The news that the Internal Revenue Service unfairly targeted conservative groups has brought renewed spotlight on a 2010 lawsuit filed by the pro-Israel group Z Street, which alleges it was also singled out by the IRS when applying for tax-exempt status.
The Z Street case, whose first hearing is set for July 2 in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, has raised eyebrows in the Jewish community. But Z Street’s claims, if true, would not mark the first time the IRS has been used against Jewish activists.
During the Holocaust era, the object of U.S. government wrath was the Bergson Group, a political action committee led by Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook), a Zionist emissary from Palestine. The group used newspaper ads, rallies, and lobbying to press the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration for the rescue of Jews from the Nazis.
The president was not happy about those protests. One senior White House aide reported that FDR was “much displeased” when the Bergson Group brought 400 rabbis to Washington to plead for rescue.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt told Bergson himself that the president was “very upset” about one of the group’s ads, which FDR felt was “hitting below the belt” because it accused him of turning a blind eye to the Nazi massacres.
The U.S. State Department, too, was annoyed by Bergson’s campaign for rescue. Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long privately complained that the group’s newspaper ads “made it very difficult for the Department.”
Long’s deputy, Robert Alexander, claimed that the slogan used in one Bergson ad, “Action – Not Pity,” had actually been invented by the Nazis as part of a conspiracy to embarrass the Allies.
It was not long before the administration sent both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the IRS after Bergson. They were looking for evidence of criminal activity, but their motivation was political. An internal FBI memo I obtained under the Freedom of Information Act bluntly explained the reason for U.S. government action against Bergson: “This man has been in the hair of [Secretary of State] Cordell Hull.”
FBI agents began by getting background information from what they called “persons in New York City who are familiar with Israelite matters.” Then they eavesdropped on the Bergsonites’ telephone conversations, opened their mail, went through their trash, and planted informants in the group to steal documents from Bergson’s office.
The goal was to find proof the Bergson Group was secretly assisting the Irgun Zvai Leumi underground in Palestine. They found no such evidence.
The second goal was to find a link between Bergson and the Communist Party. One FBI memo approvingly quoted a rival Jewish organization’s description of the Bergsonites as “a group of thoroughly disreputable Communist Zionists.” In a private letter, J. Edgar Hoover referred to the playwright Ben Hecht and six other leading Bergson activists as “fellow travelers.” But the FBI’s spying on Bergson did not turn up any evidence of a Communist link, either.
At the same time, the IRS launched a full-scale inquiry into the Bergson Group’s finances, seeking to revoke its tax-exempt status. For nearly a year, IRS agents repeatedly visited the group’s New York City headquarters, once for a stretch where they stayed from morning until night for more than two weeks.
Louis and Jack Yampolsky, the father-and-son accounting team that handled Bergson’s finances pro bono, had to dig out and reconcile every piece of financial information in the group’s records.
“There were no photocopy machines in those days, so we had to hand-copy every disbursement and every receipt that was given for every donation,” Jack told me. “And because the Bergson Group had enormous grassroots appeal, it received literally thousands of one-dollar or two-dollar donations from people all over the country.”
In the end, the IRS investigators were unable to find evidence of any wrongdoing. In fact, as the IRS team became familiar with the group’s work, they came to sympathize with it, and “when they finished, [they] made a contribution between them – every one of them gave a few dollars,” Bergson later told Prof. David S. Wyman.
The sympathy expressed by the IRS agents contrasted sharply with the sentiments expressed in some of the FBI documents I obtained.