David Biale

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I think that the quality of the activism depends in part on the level of knowledge. In other words, you need to study this subject deeply. You need to become obsessed with it and really know it in order to be an effective activist.” 

Peace Activism
1970 – present
Radical Jewish Union

Interview Date
November 4, 2014

Interviewer
Aliza Becker

The Interview

Jewish historian David Biale was one of  countless young adults who, following the 1967 Israel-Arab war, sought to reconcile their Jewish identity and support for Israel with leftist politics. Without warning or preparation, Biale and others found themselves in the deeply unsettling position of being asked to explain their pro-Israel sentiment to an increasingly unsympathetic left. Adding to this challenge were their own apprehensions about the Occupation. Still, they maintained their commitment to other leftist causes of the student movement.

Biale was a member of UC-Berkeley’s Radical Jewish Union. Originally known as the Union of Jewish Students, the group was formed in the late 1960s during a time of powerful youth activism on issues related to war and peace and domestic political issues.  The Radical Jewish Union was one of dozens of such groups founded by Jewish university students at the time. The group was ideologically socialist-Zionist. “Those relationships were so powerful and formative that we remain to this day very close.” In his interview, Biale reflects on that period, and what it can teach us today.   

“We wanted to synthesize our radical politics with our Jewish politics. On the one hand; our task was to challenge the Jewish community on policies that we thought were destructive for Israel. Our newspaper, The Jewish Radical, was the first Jewish student paper of the 1960s. In it we advocated for a Palestinian state. At that time there was terrorism and nobody was talking to the PLO. The way we saw it was that if Israel was the realization of the national liberation aspirations of the Jewish people, the same realization had to be true for the Palestinians.

“On the other hand, we defended Israel to the New Left, with the argument that Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people and that Israel had a kosher place in this left-wing pantheon of movements. After 1948, Israel saw itself as part of what was called the "non-aligned world," the developing world. That whole identification was something we embraced. Then things underwent a sea change after '67, and I think we were trying to resist that.

“At the same time that we organized around Israel, we were advocating for the Jewish community to take a much stronger position on civil rights and freedom for Soviet Jewry. We felt the mainstream Jewish community was too staid and conservative, and we were trying to push them to be more activist. We had a general sense that American Judaism was kind of a soulless religion and we were very concerned with Jewish cultural and spiritual renaissance. One way we brought renewal to our Jewish life was that every Shabbat, we had a meeting, a meal, and study.

“We were very self-motivated and intent on teaching ourselves Hebrew. We didn't need a Hillel director or Israel Action guy to do propaganda. We educated ourselves around the history of Zionism and the history of the conflict and related issues.”

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“In those days, there was still romanticism about Israel. We believed that the original meaning of Zionism had been betrayed and needed to be returned to its socialist Zionist ideals. A significant number of the members of the Radical Jewish Union got involved in forming a garin (literally Hebrew for kernel, a garin is a close knit group who plans to move to Israel together) to live on a kibbutz. Moving to Israel was utopian, socialist, and communalist.

“I still have letters that we wrote to each other in those days and they're pretty amazing - filled with ideals. They read very much like the pre-state Zionists during the British mandate. We saw Israel as a place where Socialist Zionist ideals would be achievable. In the end, it didn't work out….Almost nobody is left on that kibbutz, which is kind of falling apart, and a lot of the people who actually stayed in Israel for a while came back here. Those ideals were not realized, but…they were very powerful, and they definitely motivated us”.

Biale spent time on Kibbutz Lahav, a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz in southern Israel, in the summer of 1969 and the spring of 1970. Many of the members “were very involved already in 1970 in opposition to the Occupation.” Some were involved, with "SIAH" (acronym for "Smol Israeli Hadash”), the Israeli New Left at the time.  

In 1970, Biale and other kibbutz members went to a demonstration in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv. “I can't tell you now exactly what we were demonstrating about, but…that made a huge impression on me… I'd been in a lot of fairly violent demonstrations in Berkeley, and this was the scariest thing I'd ever been to. We were set upon by these right-wingers... There was a feeling like the Israeli government was not doing what it could do to try to end…the War of Attrition. There were as many Israeli soldiers killed in that two and a half year period, as in the Six Day War.”

At that time, “there was this group of high school students who wrote a famous letter to Golda Meir saying they didn't want to serve as long as they didn't have confidence that the government was doing what it could to move towards peace.”

Another seminal event for Biale was participating in the March to Jerusalem (Tza’adak Yerushalayim), a big, public nationalist celebration “identified with the land and Jerusalem.” Delegations marched in the West Bank north of Jerusalem for several days, ending in Jerusalem itself. “I attached myself to a student group from the Hebrew University... When we were marching through the West Bank, local Palestinians came out and were watching us. At a certain point, I suddenly realized that they don't want us here. That was a kind of aha moment. People had said it was a ‘benign occupation,’ not like any other occupation. But the Occupation was an occupation.”

In August of 1970, Biale went to live on Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin on the Jordanian border. The kibbutz was frequently in the news because of shelling by the PLO. “It was pretty scary. A shell fell literally right outside the house, and we couldn't run to the shelter. We had to hide under a bed. What was interesting to me, what made a very big impression, was that the members of the kibbutz weren't as left-wing as the people at Kibbutz Lahav, yet, these people were not yelling to slaughter all the Arabs or keep all the territory or anything like that.”

Biale got involved in Tikkun Magazine around the time it was founded in 1986. It became an important venue for him to “express his views.” According to Biale, in its initial ten years Tikkun provided a platform on the left for intellectuals of all kinds. “Tikkun gave a mouthpiece to the progressive Jewish movement in general, not just about Israel…When you published there, you were read.”

Biale spoke at several Tikkun conferences. “With these conferences, the idea was to generate a movement, but of course there was no movement. People would come in the hundreds to the meetings, to these conferences, but no real ongoing movement emerged from these conferences, unless you count later developments like the New Israel Fund, J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace.  These organizations, which of course differ greatly in their politics, have provided frameworks for those who had identified to one degree or another with Tikkun’s alternative views.”

Counsel for young activists:

“The problem with Birthright is that you go for ten days, somebody else pays for it, and then you think you know the subject… A lot of those people don't want to go back for a longer period. They say, ‘I've already done that and now I'm going to go somewhere else.’

In our day, it was considered essential to go to Israel. It was part of …the rite de passage that you went to Israel and you worked on a kibbutz for a summer and sometimes longer. You did an Ulpan and you learned Hebrew and you paid for it yourself. There were no free programs. Sometimes there might be a scholarship or something, but you had skin in the game, as they say. On Birthright, they put you on a bus, you're in a bubble. When we went, we traveled the country in buses. We mingled with the people. We got to know the country, for good and for ill. I don't think that much of that happens these days. First of all, the whole business of volunteering on kibbutz no longer exists. That was a huge entree for people into the country. Israel no longer has that sort of utopian pull that it did in our day.”

“When I hear debates going on campus today, [there is a sense] that they're not talking about a real place. They're talking about something that's on some sort of fact sheet or talking points and it's not a real place... Reading books is of course essential. But going there and spending a lot of time is really important.”

I think that the quality of the activism depends in part on the level of knowledge. In other words, you need to study this subject deeply. You need to become obsessed with it and really know it in order to be an effective activist.” 

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Biography

David Biale was born in 1949 and grew up in Los Angeles. His father, who had been a member of Hashomer Hatzair in Poland, initially immigrated to California to study agriculture in preparation for aliyah to Mandatory Palestine. Biale grew up in a tightly knit socialist-Zionist youth group as what he calls “an alternative synagogue.” In 1958-1959, he lived with his family in Israel for a year, which he considers the highlight of his childhood – one that initiated a deep connection to Israel.

Biale attended college at UCLA and Harvard before transferring to the University of California at Berkeley in 1968, where he received his B.A. and M.A. in History. He also spent time on various kibbutizm in Israel during the summer of 1969 and for six months in 1970. While on Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin, Biale met Rachel Korati, an Israeli woman who was to become his wife.

At college, Biale was very active in the student and political movements of the day. He became active with the Radical Jewish Union, publisher of The Jewish Radical, one of the first underground student Jewish newspapers. The paper advocated for a Palestinian state in the early 1970s. Today, he is very pessimistic and feels “we've reached the tipping point” on the possibility of  a two-state solution.

Biale received his doctorate in history from UCLA in 1977. Since 1999, he has been a professor of Jewish cultural and intellectual history at the University of California at Davis. He is the author and editor of 10 books and numerous articles and is a three-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Photo Gallery

Radical Jewish Union, circa 1971-1972.
Radical Jewish Union, circa 1971-1972.