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Hillel Kook was Right

​The unbelievable story of Hillel Kook (also known by his underground name Peter Bergson) is known to few today. While many streets are adorned with the names of minor Zionist wheelers and dealers, Kook has not even merited an alley. But without this tenacious and creative man – the Forrest Gump of the period before Israel was established – the Israeli state may not have even existed.

Hillel Kook (1915-2001), the nephew of Rabbi Kook, was one of the first and youngest commanders in the Irgun underground movement. In 1940, Jabotinsky summoned him to the United States to serve as his personal secretary, and upon Jabotinsky’s death, Kook remotely oversaw Begin’s appointment as commander of the Irgun.

When news of the Holocaust began to reach America, Kook decided to do whatever he could to stop it – even at the price of conflict with the Jews of the United States and the leaders of the Yishuv in Israel. Along with a handful of partners collectively known as “The Bergson Group”, he founded a series of organizations, raised massive awareness in the press, using giant news advertisements to harass President Roosevelt, recruited lawmakers and celebrities, produced the play “We Shall not Die” (starring Marlon Brando!) and organized the Rabbis’ March to the Capitol in Washington.
The Jewish leadership was envious and entreated the FBI to “take care” of Kook. But ultimately Kook’s group of zealots with strange accents achieved impressive results. Roosevelt was forced to declare the establishment of the “War Refugee Board”. Some historians claim the Bergson group was responsible for rescuing 200,000 Jews. Kook is commemorated at Holocaust museums in the United States, but his struggle is absent from “Yad
Vashem”.
 
After the war, Kook resumed fighting for his country. In an audacious move, the Bergson Group purchased the Persian Embassy building in Washington, hoisted a blue-and-white flag, and declared it to be the Hebrew embassy. This embassy sent letters all over the world, for example, to the Arab League, claiming that the country in formation would be a Jewish-Arab partnership.
In October of 1947, despite Begin’s lack of enthusiasm, the group filed a memo with the UN towards a unilateral declaration of a government in exile. Ben Gurion did not want to be preempted by the Irgun. Contrary to his close advisors’ advice, he declared the establishment of Israel only one month later, on November 29th.
Upon declaration of the new state, Kook hurried to Israel and “the Bergson Group” initiated and funded the Altalena. Kook was not pleased with Begin’s activity, but was incarcerated by the IDF at a secret facility for four months.
 
Kook liked to say, “I’m the most leftist right-winger and the most rightist left-winger.” Although he was a member of the first Knesset on behalf of the Herut party, he coined the term “post-Zionism” in a 1947 article. He believed that after the establishment of the State, Zionism could be disposed of. He founded the first civil rights organization in Israel and was one of the pioneers of the battle to separate religion from state. His greatest battle, which he fought until the end of his life, was for a constitution. When the founding committee decided not to draft a constitution, Kook declared it a “putsch”. When Begin found the constitution to be less important, Kook tried to take over the Herut party, and when he failed to do so, he left it. Had he succeeded, there would not have been a judicial reform, and October 7th would probably not have happened.
 
Kook was pushed out of the country for which he had battled. In 1951, beaten and oppressed, he returned to the United States and became a businessman. In the 1960’s he returned to Israel, and from his home in Kefar Shmaryahu, tried to rekindle the flame. He organized meetings and attempted to publish a newspaper. But the public was uninterested in the man and his obsession with a constitution – except a few young men such as Doron Rosenblum, Yossef Aggasi and Yoram Kaniuk.
 
Kook should have been remembered as one of the most influential persons in the establishment of Israel, in the spirit of David Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin, but was equally forgotten by left and right. He was called “The Father of the Hebrew Nation” by the academic Moshe Brandt. In his eulogy for Kook, Yoram Kaniuk called him “one of the most overlooked people in our generation”.
 
The investigative work of researcher Renen Yarezki has yielded historic treasures. An attempt to amend the historic injustice and an effort to outline “the road not taken”, “Hillel Kook was Right” is a proposal for a different present and future for Israel – which is especially relevant today.

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