“Support Israel in every way you possibly can. Get people to understand Israel’s tremendous contributions to humanity. It is an absolutely marvelous country in every way, and it doesn't get a fair shake. It is our outpost in a very turbulent part of the world, and it's very important. We should be backing them in every way.”
1970s – present
U.S./Middle East Project
June 17, 2015
The Crown family of Chicago has long been active supporters of Israel. Lester Crown has continued and built upon that legacy. A donor to Israeli institutions, Israel Studies, and research institutes, what is less known about Crown is his personal decades-long quest to help Israel make peace with its neighbors. Crown has explored avenues of engagement with Arab political and business leaders, and has participated in numerous unofficial meetings with key political and business actors in the region.
Shortly after the 1967 War, Crown attended a meeting with future Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in New York City at the invitation of Philip Klutznick, a business associate of the Crown Family. Kissinger told the group of American Jews, that he thought “Israel should determine a militarily defensible boundary to the east and give the rest of the West Bank back to Jordan, and Israel ought to determine what was really needed in the Sinai and give the rest back to Egypt.” Nobody in the room agreed with Kissinger. “Of course he was dead right. We were all wrong.”
For many decades, Crown has networked with Jewish and Arab American business leaders in an effort to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians. Early on, he and Najeeb Halaby, former president of Pan American World Airways, (and father of Queen Noor of Jordan) were part of a small group of Arab and Jewish business leaders who met with then Secretary of State George Shultz. According to Crown: “We were all looking for a peaceful solution of the Israeli-Palestinian situation.”
In 1985, the group expanded and became known as the Business Group for Middle East Peace and Development. They explored, albeit unsuccessfully, the potential to promote economic development in the West Bank. “The group changed a little. Some people dropped out; some people came back in it. But this continued on for a number of decades.”
In an effort to “make an impact that would be of some benefit,” Crown met with leaders from the Arab world in the 1990s. He was a member of a small delegation of informal messengers between governments that would debrief the State Department upon their return. Crown also worked with business leaders in the Middle East who wanted to see a peaceful resolution to the conflict and business activity conducted throughout the region. The meetings were organized through the U.S./Middle East Project of the Council on Foreign Relations under the direction of Henry Siegman.
Crown humorously recounts the distinct way the group was received in each country. “We'd go to Egypt and a black Mercedes Benz would meet us, and then we would go to Saudi Arabia and a white Mercedes Benz would meet us. Then we would go to Kuwait, and a yellow one would meet us. When we got to Israel, there was a bus.”
Shortly after Oslo was announced, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek arranged for Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Chair Yasser Arafat to fly to Egypt for a meeting with Crown and other leaders of the American Jewish Congress. When they arrived, Arafat was standing in the center of the living room and a photographer was taking pictures of people as they shook hands with him. Crown thought, "I'm not going to have a picture taken with this louse." He maneuvered around Arafat, so that the photo showed only Crown’s back.
At the end of their meeting, the only way to leave was through a French door at the end of the dining room. Crown reached the door at the same time as Arafat. He recounts: “So, Arafat reaches down and grabs my hand in normal Arabic style, and we walk out. Now we have a picture of my holding hands with Arafat instead of shaking hands with him!”
Crown found it personally fascinating to make such strong connections with leaders from the Arab world. He developed a number of friendships during his travels; many continue to this day. Unfortunately, in the end he felt “it wasn’t satisfying when you didn't feel you accomplished what you had set out to do.”
Crown wishes for “Winston Churchill-type leadership both in the United States and in Israel.” His assessment: “It is a darker tunnel than I have ever seen.” So what keeps Crown going? Remarkably, he still has a lot of hope and an inability to quit.
Crown shares his counsel for young Jews:
"Support Israel in every way you possibly can. Get people to understand Israel’s tremendous contributions to humanity. It is an absolutely marvelous country in every way, and it doesn't get a fair shake. It is our outpost in a very turbulent part of the world, and it's very important. We should be backing them in every way."
Lester Crown was born in Chicago in 1925. Crown did his undergraduate studies in Chemical Engineering at Northwestern University and his MBA at Harvard University.
In the 1930s, Crown’s mother worked for Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America. His father Henry, an ingenious businessman who grew up in poverty, was deeply engaged in both in trying to get Jews out of Germany in the 1930s and in supporting the creation of the State of Israel.
Henry Crown was a close friend of Israeli politician Teddy Kollek, and helped him whenever he could. After Israel was founded, the U.S. would not sell arms to Israel. Kollek asked Henry Crown to purchase parts to build airplanes, so if needed, Israel could make its own. Crown shipped the equipment to Israel, where it became the basis of the Israeli jet business. Some years later, the Pritzker family acquired the business. Subsequently, Crown’s General Dynamics Company bought the business from Pritzker, bringing the story full circle.
Henry Crown and Phillip Klutznick were instrumental in merging the two separate charitable organizations of Chicago’s German Jews and Eastern European Jews into the Jewish Federation in the 1948 and through it significant funds have been raised for Israel over the decades. Henry Crown and his brothers also raised donations for Israel through the trade division of the building materials business.
Bringing peace to Israel has been a major concern for Crown since the 1970s. His efforts have taken him into numerous conversations with Jewish and Arab businessmen in the U.S. and the Middle East, as well as political leaders in Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf States. He was a key player with the U.S./Middle East Project, formerly part of the Council on Foreign Relations, in the 1990s. On occasion, Crown has also signed peace-oriented letters from the Israel Policy Forum.
The Crown Family endows the Crown Chair in Israel Studies at Northwestern University and supports the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University. He serves on the International Board of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and the Tel Aviv University's Board of Governors.
Lester Crown is Chairman of Henry Crown and Company in Chicago, Illinois.