Arthur Samuelson

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“We were so careful. We argued over every word to make sure that nobody could ever accuse us of being anti-Israeli, and then they did anyway. So, we could have had a lot more fun, because the result would have been the same. We could have been a lot braver too …Our act of trying to show how good we were is what was creating so much opposition to us. On the other hand, had we not been so careful, no one would have paid any attention to us.”

Peace Activism
1975-1977
Breira

Interview Date
July 8, 2015

Interviewed By
Aliza Becker

The Interview

Arthur Samuelson was involved in both civil rights and antiwar protests in the late 1960s. The nationalist turn in black politics led him to ponder questions of his own identity. “Somewhere along the line in that conversation it occurred to me that maybe I'm not actually an American. Maybe being Jewish made me different than what this category of slave-owning whites had been, and that made me sort of interested in thinking about being Jewish in a different way.”  He met a shaliach from a kibbutz and was deeply intrigued, and he went to Kibbutz Ein Gev in the Galilee. “In 1969 there were a lot of ways to drive your parents crazy, and somehow I knew that sex, drugs, rock 'n roll or revolution wouldn't drive my parents crazy, but going to Israel would. So, that was the one I chose. Everybody chose one of those, so that was the one I chose.”

“In 1969 Israel was a very different place than it is today, and it was a great place to be. I sort of fell in love with Hebrew, which I'd hated when I had to do it, but when it was connected to something real and it made a difference in being able to obtain things or to express myself…. It was an adventure. It was really exciting and interesting…Israel was very Zionist then. I would…hitchhike around the country. I'd hitchhike through the West Bank. Something you can't do anymore. It says how much the conflict had changed. The idea that being Jewish was a nationality… that was news to me. Nobody had ever talked about it like that, and I decided I'd better find out about this.”

So he stayed in Israel for the next two years, working at a Habonim summer camp and enrolling at the University of Tel Aviv. “Israel was this intense country where there was a range of opinions expressed on the television or in the Knesset or in the newspaper that was way broader than anything like here in the United States. It wasn't enough to have one Communist Party. You had to have two Communist Parties that hated each other… Everybody had an opinion about everything, and they weren't just interested in hearing your opinion. They were interested in persuading you why theirs was right and yours was wrong about politics.” It was a heady, exhilarating time. “They had experienced the miracle of winning the Six-Day War. It was 1969. Israel had gone from this place of feeling like a powerless, terrified… and now being this conquering hero… They were very, very proud of themselves, and they had this attitude that they were sort of like the center of the world which coming from the United States seemed kind of peculiar to me and out of that atmosphere came Gush Emunim.”

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Arthur returned to the United States, enrolling in Hampshire College, a newly opened experimental college in western Massachusetts. But he returned to Israel with the outbreak of the 1973 war, not to the army, but to Kibbutz Gesher Haziv, near the Lebanese border. His politics were increasingly dovish.  “I had come to this conclusion that all this Holocaust stuff that I had put myself so deeply into was actually not a good thing. Because I remember reading an article by either Cynthia Ozick or Elie Wiesel at that time saying, oh my God, it's happening again. Jews are isolated. Everybody hates Israel. I thought that that's like post traumatic stress syndrome… Jews are using powerlessness as a way of avoiding responsibility for power.”

Arthur found a position on New Outlook, a magazine that promoted Jewish-Arab understanding and reconciliation, with a mix of Jewish and Arab contributors.  They published in English, as a common second language shared by Jews and Arabs, but few of the editors were native English speakers. Arthur performed a number of editorial and reportorial tasks for the magazine.

But Arthur did not want to stay in Israel or serve in the army—“ I didn't think I'd be a very good soldier..” He had never fallen “in love with the statist part of what Zionism was about… I got really interested in the Ahad Ha’am in Hebrew. You know, Hebrew Nationalism with Martin Buber … I identified with what Zionism meant in terms of reviving and preserving the Jewish people and the State was a means towards that end. But it wasn't an end unto itself to me.”

For his senior thesis paper at Hampshire, he went to Beirut and spoke to some representatives of the PLO, and when he returned he spoke to Israeli audiences  about the need for Israel to negotiate with the PLO.  “I could go to Beirut because I am American. It was illegal for Israelis to meet with the PLO then.”   He spoke about his trip and wrote about this in Israel. “My position about recognizing Palestinians and dealing with the Palestinians wasn't based on justice. It wasn't based on Israel being wrong. It was because it was a smart thing to do and it would make Israel safer. That's where the Israeli Left was coming from as well…Nobody called me a traitor in Israel for saying Israel should recognize the PLO. But they did in the United States, because it was a different climate here, and that's what we got ourselves into.”

When he returned to the US in 1975, Arthur become active in Breira as editor of its magazine interChange, which was designed to encourage open dialogue within the Jewish community regarding Israel’s options for peace. “The Jewish world in America was sort of like the Communist world. Whatever came out of Jerusalem they would do. When Begin was elected in 1977, all of a sudden the organizations stopped calling it the West Bank and started calling it Judea and Samaria. I mean it was exactly like Moscow. All of a sudden the line changes and everybody falls into place.”   

There were other tensions between Breira and the leaders of major Jewish organizations. “Part of it was there was a generational difference also. Many of us, but not all,  had grown up where Israel was a reality. It wasn't just an idea and it wasn't just a dream... I felt connected to it in a really deep way and then in some ways a deeper way than most American Jews did. So, it was kind of interesting to me to be called a traitor.” 

Breira was dedicated to “the idea that American Jews should have an open discussion on everything, democracy within Jewish life, and, the other side, that there should be a Palestinian state.” Those in Breira never quite realized how radical those two propositions were. “We didn't understand how dangerous we were.”

Breira made great efforts to emphasize the essential Jewishness of their approach to Israel. “They saw on our board all these rabbis; all these people with long-term Jewish associations that couldn't be accused of being anti-Jewish or self-hating Jews… We were scary to the establishment, because we were not what they said we were. If we were just a bunch of left wing, self-hating Jews it would be easy to dismiss us. Part of our strategy, part of the way we did our publications, part of the way we presented ourselves in the world was to make that assertion very difficult… We did everything we could to wrap a tallit around ourselves to protect us from what they really wanted to do to us…Only now do I know or understand the kind of pressure that many of the people that were involved with us, that worked for Jewish organizations like Hillel. I mean I was 24 years old. What did I know? These people staked their careers and their reputations. That took a lot of courage. And me, it just took some arrogance, but they actually were brave.” 

Breira was bitterly attacked by established Jewish organizations, especially for advocating contact with the PLO. A pamphlet produced by Americans for a Safe Israel, by a far-right author, Rael Jean Isaac, called Breira: Counsel for Judaism, accused the organization of advocating the destruction of Israel. “All of a sudden this marginal group—their publication was in the hands of everybody. How did that happen? And to me, it was because the Center was using the far Right to knock off the Left. That's sort of what happened in America in the McCarthy period as well… Anyway, that publication was all over the place. All of a sudden now we were marginalized.”  Those attacking the organization singled out Rabbi Arthur Waskow, the well-known author of the Freedom Seder, who had made incendiary comments about Jewish shopkeepers and the unredeemable evil of American society earlier in his life, but had moved beyond those positions to become a force for positive change within the American Jewish community. “These earlier statements by Arthur, however, served those who wished to discredit him and all with whom he was associated. Their portrait of him, which was no longer even accurate, was exactly who they wanted us to be. But that was not Waskow, and Waskow was not us. He was one voice among many.”

The more publicity received, the more energized its opponents became. Arthur is convinced that someone within the Israeli representation in the US  helped organize the attacks. An editorial in the New York Times that mentioned the organization made its opponents frantic. (“A young New York-based organization called Breira—the Hebrew word for alternative—is picking up wide support among influential Jewish intellectuals in its criticism of Gush Emunim, overcoming as well the misapprehension  of many Jewish Americans that criticism of Israeli policies would be seen as a rejection of Israel,” “Israel’s Dilemma, New York Times, 11 May, 1976.)   “That really scared the shit out of the establishment.... Just mentioning that there were different voices within American Jewry,  was considered a major threat to those who wished to preserve the illusion of  a monolithic American Jewry that was completely in sync with the Israeli government. Somewhere somebody was telling American Jewish leaders how they should behave towards us.”

Breira was increasingly isolated, its members ostracized, and in the fall of 1977, the organization dissolved.  It was a painful breakup. There were the supposed liberals and moderates on Israeli matters like Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg and Edgar Bronfman.   “They knew us, they knew that we were coming from a place of ahavat Yisrael, that nothing we said was not a part of the discourse taking place in the Israeli mainstream and we were not the devious, self-hating Jews Rael Jean Isaac made us out to be; we talked to them all the time.  They either participated or acquiesced in that campaign against us. At the very least, they could have spoken up for us, but they did not. I was personally disappointed in people I had looked up to as leaders of the community, and truth, be told, somewhat disillusioned by the absence of a moral voice within the community to stop the campaign, which not only hurt us as a group, but defamed individuals.  The establishment had to have been behind the campaign against us, because this marginal little group, Americans for a Safe Israel--which had never been taken seriously before as anything other than a front for the Jewish Defense League, all of a sudden had the ability to distribute something that was way beyond their resources. In fact, Kahane used to attack these leaders as self-hating traitors.  All of a sudden, they had the credibility and influence to accuse other people of treason and of being dangerous to Israel and the American Jewish community?"

There were internal tensions as well. “We had within us people who came from different places—Arthur [Waskow], for instance, wanted us to be grass roots organization, not just a prophetic voice. Arnold [Jacob Wolf], wanted us to be a prophetic voice that made statements from time to time and didn't want us to be a national membership organization. There were many different agendas like in any organization, but when you put everybody under pressure it just became too much. I'm not even sure anymore how it all fell apart, but it wasn't pretty.”

Looking back, he thinks “we've come to a place now where many American Jewish youth no longer feel connected to Israel in a way that we did…. I mean I grew up and then created for myself a kind of Jewish identity that made me more Zionist than most American Jews…. I feel connected to Israel in a deeply profound way through its culture, through its music, through its literature that I read. But no longer through its politics.  I don't need to live there to complete my Jewish identity….I think that the Occupation has done really terrible things to the country, to the soul of the country, to the mental health of the country. It's become a place that worships power and as the Torah teaches that's a really bad road to go down. . . . The other tragedy of all of this is that when you're engaged in a long-term struggle with one side you come to resemble that side more and more... So, Israel is a country that's been shaped by the conflict, and I'm not sure that that's a shape that anybody would have chosen. That's why we thought we could make a difference back then.  The future is much more grim than it was then and I no longer think that American Jews can make a difference. Maybe the best thing we can do is walk away from the conflict. After all, this is the future the Israelis have chosen. I don't think this way everyday.”

Looking back at his years in Breira, he remembers that “We were so careful. We argued over every word to make sure that nobody could ever accuse us of being anti-Israeli, and then they did anyway. So, we could have had a lot more fun, because the result would have been the same. We could have been a lot braver too…Our act of trying to show how good we were is what was creating so much opposition to us. On the other hand, had we not been so careful, no one would have paid any attention to us.”

When thinking of Breira’s successors, such as J Street, Arthur feels, “They think like we did that you can oppose the government of Israel’s policies and everyone will understand that one can do that without being anti-Israel.  But they are a threat to the policies of the State of Israel and the Israelis will do whatever they can to try to destroy them. Even at the cost of alienating a large portion of the American Jewish community which today supports a two state solution and opposes Israel’s occupation and de facto annexation of the West Bank. We didn't take stands on issues about arms for Israel or oppose AIPAC on Capitol Hill. We tried to stay as much within the consensus as we could.  They go further than we would have ever dared. I think if you're going to take on a powerful opponent, be ready to get bloodied. ”

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Biography

Arthur Samuelson was born in 1951, and grew up in Irvington-on-Hudson, in Westchester County, north of New York City. He did not have a strong connection to Judaism or Jewish matters when growing up. After high school, he spent several years moving between Israel and the United States, becoming active in Israeli politics as an editor and writer. He graduated from Hampshire College in 1975 with a thesis on “The Development of Israeli Left Attitudes Towards the Palestinian Question," tracing the obliviousness of many in the left of center Israeli parties toward the political existence of the Palestinians. 

In 1975, he became editor of the Breira monthly magazine interChange. After its demise in 1977, he worked as a journalist on Israeli matters for major American publications. Thereafter he had a distinguished career as a publisher, working for Simon and Schuster, Harper Collins as senior editor, and Schocken Books, Random House, and Paragon House as editorial director.  His career has been varied; running an internet startup dedicated to food journalism, working for America’s Second Harvest, a national network of food banks; one year as a second-grade teacher in the South Bronx, a term as Hillel director at NYU, and involvement with Jewish educational philanthropies. He currently is director of programming at the Rowe Center, a retreat center in western Massachusetts.

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