Two Fathers, Two Sons and Two Presidents
By Eliyho Matz
[This article is dedicated to the memory of Michael Bergson Fichman Matz, godson of Peter H. Bergson.]
“Only trees have roots.”
The current May 2011 American/Israeli political crisis has been building up for the past 63 years, and maybe a few years longer if we consider FDR, the WWII President, as a component in this political-diplomatic entanglement and equation. In his May 20, 2011, speech at the State Department in Washington, President Barack Obama, tried politely to tell the people of Middle East region that the current changes in the region are recognized by America, at the same time mentioning to the Israeli nation that it will have to make some changes, too, that is, to move back to the pre-1967 borders, as part of a general political arrangement with the Palestinians.
The immediate response of the Israeli nation, led by its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been one of dismay. For we see that the Israeli nation of 2011, with its Prime Minister, are tragically trying to redefine the Israeli Zionist Jewish story by asking the Palestinians to recognize the Israeli nation as the national home of the Jewish people, as well as one that is Jewish and democratic. This new self-definition put forth by the Israeli Prime Minister makes no political sense, because, first, Israel has no constitution, and second, has never been the nation of all Jews. (Where are most of the Jews today? – definitely not in Israel.) What Israel is, is definitely the nation of the Israelis, and it should remain so and define itself as such. All Biblical and Talmudic arguments about the ancient Israelites, Hebrews, (etc.) are nonsensical in relation to the political reality of the nation today. The current Israeli population is represented by a mishmash of groups, and those who are Jewish became Jews during the last 2000 years. Even if there are some few Jews who claim an ancestry dating back to the Davidic Biblical period,* one has to be careful not to fall into this argument of Jewish ancestral antiquity when justifying the existence of the modern Israeli nation.
The Israeli nation established in 1948 as result of Political Zionism claimed sovereignty as an Israeli nation, and that was how the world (UN) saw it. Thus the decree that ended the British Mandate and the path of non-Jewish sovereignty signified the of the path of Political Zionism and started a new phase in the history of the Israeli nation and world Jewry. MAAZEL TOV!
The people who had led the Israelis to become a new sovereign nation were a) the chalutzim, or pioneers, who settled in Turkish-British Palestine; and b) the Palestinian and Stateless political activists in the United States during WWII. The story of the chalutzim is represented by Ben Gurion. The story of the political Palestinian and Stateless Jews in the US is represented by the Bergson Boys, also known as the Bergson Group. The Bergson Group included a core of the Irgun Tzvai Leumi (an illegal Palestinian underground terrorist organization active during the British Mandate), among whom was Yitshaq Ben-Ami (as mentioned above, the father of J-Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami). From 1940-1948, this group worked tirelessly to try to save the remnant of European Jewry, and to prepare the groundwork for an Israeli (Hebrew) republic. Without their work the United States, it is my firm belief that the Israeli nation would not have come about; it was their intense lobbying and organizational skills that prepared the groundwork for a new Israeli state.
The main group of Ben Gurion Zionists, as well as Benzion Netanyahu, one of the leaders of the New Zionist organization in the US (a Jabotinsky Zionist faction) and the father of the current Israeli Prime Minister, did not in fact seriously try to save Jews, but rather they were preoccupied with arguments over the future meaning of Zionism. Ben Gurion, who was the person who ultimately proclaimed the Declaration of Israeli Independence, did not really understand the inner meaning of that Declaration, which becomes obvious when one reads its text. Its irreconcilable contradictions remain unresolved till today. Of course the Israeli document represented an attempt to copy the American Declaration of Independence, but its authors lacked the depth of the Americans’ intellect and serious intent.
Mr. Benzion Natanyahu, who was among the leaders of America’s New Zionists, failed to do almost anything during the Holocaust to save Jews. Rather, he spent his precious time [researching and] writing the history of Abravanel.** Benzion Netanyahu also spent quite a bit of time criticizing the political work and the rescue attempts by the Bergson Group and actually published quite a few articles criticizing them.***
Thus we have sort of an interesting story here: the Bergson Boys, who agitated against the FDR administration and tried by political action to save European Jews, were attacked by every American Jewish organization (the FBI files on the Bergson Group during the years of WWII are filled with intriguing information given by informants of all the American Jewish organizations).
It was only because of the Group’s leadership, especially that of Peter Bergson but including others of the group, among them Yitshaq Ben Ami, that FDR eventually succumbed to the political pressure the Group exacted and created the War Refugee Board in 1944, whose purported intention was solely to save Jews, despite the fact that Jews were not mentioned in the Board’s name (another political trick of FDR). But the Bergson Group also had to bow to necessity: so that the American Jewish organizations would relinquish some of their pressure against them, Yitshak Ben-Ami was compelled to join the US military as a Bergson “kapurah yingel” (sacrifice). Ben Ami did so, survived the War, and following his discharge until 1948 dealt with some very important issues that helped secure the creation of the Israeli nation.
The success the Bergson Group had in America is a complex story, one that most American Jews know hardly anything about, and most American Jewish organizations would like to forget. But it is important to retell that it was the Bergson Group who convinced the American people that the struggle of the Palestinian Jews was like the American experience of independence. Their claim “It’s 1776 in Palestine” became their slogan, and it worked. Netanyahu senior missed the opportunity and never understood the meaning of the new Israeli sovereign nation (even though he came from the United States and settled in Jerusalem), always maintaining the belief that Israel should be the “Promised Land” for all Jews, not the UN recognized Israeli sovereign state.
So we have the stories of the fathers, Netanyahu and Ben-Ami. Now, what about the children? Working as a researcher and advisor to his father while he wrote his book, I met Jeremy when he was just in high school, and, if I remember, young Jeremy Ben-Ami was interested in politics since childhood and thus ended up in juxtaposition to where his father was. Jeremy is concerned with Jews, American Jewish behavior, and the future of the Israeli nation. But he lacks the spark of political understanding that his father had relating to what sort of a future the Middle East region has. In many ways, his J-Street organization reflects a total misunderstanding and the confusion characteristic of many American Jews, because it does not perceive the depth of the Palestinian Israeli conflict. It is the same with Benjamin Netanyahu. I guess he never stopped listening to his father’s nonsense about the “Jewish nation,” and he forgets that he only represents the Israeli sovereign nation, that has no constitution and no political direction other than for messianic dreams.
Finally, we move to the two Presidents. President Obama inherited the good qualities of FDR and maybe as great a crisis as FDR, and he is trying to solve some of America’s problems despite the Republican intransigence. Moreover, let us face reality here: Obama knows as well as FDR did the importance of the Middle East and its Saudi oil. Of course, Saudi oil is and has always been the secret agenda that no one openly discusses. It should be remembered that Harry Truman, who also understood the reality of the Middle East complexity including the importance of Saudi oil, hesitated before finally recognizing the new Israeli nation. So to help solve the Middle East problems today Obama will be assigning the Israelis a job: to get out of the Palestinian-conquered areas and return to the pre-1967 borders. It is a responsible American request.
However, that in itself will not solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. What will help to bring us closer to a solution is Peter Bergson’s political idea that the Middle East must consider uniting as a Middle Eastern Block, a political and economic block that will benefit the region and will produce more of a working solution to the region. Israel with its technological know-how, America with its political and military might, Saudi Arabia with its money, Turkey with its experienced democratic system (not perfect, but functional), can all help. That is what our President, Mr. Obama, should work on to achieve, and thus this new Middle Eastern political block will reflect a real new era in the Middle East.
Post-script: My father, who is a descendant of Khazars, comes from the town of Ostra (Ostrug) established more than one thousand years ago by Khazars who later converted to Judaism. Today this town is geographically located in the Western Ukraine. He escaped from Ostra, where most of his family was massacred by the Nazis. Eventually in 1943 he joined the Russian military might and ended his war service as a decorated soldier in Berlin only after its surrender. He then went to the Russian Far East and picked up my mother, and eventually he helped to organize the Exodus 1947 journey to Palestine.
* For example, Yitshaq Ben-Ami in his book Years of Wrath, Days of Glory: Memoirs for the Irgun (New York: Robert Speller & Sons, 1982). Yitshaq was the father of Jeremy Ben-Ami, a founder of J-Street, the Jewish lobby group that advocates the return of Israel to its pre-1967 borders.
** B. Netanyahu: Don Isaac Abravanel: Statesman and Philosopher (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1968).
*** For example, see “The Fiasco of the Hebrew Committee” by B. Netanyahu [Zionews, July 1944]