It is 1943. A sizable percentage of Europe's Jews have already perished. In response to the world's (and America's) silence in the face of unremitting evil, as well as their growing frustration with American policy and their contempt for Hollywood's “fear of offending its European markets,” Billy Rose and Ernst Lubitsch produced a dramatic pageant at Madison Square Garden. Its purpose: to raise public awareness about the plight of European Jewry.
The pageant was written by Ben Hecht. The music was composed by Kurt Weill, and it was staged by Moss Hart. Its stars included Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, John Garfield, Ralph Bellamy, Frank Sinatra and Burgess Meredith. Two hundred rabbis and two hundred cantors raised their voices in prayer on stage. The pageant was called “We Will Never Die,” and when it was performed on March 9, 1943, 40,000 people filled the seats — thanks to newspaper advertisements provided gratis by the Hearst Corporation.
“We Will Never Die” went on the road, with performances in Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles, The Los Angeles performance at the Hollywood Bowl was broadcast across the Nation on NBC radio. The Washington audience contained senators, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Notice a few elements of this story from the annals of American popular culture. First, the venues, which were huge. Second, the artistic prestige of the pageant's creators and participants. These were first-tier cultural personalities. Third: while there were certainly Jews involved in the presentation, consider the gentile performers who were also involved — Bellamy, Sinatra, and Meredith.
Cut, now, to 2014.
It would be overly dramatic and unnecessarily alarmist to proclaim that our current situation is, in any way, close to what our forebears were experiencing in 1943. True — European Jewry's situation is bad and getting worse.
• A Jewish woman in Belgium, refused medical treatment precisely she was Jewish.
Mobs screaming “Death to the Jews!” in the streets of Paris.
• A synagogue in a Paris suburb, surrounded by a mob.
• Jewish teens wearing kippot tear-gassed in Paris.
• Mobs screaming “Hamas — Jews to the gas!” in Germany.
• A “grocery pogrom,” in which Israeli-produced products were pulled off grocery shelves in Belfast.
• At a Sainsbury’s supermarket in central London, where protesters outside the store called for a boycott of Israeli-made goods. The manager ordered employees to empty the kosher food section.
Also true — there has been a highly disturbing increase in anti-Semitic incidents — physical attacks — in the United States as well.
• Time magazine's blood libel, in which it repeated the ghoulish accusation that IDF soldiers were harvesting organs from Palestinian cadavers.
• A Jewish couple attacked on the Upper East Side of New York by Palestinian flag wielding assailants.
• A Jewish student attacked at Temple University.
• Elon Gold, an Israeli comedian, attacked in Los Angeles.
• An Israeli woman in Florida, told by attendants at a local gas station that her business was not welcome there anymore.
But one thing is equally true: we cannot afford complacency. It is no longer “business as usual” in the Jewish world. More than this: the crisis that world Jewry is facing (and, no, the new-old crisis of anti-Semitism has nothing to do with Gaza, though that certainly has served as an elegant and fraudulent excuse) belongs not only to the Jews. It belongs to the world as well.
My proposal: it is time for another, radically updated production — or an imitation — of “We Will Never Die.” We have been encouraged by the A list of two hundred Hollywood celebrities who have recently stood up for Israel against Hamas — a list that includes Bill Maher, Sylvester Stallone, Kelsey Grammer, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Seth Rogen, Sarah Silverman, and Roseanne Barr. http://variety.com/2014/biz/news/hollywood-elite-sign-anti-hamas-statement-1201289089/.
Combine that list with the impressive list of rock stars who have, wittingly or not, bucked the BDS movement and have played concerts to adoring fans in Israel.
It is now time to gather that A list, bring them together, and in the words of the old sentimental film cliche — “hey, kids, let's put on a show.” It is now time for these American cultural heroes to even more publicly lend their voice to the most profound political and moral crisis of our time — the threat of Islamic extremism, with its roots in Nazi ideology, to undo every element of the West's liberal tradition.
By the way, did you notice that list of celebrities who have spoken out in favor of Israel?
Sure, there were Jews on that list. But there were many non-Jews as well. And there could be, should be, must be, more of each.
Alright, I'm naming names (to use an older and infinitely darker phrase from Hollywood history): Stephen Spielberg. Barbara Streisand. Paul Simon. Bob Dylan. Woody Allen (as Herzl said, “if you will it, it is no dream”). Larry David. Jerry Seinfeld. Howard Stern. Howie Mandel. Amy Schumer (my former religious school student!). Judd Apatow.
You get the picture. What's your dream lineup?
Finally, let's remember something else. Seventy years ago, a moral conspiracy of Hollywood heavy hitters pulled off a series of major events — all to raise consciousness about what was happening to the Jews of Europe. In 1943. When the American Jewish community was a fraction of the size it is today, and when the American Jewish community had but a fraction of the clout and affluence it has today.
And they did it.
Think of what we could do today — and with the internet, our ability to simulcast it all over the world.
Seventy years ago, at the end of the day, Ben Hecht was depressed about what he believed was his pageant's relative lack of effectiveness. He told Kurt Weill: “The pageant has accomplished nothing. Actually, all we have done is make a lot of Jews cry, which is not a unique accomplishment.”
Not this time. This time, the effect will not be to make a lot of Jews cry.
It will be to make a lot of people shrei.
What's stopping us?
Jeffrey Salkin is the rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Bayonne, NJ and the author of many books published by Jewish Lights Publishing (http://www.jewishlights.com). His latest book is The Gods Are Broken! The Hidden Legacy of Abraham (JPS)