How Broadway Helped the Zionist Revolt Against Britain

In the 1940s, the Irgun went to the heart of American culture to garner support for its campaign of violent insurrection

How Broadway Helped the Zionist Revolt Against Britain
Marlon Brando (left) in rehearsal for “A Flag Is Born” (1946). (Bettmann/Getty Images)

As the preparations for an all-out assault on Gaza got underway in Israel after the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7, a public relations machine moved into gear. Israeli “hasbara” — media aimed at explaining and defending Israeli actions — went into motion, with Israeli ministries, diasporic Zionist organizations, sympathetic social media content creators, celebrities and others pumping out a simple message: Israel would defend itself. Israeli aggression and violence would be a justifiable response to what happened on that October morning.

But as the bombing of Gaza has made headlines all over the world, Israel’s PR strategy has faced an increasingly uphill battle. In America, liberal public opinion has shifted over the past few decades and is now firmly against Israeli strikes in Gaza and the human toll on Palestinian civilians.

There was a time, however, when Zionist public relations efforts in America were met with wild cheers of support, mass donations and a public eager to buy weapons and fight the enemy. Except the enemy wasn’t Palestinian groups or Arab armies — it was Britain. And those supporting the Zionist cause were some of the biggest celebrities of their day. This is the strange story of “A Flag Is Born,” a 1946 Broadway show involving the likes of Marlon Brando, Ben Hecht and Kurt Weill, with a supporting cast of high-society figures and Hollywood’s foremost names.

In 1945, 30 years after conquering territory from the Ottomans and receiving a mandate to rule over Palestine from the League of Nations, Britain was facing growing problems in the area. Internecine feuding between Palestinian Arabs and Jewish Zionists showed no sign of abating, and the two sides seemed unable to agree to any compromise. World War II had left Britain economically damaged and increasingly unable to maintain all of its imperial holdings. The febrile situation in Palestine was detrimental to British interests, with bouts of Arab and Jewish violence rendering any geopolitical or strategic advantage of occupying the territory null and void.

The Balfour Declaration of November 1917 publicly promised that Britain would “use their best endeavors to facilitate” the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Britain thus found itself pledged to support the creation of some sort of home for Jews in Palestine. But by 1944, a small group of armed Zionists in Palestine had realized that the British presence was now all that stood between Jews and not just a “national home” but an independent Jewish state. Led by Menachem Begin, the Irgun Zvai Leumi — or Irgun for short — decided to declare a campaign of violent insurrection against British rule. Taking up arms, they targeted infrastructure as well as soldiers, police and civilian administrators running the country.

Yet Begin and his associates knew that taking on the might of the British Empire single-handed, weakened as it may be, would be suicidal. They needed allies, and powerful ones. If only the United States, the emerging superpower of the postwar world, could be made to take their side, the British might just have to pay attention to the Irgun’s demands. A PR push in the U.S. was needed and, luckily for Begin, he knew just the man for the job.

Hillel Kook — the pseudonym of Peter Bergson, a Lithuanian Jew who had emigrated to Palestine in 1924 — had been approached by Begin’s ideological forefather Ze’ev Jabotinsky in 1940 to join a delegation of Irgun supporters in the U.S., where he quickly became the group’s undisputed leader. The “Bergson Group,” as it came to be known, set about creating a number of fronts for the Irgun in the U.S., including one named the American League for a Free Palestine.

The league, helped by the connections Kook had cultivated during his wartime running of Jewish advocacy groups, managed to attract the support of a number of prominent celebrities and society figures, including the Marx brothers, Eleanor Roosevelt and Leonard Bernstein. But Kook had even bigger ambitions. With Begin’s support, he set about arranging a spectacular PR stunt that would capture American popular support and bring the issue of a Jewish state in Palestine to center stage in American politics.

On the evening of Sept. 5, 1946, at Broadway’s Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon Theatre), the doors opened on a new production — “A Flag Is Born,” written by Ben Hecht, with an accompanying score by Kurt Weill, and produced by the league. The play follows three Holocaust survivors attempting to reach Palestine. At one point, the youngest of these, David, who was played by an up-and-coming young actor by the name of Marlon Brando, is greeted by three Hebrew fighters who “promise to wrest our homeland out of British claws as the Americans once did” and urge David to join them and “fight for Palestine.” Indeed, the play is replete with comparisons between the Irgun and the American revolutionaries. After all, the play seemed to be saying to its audience: Hadn’t you also had to fight against British tyranny by taking up arms and pushing them out of your country? If you did it, why can’t we?

The performances capitalized on a sense of guilt and pulled at American audiences’ heartstrings — indeed practically yanking at them, with Brando delivering a heart-rending soliloquy condemning Jewish-American inaction during the Holocaust, his voice rising in an angry crescendo as he demanded of the audience: “Where were you, Jews? Where were you when 6 million Jews were being burned to death in the ovens? Where were you?” Brando later recalled that the accusation “sent chills through the audience” and, in some instances, “Jewish girls got out of their seats and screamed and cried from the aisles in sadness.” Among a community deeply questioning whether they had done enough while the genocidal Nazi regime and its accomplices had methodically annihilated European Jewry, such lines inevitably touched a nerve.

The play concluded with Brando’s David yet again berating the audience, demanding to know “when the 6 million were burned and buried alive in lime, where were you? … Nowhere! … A curse on your silence.” Then came the piece de resistance of the play’s emotional blackmail: “And now you speak a little. Your hearts squeak — and you have a dollar for the Jews of Europe. Thank you. Thank you.” This final speech set the scene for Hecht’s exhortation on the opening night to the audience to “give us your money and we will turn it into history.”

On subsequent nights, the manager would take to the stage at the end of the performance, lit by a spotlight, and inform the audience that any money donated would immediately be transferred abroad to buy ships to take European Jews to Palestine. But the front cover of the play’s program hinted at what else donations might be used for, with a depiction of a Jewish fighter holding a rifle. Its similarity to the Irgun emblem, which showed the fist of a Jewish fighter grasping a rifle, was no coincidence.

The play proved such a success that its one-week run on Broadway was eventually extended to 10 weeks, before the performance went on tour, visiting a number of U.S. cities including Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago and Boston. The play raised $400,000 dollars (Hecht claimed the figure was $1 million) for the Zionist cause — a significant fundraising success. Although not all of the money went to Palestine — the league had its own costs to cover, keeping $166,000 for this end — it was nonetheless a profound demonstration of the success the Irgun could achieve in garnering support in the U.S. Many donors also specifically asked that their donations go to the Irgun and not be used to fund or underwrite league activities.

The British government and press were naturally incensed by the play’s message, with the London Evening Standard labeling “A Flag Is Born” “the most virulent anti-British play ever staged in the United States.” Hecht became perhaps the most reviled writer of the immediate postwar period, with the Daily Mail characterizing him as “a vitriolic Zionist volcano still with a touch of the carnival huckster.” After providing a profile of the writer, the paper concluded by stating, “Today, backed by his huge earnings, he sits in a 160-year-old sumptuously furnished country house penning violent attacks on Britain.” Again and again, the press derided Hecht as a “penthouse warrior.” The implication was that while British boys suffered at the hands of the Irgun, Hecht sat smugly in his luxurious surroundings in the U.S., preaching violence from afar. A furious press tore Hecht apart in every editorial and column that mentioned his name.

But Hecht was only just getting started. “A Flag Is Born” was mainly concerned with following the fate of the three Holocaust survivors, and while the British appeared as the antagonists, Hecht was about to produce a play far more offensive to British feelings. In early 1947, he received a letter from Begin thanking him for his efforts and suggesting that he adapt the story of Dov Gruner, a captured Irgun member, whose fate (much ruminated over by the British, who eventually decided to execute him) became a cause celebre for the organization. The resulting stage work was provocatively titled “The Terrorist.” Debuting at New York’s Carnegie Hall, the play reportedly raked in a further $50,000 for the cause.

“Last Night We Attacked,” a short documentary detailing the exploits of the Irgun, was also produced by Hecht. The 18-minute piece was frequently rolled out for fundraising events and occasionally introduced by Brando, who remained involved with Hecht and his appeals for support throughout the late 1940s.

As well as canvassing high society for their donations and bringing his productions to the general public, there was a seedier side to Hecht’s Zionist fundraising. The Jewish mobster Mickey Cohen helped raise an additional $200,000 for the cause at an underworld “party,” at which the attendees were invited to make a “donation.” What was initially collected fell short of Cohen’s expectations, and his goons were sent back into the crowd to ensure further charitable gifts were made.

Already despised in Britain, Hecht added further fuel to the fire in May 1947 by issuing an open letter to the Jews in revolt in Palestine, which declared, “Every 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 guns and bombs at the British betrayers and invaders of your homeland, the Jews of America make a little holiday in their hearts.” The Daily Telegraph condemned the “venom and viciousness of his propaganda” and labeled him an “abnormal terrorist.”

Even those in America unsympathetic to British actions in Palestine reacted with horror to the death of two sergeants who had been kidnapped and hanged by the Irgun in late July 1947. The press again attacked an unrepentant Hecht, with the Daily Mail printing a large headline declaring “Ben Hecht Has Nothing To Say,” condemning his silence in the face of the Irgun atrocities and noting that “he was full of words for the three hanged Jews, but had no words for the two hanged Englishmen.” Hecht’s statements were not forgotten even after the mandate’s end; the Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association, a trade union representing all major British cinemas, boycotted all the films that Hecht was involved in from 1948 to 1952.

Some feared Hecht had gone too far. Many people within the entertainment industry increasingly turned on him in the aftermath of “A Flag Is Born.” As studios faced growing pressures in 1947 because of British film import duties aimed at curtailing the flow of Hollywood blockbusters to the U.K., many felt Hecht was unnecessarily antagonizing the British. Edward G. Robinson, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, never acknowledged Hecht again, while Louis B. Mayer, a co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, became an anti-Zionist partly as a result of Hecht’s Zionist plays and pronouncements, as he believed the Palestine issue was making trouble for America’s Jews, politically and financially.

Many studios were with Mayer on the Palestine issue, for business as much as political reasons. Britain and the English-speaking dominions were Hollywood’s most important audience — it made no sense to aggravate that market. Hecht’s later “cancellation” by the British media market proved they were wise to refrain from taking the Irgun’s side. Ironically, the first American feature film about Palestine, “My Father’s House,” shot in 1946 on location, suffered delays after studio equipment was damaged in an Irgun attack. The office the production was renting to store cameras and filming paraphernalia was just around the corner from the King David Hotel, the southern wing of which was leveled by an Irgun bomb on July 22, 1946, in their most deadly attack.

But all of this made little difference: Hecht’s work on behalf of the league bore fruit. Though small, and operating outside of mainstream Zionist circles and with limited organizational machinery, the group had an exceptional reach in terms of public relations. They had successfully attracted 40,000 supporters and gained the financial and moral support of a number of leading society figures.

Buoyed by its success in America, the league decided to branch out, founding an offshoot in France — the Ligue Francaise pour la Palestine. As well as attracting the support of a number of important French politicians and respected former Free French fighters, the Ligue also scored a major coup in securing the backing of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Yet again, as in America, the A-listers were rolled out to draw attention to the group’s aims and demands.

But it was in America that the league would have the most success. American displeasure with British activities in Palestine now began to filter through to the political sphere, with Robert Taft, one of the most influential Republican senators, explicitly linking any loan to the British with policy changes in Palestine. Attempts to coerce a financially desperate Britain received bipartisan support and Rep. Emanuel Cellar, a Democrat, called publicly for the withholding of aid until Britain supported Zionist claims to statehood, advising the government to target Britain’s “pocket nerves.” The activities of Hecht on behalf of the league had gained political attention and now helped to put Britain in the dock of public opinion in America. Gallup polls showed that Americans were now 2-to-1 against a loan to the British. This is especially surprising given that other Gallup polls in 1946 had shown that few Americans were interested in overseas issues and they placed foreign affairs rather low down their country’s list of priorities.

At a time when Britain was attempting to co-opt U.S. support for its policies in Palestine, the league was able to shift the public mood, turning ordinary Americans into bitter critics of British actions in Palestine and Irgun sympathizers. So successful was the campaign of vitriol against Britain that by 1948, a British civil servant on a working trip to the U.S., who was engaged on issues related to Palestine, was shocked to hear a campaigner in New York tell her cheerful audience that, “You’re hurrying home to your cocktails we know. But spare a few dollars to help us make some really good cocktails with the blood of British soldiers.” He declined to make a donation.

U.S. support for Britain was dwindling as the American public and politicians began to look on the Irgun’s attacks against Britain in Palestine with sympathy. This situation, in which the two ostensible allies were diametrically opposed, was hardly beneficial for either side, and certainly not for Britain, which needed American financial support. As the British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin noted to the Cabinet as early as October 1945, “the agitation in the U.S.A. was poisoning our relations with the U.S. Government in other fields.”

To add one final insult to injury, the league received charitable status, allowing every penny it raised to be put to use aiding the Irgun. The U.S. authorities paid little attention to British complaints, even when Archibald Clark Kerr, the British ambassador in Washington, complained directly to the State Department and asked them to intervene. The British government complained that Hecht and the league were enjoying the profits of “incitement to murder British officials and soldiers,” and urged U.S. action. They were informed by the Truman administration that there were unfortunately “no legal means” for withdrawing the tax-exempt status the group enjoyed.

Perhaps the U.S. authorities would have been more sympathetic toward British attempts to curtail this PR stunt, and the concomitant flow of cash, if they could have foreseen the trouble they would themselves face in the run-up to the first Arab-Israeli War, when the FBI sought desperately to prevent Zionists from shipping munitions through American ports at a time when there was an embargo on shipping arms to either side of the conflict.

Strangely, one of these shipments was facilitated when a Zionist emissary — Teddy Kollek, the future mayor of Jerusalem — gave federal agents the runaround by discreetly switching a bag containing roughly $1 million with a friend’s empty bag at the Copacabana Bar in New York. The FBI followed Kollek away from the bar, and a bag stuffed with cash was duly delivered to an Irish ship’s captain as a reward for his illegal smuggling. The captain, if he looked closely at Kollek’s friend, might have been somewhat baffled to be receiving his payment from none other than Frank Sinatra. Celebrity endorsements of the Jewish cause had become so prevalent, and links between Zionist groups and A-listers so commonplace, that by 1948 Sinatra could happily facilitate gun-running to Israel with apparently few qualms as to the legal or moral implications of his actions.

The story of “A Flag Is Born” and Hecht’s further artistic endeavors is a bizarre one. The Irgun and the League for a Free Palestine, with the support of leading figures in the U.S. postwar cultural milieu, led an impressive public relations campaign throughout the last years of the British Mandate in Palestine. Using little more than rhetoric and (literal) theatrics, they had pitted two former wartime allies against each other and raised funds to keep the Irgun armed, fighting and a continued menace to the British. In May 1948, unable to find a solution to the nascent Arab-Israel conflict and facing rising casualties as a result of continued Zionist violence, Britain abandoned the mandate and withdrew from Palestine. American demands and pressures had played a not insignificant role in their decision. In the showbiz wilderness into which he had been cast, Ben Hecht must have grinned a wry smile to himself.

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