“There was a time when the vast majority of Israelis did not believe that the Palestinians wanted peace. They had a good reason. Arafat rejected peace several times…I think there's a good chance now. It's just a chance. There's no other alternative.”
February 3, 2015
When this interview was conducted, Jessie Zel Lurie was 101 and still writing a weekly syndicated column on Israel-related topics for The Jewish Journal of South Florida. Indeed, Lurie (known as J. Zel Lurie) led a long and active life as a journalist, peace advocate, and philanthropist until his passing at age 103 on April 10, 2017.
Israel was central to Lurie’s life from very early on as expressed in his very short bar mitzvah speech in 1926. “I pledge to continue my parents’ work for Palestine.”
Lurie first went to Mandatory Palestine in 1928 on a French tramp steamer from New York to Haifa under the care of a family who were making Aliyah. He recounts, “our trip took 28 days to reach Haifa. We went through the Dardanelles to Constantinople in the Black Sea and then to Haifa.”
In Haifa, Lurie enrolled in the pnimiya (boarding school) of the Beth Sefer Realli. He refers to himself as “the halutz” [pioneer] for his parents who made Aliyah in 1929 and “rescued” him from the terrible food at the boarding school.
Lurie’s father had planned on making Aliyah for many years. His mother, however, was “not enthusiastic about it, but she was a good Jewish wife,” and so was willing to move. As president of the Borough Park Hadassah, his mother had given a luncheon honoring Henrietta Szold, the founding president of the Jewish women’s group. Szold later wrote Lurie’s mother that Alyiah is “a very worthy idea, but you should really go there first to visit and see what it's like to live there." When she showed the letter to Lurie’s father, he responded, "Ikh bin nisht a meragel." [I am not a spy.] His father was not going to be like the twelve spies who sent Joshua back terrifying reports on the Promised Land in the Bible. Lurie’s father was dead set on moving to Palestine.
Lurie returned to the US in 1931 to finish high school and study in the university. He left Cornell University in his junior year and went back to Haifa in December 1934.
Among other business ventures, Lurie’s father invested in real estate. He “built the first apartment house in Haifa, at 10 Ahad Ha'am Street with big rooms and ten foot ceilings.” It is still called “Beit Yaakov Lurie.” The family lived there for several years before moving to Jerusalem.
Lurie’s father owned a valuable plot of land on the top of Mount Carmel with views of Haifa Bay on one side and the Mediterranean Sea on the other. Lurie found in his father’s papers “full architectural drawings and blueprints, four or five pages for a yeshiva of Torah v’Avodah [the youth wing of the Mizrachi religious Zionist movement].” His father had donated it to construct a yeshiva that was never built. Lurie later found out that “the plot was registered in the name of a leader of Aguat Yisrael [Orthodox political party]” and in all likelihood long since sold off.
Interestingly, Lurie found himself in the company of members of the outlawed Communist Party on several occasions, although he was never a member himself. The first time was at a party he hosted at his home in Haifa to welcome two young men who had recently arrived from the Soviet Union. A commander in the police force, who was a tenant in his family’s building, warned Lurie’s father that these two boys were communists and that he should keep an eye on his son.
Lurie befriended communists again at a protest meeting organized by the Histadrut against a home being built with cheap Arab labor on the outskirts of the HaKarmel neighborhood of Haifa rather than the Jewish labor mandated in that area.
“I heard the speaker say, ‘Ha-milchama la avodat ivrit hi hi ha milhama hamamadit milchemet ha ma'amadot.’” ["The war for Jewish labor is the class war. Hebrew labor is the class warfare."] Two young people then shouted out, ‘Lo Nachon’ ["Not correct," as Communists advocated a joint Arab-Jewish struggle.] They were grabbed by the guards from the Hapoel football team and dragged downstairs.”
Lurie followed them. “The boy had escaped and run off. The girl was lying on the ground. I picked her up, and I walked her up the hill to the street at which point the detectives circled around me. The boy was waiting for her and they dashed off.”
The younger brother of a close friend also joined the Communist Party. “He was caught red-handed along with an Israeli pasting a Communist statement on billboards” and deported “back to the States.” Lurie was called as a witness at the trial.
Lurie’s father got him his first job in Palestine as a messenger. “My pay was five Palestine pounds a month. My duty was to go to Bank Leumi in the morning with a thousand pound note and come back with a thousand pounds in singles so I the bank can do business.”
At that time, Haifa had the only public pool in Palestine, where they held swimming events for the Maccabiah World Games. Lurie successfully pitched a story on the pool to Gershon Agronsky (later Agron), the editor and publisher of The Palestine Post. Agronsky liked Lurie’s work and hired him as a cub reporter. He and an Israeli were the only two reporters at the time. Lurie joined his older brother Ted, who was managing editor of the paper at the time.
Lurie got his first big scoop through the older sister of Bernie Schimmel his former neighbor in boarding school. Ruth Hoffman and her husband Leon invited him to a Shabbat dinner along with two other guests who worked for the Palestine Public Works Department. “Now, for months there had been lying at the side of the road from the coast up to Jerusalem water pipes waiting to be installed. They lay there while the residents of Jerusalem continued to ration water that had been collected during the winter rains. These guys didn’t know that there was a reporter at the dinner and they told the story of the pipes. They were screwed the wrong way and could not be connected.” The story was featured as a series in The Post.
After Lurie was discharged from the U.S army in November 1945, he was hired to do public relations for the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization that became the IDF. In the summer of 1947, he opened up the first office of Friends of the Haganah and hired an executive director to replace himself.
At that time, Lurie also assisted Isaiah “Si” Kenen who was doing public relations for the Jewish Agency as it was thrust onto the world stage in 1947 after the British announced their intended withdrawal from Palestine and the United Nations (UN) considered alternatives for the future government of Palestine. He reported on what was happening at the UN as foreign correspondent for The Palestine Post via Si.
“The assembly appointed a committee of eleven nations called the United Nations Special Committee On Palestine. The UNSCOP committee visited the displaced persons camp in Germany and went on to Palestine. Though this committee went to the DP camps in Germany and they went to Palestine and so forth and they issued a report. There was a majority report and a minority report. The majority report which recommended the partition of Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish and retain international control of Jerusalem, was sponsored by the delegate from Uruguay.
“The General Assembly [was set to] vote between the majority report and the minority report. The majority report had a majority, but it was not a two-thirds majority. A two-thirds majority was needed to make it legal. Thanksgiving came along and they adjourned for the weekend and they were going to vote.
“Well, Nahum Goldmann got busy [trying to persuade delegates to vote for a Jewish state]... Small countries each had a vote. The Philippines was one. Haiti was another. And it came time to a vote.
“By November 29, 1947 he had the two-thirds majority sewn up. I remember the Philippines guy getting up who had been very active for the minority report. [He said] that he had been instructed to vote for the majority report...He made it clear it was against his wishes. The same thing from Haiti, and it got a two-thirds majority.”
In the fall of 1947, Lurie began working for Hadassah, Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Hired to professionalize their publication, he stayed on for the next 33 years. Lurie remembered the December 1947 newsletter hanging on the wall of the office with the headline: “U.N. Declares Jewish State.”
As a longtime Middle East peace advocate, Lurie recalls “I had 30 years at Hadassah, very difficult years. There was a faction in Hadassah led by board president Julius Epstein that had tried to get Hadassah to oppose the settlements. It didn't work. Hadassah supported the government whatever it did and that was it.”
In the 1970s, Lurie remembered being called to a meeting with Ambassador Simcha Dinitz at which Prime Minister Golda Meir “gave the Israeli ambassador to the United States orders to kill Breira.”
Additionally, Lurie played a significant role in supporting the mixed Jewish-Arab village of Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam. As he describes it, he learned that two friends had helped pioneer the community of Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam in 1980.
“So, sometime later I climbed the hill to Neve Shalom. It's on a hilltop above the road to the Latrun monastery. There I found Wellesley Aron and Coral Aron. He gave me his spiel that nobody teaches peace. They teach war, but no one teaches peace. He was starting a school for peace…which has expanded beautifully.
“The following winter I get a cable from Wellesley asking me to become president of the American Friends of Neve Shalom. They had hired a woman named Iva Kaufman in New York to run a little office for them. And I was supposed to be a lay president. I wrote to Wellesley, the office is in New York and I’m in Florida. He answered, "You're the only person interested in us". So, I became president of the American Friends of Neve Shalom. I helped Iva form a board.
“About a year or so later two people from Neve Shalom showed up. German Friends of Neve Shalom had built the infrastructure. Now they needed $30,000 to build the school. I happened to be very fortunate. I retired in '83 and between '83 and '88 I bought and sold Manhattan apartments. I doubled my money. I said, ‘I'll give you the $30,000, and you can go home.’ And I did that. My school was built. There are now six more Arab Jewish schools run by Hand in Hand with equal numbers of Arab and Jewish students. All the pupils are Israeli citizens. Together with the pioneer Neve Shalom school, which I built a quarter century ago, there are now seven Arab-Jewish bilingual bi-national primary schools teaching coexistence.”
Lurie concludes, “So, for 101 years I've been watching progress year by year. There was a time when the vast majority of Israelis did not believe that the Palestinians wanted peace. They had a good reason. Arafat rejected peace several times…I think there's a good chance now. It's just a chance. There's no other alternative.”
Jessie Zel Lurie was born in Gloversville, New York on December 4, 1913. He made Aliyah to Mandatory Palestine for high school a year in advance of his parents in 1928, returning to the U.S. in 1931 to finish his secondary studies. He then studied at Cornell University, leaving in his junior year. He later graduated from the Columbia University School of Journalism as a special student in 1939. In 1934, Lurie returned to Palestine and became one of two reporters for The Palestine Post, a precursor to The Jerusalem Post.
After completing his service in the US Army in 1945, Lurie was the foreign correspondent for The Palestine Post and also helped with public relations for the Jewish Agency and the Haganah. His work included reporting on the United Nations vote on the future government of Mandatory Palestine immediately prior to independence.
In the fall of 1947, Lurie began as executive editor of Hadassah Magazine overseeing its transition from a newsletter to a magazine. After 33 years, he retired in 1980.
In the early 1980s, Lurie was an early supporter of Neve Shalom//Wahat al Salam. He helped the Executive Director build American Friends of Neve Shalom, and funded the building of its trademark school for peace in its entirety. Lurie has also been involved in many different peace organizations including Breira, American Friends of Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, Partners for Progressive Israel, and J Street. In 2015, Lurie received J Street’s Tzedek v’Shalom award.