The world needs heroes. And so, sometimes, do the heroes themselves.
Dashing and deadly earnest, Peter Bergson fought, as few others dared, for the lives of endangered European Jews at the height of World War II.
Nephew of Palestine’s chief rabbi, Abraham Kook, Irgun commander and the youthful leader of a small band of agitators dubbed the “Bergson Boys,” he incessantly lobbied American Jews and non-Jews, ran full-page ads in national newspapers and threw spectacular rallies at Madison Square Garden in the cause of pulling his coreligionists from Nazi death zones to any haven that would take them.
Though his efforts largely failed, Bergson and his wartime exploits have become both the stuff of legend and a permanent thorn in the conscience of collective Jewry. After long neglect, in recent years Bergson partisans have won some public acknowledgment of his rescue efforts in Holocaust memorials in the U.S. and Israel. In July, Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem memorial will host a major conference on the Bergson group.
Scarcely mentioned, however, is the long postwar career of Bergson, whose mission had shifted to crystallizing the identity of the new State of Israel as a secular, “Hebrew” nation and creating a united Jewish-Arab power bloc equal to the U.S. and Western Europe. All of it, Bergson argued, would emanate from the creation of a written constitution. Along the way he antagonized adversaries and friends alike, from David Ben-Gurion to Menachem Begin.
Inside Israel, a smattering of scholars and activists bear witness to that “second Bergson” and his message, which they insist remains especially urgent amid today’s democracy movement sweeping the Middle East. Here, one man serves as the sole keeper of the postwar-Bergson flame. He’s easy to find, if you don’t walk too quickly past the dark, narrow storefront on West 15th Street, across the street from the Port Authority office tower.
Beyond the sign reading “All-Boro Stationery” and the interior jumble of paper reams, boxed pens and bottles of toner, you’ll find an owlish, 60-ish man before a phone and computer. His name is Eliyho — or more familiarly Eli — Matz, All-Boro’s front-desk man. In the recession-paced course of a typical business day, over cups of takeout coffee he’ll have plenty of time for you.
In his distinct Israeli accent, Eli Matz may discourse on the exotic varieties of rubber bands — a professional specialty — his heterodox take on Israeli domestic and foreign policy or his one authentic moment in the sun. That was back in 1982, when as one-third of a specially designated truth-seeking strike force, he assisted in dealing a blow to the American-Jewish establishment.
It was then as a fledgling historian with a graduate degree from Yeshiva University that he signed on with a newly formed blue-ribbon commission under the chairmanship of retired Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg. His task: funnel research toward a report — under the authorship of Samuel Merlin and Seymour Finger, longtime Bergson intimates — that would clarify still-unsettled questions on the response of American Jews to the Holocaust. The trio’s submission flayed the mainstream American-Jewish leadership for shirking the rescue attempt out of political fear or pet agendas, especially the Zionist push for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The ensuing furor ended with the commission’s dissolution and a blaze of headlines.
“The commission members were mostly businessmen,” Matz says. “They weren’t politicians. They certainly weren’t historians.”
Telling his story, Matz pauses for the occasional customer. A woman, thwarted in her request for use of the shop’s broken copying machine, is consoled by the gift of three manila envelopes. “Don’t tell anybody I did this,” says Matz. It’s a pet line.
At some point in the conversation Matz produces a small, self-published book with a cover portrait sketch of Peter Bergson against a white background. “Who Is An Israeli?” which features interviews and articles by Bergson, along with an account of Matz’s own brief career in the Israeli army. There are musings on the obsolescence of the Law of Return, the purported role of the legendary Khazars in the making of the Passover Haggadah and the real secret — Bergson’s promotion of an American-style constitutionalism — behind President Harry Truman’s support to the nascent State of Israel.
Though Bergson himself reportedly called his life’s work a failure, Matz grandly calls him “the most important Jew of the 20th century.” To spread the gospel, Matz couples his slim paperback, which he sells or gives away to All-Boro customers and new acquaintances, with a string of e-mail broadsides streamed to a select list of politicians, fellow historians and State Department officials.
In previous years Matz had landed articles in journals of influence like Midstream, placed letters to uncountable editors and contributed research to David S. Wyman’s iconoclastic study of the Holocaust, “The Abandonment of the Jews.”
Harsh backlash killed prospects for further publication, Matz contends, ultimately bringing him to his current role of hunkered-down polemicist and his wholesale-stationery day job (“I needed the money”).
Matz’s wife Barbara fills in as the shop’s bookkeeper. The couple has a son, David, a filmmaker. Another son, Michael, given “Bergson” as a middle name, died of cancer in 2008.
After a term in the Knesset in the 1950s, a frustrated Bergson left Israel for permanent settlement in New York, making a small fortune in the commodities market. Yet if anything, claims Matz, the recent turmoil sweeping the Arab world opens a tempting door to reconfigured relations between Israel and its neighbors, proving Bergson’s vision more vital now than even in his day.
“Ironically, both Egypt and Jordan have constitutions,” he says. Lacking a similar road map, he asserts, “Israel can’t figure out how to deal with the Palestinians and its own Arabs. How can it find a peaceful way to deal with the Egyptians and others?”
He stresses that other proposed constitutions have not, like Bergson’s version, carved out a secular foundation.
“What is Israel today?” scoffs Matz, who like Bergson calls himself a “pragmatic centrist.” “Kibbutzim, yeshivas and goats. They built themselves a ghetto bigger than anything in Europe,” says Matz, flouting the prevailing view of Israel as a vibrant if flawed society.
As the occasional customers calls or walks in, Matz kibitzes: “Unfortunately it will cost you some money,” “What’s the safest place in an earthquake? A stationery store.” His manner can swerve from prickly to puckish. On one hot point of contention he’ll challenge a listener: “Tell me and be honest. Are you on drugs?” Seconds later he’ll reach into a drawer for samples of his whimsical, sometimes barbed custom-made rubber stamps: “NOT MADE IN CHINA.” “TZURAS,” “MOSTLY MATZAH FESTIVAL.”
Moshe Berent, author of “A Nation Like All Nations: Toward the Establishment of an Israeli Republic,” agrees with Matz that a Bergson-inspired secular constitution can accomplish what the present statutory patchwork cannot.
“Israel remains an abnormality,” he says, “which is somehow thought to belong to American Jews who never set foot inside its borders, while Arabs who were born there are denied the status of full and equal citizens.”
Lawrence Jarvik, director of the film documentary on Bergson, “Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die,” acknowledges Matz’s low-on-the-radar tack as a product of necessity: “People do what they have to do. Others will pick up the torch. Centuries later people began reading Maimonides.”
From the little stationery shop on West 15th Street, Matz resolutely attests: “I believe as Bergson did. Someday, somebody will get it.”
Late in the afternoon Matz fields one last phone call. “Would you like some Polish pencils? They have erasers on both ends.” Pause. “Fifteen cartons of the rubber bands? That gets you the free shipping. Don’t tell anybody I did this.”