“Patience. I didn’t want any part of it. But I would have been far less frustrated and maybe able to stick things out longer if I hadn’t needed results on my own timetable; if I had had a longer view.”
September 16, 2014
Rosalie Riechman Pressman was a leader in the early Middle East peace efforts of American Jews, often as one of a small number of women in an organization. She recounts her experience from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s with two Jewish peace groups, –Tzedek Tzedek, and Breira – and as a staffer with the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).
As a lobbyist with WILPF, Pressman brought to Capitol Hill Israelis “who worked for a two-state solution and dialogue with Palestinians at a time when these goals were not considered by most to be acceptable topics for public discussion.” In 1973, she found it difficult to find Congress members who were willing to meet leftist Member of Knesset Meir Pa’il, an early two-state advocate. However, then South Dakota Democrat Senator James Abourezk, who was of Lebanese descent, did agree to a meeting. After some discussion, Abourezk brought out his guitar and he and Pa’il sang together.
Following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Pressman worked as the Middle East Peace Education Coordinator for AFSC, providing updates to Quaker groups about events in the Middle East. She often saw herself as an interpreter, bringing Jewish post-Holocaust sensibilities into discussions about Middle East peace.
Pressman observed that it was a difficult balancing act for Quakers of good will to see two groups of oppressed people – Jews and Palestinians – and vigorously champion the rights of both. Although Quakers had been instrumental in helping Jews during World War II, she thought that for the most part they now viewed Palestinians, and not Jews, as those who were oppressed and in need of support.”
With some pride, Pressman remembers the impetus for her friendship with retired Israeli general Mattiyahu “Matti” Peled. He was scheduled to speak at an event she helped organize with the peace group Tzedek, Tzedek at Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue in Washington D.C. However, when they met him at the airport on the evening of the event, he told them that after speaking with representatives of the Israeli government while in transit, he had decided against participating.
“When he arrived at the synagogue, he was deeply troubled,” Pressman says. His body language and the expression on his face conveyed that he was without doubt a general who had made up his mind not to speak. The other two organizers forcefully argued with him, and I listened as carefully as I could, finally concluding that we needed to figure out how to conduct the event without him.
“I look back at it as pivotal for me personally because, as judgmental as I was at the time, I was able to appreciate his reality, rather then blame him. Although he didn’t speak that night, he returned to the United States many times to advocate for a two-state solution. I explained to the audience why he didn’t participate. Of course, the explanation itself was instructive.”
Pressman was the only female on the founding board of Breira in 1973. Although other women eventually joined, “it was basically male. Middle East politics for that matter always had many more men than women…You had to be willing to be a lot more rough and tumble than a lot of women were comfortable being. Also, I think politics in general was less appealing to women than to men.”
The hardest part for Pressman about being the lone female on the Breira board was feeling intimidated about speaking. At one point, she decided “to speak at the next meeting, no matter what.”
Following the Yom Kippur War, “It looked like there were openings for crafting a long-lasting peace…Israeli peaceniks and PLO people talking with each other in secret. Many of us felt an urgency about resolving the conflict and that made us more provocative than I would be now, especially seeing that our provocations didn't bring the resolutions we were working towards. We were often antagonistic and self-righteous...because a lot of us, including me, were antagonistic and self-righteous at that time in our lives.”
Today, that notion of foreseeable peace seems long past. She would like to see leaders emerge who have “courage and unflinching clarity of purpose. I wish for someone to do what Sadat did… a gesture so magnificent that it could be capable of resetting the momentum.”
Pressman shares several things she’s come to believe:
- “It's very dangerous to think you're always right.”
- “Listening is one of the most important acts.”
- “A sense of humor is a valuable asset.”
- “Patience. I didn’t want any part of it. But I would have been far less frustrated and maybe able to stick things out longer if I hadn’t needed results on my own timetable; if I had had a longer view.”
Rosalie Riechman Pressman was born into a working class Jewish family in Northeast Philadelphia in 1944. Hers was the first bat mitzvah at her Reform congregation. At 16, she joined Young Judea and at 18, spent a year in Israel representing them at the Institute for Youth Leaders from Abroad in Jerusalem. She is grateful for her experience being placed in a room with several Orthodox girls, where she saw Orthodox Judaism practiced for the first time. She was impressed by the power of the Orthodox tradition to bring out the goodness in people, although she herself is not observant.
She was frustrated by the Israelis who believed that she didn’t want to make Aliyah (immigrate) because of what they saw as her cushy American life-style. This lack of understanding about her desire to stay in her home country led to misgivings about Zionism.
Pressman entered Temple University upon her return and received a B.A. degree in English Language and Literature in 1967. She then moved to Washington, D.C. where she became involved in the Fabrangen havurah and its social justice arm, Jews for Urban Justice (JUJ). JUJ occasionally had speakers on the Middle East at their monthly Holy Bagel Coffeehouse, but primarily they addressed domestic issues. Four JUJ members –Arthur Waskow, Ken Giles, Mike Tabor, and Pressman –formed Tzedek, Tzedek to focus on Middle East peace-related issues in the late 1960s. After 1973, it acted as the local affiliate of Breira. In 1980, she was part of the Ad Hoc Committee for Middle East Dialogue with many of the same people in which they organized a controversial event at Temple Sinai with two Palestinian West Bank mayors.
Pressman was the only woman on the founding board of Breira in 1973, and at times she represented Breira at public speaking engagements. She worked for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) from 1968-73 as staff lobbyist and Program Director, and for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) from 1974-76 as Middle East Peace Education Coordinator.
Pressman received a M.A. in Middle East Studies from George Washington University in 1980. She has worked in the non-profit sector and as an independent writer, and currently works with adults who have dementia.