Arthur Obermayer

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“My advice is to think carefully about how you make use of the political system – what is effective and what isn’t...Recognize that your goal is to influence other people; preaching to the converted has much less value, you want to bring in other people… who don’t already share your views and values. You need to enlarge the circle, enlarge the community…”

Peace Activism
1989 – 2006
J Street
Brit Tzedek v’Shalom
Partners for Progressive Israel
American Editorial Review
New Israel Fund

Interview Date
September 16, 2013

Interviewer
Aliza Becker

The Interview

Arthur Obermayer was a beloved Boston–based entrepreneur and philanthropist who died on January 10, 2016 at age 84. Among his passionate involvements was the 26 years he dedicated to the pursuit of peace and justice for Israelis and Palestinians. Obermayer was most proud of his prescient understanding of the centrality of politics in resolving this seemingly intractable conflict and, indeed, he was a trailblazer.

Obermayer’s first trip to Israel in 1951 set the stage for his future involvement. He recalls that while his family was impressed by the accomplishments of the country’s Jewish founders, they found the living conditions of Arabs “very primitive” and questioned why Israelis were upgrading Jewish neighborhoods but not those of Arabs.

A 1983 family trip to Israel rekindled Obermayer’s interest. The following year, he and his wife Judith Obermayer hosted the nascent New Israel Fund for their first event in Boston. Obermayer was especially interested in their work for equal rights for Israel’s Arab population.

“What became very obvious to us was that Jews in Israel generally didn’t know any Arabs.  If they did, it was Arabs who were their servants, not Arabs who were on an equal footing — who they’d be willing to deal with in business or connect with socially.”

Obermayer went on a tour of Israel and Egypt in 1989 that left him with a sense that “there was a real possibility of peace between the Israelis and the Arabs.” It was then that, in his words, “I became a real activist.”

Obermayer’s experience on the speech writing staff of the McGovern presidential campaign led him to realize “how much more can potentially be accomplished through the political process as compared with philanthropy” and concluded that the same principle applied to Israel.

After determining that the Israeli Ratz Party (a forerunner to the Meretz Party) most closely reflected his views, in 1989 he set out to build a support organization for the party in the U.S. He designed a legal structure for a political arm, American Friends of Ratz, and a charitable arm called the Education Fund for Israeli Civil Rights and Peace. Obermayer became the group’s president and board chairman.

When Ratz merged with the Mapam and Shinui parties to form Meretz as a unified political party in 1997, American Friends of Ratz merged with Americans for Progressive Israel (the American group associated with Mapam). The new organization became known as Meretz USA (changing its name to Partners for Progressive Israel in 2011).

Obermayer traveled periodically to meet with Israeli political leaders and helped set up meetings for Members of Knesset when they visited the U.S. “Our goal” said Obermayer, “was to organize people to support these political parties in Israel.” Even though a lot of American Jews didn’t believe that they should interfere with Israeli politics, because they weren’t Israelis, “they felt that supporting a political party was a perfectly reasonable and appropriate thing to do, just as they would support a political party in the United States.”

In 1989 Obermayer founded the American Editorial Review. He sent biweekly collections of Israel-related editorials and op-ed columns from major American newspapers to 150 Israeli opinion leaders, academics, business executives, and Members of Knesset to help them understand how Americans viewed events in the Middle East. “I had very much of a political agenda,” said Obermayer, “I wanted Israelis to be exposed to another side.” He particularly wanted those “on the right to respond, to react, to read…” In fact, said Obermayer, “my principal goal really was to reach the people on the right…and I was fairly successful at this.”

“Over the years, I’ve had a lot of contact with politicians… and they keep saying, ‘I’m glad to hear from you, but if you can develop a constituency, that’s the way you will succeed, and get some action.’ The politician will respond much better to a large group of people than to one person coming in.  Even though in principle they may agree, it’s the large numbers that have a major influence.

“I found that …perhaps the first national organization that was politically…as opposed to philanthropically oriented was Brit Tzedek v’Shalom. I became involved with it at a relatively early stage, because I felt that it was headed in just the right direction in building a large constituency…

“When J Street started, within the first month I became involved… I really liked what Jeremy Ben-Ami was planning and the way he was doing it…To this day, I feel that he is one of the best political strategists I’ve ever known…He built an organization of people who were well-focused on a particular goal and how to achieve it.” Obermayer went on to serve on the J Street Advisory Council and National Finance Committee.

“My advice is to think carefully about how you make use of the political system – what is effective and what isn’t. Sometimes activists can do things that are counterproductive, and you have to be very selective in how you use your energies. Recognize that your goal is to influence other people; preaching to the converted has much less value, you want to bring in other people… who don’t already share your views and values. You need to enlarge the circle, enlarge the community…”

In conclusion, Obermayer doesn’t think that his time pursuing “a peace agenda in Israel…has been poorly spent, because it had to be done as an American Jew…I have a connection with Israel, which I can’t really ignore…What I feel good about is that I’ve tried… to do something which I think is important, and I’ve put forth my best effort.”

Biography

Born in Philadelphia in 1931, Arthur Obermayer spent his adult life in the Boston area. He traced his ancestry to Jews who immigrated in the mid-19th century from the small town of Creglingen, Germany. His family did not identify as Zionist, but they had an intense interest in developments in the Jewish state and supported it from early on.  

From his first trip to Israel in 1951 as a young person with his parents, Obermayer noted the unequal treatment accorded to Arab communities in Israel, a concern that stayed with him throughout his life.  This motivated his involvement with the New Israel Fund as early as 1984, when he hosted its first fund-raising activity in the Boston area.  He and his wife were also involved in the American Jewish Committee, which accorded him access to important figures in shaping Middle East events.  (Their connection with the AJC ended with what he regarded as its turn to the right under its current leadership.)  By the late 1980s, being impressed by the PLO’s opening steps toward relations with Israel, Obermayer became hopeful about a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the political front, and began to focus on political activism more than philanthropy.  

Active in politics since he was in high school, Obermayer became involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s. In 1970 he recruited Father Robert Drinan as a Democrat to run for Congress against a hawkish incumbent, Philip Philbin – and was treasurer of his first campaign. Drinan’s success opened the political door for other liberal Democrats in Massachusetts. He subsequently served on the speech writing staff of the 1972 McGovern presidential campaign. Through this involvement, Obermayer became convinced of the centrality of the political process in effecting change.

Obermayer received a BA from Swarthmore College in 1952 and a PhD in chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1956. He used this expertise to build his own firm, Moleculon Research Corporation, a public research and development company, whose sale afforded him the time and resources to underwrite his activism. 

Shortly after, in 1989, he began the American Editorial Review, a bi-weekly to monthly compilation of approximately ten editorials and op-ed articles gleaned from American newspapers on Arab-Israeli issues in the news.  They were sent initially by postal mail and later by email, when technology permitted, to several hundred people around the world -- with a special emphasis on reaching “opinion leaders” in Israel -- including Members of Knesset, academics and business executives -- and even in educating right-wing Israelis on how Israel was being viewed in the United States.  Obermayer continued this project until 2007.  

In the early 1990s, Obermayer was instrumental in establishing an American network of supporters for Shulamit Aloni’s Civic Rights Movement, known by its Hebrew acronym as Ratz.  The American group existed as two overlapping formal organizations, American Friends of Ratz (a political group) and the Education Fund for Israeli Civil Rights and Peace (a charitable non-profit).  Obermayer served as their first president and board chair.  These entities merged with Americans for Progressive Israel in 1997 to form Meretz USA, which is now Partners for Progressive Israel.  

In more recent years, he became involved with Brit Tzedek v’Shalom.  He liked the group’s political orientation, its moderately left positions, and the fact that it successfully organized in Jewish communities around the United States.  When J Street began a few years after Brit Tzedek, he was impressed with the former’s efforts to influence policy makers in Congress and the White House.  He was especially delighted when these two groups merged to reinforce what we know today as J Street – with both a grassroots structure of community “locals,” and its skilled lobbying presence in Washington, DC.  Obermayer served J Street on its National Finance Committee and its Advisory Council.

He also created the Obermayer Foundation and served as its president. Among the Foundation’s activities is the sponsorship of the Obermayer German Jewish History Awards recognizing German non-Jews who have done extraordinary work to preserve Jewish history and culture in their own communities in Germany. The award is co-sponsored by the Office of the President of the Berlin House of Representatives, GerSIG, (the German Jewish Special Interest Group of JewishGen.org) and the Leo Baeck Institute, a New York-based research library for German-Jewish History. He was a recipient of the Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the country’s highest honor, for creating this award.

Arthur Obermayer passed away of cancer on January 10, 2016.

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