Hillel Kook

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Hillel Kook
Faction represented in the Knesset
Personal details
Born24 July 1915
Kriukai, Russian Empire
Died18 August 2001(2001-08-18) (aged 86)

Hillel Kook (Hebrew: הלל קוק, 24 July 1915 –18 August 2001), also known as Peter Bergson (Hebrew: פיטר ברגסון), was a Revisionist Zionist activist and politician.

Kook led the Irgun's efforts in the United States during World War II to promote Zionism and mainly to save the abandoned Jews of Europe during the Holocaust. His rescue group's activism was the main factor leading to President Roosevelt establishing the US War Refugee Board, which protected and rescued tens of thousands and possibly many more, partly via the Wallenberg mission. He later served in Israel's first Knesset.


Hillel Kook was born in Kriukai in the Russian Empire (today in Lithuania) in 1915, the son of Rabbi Dov Kook, the younger brother of Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Mandatory Palestine. In 1924, his family immigrated to Palestine, where his father became the first Chief Rabbi of Afula. Hillel Kook received a religious education in Afula and attended his uncle's Religious Zionist yeshiva, Merkaz HaRav in Jerusalem.[1] He also attended classes in Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University, where he became a member of Sohba ("Comradeship"), a group of students who would later become prominent in the Revisionist movement, including David Raziel and Avraham Stern.

Military career[edit]

Kook joined the pre-state Haganah militia in 1930 following widespread Arab riots. In 1931, Kook helped found the Irgun, a group of militant Haganah dissidents, and fought with them in Palestine through most of the 1930s. He served as a post commander in 1936, and eventually became a member of the Irgun General Staff.

In 1937, Kook began his career as an international spokesperson for the Irgun and Revisionist Zionism. He first went to Poland, where he was involved in fundraising and establishing Irgun cells in Eastern Europe. It was there that he met the founder of the Revisionist movement, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, and became friends with his son Ari. At the founders' request, Kook traveled to the United States with Jabotinsky in 1940,[2] where he soon served as the head of the Irgun and revisionist mission in America, following the elder's death in August. This assignment was clandestine, and Kook publicly denied he was affiliated with the Irgun many times while in America.

Activism in America[edit]

While in America, Kook led a group of Irgun activists under the pseudonym "Peter Bergson." The name "Bergson Group" or "Bergsonites" eventually became used to refer to all the members of Kook's immediate circle. The Bergson Group was composed of a hard-core cadre of ten Irgun activists from Europe, America and Palestine, including Aryeh Ben-Eliezer, Yitzhak Ben-Ami, Alexander Rafaeli, Shmuel Merlin, and Eri Jabotinsky. The Bergson Group was closely involved with various Jewish and Zionist advocacy groups, such as the American Friends for a Jewish Palestine and the Organizing Committee of Illegal Immigration. The group also founded some separate initiatives of its own, specifically the Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews, whose goal was the formation of an Allied fighting force of stateless and Palestinian Jews. Some credit the later formation of the Jewish Brigade, a British unit of Palestinian Jews, with Kook's activism. Two American members of the Bergson Group were author and screenwriter Ben Hecht and cartoonist Arthur Szyk.

Initially the Bergson Group largely limited its activities to Irgun fundraising and various propaganda campaigns. The outbreak of World War II saw a dramatic transformation in the group's focus. As information about the Holocaust began to reach the United States, Kook and his fellow activists became more involved in trying to raise awareness about the fate of the Jews in Europe. This included putting full-page advertisements in leading newspapers, such as "Jews Fight for the Right to Fight", published in The New York Times in 1942, and "For Sale to Humanity 70,000 Jews, Guaranteed Human Beings at $50 a Piece", in response to an offer by Romania to send their Jews to safety if the travel expenses would be provided. On March 9, 1943, the Group produced a huge pageant in Madison Square Garden written by Ben Hecht, titled "We Will Never Die", memorializing the 2,000,000 European Jews who had already been murdered. Forty thousand people saw the pageant that first night, and it went on to play in five other major cities including Washington, D.C., where First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, six Supreme Court Justices, and some 300 senators and congressmen watched it.

In 1943, Kook established the Emergency Committee for the Rescue of European Jewry. The Committee, which included Jewish and non-Jewish American writers, public figures, and politicians, worked to disseminate information to the general public, and also lobbied the President and Congress to take immediate action to save the remnants of Europe's Jews. United States immigration laws at the time limited immigration to only 2% of the number of each nationality present in the United States since the census of 1890, which limited Jews from Austria and Germany to 27,370 and from Poland to 6,542; even these quotas often went unfilled, due to United States State Department pressure on US consulates to place as many obstacles as possible in the path of refugees.

The proposal to admit more refugees was ratified by the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and, in response to the pressure by the Bergson Group as well as Jewish Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr and his team, President Roosevelt subsequently issued an administrative order in January 1944 for the establishment of a special national authority, the War Refugee Board (WRB) to deal with Jewish and non-Jewish war refugees. An official government emissary sent to Turkey was of considerable assistance in the rescue of Romanian Jewry. The WRB saved about 200,000 Jews.[3] Those rescued through the WRB were probably mostly in Hungary, in part through the Raoul Wallenberg mission which was sponsored by the WRB.

Poster Stamps "Save Human Lives" by Arthur Szyk 1944

Some of the members of the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe were: Hillel Kook (Peter Bergson) and Alex Hadani Rafaeli, Alex Wilf, Arieh Ben-Eliezer, Arthur Szyk, Ben Hecht, Rabbi Ben Rabinowitz (Robbins), Eri Jabotinsky, Esther Untermeyer, Gabe Wechsler, Senator Guy Gillette, Harry Selden, Johan Smertenko, Konrad Bercovici, M. Berchin, Samuel Merlin, Sigrid Undset, Stella Adler, Congressman Will Rogers, Jr., Yitzchak Ben-Ami, Col. John Henry Patterson (author).

There were many others who actively supported the "Bergson Group", for example a number of the best known people on Broadway and Hollywood, probably due to Ben Hecht's contacts (such as Kurt Weill).

The Irgun declared an open revolt against British rule in Palestine.[4] To assist in recruiting and propaganda efforts, Kook established the Hebrew Committee for National Liberation and the American League for a Free Palestine, both of which were involved in lobbying U.S. and other diplomats and in trying to attract the American public to support the Irgun's rebellion. Kook remained strongly affiliated with the Revisionist camp after the war during the creation of the State of Israel. While he was unquestionably loyal to the cause, his position as the Irgun's leading American activist was not free from conflict. In 1946 Kook received a letter from Menachem Begin, who had become chief of the Irgun in 1943. Begin admonished Kook for various policy positions that strayed from the official Irgun party-line. These included Kook focusing on the transportation of illegal immigrants to Palestine instead of a "primary" assignment - arms shipments to Irgun fighters, as well as a (rather common) usage of the term "Palestine". At the time Kook was in the habit of saying "Palestine Free State", which Begin thought left too much potential for bi-nationalism. Begin demanded that Kook refer to the future Jewish state as the "Free State of Eretz Israel".


Kook and his followers were opposed by American Zionist and progressive Jewish organizations. In December 1943, the American Jewish Conference launched a public attack against the Bergsonites in an attempt to derail support for the resolution.[5] The British embassy and several American Zionist groups, including the American Jewish Committee and other political opponents sought to have Kook deported or drafted.[6] They encouraged the IRS to investigate the Bergson Group's finances in an attempt to discredit them, hoping to find misappropriation, or at least careless bookkeeping, of the large amount of funds the groups handled. The United States IRS found no financial irregularities.[7] Among those trying to stop the Bergson Group's rescue activities were Jewish Congressman Blum and leaders of the World Jewish Congress: Stephen Wise, Nahum Goldmann. A State Department protocol shows Goldmann telling the State Department that Hillel Kook did not represent organized Jewry, and suggested either deporting him or drafting him for the war effort.[8]

Rabbis' March[edit]

One of the Committee's more memorable activities was a protest Kook organized known as the Rabbis' march. The protest took place in Washington, D.C., on October 6, 1943, three days before Yom Kippur. Joined by Bergson Group activists, the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America marched on the United States Capitol, Lincoln Memorial, and White House in Washington, DC. They were met by a number of prominent members of Congress including William Warren Barbour, the protesters plead for U.S. intervention on behalf of the Jews in Europe. The delegation was received by Vice President Henry Wallace. Disappointed by the President's failure to meet with them, the rabbis stood in front of the US Capitol, where they were met by Senator William Barbour and other members of Congress. They refused to read their petition aloud, instead handing it to the Presidential secretary, Marvin H. McIntyre. The march garnered much media attention, much of it focused on what was seen as the cold and insulting dismissal of many important community leaders, as well as the people in Europe they were fighting for. One Jewish newspaper commented, "Would a similar delegation of 500 Catholic priests have been thus treated?" [9] Years later, Rabbi Soloveitchik, in recorded lectures, would bemoan the betrayal of the Rabbis' mission by Stephen Wise, who dismissed them as a group of Orthodox rabbis who didn't represent anyone.[10] A week later, Senator William Warren Barbour (R; New Jersey), one of a handful of politicians who met with the rabbis on the steps of the US Capitol, proposed legislation that would have allowed as many as 100,000 victims of the Holocaust to emigrate temporarily to the United States. A parallel bill was introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Samuel Dickstein (D; New York). This also failed to pass.

Political career[edit]

Hillel Kook at podium in Knesset

In 1947, the Bergson Group had purchased a ship originally intended to carry new immigrants to Palestine, but, perhaps partially due to Begin's influence, was eventually used to ship arms. The ship was named Altalena, and was the focus of a violent confrontation between the newly formed Israel Defense Forces and the Irgun on the beaches of Kfar Vitkin and Tel Aviv. Following the Altalena Affair, Kook was arrested with four other senior Irgun commanders and held for over two months. Of the five, only Kook was a member of the Bergson Group. The five were eventually released after about two months.

Kook served in the first Knesset as part of the Herut party list, but quit the party with his close friend and fellow Herut Member of the Knesset Ari Jabotinsky. This followed two years of ongoing disagreements with their colleagues, particularly Menachem Begin, over the party's leadership and direction. Kook, who had returned to Israel after a ten-year absence, was now confronted with the reality that the country and movement he had fought for bore little resemblance to his ideals. Kook and Jabotinsky served as independent or "single" MKs for the remaining months of their terms, the first ever to do so. Profoundly disillusioned with the Israeli political process and future of the Revisionist movement, Kook left Israel in 1951 with his wife and daughter. In 1968, four years after his wife's death, he returned to Israel with his two daughters. He remarried in 1975 and lived near Tel Aviv in Kfar Shmaryahu until his death in 2001.

Views and opinions[edit]

While Kook never re-entered politics, he continued to give interviews in which he articulated his independent perspectives on Zionism, Jewish identity, and Israeli politics. He held that Jabotinsky's primary goal in creating a Jewish state was in making a country to which all Jews would want to belong, and that once Israel had been created, any Jews who refused to make aliyah had made a conscious choice to become "integrated" citizens of their naturalized countries. Making a distinction between Jews and Hebrews was another point of contention between Kook and the Irgun leadership as early as the mid–1940s. Kook's views have been described as a more moderate version of the "Canaanist" ideology espoused by Yonatan Ratosh.[11][12] Like Ratosh, Kook was influenced by Adolf Gurevich, a Betar activist with connections to Bergson Group members Shmuel Merlin and Eri Jabotinsky.[12][13]

Kook had a specific body of critiques concerning what he saw as the distortion of Zionist philosophy and idealism by Israeli politics. He maintained that he had always conceived of Israel being a "Jewish state" by having a majority of Jewish citizens, not through specific associations to Jewish nationalism. Paradoxically, Kook's "theocratic" vision of Israel gave him a great deal of ideological flexibility regarding some of Israel's more intractable problems. Accordingly, he supported all non-Jewish citizens of Israel with full rights and privileges, and once, in an interview with an Israeli Druze, commented that, like Jabotinsky, he saw "no reason" why the State of Israel could not have a non-Jewish president. He suggested amending the Law of Return for Jews residing outside Israel to be limited to a few years after Independence (1948) and to consider prospective immigrants on an individual, and not on a national or religious basis, except for cases of immediate danger.[citation needed]

Kook was also a strong supporter of Israel's constitution, which had been stalled during its writing in 1948 and never completed. Kook claimed that a formal constitution could have solved many ongoing issues in Israeli society, such as discrimination against Israeli Arabs, by providing all of Israel's citizens with a clearly defined, and egalitarian, role in Israeli nationalism. He once remarked that the lack of a constitution was "Israel's greatest tragedy": that Ben-Gurion's decision to change the Israeli governing body from a Constituent Assembly to a Parliament had been a putsch, and that he regretted not having resigned from the Knesset immediately after the decision had been made. Kook also favored the creation of a Palestinian state, albeit one established in modern-day Jordan. He was one of the first Israelis to call for a Palestinian state shortly after the Six-Day War. For the remainder of his life, Kook adamantly claimed that his position would have been shared by his mentor Jabotinsky.[citation needed]

Kook repeatedly referred to himself as a post-Zionist, and was one of the first in Israeli society to voluntarily (and positively) adopt the term.[citation needed]

Commemoration and legacy[edit]

Grave of Hillel Kook, Kfar Shmaryahu

Since the late 1990s, some historians have attempted to re-examine and evaluate the significance of his activities during World War II and his role as a political opponent of Begin. One allegation is that Kook's adversaries in Israel and America downplayed some of his accomplishments and minimized their own role in curtailing his activities. David Wyman and Rafael Medoff, co-authors of a 2002 Kook biography,[14] suggested that, despite the frequent obstruction by the modern American Jewish establishment, Kook's rescue group's activism was the major factor in establishment of the War Refugee Board and that it was an instrument rescuing approximately 200,000, partly by means of the Raoul Wallenberg mission.

A play, The Accomplices, written by Bernard Weinraub and based on Kook's wartime efforts in the United States premiered at The New Group in 2007 and played thereafter in regional theatres.[15][16] It played also in Jerusalem in April 2009.

The role of Hillel Kook was played twice onstage by actor Steven Schub (lead singer of The Fenwicks), in 2008 at The Fountain Theatre and in 2009 at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles. Actor Raphael (Rafi) Poch (Artistic Director of J-Town Playhouse) played Hillel Kook in Jerusalem.

Film maker Pierre Sauvage directed a documentary about the activities of Kook during World War II: Not Idly By - Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust.[17] The film won an award at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. The work-in-progress was screened in short versions beginning in 2009, and the final version was released in 2017.[18]

There was an earlier 1982 documentary Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die by Larry Jarvik, including many of his mid-1970s interviews with Hillel Kook in Manhattan. The more recent 2009 Against the Tide, directed by Richard Trank and produced by Moriah Films of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, includes narration by Dustin Hoffman.


We, the Hebrews, descendants of the ancient Hebrew nation, who remained alive on God's earth despite that great calamity that our people have experienced, have come together in the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation. The Jews today who live in the European hell together with the Jews in the Land of Israel constitute the Hebrew nation—there isn't another nation to which they owe their allegiance but the Hebrew nation. We must state it clearly: the Jews in the United States do not belong to the Hebrew nation. These Jews are Americans of Hebrew descent. – From A Manifesto of the Hebrew Nation, 1944.

Why did we respond the way we did? The question should be, why didn't the others? We responded as a human and as a Jew should. – On his Holocaust activism, 1973.

I, who was the liaison officer of the Irgun central command with Jabotinsky, and who accompanied him almost daily for four years—remained loyal to his teachings. I also believe that the Land of Israel, on both banks of the Jordan River, is our historic homeland. But I am also certain that had Jabotinsky lived today, he would have argued that now, after we've achieved our independence, our mission is to attain peace in order to establish the Israeli people as the political heir of the Jewish people. – Interview in 1977.

There is no exile. The exile ended on May 14, 1948. – Interview in 1982.

Recorded talks, statements and song[edit]

  • Prof. David Kranzler: interview with Hillel Kook (New York) [1]
  • Talk by daughter Dr. Becky Kook at Hillel Kook Memorial Lecture at Orthodox Union (OU) Israel Center, Jerusalem Aug 27 2003 [2]
  • Dr. Becky Kook talks about her father at International Rescuer Day 2006, Hebrew University [3]
  • Dr. Becky Kook. Hillel Kook the Unsung Hero via Zoom, organized by B'nei Brit, Dusseldorf [4]
  • Dr. Becky Kook talks about her father MK Hillel Kook (aka Peter Bergson) via Zoom organized by Moadon Ivri club in Paris (in Hebrew) [5]
  • Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm. Beacons in the Dark [6]
  • Professor MP Irv Cotler. Beacons in the Dark [7]
  • The Rescuers song by David Ben Reuven [8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Staff. (24 August 2001) "Obituaries: Hillel Kook", Telegraph
  2. ^ "Peter Bergson". Archived from the original on March 18, 2005. Retrieved 2013-10-08.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link) at United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
  3. ^ Wyman 1984:, p.285
  4. ^ Rosen, Robert N., Saving the Jews: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Holocaust, Thunder's Mouth Press, New York, 2006, p. 333
  5. ^ Wyman 1984:, p.202
  6. ^ Wyman 184:, p.346
  7. ^ Wyman 1984:, p.346
  8. ^ Wyman-Medoff, References, with appendix
  9. ^ "David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies: Welcome". wymaninstitute.org. Archived from the original on 2016-06-06. Retrieved 2017-02-17.
  10. ^ See 'The Obligation to save the Kahal' at bcbm.org Archived 2007-07-14 at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ Rafael, E.B. (2002). Jewish Identities: Fifty Intellectuals Answer Ben Gurion. Brill. p. 74. ISBN 9789004125353. Retrieved 2017-02-17.[permanent dead link]
  12. ^ a b Baumel, J.T. (2005). The "Bergson Boys" And the Origins of Contemporary Zionist Militancy. Syracuse University Press. p. 203. ISBN 9780815630630. Retrieved 2017-02-17.
  13. ^ Monty Noam Penkower (1994). The Holocaust and Israel Reborn: From Catastrophe to Sovereignty. University of Illinois Press. p. 77. ISBN 9780252063787. Retrieved 2017-02-17.
  14. ^ David S. Wyman and Rafael Medoff, A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust (New York, NY, 2002)
  15. ^ "Regions". americantheaterweb.com. Archived from the original on 2006-02-15. Retrieved 2017-02-17.
  16. ^ "2007 - 2008 Season at GableStage at the Biltmore. Live theatre. Coral Gables, Florida". gablestage.org. Archived from the original on 2012-10-17. Retrieved 2017-02-17.
  17. ^ Hasan, Mark (2010). "Not Idly By - Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust". KQEK. Retrieved January 17, 2018.
  18. ^ "Not Idly By - Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust". varianfry.org. Retrieved January 17, 2018.

Further reading[edit]

  • Wyman, David S. (1984). The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945. Pantheon Books.
  • Wyman, David S.; Medoff, Rafael (2004). A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America, and the Holocaust. New Press. ISBN 1-56584-856-X.
  • Rapaport, Louis (1999). Shake Heaven & Earth: Peter Bergson and the Struggle to Rescue the Jews of Europe. Gefen Publishing House Ltd. ISBN 965-229-182-X.
  • Agassi, Joseph (1999). Liberal Nationalism for Israel. Gefen Publishing House Ltd.
  • Baumel, Judith Tydor (2005). Dena Ordan (ed.). The "Bergson Boys" And the Origins of Contemporary Zionist Militancy. Syracuse University Press. ISBN 0-8156-3063-8.
  • Hecht, Ben (1997). Perfidy. Milah Press Inc. ASIN B00CB1VJE2.
  • Medoff, Rafael (2002). Militant Zionism in America: The Rise and Impact of the Jabotinsky Movement in the United States. University of Alabama Press. ISBN 0-8173-1071-1.
  • Matz, Eliyaho (2022). Auschwitz on the Potomac 1943: HILLEL KOOK, the Attempt to Save European Jewry, and the Birth of the Israeli Nation. Washington Books. ISBN 979-8848397703.
  • Gropman, Paul (1998). The Magicians: A Novel (about Hillel Kook). Betar Books. ISBN 978-0966294019.
  • Weinraub, Bernard (2008). The Accomplices (a play about Hilel Kook). Dramatists Play Service, Inc. ISBN 9780822222538.
  • Avishai, Bernard (2013). The Hebrew Republic-How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise Will Bring Israel Peace At Last (based on Hillel Kook plan. Harper Collins. ISBN 9780547540207.


External links[edit]