“In , I became a Jew and looked on the world with Jewish eyes.”
—Ben Hecht, A Child of the Century
When Ben Hecht died suddenly in 1964, at the age of seventy, the New York Times carried the news on its front page. The lengthy obituary was spread across four columns on an inside page. Buried near the end was only a brief description of Hecht’s Zionism.
Hecht wrote newspaper columns, novels, short stories, plays, screenplays, essays, and books that, in many ways, defined the times in which he lived. His sketches of life in Chicago and New York were collected in two volumes. His first novel made him a national literary figure. He co-wrote the Broadway sensation, The Front Page, and became Hollywood’s highest-paid screenwriter, composing such classics as Scarface, Wuthering Heights, Twentieth Century, Spellbound, and Notorious. He received six Oscar nominations and won two Oscars.
In all, Hecht wrote 25 books, including several best-sellers, 250 short stories, 20 plays, and one of the great autobiographies, A Child of the Century, which Saul Bellow praised on the cover of the New York Times Book Review as “intensely interesting . . . independent, forthright, and original.” In 2011, Time magazine would place it at number 24 on its list of the 100 best nonfiction books since 1923.
Two noteworthy books on Hecht have appeared this year: a masterful study by Julien Gorbach, The Notorious Ben Hecht: Iconoclastic Writer and Militant Zionist (Purdue) and a short biography by Adina Hoffman, Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures (Yale). Both conclude that Hecht’s encounter with Zionism in the 1940s, after a lifetime of indifference to Judaism and Jewish issues, “change[d] his life and legacy” (Gorbach) and was “in the end, as important to him as almost anything” (Hoffman).
Because of that encounter, these two biographies speak not only to one man’s life and times, but to ours as well.
Born on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, Hecht grew up in Wisconsin, skipped college, and headed to Chicago where he became a newspaper reporter and pursued a journalistic and literary career. Joining a salon that included the novelist Theodore Dreiser and the poets Edgar Lee Masters and Carl Sandburg, he also became a close friend of the novelist Sherwood Anderson and the poet-novelist Maxwell Bodenheim.
In late 1918 and 1919 Hecht spent six months reporting political violence in post-World War I Germany—an experience, he later wrote, that left him “with a permanent cynicism toward history.” After returning to America, he went on to create original forms of journalism, to compose innovative stage dramas followed by groundbreaking screenplays, and to earn fame and fortune even as the Depression devastated the American economy.
In 1926, Hecht received what was probably the most consequential telegram in movie history. It was from the screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz at Paramount Pictures, asking if he would accept $300 a week to come to Hollywood: “The three hundred is peanuts,” Mankiewicz cabled, but “millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”
Hecht went, and over the course of a single week wrote a 68-page treatment for Underworld: the first gangster movie. For this he received a $10,000 bonus (about $150,000 in today’s dollars) and, at the first Academy Awards ceremony, won an Oscar for best original story. His next film was Scarface, written in eleven days, starring Paul Muni and based on the career of the notorious mobster Al Capone. The film confirmed the gangster movie as a significant new genre in American cinema.
Reflecting the cynicism he had early adopted, Hecht described his screenwriting method as killing off “as many people as I could” because “I knew audiences adored disaster, sudden death, explosions, much more than they did ideas, points of view, or intelligence of any kind.” He eventually wrote more than 65 movie melodramas and screwball comedies. By 1939, in his mid-forties, having reached new heights in several literary and journalistic genres, he had achieved an extraordinarily productive career.
But it was one that gnawed at his conscience. In 1915, Dreiser had told him that movies were “going to take the place of literature in the USA and fortunes were going to be made out of them.” As the 1930s progressed, Hecht began to doubt that these two promises could be reconciled. Ruing the absence in his writing of truly important issues, he thought the movies had “corrupted our century” and that he himself was “playing literary whore.” The director Otto Preminger later said that Hecht could “have become one of the greatest writers in the theater and in American literature” but “unfortunately . . . [h]e had no time. He always had jobs in Hollywood.”
In Hecht’s 1936 play, the autobiographical To Quito and Back, the barely disguised lead character is a cynical newspaperman who had once witnessed political murders in Germany. Another character in the play observes that “we hover on the sidelines of all passionate events” and are “always on the right side of discussions but never on any side of the barricades.” A few years later, the extraordinarily successful writer—who in 1936 wrote that he was haunted by “the echo of integrity that still wails in my empty head” and hoped one day “to grow one leaf of grass, one breath of truth, one cry of man’s travail and quest”—joined the Jewish side.
Writing about his Jewish heritage and its non-existent impact on his early life, Hecht later recalled:
I lived 40 years in my country without encountering anti-Semitism or concerning myself even remotely with its existence. This is perhaps a record for a Jew or, more likely, for a country. . . . I attended no synagogue, read no Jewish history or literature, never heard of the Spanish Inquisition, and listened to no discussion of Jewish problems.
Hecht may have ignored Jewish issues in his earlier life, but he had a large family of aunts and uncles from the Old Country. As European Jews came increasingly under attack in the 1930s, that background undoubtedly helped trigger his decision to cease being only a witness to “passionate events” and to react instead by, as he would later describe his 1939 experience, “becoming a Jew.”
In mid-1939, Hecht published a volume of novellas entitled A Book of Miracles, described in a New York Times review as “the most amazing book of the year.” The prophetic lead story, “The Little Candle,” written before the November 1938 riots of Kristallnacht, prefigured the devastation to come. It is a tale of an “International Pogrom,” carefully planned for the “extirpating of the Jews,” that kills a half-million and drives “another million or so” into “forests, deserts, and mountains.” The narrator describes how, one July, “[we Jews] opened our morning newspapers” and “stared with nausea and disbelief at the print”:
[W]e found that the cloud we had watched so long and, in a way, so aloofly, had grown suddenly black and dreadful and immense. . . . Like a monster evoked out of the smoking pages of our history, it confronted us . . . with the ancient howl of massacre on its lips. . . . [W]e were Jews again, whatever our previous conceptions of ourselves had been . . . [and it] sent our spirits cowering beside the myriads of unknown Jews in that shambles of Europe.
Hecht’s decisive move to the barricades came two years later in 1941, when he was “walking down the street one day [and] bumped into history.” He was then writing columns for PM, a new progressive tabloid, and had entitled one column “My Tribe is Called Israel.” Soon afterward he received a telegram from a stranger, a young Palestinian Jew calling himself Peter Bergson. (His real name was Hillel Kook, but he was using a pseudonym to avoid embarrassing his prominent rabbinic family in Palestine.)
Bergson had come to New York in 1940 as part of Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky’s effort to build a Jewish army that would join the fight against Hitler. In the telegram, he praised Hecht’s column for expressing the “spiritual heroism which for centuries accumulated in the soul of the genuine and conscious Jew,” adding that, through “the creation of a Jewish army, we intend to transform this heroic spirit into heroic deeds.”
Hecht agreed to drinks at the 21 Club in Manhattan. The meeting of the two men—one a famous forty-six-year old Hollywood writer, the other an unknown twenty-five-year-old Zionist—was, in its way, as momentous as the Mankiewicz telegram. As Hecht would recall,
I had no notion on that April day in 1941 that any such collision [with history] was taking place. . . . [My] column had discussed the attitudes of American Jews toward [Hitler]. I had deplored the fact that America’s important social, political, and literary Jews were reluctant to speak out as Jews under attack and preferred to conduct themselves as neutral Americans. . . . [Bergson] told me of the fine Jewish renaissance begun by a man named Vladimir Jabotinsky, of whom I had never heard.
Over drinks, Bergson asked Hecht to serve as the American leader of their cause. Hecht demurred:
I disliked causes. I disliked public speaking. I could bring myself neither to make orations nor listen to them. I never attended meetings of any sort. I had no interest in Palestine and had always bolted any conversation about a Jewish homeland. My heart had never turned to Jerusalem. Finally, there was nothing more socially distasteful to me than getting involved in a money-raising campaign.
Nevertheless, he agreed to cochair the Committee for a Jewish Army, and later gave his first speech to 1,000 people at Twentieth Century Fox in Los Angeles. It was a night that “was to alter my life as completely as if I had changed my name and gone to another land.” He was about to mobilize the English language and send it into combat on behalf of the embattled Jews of Europe and Palestine.
At the time, even as the Jewish tragedy was worsening dramatically in Europe, the American Jewish establishment had adopted a strategy of silence lest the cause be viewed as a matter of only parochial Jewish interest. In November 1938, three days after Kristallnacht, the major Jewish organizations agreed that “there should be no parades, public demonstrations, or protests by Jews.” Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, an influential leader of Reform Judaism and of the American Zionist movement, explained the silence of his World Jewish Congress (WJC) as a “well-considered policy” that viewed Jewish demonstrations as “unwise.” Wise was satisfied with a brief post-Kristallnacht statement by FDR that did not specifically mention the Jews and said only that “the news from Germany” had “deeply shocked public opinion” and that the U.S. ambassador would be recalled for “consultation.” “At long last,” Wise wrote at the time, “America has spoken.”
In early August 1942, the WJC representative in Switzerland, Gerhart Riegner, learned from a reliable German source that within months the Nazis planned to murder between three-and-a-half and four million Jews. Riegner presented this information to the American consulate in Geneva and asked that it be sent to the State Department for transmittal to Wise. The State Department received Riegner’s report but did not transmit it to Wise, who learned of it on August 28 from a different source. On September 3, Wise raised the issue with Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, who asked him to postpone any public statement while the Department investigated.
Nearly three months later, on November 24, Welles confirmed the accuracy of the report, and Wise immediately relayed to the press that “about half of the estimated 4,000,000 Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe had [already] been slain in an extermination campaign.” The Times reported this news in a brief item buried on page 10. The Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, and Life took similarly brief notice of it.
On December 8, Wise and four other American Jewish leaders, by now fully alert to the extreme peril confronting several million more Jews in Europe, met urgently with FDR for half an hour and asked him to issue a public statement. Instead, the president shifted their discussion to the subject of postwar relief and made no public remarks. Wise informed the press after the meeting that FDR had assured the group he would “give full consideration” to a proposal to collect all evidence bearing on the Nazis’ “criminal acts.” Three days later, the Times devoted considerably greater prominence in its columns to the formation of the American Council for Judaism, an organization backed by distinguished rabbis in ten cities that, in the words of its chairman, was “definitely opposed to a Jewish state, a Jewish flag, or a Jewish army.”
The attempt to mobilize public opinion thus fell in large part to Hecht and the Bergson group. In February 1943, the American Mercury published “The Extermination of the Jews,” an essay by Hecht that was then picked up and republished in condensed form by the Reader’s Digest, the most widely read American magazine of the time.
Hecht opened by predicting that, at a postwar peace conference, Germany would finally face justice from “Englishmen, Americans, Russians, Czechs, Poles, Greeks, Norwegians, Belgians, Frenchmen, and Dutchmen”—but not from the Jews, because by the end of the war the Jews would be a “phantom,” what with two million already dead and, according to “the most conservative of scorekeepers,” another two million about to be murdered. Over the next 15 paragraphs, his narrative ranged from Warsaw to Lublin, to Odessa, and to a dozen other places:
Remember us! In the town of Freiburg in the Black Forest, 200 of us were hanged and left dangling out of our kitchen windows to watch our synagogue burn and our rabbi flogged to death. . . .
Remember us in Wloclawek. Here also the Germans came when we were at worship [on Yom Kippur, praying for God’s forgiveness]. . . . Under whips and bayonets, they made us use our prayer shawls as mops to clean out German latrines. We were all dead when the sun set. Remember us!
Remember us who were put in the freight trains that left France, Holland, and Belgium and who rode standing up to the east. We died standing up for there was no food or air or water.
Remember, too, those of us who were not killed by the Germans but who killed themselves. Some say there were 100,00 of us, some say 200,000. No count was kept.
Convinced that the Roosevelt administration would take no action absent a dramatic shift in public opinion, Hecht then organized and wrote the script for a massive, celebrity-studded pageant at New York’s Madison Square Garden called “We Will Never Die,” directed by Moss Hart, produced by Billy Rose, with a musical score by Kurt Weill and the leading roles played by well-known film and stage actors. The pageant was scheduled for March 9, 1943. New York Governor Thomas Dewey, despite opposition from Rabbi Wise, proclaimed it a day of mourning.
In his autobiography, Hecht describes a call from Wise, to whom he had sent his script for review:
Rabbi Stephen Wise, head of the Jews of New York, head of the Zionists, and, as I knew from reading the papers, head of almost everything noble in American Jewry, telephoned me [to say] he would like to see me immediately in his rectory. His voice, which was sonorous and impressive, irritated me. . . . I explained that I was very busy. . . . “Then I shall tell you now, over the telephone, what I had hoped to tell you in my study,” said Rabbi Wise. “I have read your pageant script and I disapprove of it. I must ask you to cancel this pageant and discontinue all your further activities in behalf of the Jews. If you wish hereafter to work for the Jewish Cause, you will please consult me and let me advise you.” At this point I hung up.
On the stage of “We Will Never Die” stood two giant tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. Over a background of mournful religious music and inspiring Zionist hymns, the Hollywood stars Paul Muni and Edward G. Robinson recited the names of 120 Jews who had made major contributions to humanity, starting with the ancient “little [Hebrew] tribe” whose creed “was destined to change the soul of man.” The actor Jacob Ben-Ami spoke these lines:
We are not here to weep for [those murdered in Europe]. We are here to honor them. . . . For in our Testament are written the words of Habakkuk, prophet of Israel, “They shall never die.” They are part of something greater, higher and stronger than the dreams of their executioners. They were unarmed, but not we.
The final scene of the 90-minute pageant was a dramatization of Hecht’s February article imagining the postwar peace conference. With a large conference table placed onstage, and the narrator explaining there would be no Jews left in Europe to sit at it, actors portraying Jewish ghosts testified to the murders in country after country, each time crying out, “Remember us!”
To meet the overwhelming demand for tickets, two sold-out, back-to-back performances were held on the night of March 9—the first at 8:45 p.m. and the second at 11:15. A total of 40,000 people saw it on that night alone, with thousands more listening outside on loudspeakers. At the subsequent sellout performance in Washington, DC, the audience included Eleanor Roosevelt (who in her syndicated column called it “one of the most impressive and moving pageants I have ever seen”). From there it proceeded to Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and the 17,500-seat Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles (from which it was broadcast nationally by NBC). Wise and his supporters blocked additional performances scheduled for Baltimore, for Buffalo, Rochester, and Kingston in New York State, and for Gary, Indiana.
The nationwide pageants were a significant factor leading to the establishment of the War Refugee Board in January 1944: the belated response of the Roosevelt administration to the news it had received in August 1942 of the imminent destruction of European Jewry. In her 2018 book, Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe, Rebecca Erbelding notes that the formation of the board, the first “government agency to save the lives of non-Americans being murdered by a wartime enemy,” was an effort “born in part out of public pressure,” which included Hecht’s pageants and an October 6, 1943 march by 400 rabbis in Washington organized by the Bergson group.
The Board’s efforts did save thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, during the final months of the Holocaust. But by the time it was formed in January 1944, at least four-and-a-half million Jews had already been murdered.
In March 1944, Hecht published A Guide for the Bedeviled—the title taken from Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed. A bestselling analysis of anti-Semitism, it is described by Hoffman as a “furious cri de coeur crossed with a frenzied J’accuse”; Gorbach stresses that it “remains important” today. The legendary editor Maxwell Perkins praised “its fire and power as literature.”
Hecht decided to write the book after a conversation in 1943 with an unnamed “famous” woman who was “full of very high-sounding ideas.” The two had “gossiped aimlessly for an hour on the stupidity of the movies, the stupidity of the theater, and the stupidity of literature—from which it can be seen that we were avoiding any topics of importance.” Then she asked him, as an expert on the Jews, to explain why they were disliked—quite as if, he says, he were being asked “to break down and confess something that would clear up the murder of the three million Jews of Europe and also throw a light on the true secret of anti-Semitism everywhere.” This struck him as comparable to a detective’s demanding that a corpse explain its own murder.
A Guide for the Bedeviled demonstrated the utterly contradictory nature of the crimes charged to the Jews, beginning with two of them: “the battle cry that [the Jew] was responsible for the killing of Christ” and the Nazi charge that the Jew “is responsible for the invention of Christ.” Then Hecht continued:
There is also the charge that the Jew is interested only in the massing of money; and next the charge that he is responsible for a system of economics (socialism, Communism) that seeks to undermine the whole principle of money-making. Next is the charge that he is ill-bred . . . and alongside this comes the charge that he is concerned too much with the arts. . . . There is the charge that the Jew is an un-martial creature . . . and the charge that the Jew is a dangerous fellow who conspires to drag the world into wars for his own secret ends.
The crimes are so diverse and contradictory, Hecht wrote, “that it is apparent—and has been always apparent—that the only criminal involved is the accuser.” Declining to dissect the Jewish accused, he wrote that there was, however, “one Jew I have decided to examine closely—myself,” and proceeded to consider whether he was writing this book (a) as a Jew, (b) as an American, or (c) as a disinterested author:
It would please me to think my own fervor is no more than that of a mind trained in the humanities under the beneficent culture of the United States. For, truly, I have never been anything else but an American and to find myself at forty-nine writing out of an obstreperous Jewish heritage is as confusing to me as if I had waked up one morning and found an entirely new language in my head. . . . I could make out a case for myself as either [Jewish or American] or neither, which is another way of saying that I am both. Both I am . . . and it will need better anti-Semites then I have yet read to unmarry me.
In rising passion, Hecht then addressed the reasons he was impelled to speak out:
If I do not attack the enemies of Jews, who will have at them? My fellow Americans busy on other fronts? Why should they, since they are not Jewish and I am? Since I hold my peace, why should they raise their fists? . . . If my sense of outrage against the Germans is a Jewish one, do I lessen my Americanism by voicing it? . . . If tyrants flout the laws of human rights, and murder the weak, and I shout against them, am I more Jew than American? Unlike the man from Ireland, Germany, Sweden, Italy, France, the Jew of America is never to be seen floundering in divided loyalties. As a Jew he is loyal to the same ideas to which he gives his American loyalty. He cries for the rights of man, and for the decent unperilous operation of government. If he cries more loudly for these than the American next to him, is he not, perhaps, more American?
Finally, confronting those who would charge Zionists with harboring “dual loyalties,” Hecht wrote that his Jewishness “does not belong to any other land.” There were “back-to-Palestine patriots,” but “the Jew of America has no secondary homeland.” At the end of the war, with the count of the murders of the Jews having reached six million, he focused his energies on helping those who remained, and who would have nowhere else to go but to the Jewish homeland.
In February 1946, the British embassy in Washington prepared a long confidential memorandum on the postwar state of Jewish affairs in America. “The Jewish future,” it found, “in the opinion of many competent observers, is none too rosy in the United States.” American Jewish morale was low, the memorandum noted, because of the twin existential shocks: the European mass murders and the pessimistic prospects for a Jewish state in Palestine. The established Jews, according to the report, were generally “integrationists,” with Julius Morgenstern, the president of Hebrew Union College (“a deservedly famous institution” and a “pillar of Reform Judaism”) being a “lifelong anti-Zionist,” but Jews in general were very scared:
The American Jew has never before felt so insecure. Zionism, hitherto supported by him as a philanthropic gesture of assistance toward his less fortunate European coreligionists, has suddenly become a matter of personal concern.
Hecht was neither insecure nor conflicted. On July 7, 1946, the Times published his review of The Old Country, a collection of stories by Sholom Aleichem in English translation. He took the occasion to express his appreciation of Yiddish literature and of its most popular author; but the real significance of this collection, he wrote, was that it was “more than a book”—it was a condemnation:
It is the epitaph of a vanished world and an almost vanished people. The salty and hilarious folk of whom it tells—the Jews of Europe—are dead. . . . And all the quaint and heartwarming villages in which the Jews of Europe lived are no longer on the map. . . . [These tales] are their historical farewell to a civilization that wiped them out.
Hecht’s response was to write a play, A Flag Is Born, which opened on Broadway on September 5, 1946. Featuring music by Kurt Weill, with Paul Muni and Celia Adler playing the roles of “Tevya” and “Zelda,” it told the story of Holocaust survivors who die trying to reach Palestine. The despairing young survivor, “David,” was played by twenty-two-year-old Marlon Brando. At a key moment, three soldiers—representing the Irgun, Haganah, and Leḥi, the Jewish paramilitary forces in Palestine—tell him: “Don’t you hear our guns, David? We battle the English. . . . We fling no more prayers or tears at the world.” The soldiers promise “an end to pleading and proverbs,” pledging instead to “wrest our homeland out of British claws, as the Americans once did” in 1776. At a key moment, David turns to castigate the audience:
Where were you, Jews? Where were you when the killing was going on? . . . We heard—your silence—in the gas chambers. And now, now you speak a little. Your hearts squeak—and you have a dollar for the Jews. Thank you. Thank you.
The New York Times credited Muni—among “the most accomplished actors of our time”—with “one of the great performances of his career,” and Weill with “one of the finest [scores] he has written.” As for Hecht, the newspaper grudgingly acknowledged that his script made its main point “with force and vigor” and that the opening-night audience included “more than a few” members of the United Nations, but the Times nevertheless called the play a “turgid stage polemic.”
The four-week run was extended to four months, after which A Flag is Born toured the country. With Hecht, Weill, and the principal actors donating their services, it raised $275,000 (about $3,800,000 in today’s dollars) for efforts to smuggle displaced Jews into Palestine.
In 1948, Hecht raised almost the same amount with a single, 45-minute speech to a group in Los Angeles assembled by the gangster Mickey Cohen. The full typewritten manuscript, discovered by the writer Stuart Schoffman and published in the Spring 2014 issue of the Jewish Review of Books, shows Hecht at the height of his eloquence. He began by noting a cable he had received from Menachem Begin, the thirty-two-year-old commander of the Irgun, asking him to speak to the “soul of the Jews of the world.” That soul, Hecht says, had been
trained by disaster and calumny to live in caution, to hide itself cozily behind good deeds, to overlook insults, to charm its enemies, and to avoid getting its enemies angrier than they are. Thus hidden, thus full of cunning modesties and suicidal graces, it has remained nevertheless a brave soul—when destinies other than its own are at stake. It has fought and died valorously in defense of every cause but its own. Yes, it has the courage to fight and die for others. But it has hardly the guts even to speak in its own behalf.
Hecht told his audience that “I know this soul of the Jew because I am part of it,” and that
when the Irgun commander asks that it be wakened, he asks for a miracle: awaken Jews into espousing their own cause . . . into grasping the battles of Palestine as their own bid for freedom. . . . [T]he Irgun asks for more miracles. It asks for us.
Only a Jewish state, Hecht declared, could prevent “the mass executions of Jews that have been going on since the year Four Hundred.” The stakes were now existential:
If that battle [for Palestine is] lost—we Jews, all of us, are lost for another seven generations. We will have made our bid for human national status—whether we helped or hid our heads in a bag—and if this bid fails, we will become a gabby and empty people, a gabby and defeated people—more so than ever in our history. We will become losers. . . . If our bid for a flag and a homeland fails, we will all of us stand guilty before the world of an unworthiness. And this unworthiness we will, for a change, have deserved—if it comes to us.
It is our duty to see that it does not come to us. It is in our power to prevent its coming. [And] we will win—if the long dreaming soul of the Jew is wakened.
Hecht concluded by saying that “Jewish money has poured into a thousand causes, but there was never any cause in Jewish history like this one.” In Palestine, he said, a David is standing against Goliath, and “I ask you Jews—buy him a stone for his slingshot.”
According to Hecht, the event raised $200,000, the equivalent of $3.1 million today.
Continuing to raise both consciousness and contributions, Hecht mastered yet another medium of public advocacy: the provocative full-page newspaper advertisement. He had been at it for a while. In late 1942, several weeks after Stephen Wise announced that two million Jews had already been murdered and that two million more were in danger, Hecht wrote a poem entitled “Ballad of the Doomed Jews of Europe,” which he planned to publish as an ad in the New York Times just before Christmas. The first and last stanzas conveyed his outrage:
FOUR MILLION JEWS waiting for death
Oh, hang and burn but—quiet, Jews!
Don’t be bothersome; save your breath—
The world is busy with other news.
Oh World be patient it will take
Some time before the murder crews
Are done. By Christmas you can make
Your Peace on Earth without the Jews.
As Hoffman notes in her biography, both the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress opposed publication of the ad, fearing it might be perceived as “attacking Christmas.” The ad was pulled and was finally published only a year later, on September 14, 1943, after the death of another million Jews.
Hecht created more full-page ads, although none so provocative as the one supporting efforts to expel the British from Palestine that appeared simultaneously on May 14, 1947 in the New York Post, the New York Herald Tribune, and other newspapers. Ten days earlier, the Irgun had mounted a spectacular operation at the British maximum-security prison at Acre. That fortress, with its 70-foot-high walls and internal iron gates, held 163 Jews, including a number of Irgun leaders. Astonishingly, the Irgun managed a simultaneous break-in and break-out that was widely reported in the American press, providing a huge boost to its image—and greatly damaging the morale of the British authorities.
Hecht’s full-page ad, entitled “Letter to the [Jewish] Terrorists of Palestine,” brought to “My Brave Friends” the glad tidings that the “Jews of America are for you.” It included a sentence that was nothing less than incendiary. “On my word as an old reporter,” Hecht wrote to the Irgun,
[e]very time you blow up a British arsenal, or wreck a British jail, or send a British railroad train sky high, or rob a British bank, or let go with your bombs and guns at the British betrayers and invaders of your homeland, the Jews of America make a little holiday in their hearts.
The effect was immediate. The Irgun distributed Hecht’s message throughout Palestine. On May 16, the New York Times quoted Winston Churchill as calling Palestine “the most dismal of all quarrels into which we have blundered” and saying that “we are making fools of ourselves by keeping 100,000 soldiers” there. On May 23, the Times published an interview with Menachem Begin, who demanded withdrawal of “the British regime from our country and the transfer of government to a provisional Hebrew government.” Asked by the interviewer if he thought violence was “morally damaging your cause,” Begin responded: “in precisely the same degree as bombing Germany was ‘morally damaging’ to the Allies.”
Hecht personally suffered a severe blow to his career from the ad, which sparked a formal British protest to the U.S. State Department and harsh reproaches from American Jewish leaders, newspapers, and other quarters. His films were banned by the British Cinematograph Exhibitors Association, representing 3,500 British theaters, and he found himself a pariah in Hollywood, where the studios depended on the British market. Nevertheless, he deemed the boycott “the best press I had ever received—a solid acknowledgment of the work I had been doing with all my might.”
All in all, Hecht’s post-1939 plays, books, and speeches—a veritable one-man multimedia operation—represent an extraordinary outpouring of moral, cultural, and literary force.
Today, however, he is largely forgotten. As Hoffman writes, “the speed with which his name has slipped from common memory is striking, given his prominence and/or notoriety at a certain not-too-distant American moment.” She suggests that “Jewish politics . . . probably played a part in the current amnesia surrounding Hecht” because he “deeply unsettled the staid American Jewish establishment,” for whom his “accusations of gross dereliction by America’s most powerful Jews –and by the sainted FDR himself—hit much too close to home.”
Another answer, however, may involve the soul of American Jewry itself. In his riveting 1961 book, Perfidy—a page-turning account of a 1954 libel trial in Israel that raised piercing questions about the Zionist failure to save the Jews of Hungary—Hecht describes how American Jews had initially rejected Zionism and embraced it only after it succeeded, with their later acceptance almost as ignoble as their earlier rejection:
Their basic reaction [had been] that something absurd and a little sad was going on in Jerusalem. And possibly a little dangerous. This reaction was only natural, for there had been no good tidings for Jews out of Jerusalem since the crucifying of one of their young rabbis—by the Romans. The Jewish hell born of that misreported incident had never cooled off. . . .
How different it is now! With all the Jews of the world who were unaware of Eretz-Israel, who made no personal sacrifices for it, and who denounced the fighters for its freedom—[now] patting themselves on the back for the state of Israel . . . And not religious or “organization” Jews, but assimilated American ones who usually go to Temple only in a coffin. . . . Their eyes gleam. They used to feel this way when . . . Einstein’s name appeared in the newspapers. And all as ignorant of what is going on—or went on—in Israel as if it were a foothold on the moon.
If these were two earlier stages in the story of American Jewish reaction to Zionism—one fearful, the other superficial—we may now be said to be in a third stage in which, after 70 years of the Jewish state’s existence, American and Israeli Jews are moving in two increasingly divergent directions.
In Zionist history, there had always been differences between European Zionists and American Jews (including American Zionists), and differences as well between Israeli and American Jews after the establishment of the Jewish state. But over the past decade, even as each community has experienced a flourishing virtually unparalleled in Jewish history, the divisions have deepened and widened. A two-part example epitomizes the disjuncture: prominent American Jewish commentators argued that Barack Obama was “the most Jewish president” ever, while Israelis considered him perhaps the most anti-Israel president ever; the differing reactions to President Trump have reflected the same deep divide, with the polarities reversed.
The divisions extend to a variety of issues—including such basic ones as who is a Jew and whether Israel can properly designate itself a Jewish state. Nor are the divisions the end of the matter; the numbers of American Jews who profess to care about Israel are themselves declining. In a poll conducted at the end of May, the non-partisan Jewish Electorate Institute found it “striking” that “a [presidential] candidate’s stance on Israel ranks at the bottom of a list of sixteen policy priorities of [American] Jewish voters.”
In such an atmosphere, we are in danger of losing an appreciation that there were in fact two miracles emanating from what happened in 1948: not only the re-creation of the Jewish state after two millennia, but also the rise of a confident American Jewish diaspora shedding the pervasive fear that had characterized earlier generations even in America. The second miracle is related to the first, but many American Jews do not know Jewish history prior to the establishment of Israel, or appreciate the connection of Israel to their own unprecedented success.
The forgotten story of Ben Hecht thus reflects a communal amnesia that extends far beyond his biography. Just as his place in American literature deserves to be elevated, his place in Jewish history amply merits the close attention it receives in the Gorbach and Hoffman books. Both books are worth reading, but readers faced with choosing between them will be rewarded by selecting Gorbach’s more judicious and thorough account. It is a major accomplishment and an important contribution to contemporary Jewish knowledge.
Hecht was not only a child of his century but also a much needed man for our own time: one who, as Menachem Begin said at his funeral in New York, “wielded his pen like a drawn sword” and “did so much for the Jewish people and for the redemption of Israel.” He was more than a writer, screenwriter, playwright, novelist, short-story writer, essayist, and polemicist. In 1939, he also became a prophet.
The author thanks the librarians of American Jewish University for facilitating his research.
More about: Arts & Culture, Ben Hecht, History & Ideas, Holocaust