(April 10, 2018 / Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C.) Ben Hecht was a prolific journalist, novelist and playwright. He was one of Hollywood’s most sought-out and successful screenwriters, with many of his creations now considered classics.
Hecht’s life took a sharp turn in 1941 when he met Peter Bergson, a central figure in the history of Zionism. Born Hillel Kook (nephew of the famed Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook), Bergson was a founding member of the Irgun and a close confidant of the leader of Revisionist Zionism, Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Bergson convinced Hecht to emerge from his complacency and fight for the goals of Bergson’s network, which at this point was mainly to rescue European Jews. Hecht realized that his close connections in the press and in Hollywood could be very valuable to the cause.
Hecht began with producing a number of full-page advertisements that brought the ongoing horrors of the Holocaust to public attention. One ad, published in 1943 in The New York Times read: “For Sale to Humanity – 70,000 Jews – Guaranteed Human Beings – at $50 a Piece” (referencing Romania’s offer to send Jews to safety only if their travel expenses would be paid upfront).
Next, Hecht utilized his Hollywood connections to put together a massive pageant. Titled “We Will Never Die,” it was performed before 40,000 spectators at Madison Square Garden, hoping to spread awareness of the murder of Europe’s Jews and to influence a change in American immigration policy, which severely restricted the number of refugees allowed into the United States.
After the war, Hecht focused his Jewish activism on supporting the Irgun’s activities, which included smuggling weapons and immigrants to British-controlled Palestine. He openly supported the Jewish underground in its uprising against the British, using speeches, writing and his international contacts to help influence public opinion toward the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. In one of his most extraordinary fundraising speeches, Hecht spoke to a group of Jewish mob bosses, whom he described as “a thousand bookies, ex-prize fighters, gamblers, jockeys, touts and all sorts of lawless and semi-lawless characters,” and beseeched them: “A David stands against Goliath. I ask you Jews—buy him a stone for his slingshot.” The speech allegedly yielded almost a quarter of a million dollars in donations for the Irgun.
In 1947, Hecht wrote the script for a play, A Flag is Born. It starred a young Marlon Brando and was intended to spread support for Zionism in the United States while raising money for the cause. Proving to be extremely popular on Broadway and its national tour, the play raised more than $400,000, which went toward purchasing a ship that was used in an attempt to smuggle more than 900 Holocaust survivors to Palestine. The ship was renamed the SS Ben Hecht in honor of Hecht’s major contribution to this effort.
Hecht’s story is an incredibly powerful tale of an American Jew who used his unique combination of talents, skills and contacts to help the Jewish people and the Jewish state.