Sara Ehrman

“Open up the gate to honest discussion. There is nothing holy about either the Israelis or the Palestinians. They are people like us, and we can talk about them.”

Peace Activism
1979 - present
S. Daniel Abraham Center for Peace
Americans for Peace Now

Interview Date
October 19, 2016

Interviewer
Aliza Becker

The Interview

Sara Ehrman began her lifelong involvement with the Labor Zionist Movement in 1934, when she attended a Young Poale Zion Alliance (UPZA) dance at age fifteen.

A few years later, she went to  the movement’s Camp Kvutza in upstate New York, where she came to know two Jews from Palestine who were to have a profound impact on her life. One was Enzo Sereni, an Italian Zionist and co-founder of Kibbutz Givat Brenner. After parachuting into occupied Europe during World War II, he was captured and murdered at Dachau. The other was Leon (Ari) Lashner, who was killed by a sniper in the Galilee in 1948. She felt “profound sorrow coupled with profound respect for these two men who had died so tragically in their young years.”

Ehrman marched with the Young Poale Zion Alliance in the annual New York City Labor Day Parade. Each of the Zionist groups marched with their own cadre. “They each had a membership of 400 people but they were fighting with each other all of the time.”

Ehrman’s father was not supportive of her activism. "She's a goddamned communist," he would say. Ehrman would reply, “I'm not a communist. I'm a Zionist.” Then he would retort, “it's the same goddamned thing, and I want you to cut it out and do your homework.”

On her first trip to Israel in 1959, Ehrman met her husband's sole living relative, a cousin. She describes visiting the office of Teddy Kollek in Jerusalem, who would later become the mayor from 1965 to 1993, “right across from the Old City. You could see the Jordanian Legionnaires with their rifles and, you know, it brought the conflict very close to home.”

After she got married and had children, Ehrman ceased her Zionist activism, but reconnected with the movement when she met her neighbor Isaiah Leo “Si” Kenen at the birthday party of one of her children. He was a journalist, Labor Zionist, and founder of the American Zionist Committee for Public Affairs (AZCPA), the forerunner of AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee).

In 1979, Ehrman spent a month in Jerusalem, where she met with Shalom Achshav (Peace Now) leaders Tzali Reshef and Galia Golan, among others. She told Golan, "If you want to work in the States, you account for absolutely nothing, nada, unless you have a lobby office here in Washington, D.C.” About a year later, Dan Gordon, an American who had made aliyah, opened the Washington, D.C. Shalom Achshav office. Ehrman also helped found Americans for Peace Now in 1981, and she has been an active volunteer since.

Ehrman was also working as an AIPAC staffer from 1980 to 1985, rising to the position of National Political Director. She reconciles the different political missions of AIPAC and Peace Now as “strange, but all for the same cause, for a strong Israel.”

Ehrman feels she learned a lot working at AIPAC, because it is “the most sophisticated political Zionist organization in the country.” She learned from both of the men who supervised her: first Morrie Amitay, “who was a right winger,” and then Tom Dine, a liberal Democrat. “We sat down with the map and decided where we were most needed…we went to the field in the middle of the country and not just Northeast, Los Angeles and Miami."

Ehrman helped develop AIPAC's nationwide network of advocates in every congressional district. She recruited people who would reliably call their Senator or Representative to ask them to vote in line with AIPAC's recommendation. "That's how we began the process of real grassroots organizing.”

After working as the deputy Political Director of the Democratic National Committee during Bill Clinton’s first term as president, she was considering what she wanted to do next after his reelection when Danny Abraham approached her about bringing her skill set to working for Israeli-Palestinian peace. The co-founder of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace offered her a job as Senior Policy Advisor where she remains to this day.

At the time when Ehrman began working with them, Middle East Peace Center president Congressman Wayne Owens believed “we had to travel throughout the Middle East talking about a way to achieve peace between the Palestinians and the Israeli government…We traveled from Algeria to Oman and every country in between…and we brought members of Congress with us. They met face-to face with the heads of state of adversaries of Israel including the Prime Minister of Algeria and the King of Saudi Arabia.” They also had frequent meetings with “Yasser Arafat and his people until he died,” and Israeli leaders from Rabin to Bibi Netanyahu, “and everything in between.”

Ehrman recounts one meeting with then Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu: “Apparently there was an article in the Israeli press that expressed some concern about the relationship between Hillary Clinton and Bibi Netanyahu… He came in, slammed his hand on the table, and he pointed right at me and he said, ‘You name me one day that I talked against Hillary Clinton.’ I didn't say anything. Then he turned to a member of Congress who was with us and he said, 'You tell me who would you rather buy a used car from, me or Yasser Arafat?'…The congressman said, ‘I'd rather walk.’ And everybody burst out laughing.”

“Did we accomplish anything? We made connections. Did things change as a result? I'm afraid not, but it was action. It was not just sitting and making speeches on the floor of Congress... It was talking face-to-face with heads of state. So, I'm all for that kind of trip, that kind of negotiation and I hope it resumes in my lifetime.”

It was against the policy of most of the Arab states “to recognize Israel as a sovereign state and to begin to negotiate.” But the dialogue that had begun continued in Washington. “You have to keep talking,” says Ehrman.

As for Arafat, Ehrman says, “We met with him frequently," but the meetings “came to nothing…He was…a card shark. He was doing tricks all the time.”

Ehrman met with Arafat in 2003 just after Israelis intercepted arms bound to the PLO. She said, "President Arafat, you promised us that there would be no further importation of arms." His response: “‘Ah, dear lady, I have a gift for you.’ And he brought me a Palestinian shawl… It was after that that…he left and went to Paris where he died in 2004. It was very sad and very infuriating because in the end he was his own worst enemy.”

Things have not moved forward because, to Ehrman, “the Israelis are not ready, and the Palestinians are not ready, and the Arab States are not ready, and the rightwing Jewish community is not ready.”

And what would make them ready? “For them to change their minds and to realize that without peace and an agreement there'll never be security. Without peace there is no security. And they'll continue with the terrorist attacks, with the shooting over the border, with the further building of the high walls to keep the Palestinians out and to keep the Israelis in. And eventually demography will take over, and Jews will be a minority in their own country and then maybe a one-state solution. I don't advocate for that; I'm a Zionist. But it certainly seems to be trending that way.”

She is concerned about “an implied censorship among American Jews. It's quite startling. They can talk about gay issues. They can talk about smoking pot. They can't talk about the peace process…”

What needs to happen?

“Open up the gate to honest discussion. There is nothing holy about either the Israelis or the Palestinians. They are people like us, and we can talk about them.”

Right now she feels “sick and tired of the whole thing. But...I sort of keep on for what I believed when I was a young girl that the Israelis deserve a country and they've got it, and I hope to hell they keep it.”

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Biography

Sara Ehrman was born in 1919 on Staten Island, in New York City. She was raised in a left-wing, secular Jewish family were her only connection to Zionism was a “blue box” for Palestine that her father would drop coins into.  She joined the Young Poale Zion Alliance as a teenager, and began her lifelong involvement with Labor Zionism and Israel.

Ehrman was involved in both American and Israel-related politics over many years. In 1965 she began working as Legislative Assistant to Senator Joseph S. Clark, Jr (D-PA). Following Senator Clark’s defeat in 1968, she worked for Senator George McGovern (D-SD) and became Deputy Director of Issues and Research or his 1972 presidential campaign.  

The campaign sent a young lawyer named Hillary Rodham to Ehrman to help her investigate legal and ethical issues. They remained in contact and a year and a half later Rodham came to live with Ehrman in D.C. for nearly a year while she worked on the Watergate investigation. Ehrman then drove Rodham to Arkansas to marry Bill Clinton. “We've been sort of girlfriends ever since.”

In 1980 Ehrman began to work for the American Israel Public Committee (AIPAC), first under Morrie Amitay and then under Tom Dine. She rose to become National Political Director, bringing the political grassroots organizing skills she had learned in non-Israel related organizing to AIPAC.

Simultaneously, she met the leadership of Shalom Achshav (Peace Now) in 1979 in Israel and collaborated with Mark Rosenblum to found Americans for Peace Now in 1981. Ehrman has continued as a volunteer board member with the group to the present.

In 1985, Ehrman took a job with the Texas Department of Agriculture, where she became the Founder/Director of the Texas-Israel Exchange Program, “a demonstration agricultural farm in Laredo, Texas that had an Israeli farm manager and a demonstration project on drip irrigation which was Israeli.”

Ehrman then served as Deputy Political Director for the Clinton for President campaign in 1992 and was a member of the Clinton/Gore Transition team in 1993. She then became deputy Political Director of the Democratic National Committee.

After Clinton was reelected, Ehrman opted to combine her politics with her love for Israel as Senior Policy Advisor with the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, where she remains to this day.

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