The Holocaust and Remembering Ben Hecht
Yom HaShoah is an appropriate time to remember Ben Hecht. Colin Shindler has an excellent piece on him in The Jewish Chronicle, and two weeks ago, The New York Times‘ Book Review published an article about two new books on Hecht. One was Ben Hecht, Fighting Words, Moving Pictures, by Adina Hoffman, and the other, by Julien Gorbach, was The Notorious Ben Hecht, Iconoclastic Writer and Militant Zionist.
Hecht was born into a struggling, orthodox migrant family on the Lower East Side of New York. He eventually ran away to Chicago. Starting at the bottom, he worked his way up to become a celebrated journalist. He moved to Hollywood, where he was one of the most successful and celebrated writers of screenplays and dramas of the day. He was also called in to rewrite and save Gone With the Wind.
Hecht’s time in Chicago left him completely disillusioned with politics, and also cynical about humanity. In Hollywood, he refused to adopt the liberal, left-leaning biases that dominated the industry then as now. He also did not identify as Jewish in any way.
His interest in Jewish affairs began in the 1930s, after he met the charismatic Peter Bergson in New York. Bergson was actually Hillel Kook — a passionate supporter of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Revisionist Zionism, which not only believed in fighting for a Jewish homeland with arms rather than diplomacy, but also in maximalist Biblical territory from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates. Bergson’s task was to gain support, money, and arms in the US. Hecht became a devoted ally, and supported the Irgun.
But in public, he continued to play down his Jewish identity, until the rise of the Nazis opened his eyes to American antisemitism and the Jewish community’s craven passivity in refusing to campaign openly for the US to support or rescue European Jewry.
When Joseph Kennedy, the pro-Nazi, antisemitic US ambassador to London, visited Hollywood, Hecht wrote that “by the time Kennedy had finished his pro-German missionary work, most of the screen rajahs were convinced that the best course open to the Jews was to make themselves small and walk gently as if they had venereal diseases. This would keep people from … calling them warmongers.”
Hecht paid for advertisements across the country, declaring “Action Not Pity Can Save Millions — Act Now.” He wrote and published articles such as “The Extermination of the Jews,” and spoke and organized meetings and rallies, notably a massive pageant titled “We Will Never Die” at Madison Square Garden.
He was opposed by some in the Roosevelt administration and State Department, and by the antisemitic campaigns of Henry Ford, Father Charles Coughlin, Charles Lindbergh, and the pro-German lobby in the US.
After the war, he turned his energies back to Zionism, writing about the struggle in Palestine. He wrote the pro-Zionist play A Flag Is Born, and the best-selling A Child of the Century. He campaigned against the British Mandate’s policy of refusing entry to Jewish survivors of the Nazi camps. He supported illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine, which led to a British boycott and a ban on his work in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
For all this, he did not describe himself as a Zionist, but simply a Jew.
Attitudes towards Hecht are still polarized, as the two books I referred to above illustrate. Hoffman may be a better writer, but like too many of the Jewish Lives Series books published by Yale, her book is disappointingly light. And her political biases undermine her work.
I am not a fan of extremes. But survival matters more to me than niceties. Although I admired Menachem Begin, I don’t think I could ever have supported the Irgun. But I certainly believe that American Jewry is making the same mistake of self-delusion as it did then. And it is absolutely wrong in trying to remake Israel in its own image.
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than forty years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.