In a letter to the New York Times published on December 2, 1948, Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt and 26 other leading American Jews wrote:
Among the most disturbing political phenomena of our times is the emergence in the newly created state of Israel of the “Freedom Party” (Tnuat Haherut), a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties. It was formed out of the membership and following of the former Irgun Zvai Leumi, a terrorist, right-wing, chauvinist organization in Palestine.
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. [Continue reading…]