David Biale

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I think that the quality of the activism depends in part on the level of knowledge. In other words, you need to study this subject deeply. You need to become obsessed with it and really know it in order to be an effective activist.” 

Peace Activism
1970 – present
Radical Jewish Union

Interview Date
November 4, 2014

Interviewer
Aliza Becker

The Interview

Jewish historian David Biale was one of  countless young adults who, following the 1967 Israel-Arab war, sought to reconcile their Jewish identity and support for Israel with leftist politics. Without warning or preparation, Biale and others found themselves in the deeply unsettling position of being asked to explain their pro-Israel sentiment to an increasingly unsympathetic left. Adding to this challenge were their own apprehensions about the Occupation. Still, they maintained their commitment to other leftist causes of the student movement.

Biale was a member of UC-Berkeley’s Radical Jewish Union. Originally known as the Union of Jewish Students, the group was formed in the late 1960s during a time of powerful youth activism on issues related to war and peace and domestic political issues.  The Radical Jewish Union was one of dozens of such groups founded by Jewish university students at the time. The group was ideologically socialist-Zionist. “Those relationships were so powerful and formative that we remain to this day very close.” In his interview, Biale reflects on that period, and what it can teach us today.   

“We wanted to synthesize our radical politics with our Jewish politics. On the one hand; our task was to challenge the Jewish community on policies that we thought were destructive for Israel. Our newspaper, The Jewish Radical, was the first Jewish student paper of the 1960s. In it we advocated for a Palestinian state. At that time there was terrorism and nobody was talking to the PLO. The way we saw it was that if Israel was the realization of the national liberation aspirations of the Jewish people, the same realization had to be true for the Palestinians.

“On the other hand, we defended Israel to the New Left, with the argument that Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people and that Israel had a kosher place in this left-wing pantheon of movements. After 1948, Israel saw itself as part of what was called the "non-aligned world," the developing world. That whole identification was something we embraced. Then things underwent a sea change after '67, and I think we were trying to resist that.

“At the same time that we organized around Israel, we were advocating for the Jewish community to take a much stronger position on civil rights and freedom for Soviet Jewry. We felt the mainstream Jewish community was too staid and conservative, and we were trying to push them to be more activist. We had a general sense that American Judaism was kind of a soulless religion and we were very concerned with Jewish cultural and spiritual renaissance. One way we brought renewal to our Jewish life was that every Shabbat, we had a meeting, a meal, and study.

“We were very self-motivated and intent on teaching ourselves Hebrew. We didn't need a Hillel director or Israel Action guy to do propaganda. We educated ourselves around the history of Zionism and the history of the conflict and related issues.”

Biography

David Biale was born in 1949 and grew up in Los Angeles. His father, who had been a member of Hashomer Hatzair in Poland, initially immigrated to California to study agriculture in preparation for aliyah to Mandatory Palestine. Biale grew up in a tightly knit socialist-Zionist youth group as what he calls “an alternative synagogue.” In 1958-1959, he lived with his family in Israel for a year, which he considers the highlight of his childhood – one that initiated a deep connection to Israel.

Biale attended college at UCLA and Harvard before transferring to the University of California at Berkeley in 1968, where he received his B.A. and M.A. in History. He also spent time on various kibbutizm in Israel during the summer of 1969 and for six months in 1970. While on Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin, Biale met Rachel Korati, an Israeli woman who was to become his wife.

At college, Biale was very active in the student and political movements of the day. He became active with the Radical Jewish Union, publisher of The Jewish Radical, one of the first underground student Jewish newspapers. The paper advocated for a Palestinian state in the early 1970s. Today, he is very pessimistic and feels “we've reached the tipping point” on the possibility of  a two-state solution.

Biale received his doctorate in history from UCLA in 1977. Since 1999, he has been a professor of Jewish cultural and intellectual history at the University of California at Davis. He is the author and editor of 10 books and numerous articles and is a three-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Photo Gallery

Radical Jewish Union, circa 1971-1972.
Radical Jewish Union, circa 1971-1972.