Peter Geffen

“I maintain hope because I am a Jew who understands that my tradition derives from the prophets…I get frustrated. I get angry. I get hurt, but that's part of the human condition. In other words, I don't live in a utopia. I don't believe that we're waiting to return to Gan Edden -- the Garden of Eden. But I'm engaged as a Jew in a prophetic struggle. So, that's what I have to fight for.”

Peace Activism
1973-Present

New Israel Fund
Israel Policy Forum
Center for Arab-Jewish Cooperation
Americans for Peace Now
Abraham's Vision
Breira

Interview Date
April 20, 2016

Interviewed By
Aliza Becker

The Interview

Activist and educator Peter Geffen’s first memorable connection to Israel was through Leon Uris’ book Exodus, published in 1958. “I remember hiding the book under my pillow so that I could go back to reading it after I was supposed to go to sleep at night.” Even though he was the son of a Conservative New York rabbi, his prior involvement with Israel was limited to putting ten-cent stickers on Jewish National Fund posters to plant trees.

Geffen traveled to Israel for the first time in 1964 at age eighteen on an innovative trip for older teenagers organized by Rabbi Eugene Weiner. They sailed on the SS Israel from New York to Greece and Naples to see the “dead” civilizations and then on to Israel to see “this new young Jewish State reborn from the old.”  The experience for Geffen was “extraordinary.”

While in Herzliya, retired Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion spoke to the group about the importance of young North American Jews making aliyah, which he described as  “the only future for the Jewish people.” Ben-Gurion then asked, “If there were a war and we were in danger, how many of you would come to help us?”  Geffen was the only person to raise his hand. Furious, Ben-Gurion walked out. (He later posed for an historic photo which reveals his disappointment.)

Less than three years later, shortly before the 1967 War, Israel put out a call for volunteers to replace kibbutz reservists (who had been called up to service) to help harvest the spring crop before it rotted on the vines. Geffen told his father that he had to complete his promise to Ben-Gurion, “so I’m going.” His father made no effort to stop him after failing at previous attempts to stop him from the potential dangers of working as a civil rights worker in rural South Carolina.

On Sunday night June 4, 1967, Geffen got on an El Al flight in New York with a plane full of other young people. “We brought footballs and baseball bats and Monopoly sets. We were up all night on the plane partying. We had no consciousness that we were headed for a war zone.” The group arrived in Paris (for a refueling stop) the next day to French newspaper headlines declaring Israel under fire and Tel Aviv in flames. News broadcasts out of Cairo reported that Israel was being bombarded. When they heard about the danger, some of Geffen’s fellow volunteers called their parents and were told to come home. Geffen and his close friends intentionally did not call their parents as they felt they had to go to Israel and be present if this was “the end.” Instead, they wrote their parents “melodramatic letters” saying goodbye. “We felt that if the State of Israel was being destroyed and we had a chance to still get there we had to go on. If a second Holocaust was taking place, we would have to die too.” They would do what was necessary on behalf of the Jewish people.

They arrived in Israel on darkened airfield with an escort of two Israeli jets on Tuesday night June 7th. The next day they were taken to a kibbutz, but Geffen and Michael “Moonie” Berenbaum wanted to go to Jerusalem, and got there the day after the Old City was conquered by Israel and did civil defense work and garbage collection.

During his month in Israel, “there was a very open and positive mood.” Geffen witnessed the destruction of the neighborhood that existed in front of the Western Wall and the creation of a plaza to which 200,000 Jews came from all over the country for that Shavuot. He saw the famous triumphant concert that Zubin Mehta conducted with the Israeli Philharmonic in the then new Binyinei HaUma (International Convention Center in in Giv'at Ram. Jersualem). At the same time, “West Bank Arabs were traveling all over Israel, going to the beach, visiting their former homes and creating a feeling as of a new reality might finally have arrived.”

But by later that summer, as he returned to his Rosh Edah responsibilities in Camp Ramah in Glen Spey, New York,  Geffen was promoting the idea of the internationalization of Jerusalem - that under international law, Jerusalem shouldn’t belong to any country - and the return of the occupied territories. He’s not exactly sure how he got to that idea but thinks it is probably due to “an amalgam of influences.” “Many provocative articles appeared that summer of 1967, and we were all challenged to think of the link between American militarism in Vietnam and the growingly obvious implications of an Israeli occupation of Arab land (the term “Palestinian” was yet to enter the vocabulary of the conflict).”

 He was also influenced by his friendship with Nina De-Nur, a seventh generation sabra he met on his first trip to Israel. She had traveled throughout the Arab world with her father, the first gynecologist in the Middle East, and spoke fluent Arabic. In 1964 she organized the first Arab-Jewish dialogue group in the State of Israel and expanded those groups throughout the country, some of which Geffen visited along with her. She helped him to understand and “humanize” Arabs. Geffen credits the experience for his deep involvement in the Arab and Islamic world to this day.

On the other hand, Geffen’s participation in the anti-War and Civil Rights movements also had a significant impact on his thinking. “Here we were burning draft cards. We were burning American flags. We were angry at the country of our birth… It was difficult to differentiate between a glorified militaristic …[and] highly nationalistic view of Israel and the views that we had of America in Vietnam.”

Geffen brought his interest and concerns about Israel to his work as the founder and director of a high school religious school at the prestigious Park Avenue Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He was hired in 1967 and “basically told he could do whatever he wanted” if he could recruit and retain youth. He hired many of his friends who were in graduate school at the time. One of them, John Ruskay, (who would eventually become the CEO of UJA Federation of New York for over a decade) offered a course he titled “Arab-Jewish Perspectives on the Middle East” to enable “Jewish kids to learn…about the Arab point of view.” It was radical at that time not only because of the content but because within the course they used the word “Palestinian” instead of Arab at a time when the use of that word suggested “you were some kind of radical that would get J. Edgar Hoover on your tail.” The course became one of the most popular ones offered for many years to come .

As part of the program, Geffen took students from the synagogue to Israel and included Bethlehem in the itinerary. There he had students conduct a survey of the attitudes of local merchants “towards the Occupation.” On a 1971 trip, he met up with his friend Nina De-Nur and traveled with her and his Park Avenue Synagogue students throughout the West Bank.

The 1973 Yom Kippur War horrified many in the American Jewish community and renewed the existential fears for Israel’s survival from 1967. There was the sense that “now we were really on the edge of destruction.” The response of most in the Jewish community was heightened patriotism for Israel and intensive fundraising.

“This little gang of people who became involved in Breira,” and Geffen was part of, took a more critical view. They agreed that Israel had “reached a brink” and could very well have been destroyed. But they also recognized that “something had to be done to change the reality or this would continue to happen.”

“We wanted a shift in the Palestinian-Israeli question and we wanted a voice on that particular issue” at a time when there was no audible and visible alternative view within the Jewish community. “Negotiations would be too big a word at the time.” Their position was to build an “understanding and relationship between Palestinians and Israeli Jews in order to try to create a climate in which you could build some kind of future peace.”

When Geffen looks back, Breira’s goals seem “sort of simple, non-sophisticated, but it was radical for the time and there was an extraordinarily receptive audience.”

Breira started by circulating a founding statement that declared: “Nothing is more important for the continued vitality of Jewish life than extensive discussion within the Jewish community about the State [of Israel], its problems, its policies, its relationship to us and our hopes for it.” The founders sought elite signers from the Jewish community and were especially successful in getting rabbis to sign from “across the whole spectrum… There were mainstream rabbis who knew there was something wrong, and we were giving a voice and a legitimacy to that feeling. And, unlike today, when there is no longer any possibility of truly open and critical discussion, then it was both possible and even congregational rabbis could invite people with different perspectives to speak within their Synagogue walls. Witness the treatment of J Street and J Street U to witness how closed we have become. ”

Breira toured prominent peace figures from Israel. Geffen specifically remembers touring Israeli diplomat and politician Abba Eban. To his surprise, when Eban spoke at the Temple Gates of Prayer in Flushing, Queens “this guy who stood at the United Nations and spoke to the whole world about the legitimacy of the Jewish people was booed.”

Still Geffen believes that their work in Breira “was an eye-opener for American Jews” and believes that “it had a very important effect upon American Jewish life. It allowed American Jews to be prepared for Sadat's going to Jerusalem. It allowed for the possibility of Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shaking hands. It helped warm the climate. We had a terribly miseducated community from the 1940s until Breira. I don’t mean to suggest that we were the only people doing this, but we were a significant voice in opening up the discussion.”

Unfortunately, Geffen reflects, “while we were doing all this very “nice” stuff, this settlement movement, that today has become the State of Israel, already knew how to play the ballgame, and they were writing history as we naively thought we were somehow influencing it. We were not paying enough attention…The Labor Party was the first settler movement, right? So, it was probably understandable that we didn't understand what was happening. They did. And [the] growing rightwing coalition of secularists and Yehuda Zvi Kook and these ultra-religious figures combined to understand the way to take over...”

“The battlegrounds were being drawn and the success of the future was being determined by things that were happening on the ground in the West Bank and the occupied territories” It was confusing because there was a left-wing government in power and at that point, “even Ben-Gurion wanted them to negotiate the return of the territories. And they did not do so.”

“So, the power of Breira was that it uncovered or unleashed or tapped into or encouraged an intellectual revolution that has not yet concluded. I hope in my lifetime that  it will end, but we as a people have had to learn that there's more to history than a story that we tell ourselves as bedtime stories… Violence ultimately arises, as the Talmud says, from justice delayed and justice denied...”

“We did the best we could. We raised a voice of concern. We intuited that the inability [to hear voices] from outside [the mainstream] would become a permanent feature if it wasn't fought. ..and the consequences of Breira’s demise are what we live with today, which are terrible.”

The most important lesson Geffen draws from his experience “is to retain openness and optimism. In my view, there is no place in Judaism for pessimism and negativity…I know what the Holocaust did to us, and I know that genocide as a modern phenomenon continues to exist all over the world, but we have a choice. Every human being has a choice. That choice that the Torah states to us is to choose life. Is it just poetry or symbolism? I think it's actually a mandate.”  

Geffen believes that we are given an opportunity “to stand up in the world for the things that are really of ultimate importance…These are the central values of religious traditions all over the world.”

Like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Geffen see himself as “an optimist against my better judgment,’ because the moment that you slip into negativity… you join all these negative forces seemingly winning the battle around the world. You become racist. You become sexist. You become antagonistic towards all others….You close the windows and the doors to the world and that's not what we are given the privilege of living in this world to do…It robs you of the beauty of the human heart and mind.

“I maintain hope because I am a Jew who understands that my tradition derives from the prophets…I get frustrated. I get angry. I get hurt, but that's part of the human condition. In other words, I don't live in a utopia. I don't believe that we're waiting to return to Gan Edden -- the Garden of Eden. But I'm engaged as a Jew in a prophetic struggle. So, that's what I have to fight for.”

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Biography

Peter Geffen was born in New York City in 1946. He has been a social activist since serving as a civil rights worker for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965-66, and has been deeply involved in Arab-Jewish co-existence work since the early 1960's. He was involved in Jews for Peace, an anti-Vietnam War initiative based in New York, as well as a founding member of the New York Havurah. Geffen was one of the founders of Breira: A Project of Concern in Diaspora-Israel Relations, and served on its board through much of its turbulent existence. He has also been a supporter of the New Israel Fund, the Israel Policy Forum, the Center for Arab-Jewish Cooperation, Americans For Peace Now, the Mimouna Foundation and served as a board member of Abraham’s Vision.

In 1983, Geffen founded the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York City and worked with the school for over two decades, providing assistance and guidance in its growth from 28 students in its first year to its present international prominence.

Peter founded KIVUNIM, the Institute for World Jewish Studies in 1999 as a summer program for teachers.  In 2006 he conceived of the KIVUNIM gap-year program that provides Jewish college-aged students with an intense experiential and academic encounter with countries from Morocco to India while based in Jerusalem for the year. KIVUNIM is the only Jewish educational program teaching Arabic, about Islam and traveling into the Arab world.   

Geffen served as Executive Director of The Center for Jewish History from 2003-05. He co-sponsored the first Holocaust Conference in the Arab World at Al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco in 2011, and led the first Arab student Israel Seminar in 2012. Geffen has designed and conducted international travel programs for teenagers and adults since 1969 including the Kivunim summer teachers' programs that served over 1500 participants since 1999. Peter was the recipient of the Covenant Award in 2012, the highest recognition given to a Jewish educator.

Photo Gallery

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with Moshe Thur and Peter Geffen behind Ebinezer Baptist Church in the summer of 1965