The seeds of Kenneth Bob’s lifelong activism for Israeli-Palestinian peace were planted when he joined the Habonim Labor Zionist youth movement in the early 1960s. The movement provided the foundation for his understanding the centrality of Israel to the Jewish people and inspired his lifelong activism to work for peace. Following his campus activism at University of California, Berkeley, Bob lived in Israel for more than a decade. Since 2005, he has been national president of Ameinu, long associated with Israel’s Labor Zionist Movement.
Bob developed a nuanced and values-driven perspective on Israel at Habonim, which encouraged young people to develop their own opinions on Israel-related issues. Bob remembers that even as teen-agers, they had meaningful conversations on “what it means to be an occupier” following the Six Day War. “The milieu I was in among my Habonim friends in our teens was this whole notion that we wanted to be part of the Left, but the Left was abandoning us, and that partially made us think about what does that mean for Israel.” In 1973, Habonim campers under Bob’s leadership performed the controversial Israeli anti-war song Shir Lashalom on Visitor’s Day, explaining to the parents that Israel must make peace with its neighbors.
Bob remembers the chorus of this unofficial political anthem of the Israeli peace movement:
Don't say the day will come
bring the day about
For it is not a dream
and in all the city squares
cheer for peace.
As Habonim’s National Director, Bob sent a letter from the organization to Prime Minister Golda Meir. He called on her government to cease building settlements in the West Bank or anything else that might “endanger a future peace agreement with Palestinians.” A couple weeks later, a response arrived: “Prime Minister Meir cannot respond to your letter now. She’s busy fighting a war.” The Yom Kippur War had broken out.
Bob was called to Israel for an emergency international meeting of Habonim national directors. When Labor Party Secretary General Lova (Aryeh) Eliav sought him out, Bob anticipated a stern lecture.
‘Your letter was exactly right,” is what Eliav said. “There is no military solution to our relationship with the Arabs.” It was a milestone in Bob’s life and a relationship that continued until Eliav’s death.
As a student at the UC Berkeley in 1970, Bob faced both a “non-Jewish Left which had a problem with Israel and … the Jewish community that had a problem with our peace activism.” He was delighted to find the Radical Jewish Union, many members of which had lived in Israel and befriended leftist Israelis. The Radical Jewish Union supported much of the left’s domestic agenda and “that Israel should …be looking to how they leverage this conquering of territories to make peace.” They explicitly supported a two-state solution as early as 1971.
The Radical Jewish Union had four main activities: a nationally-circulated newspaper, the Jewish Radical; campus educational programming including speaking engagements with peace-oriented Israelis; social programs; and political activism such as tabling, sit-ins, a Jewish contingent at anti-war rallies, a voice for peace at Jewish community events, and a progressive Jewish voice in student government.
The organization had a table alongside others in Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza. Bob “staffed the table a lot.” He remembers repeating over and over again, “Zionism is the National Liberation Movement of the Jewish people, and all we want is recognition of our right to exist” at a time when no Arab country recognized Israel. Anti-Israel students would contest that position while other Jews would come by and argue with them with the same fervor. “This is embarrassing…Why are you attacking the Israeli government?” Public criticism of Israel was taboo among most Jews at a time when it was seen as embattled.
The Radical Jewish Union not only prepared young people for significant leadership, but also brought new perspectives to their elders. “It was a great training ground for us because many people came out of that period and continued to this day their activism.”
After several trips to Israel, in 1976 Bob and his wife Nancy made aliyah to Kibbutz Gezer, where they stayed for 14 years. Bob took advantage of his organizational involvement in Israel to advocate for his politics; for example, he tried to move the Kibbutz Federation towards the peace faction of the Labor Party.
In 2004, Bob became president of Ameinu, a group that has long represented Labor Zionism in the United States. Ameinu lobbies inside ‘the Jewish beltway,’ as a member of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations as a board member of the Jewish National Fund, and member of the AIPAC National Council.
Bob’s efforts have resulted in more nuanced Conference of Presidents statements and behind-the-scenes support for Ameinu’s positions from leaders of mainstream organizations. Bob also makes it a point to ask questions that diverge from the status quo when Israeli politicians speak at the Conference.
Bob is regularly invited to speak in synagogues and at conferences within the American Jewish community, as well as with diverse contingents in Israel.
He advises older activists to engage with young people. They want a bridge from the past to understand where they link up in the present. “There's an appetite to talk, to learn and to really connect.”
Bob has much counsel for young people.
- “Educate thyself. You really have to know what you are talking about.”
- “Go to Israel and find teachers.”
- “It's very important to be open-minded.” Listen, learn, and be willing to adjust your positions.
- “Find a community to do this with.”
Bob gets hope from the Israelis of all ages he keeps closely connected to who plan to stay the course. They make him think, “This is really possible!”
Kenneth Bob was born in 1952 and spent most of his youth in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was a camper, counselor, and served as the elected National Director of Habonim from 1973 to 1975.
Bob took his first trip to Israel as a high school junior in 1969 as part of an exchange program between the JCC of Minneapolis and Rishon Letzion. He remembers it as “a very positive experience” that made him “really connected to Israel.”
Bob was a leader in the Radical Jewish Union at the University of California at Berkley from 1970-72. Other alumni include David Biale, Ian Lustick, Bradley Burston, and Rabbi John Rosove. He was a founder of the Socialist Zionist Alliance, national chair of the Jewish Student Press Service, and a member of the Radical Zionist Alliance in the early 1970s.
Bob helped coordinate garinim (settlement groups) of about 80 people to reestablish Kibbutz Gezer between 1974 and 1977. In Israel, Bob became involved in the young leadership of the Labor Party, including an internal caucus of Shalom Achshav (Peace Now). Bob was also actively involved in the Kibbutz Federation, a union of diverse kibbutzim from across Israel. He was a shaliach (Israeli emissary) of the Kibbutz Federation in Los Angeles and New York from 1982 through 1985.
Since 2005 Bob has served as president of Ameinu. He serves on the J Street Board of Directors as Treasurer, and is a member of the Forward Association Board of Directors. He also serves as a member of the World Zionist Organization’s Executive Board and the Jewish Agency Board of Governors. He is past chair of the Habonim Dror Foundation and currently serves on the Board of Trustees.