Friday, April 01, 2011

Eliyho Matz: The Last Bergson Boy

Profiled in The Jewish Week by Lehman Weichselbaum:
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.