May 26, 2024
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Do Not Forget the Rabbis’ March

What would compel hundreds of rabbis to leave their homes and congregations and travel to the nation’s capital just before Yom Kippur? Nothing less than an attempt to save the remaining Jews of Europe. On October 8, 1943, a group of 400 rabbis traveled to Washington, D.C., in an effort to appeal to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The march itself took place under the auspices of Agudath Israel, preceded by a call for communal fasting and prayers. The creator and organizer of the march was a secular sabra, Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook), the nephew of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Mandate Palestine. His family had immigrated from Lithuania, which by that time had murdered almost all its Jews.

Bergson, an activist, became involved with the Irgun, then traveled to Europe to create resistance cells there, and later in America. In the United States, he and his followers came to be known as the Bergson Group. At that time, America was fully engaged in the war. Hitler, however, was putting a great deal of time and energy into fighting on a front America considered of little import: his war against the Jews.

America had been isolationist under the leadership of a number of virulent anti-Semites, notably Charles Lindbergh, the aviator who had flown across the Atlantic and was the spokesman for the America First Committee; Charles E. Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest whose radio broadcasts were listened to by tens of millions; and Samuel Breckenridge Long, Roosevelt’s assistant secretary of state. Long’s interference prevented Jews who had completed the long, humiliating and costly process of acquiring the necessary immigration documents from coming to America in their effort to flee the Nazis.

Most American Jews did not support Bergson. The previous December, Roosevelt had met with Rabbi Stephen Wise of the Jewish Congress; Henry Monsky, president of B’nai B’rith; Rabbi Rosenberg of the Agudath; and Adolph Held, president of the Jewish Labor Committee, to reassure them that America was well aware of what was going on, and was doing its best to destroy Hitler and the fascists.

Unfortunately, Roosevelt, then the most powerful man in the world, proved cowardly. He avoided the confrontation with the rabbis, and the march itself, by sneaking out of the White House through a back entrance. Had he not done so, had he been confronted by not 400 but by hundreds of thousands of rabbis from all branches of Judaism, along with secular Jews, non-Jewish clergy and laypeople who were outraged by the slaughter of innocents, how many lives would have been saved? The rabbis, rebuffed, headed home.

Did those men weep and despair over their failed mission? Were they at all consoled by the knowledge that they had not stood idly by as blood was being shed? No doubt they were galvanized to continue the fight. At the very least, their presence left a mark on history. Their protest will always be remembered as one of the Holocaust’s most amazing and inspirational acts of Jewish heroism and resistance.

Once again, Jews throughout the world are being threatened, attacked and even killed by an unprecedented rise in global anti-Semitism. Once again there is increasing divisiveness and polarization. Our rabbis teach that the Temple fell because of sinat chinam (baseless hatred.) The Holocaust teaches us that more lives could have been saved if resisters and conservatives had united to fight their enemies.

Some highly positioned and influential Jews are now saying that Israel should not exist. This “Israel as a failed experiment” accusation has been advancing for a long time. Yet no one hurls these existential threats against nations with thoroughly documented policies of genocide, slavery and other crimes against humanity. Clearly, we have failed to learn from history.

“Remember, do not forget…” the Torah warns. As the anniversary of the rabbis’ march approaches, let us remember and not forget those courageous leaders who respectfully expressed righteous rage. May they inspire us all to work together, in hope and unity, towards creating an 80th commemoration in 2023.

By Barbara Wind

 

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