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Ben Hecht

We Jews have always been a fractious, divided people, ever since the days of Moses. If we came together, it was to respond to an external threat, and even then, there was always dissension. And so, it is today. But such conditions produce the most unlikely heroes. It matters not to me if they come from the left or the right, religious or secular. What impresses me is their devotion to the cause often their cost. Ben Hecht was one such.

During the early twentieth century, whether in Europe or America, most Jews had abandoned their religion and were confidently looking toward the future. Both Zionism and the Jewish Religion were supported by a minority. Nowhere was this more obvious than in Hollywood where assimilated Jews played a prominent part in the movie industry. And where many Jews avoided getting involved in Jewish causes. It was already clear that Hitler‘s campaign against the Jews was not an idle threat. Yet most American Jews thought it was not their business and did not want to get involved.

Into this atmosphere stepped Ben Hecht. I am grateful to Yigal Bell (son of Irgun heroes) for introducing me to his story. Hecht was one the most successful playwrights, dramatists, and the highest-paid screenwriter of the day, writing for the major Hollywood producers. He was a highly regarded Hollywood figure.  For most of his life, he had nothing to do with Judaism or Jewish Affairs. Until the Nazis seized power in 1933. And then he became increasingly involved in anti-fascist and anti-Nazi activities as an outspoken public supporter, defender, and advocate of the Jewish people.

Hecht was born in Brooklyn in 1894, to secular Russian-Jewish immigrants. His family moved to Wisconsin where he went to school. Unsuccessful there he ran away to Chicago where he started a career in journalism. Then via New York to Hollywood. Hecht produced novels, plays, screenplays, and memoirs. He was nominated six times for Academy Awards and won two. Many of the screenplays he worked on are now considered classics.

The Jewish moguls of Hollywood had capitulated to Nazi threats to harm their businesses and capitulated. But Hecht tried to get them involved in the crisis unfolding in Europe.  He approached David O. Selznick who told him he wanted nothing to do with his cause. He was an American not a Jew.  Hecht got him to agree that if he could prove he was a Jew he would get involved in his campaigns to save other Jews.  Hecht called three of Selznick’s non-Jewish friends and asked them if they thought Selznick was an American or a Jew. Leland Hayward responded, “ For God’s sake what’s wrong with David, he’s a Jew and he knows it .” The other two Nunnally Johnson and Martin Quigley responded similarly. Selznick listened in to their replies and immediately signed on.

Hecht met and admired Hillel Kook, otherwise known as Peter Bergson ( the subject of another blog). He was born in Lithuania, the nephew of Chief Rabbi Kook. His family came to the Land of Israel in 1924.  He led a Walter Mitty career. The two became close friends and worked together to gain American support for the Jews in Europe and the Land of Israel.

Hecht was constantly undermined and attacked in America by a jealous and petty Jewish establishment led by Rabbi Stephen Wise who demonized him because they preferred to remain silent or work quietly behind closed doors so as not to upset the political hierarchy. They accused him of being an out-of-control rabble-rouser. As bad as Goebbels. And tried to frustrate his attempts to take his productions on the road.  Meanwhile, the Ben Gurion of the Zionist movement detested him because he was an avid supporter of Begin and the Right.

Hecht used his contacts in Hollywood to create the pageant “We Will Never Die.”   Co-authored by Hecht and Moss Hart. It was staged in Madison Square Garden on March 9-10, 1943, and then later played in five other cities, it became a centerpiece in the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe’s campaign to create an American rescue policy.  To combat the American refusal to relax its strict laws against allowing Jewish immigration. The pageants were seen live by more than 100,000 people and by several million others on NBC broadcasts.  In 1943 Hecht published A Guide for the Bedeviled, an analysis of antisemitism.

After the War Hecht became an active supporter of a Jewish “national home.” After that Hecht had to write articles and plays anonymously to avoid a British boycott of his work in response to his active support of paramilitary action against British Mandate forces. He helped finance a supply ship to Palestine named the S.S. Ben Hecht and later the ill-fated Altalena which was bombed and sank by Ben Gurion’s Haganah forces (led by Rabin).  Menachem Begin was on board but he managed to swim shore.

 After the establishment of the State of Israel, Hecht withdrew from Zionist politics altogether. But he continued to write.  In 1954, Hecht published his highly regarded autobiography, A Child of the Century. And his book Perfidy (1961), was a sensationalized account of the Rezsö Kasztner affair and the negotiations to ransom Hungarian Jewry. He exposed what he saw as Nazi collaborators in the inner circles of Ben Gurion’s regime.

He died on April 8, 1964. Belatedly, in 1983, 19 years after his death, Ben Hecht was posthumously inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame.

Then as now. Many assimilating Jews in America felt no commitment to Israel. But as it says in the Book of Esther, when Mordechai told Esther she had to intervene with the king, “Salvation and support  will come from somewhere else, and those who do not will be lost.”

You never know which Jew will run away from a Jewish identity and which will stand up for it. Hecht was the last person one would have thought would step up and fight. One never knows. Ben Hecht’s anniversary is April 18th. In his article of 1999, Yigal Bell asks “ Who will say Kaddish for Ben Hecht?” I will, and for all those who have laid down their lives for our people.

Jeremy Rosen.

About the Author
Jeremy Rosen is an English born Orthodox rabbi, graduate of Mir Yeshivah and Cambridge University. He was a lecturer at WUJS Arad, and former headmaster of Carmel College, Professor and Chairman of the faculty for Comparative Religion in Antwerp and Rabbi in Scotland London and now in New York. His weekly blog is at jeremyrosen.blogspot.com
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