A forgotten WWII alliance

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For many in the American Jewish community, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, which we mark on Monday, Jan. 19, 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 Bergson group was one of the first Jewish organizations to utilize such now-familiar protest tactics as full-page newspaper advertisements, public rallies and lobbying on Capitol Hill.

When news of the Holocaust 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 Jews from Hitler. The Emergency Committee’s dramatic tactics included full-page newspaper ads, a march by more than 400 rabbis to the White House just before Yom Kippur and a congressional resolution urging creation of a U.S. government agency to rescue refugees.

These efforts embarrassed the administration and compelled Franklin D. Roosevelt to establish the War Refugee Board, which saved an estimated 220,000 lives during the final 18 months of the Holocaust.

Later, Bergson 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.

His campaigns won the support of a wide array of prominent intellectuals, entertainers, Hollywood celebrities and members of Congress. Sympathy for the Bergson group crossed racial lines; many prominent African Americans were among its supporters.

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.

The author and poet Langston Hughes supported the Jewish army campaign and was also among the sponsors of Bergson’s July 1943 Emergency Conference to Save the Jewish People of Europe. The famous 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.

On the occasion of King’s birthday, that early collaboration between Jewish Americans and African Americans is worth remembering.

Rafael Medoff is director of the David S. Wyman institute for Holocaust Studies, which focuses on issues related to America’s response to the Holocaust.