybe non-Jews easier than the Jews, who were not as confused about the subject), of ten or twelve years could understand; I remember we had a simple slogan. It said, “It is 1776 in Palestine.” Every American knows what is 1776, and the Irgun and we saw to it that the headlines would make everybody know what is Palestine, and we put the two together and it was very simple: we were a nation fighting for our freedom just as the Americans did in 1776, and it so happened we were doing it against the same oppressor. We wanted the British army and the British king out of Palestine just as the Americans wanted the British king and the British army out of the American Colonies in 1776. And just as the Americans, we won.