Collective memories are usually celebratory, focusing on elements of the past that a society is most proud of. This is unfortunate. After all, societies stand to learn as much from their failures as from their successes. The memory of the Shoah is a major component of Israel’s character, but when it comes to the question of the Jewish response to the Holocaust, it is still a cause of some amnesia, particularly with regard to our failures at the time. Refusing to acknowledge those failures only compounds them.

A strategic dispute that ran through the Zionist movement from its earliest decades had an impact on its response to the plight of European Jews. The “political” faction (whose most prominent leaders were Theodor Herzl and Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky) advocated trying to effect mass migration to Palestine by any means, whereas the “practical” faction (whose most prominent leaders were Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion) believed selective migration of young workers, preferably with agricultural skills, was both preferable and more realistic.

The dispute persisted during the Holocaust. The fact that the effort to bring European Jews to Palestine illegally, known as Aliyah Bet, succeeded in bringing so few was doubtless due to the hostility of both the Nazi and the British authorities. But it was also due to the lack of committed support for the idea from the Jewish and Zionist leadership. Indeed, the venture was initiated by the European branch of the military underground in defiance of Ben-Gurion’s orders. Advertisement This same dispute can help explain the terrible and shocking fact that during the war’s final phases, the Zionist movement in Palestine and the Jewish leadership abroad actively worked to foil the activities of the Emergency Committees to Save the Jews of Europe. The committees, which operated mainly in the United States but also in Great Britain, had been organized by Hillel Kook (working under the nom de guerre Peter Bergson) and his small group of Palestinian colleagues from the Irgun Tzvai Leumi (Etzel, or Irgun for short).

Last year, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C., agreed to the terms of a petition it had received, demanding that it recognize the work of Hillel Kook’s Committees; today visitors to the museum can see an exhibit that displays a record of their activities. Last month, Yad Vashem received a similar petition, signed by a wide variety of Israelis who disagree on many other issues, but who all felt that the official Holocaust memorial body in Israel should acknowledge the efforts of Kook (who died in 2001) and his colleagues.

Yad Vashem turned the petition down, insulting the public’s intelligence with such claims that its museum is dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust and not to rescue efforts, despite the institution’s commemoration of the Righteous Among the Nations. A short time later, a daylong conference in Tel Aviv was devoted to the subject of Hillel Kook and the Committees. The keynote speaker, David S. Wyman, author of “The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust” (1984), said that even today he is unable to comprehend the hostility that existed at that time toward the Committees. Attempts to sabotage their work included the publication of disinformation about the groups’ members and efforts to mobilize both the U.S. administration and members of Congress to act against them.

Kook had come to the U.S. in 1940 to enlist support for the idea of a Jewish army to fight the Nazis. In late 1942, when he learned about the Shoah from the press, he at once began dedicating all his energies to efforts to rescue European Jews. He organized a march of 400 rabbis on Washington in late 1943, which led to the establishment of the U.S. War Refugee Board, which did indeed have a hand in the rescue of tens of thousands of Jews.

The leadership in Israel still disregards Kook, and says that nothing could have been done to rescue Jews. It is not true. Records show, for example, that the Nazi regime was much more susceptible to public pressure than was known at the time. But the error was less a factual one than a moral one: One can always come up with reasons for inaction, but they are never valid, as we should never lose hope.

Bertrand Russell said that when skeletons are left in cupboards they rattle, and then the right thing to do is to bury them with honor so they can rest. It is too late for our honoring the memory of the venerable dead to be of any use to them; it is something we must do for ourselves. When we say “Never Again,” we can be uttering a wish or we can be making a pledge. Not that we will necessarily succeed at preventing another genocidal disaster. Such efforts, after all, whether in Cambodia, in East Africa or in West Africa, have all ended with almost total failure. But the battle must go on. This is what we can and must promise.

As long as Israel ignores Hillel Kook, the pledge of “Never Again” will not be serious. The December 1946 Zionist Congress officially denounced the Bergson group. It is clear from the minutes of the meeting that they were denounced as dissidents. The World Zionist Organization still holds its congresses, and occasionally discusses the subject of the rescue of Jews and the role of Israel as a possible refuge for potential Jewish victims. Before these discussions cease to be empty formulas, the WZO owes itself a rescindment of its denunciation of the Bergson group.

Joseph Agassi is professor emeritus of philosophy at Tel Aviv University and York University, Toronto. He has written and edited numerous scholarly books and articles.