A Forgotten Black-Jewish Alliance

For many in the American Jewish community, Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday is an occasion to recall the important role that Jews played in the civil rights movement. But few remember the earlier alliance between Jews and prominent African-Americans, in the 1940s, on the issues of rescuing Jews from the Holocaust and creating a Jewish state.

Dr. Rafael Medoff,

Dr. Rafael Medoff
Dr. Rafael Medoff
צילום: INN:RM
For many in the American Jewish community, Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday is an occasion to recall the important role that Jews played in the civil rights movement of the 1950s-1960s. But few remember the earlier alliance between Jews and prominent African-Americans, in the 1940s, on the issues of rescuing Jews from the Holocaust and creating a Jewish state.

This forgotten Black-Jewish alliance was connected to a series of political action campaigns undertaken in the 1940s by an activist group led by Peter Bergson, a Zionist emissary from Jerusalem. The group's efforts won the support of a wide array of members of Congress, Hollywood celebrities and intellectuals, including numerous prominent African-Americans.

The Bergson group was initially known as the Committee for a Jewish Army. From 1940 to 1943, it sought the creation of a Jewish armed force that would fight alongside the Allies against the Nazis. Black labor union leader A. Philip Randolph, president of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was an early backer of Bergson's Jewish army effort. So was W. E. B. DuBois, the leading African-American intellectual of his era.

Eventually, the British agreed to establish the 5,000-man force, known as the Jewish Brigade. It fought with distinction on the European battlefield in 1945, and many of its veterans later took part in Israel's 1948 War of Independence.

When news of the mass murder of Europe's Jews reached the West in 1942-1943, Bergson created the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, to press the Roosevelt administration to rescue Jewish refugees.

Two of the most famous African-American authors of that period, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, were sponsors of the Bergson group's July 1943 Emergency Conference to Save the Jewish People of Europe. The conference, which was held in New York City, sought to counter the Roosevelt administration's claim that rescuing Jews from Hitler was physically impossible. More than 1,500 delegates listened to panels of experts on transportation, relief methods, military affairs and other fields, discussing specific, practical ways to save Jews from the Holocaust. One of the speakers was Walter White, executive director of the NAACP.

In addition, the famous Black singer, actor and political activist Paul Robeson was one of the stars of a Madison Square Garden "Show of Shows" organized by Bergson in 1944 to raise money for his campaign to rescue Jewish refugees.

The Emergency Committee's dramatic tactics included full-page newspaper ads, a march by over 400 rabbis to the White House just before Yom Kippur and a Congressional resolution urging the creation of a US government agency to rescue refugees. These efforts embarrassed the administration and compelled FDR to establish the War Refugee Board, which helped save an estimated 220,000 lives during the final fifteen months of the Holocaust.

After the war, Bergson turned his attention to the cause of creating a Jewish national homeland. He established the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation and the American League for a Free Palestine, which played an important role in mobilizing American public support for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.

Canada Lee, one of the most prominent Black actors of the 1940s, and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., of Harlem -- the first African-American to represent New York in the US House of Representatives -- were supporters of Bergson's Jewish statehood campaign. At one Bergson group rally in 1948, Rev. Powell and the Irish-American lawyer Paul O'Dwyer stood backstage and watched while an ineffective speaker sought vainly to raise funds for Jewish statehood.

"Powell became impatient," O'Dwyer later recalled, "and whispered to me, 'This guy is blowing it. Paul, I think this calls for a Baptist minister and an Irish revolutionary. You handle that microphone over there and I'll handle this one.' In unison we rose and in unison we took the microphones gently away from [the speaker]. We collected $75,000 from the crowd that night."

During that same period, Walter White and the NAACP worked closely with the Bergson group to help bring about the desegregation of theaters in Baltimore, which restricted African-Americans to less desirable seats. In 1946, Bergson ally Ben Hecht, one of the most prominent screenwriters in Hollywood, authored a Broadway play called "A Flag is Born", to rally American public sympathy for the Jewish rebels battling the British for control of Palestine. On the eve of the staging of "Flag" at the Maryland Theater in Baltimore, the Bergson group and the NAACP joined hands to pressure the theater management to abandon its discriminatory seating policy -- "a tradition-shattering victory," as White called it.

A decade before the famous Black-Jewish alliance in the civil rights movement, prominent Blacks and Jews joined hands to support the Bergson group's campaigns to create a Jewish army, rescue Holocaust refugees, and establish a Jewish state -- and, in the process, helped desegregate Baltimore's theaters.

On the occasion of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, that early collaboration between Jewish Americans and African-Americans is worth remembering.





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