You have to be very… patient because it's like dripping water on a stone. It's very hard to make people change views that they've held for a long time.
February 4, 2015
Middle East peace advocate Robert K. Lifton contributed to the peace movement the strategic thinking and exceptional relationship building skills he had acquired as an entrepreneur. He was president of the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) from 1988 to 1994, assuming his position just after it became the first mainstream Jewish group to endorse “separation,” a term that pre-dated the two-state solution. Together with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Lifton was instrumental in conceptualizing the formation of Israel Policy Forum in 1994, serving as its founding chair. In 1994, Lifton helped found and served as international co-chair of the U.S./Middle East Project of the Council on Foreign Relations in which he was active until 2003.
For Lifton, “Zionism was part and parcel of [his]… growing up experience” in Borough Park, Brooklyn. “It was part of being Jewish. It was part of saying, ‘L'shana Haba'ah B'Yerushalayim.’ Next year in Jerusalem. It was the essence of our life at that time.”
After finishing his military service and going into business, Lifton was “concerned about Israel,” but “wasn’t deeply involved.” That changed in 1987, when he was recruited to the board of the AJCongress, where Middle East peace was soon to become central.
That same year, Lifton accompanied an AJCongress fact-finding trip to Israel to consider if the group should take a position on the relationship between Israel and the Occupied Territories. The decision: Separation was necessary for Israel to maintain its status as a democratic Jewish State. The group also voted “to argue for the position publicly.” “It was a gutsy position” for AJCongress to endorse when the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) had yet to amend its charter calling for the destruction of Israel and no other mainstream Jewish organizations dared take a position at odds with the standing Israeli government.
The decision to endorse separation while the Likud-led government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was in power, led to “constant tension between the AJCongress and the… Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.” That, however, didn’t prevent Lifton from discussing separation with the Shamir administration, including Shamir himself. Lifton recounts: “I was seen by the Shamir government as someone they still hoped to convert to their point of view, because I had gone to the Yeshiva and because they felt I could be convinced to become one of them. That was beneficial, because it gave me an opportunity, on behalf of our organization, to continue a relationship with that government.”
Lifton also served on the executive committee of AIPAC, developing warm relationships with its leadership. He recalls that “some of the leadership agreed with my position, [but] AIPAC as an organization did not feel comfortable taking a public position like that.”
Arab leaders, encouraged by the AJCongress position on separation, invited leaders of the group for dialogue in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Syria. Traveling to Saudi Arabia, in particular “was an extraordinary experience because no other major Jewish organization had ever been invited.” Lifton maintained over time these relationships that were initiated by AJCongress
“When the administration [of George H. W. Bush] made the cessation of settlements a condition of offering [Israel] loan guarantees, some in the American Jewish community started condemning President Bush as an anti-Semite.” Lifton wrote “a very strong letter” stating that Bush was “supportive of Israel” and “not an anti-Semite, because he didn't agree on the loan guarantees because of Israel's settlement policy.”
Lifton believes that AJCongress was “helpful to Israel in many ways,” by explaining its policies to Arab leaders,” particularly Soviet Jewish migration to Israel.
Yitzhak Rabin developed a very close relationship with Lifton prior to becoming prime minister in 1992. Once elected, Rabin “considered it important that the American Jewish community support his point of view… [on] resolving the problem of the territories.” Rabin and Lifton conceptualized the formation of a U.S. organization to represent Rabin’s peacemaking policies. Israel Policy Forum became that group. It “actively pushes for the that two-state solution in a way that tries to bring under its umbrella [a] broad a cross-section of the American Jewish population.”
With the Israeli government moving towards the two-state solution, in 1994 both Lifton and Executive Director Henry Siegman left AJCongress and set up the Middle East Project of the Council on Foreign Relations. Its purpose was to encourage Arabs to support “Israel's activities towards peace in the Middle East” and to talk to Israelis about resolving its conflict with the Palestinians. The international board included both Arabs and Jews: Lifton had as his first co-chair Prince Bandar, the longtime Saudi ambassador to the US.
Lifton told Arab leaders “that if they wanted Israel to make a deal with the Palestinians, they had to appeal directly to the Israeli people to push their government in that direction…The only way to convince the Israeli people was to make clear to them that once they resolved the issue with the Palestinians they would be fully accepted by the other nations of the Middle East…politically, socially and economically.”
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He [recounted] the Aesop fable about the wind and the sun having a contest to see which one could get a man to take off his coat. The wind blew furiously and the man’s response was to pull the coat tighter around him. But the sun shone on him and basking in the warmth of its rays, he took off his coat. For the Israeli people to respond…Arab states have to make them feel warm and secure.”
Lifton speculates that this strategy may have led to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.
He shares lessons for young activists:
- Take the time to understand the issues and their implications from various points of view. Do “not accept anything…on the face of it.”
- “You have to be very… patient because it's like dripping water on a stone. It's very hard to make people change views that they've held for a long time.”
- “The best way to build a relationship is try to understand the other person's point of view and try to explain your point of view in such a way that…[meets] the other person’s… logical and emotional need.”
- “If you believe in something, you should keep trying [to influence people] in different ways.” It's trying to be there and exchange views and exchange ideas and influence people as best you can and hope that something rubs off.”
Robert K. Lifton was born in Borough Park, Brooklyn in New York. He attended Jewish Day School at Yeshiva Etz Chaim, and continued night school at Herzliya Hebrew Academy while attending public high school. Lifton received a B.A. in Business Administration from the City Colleges of New York and graduated from Yale University Law School in 1951. He subsequently served as an officer in the Navy on the carrier USS Coral Sea. In 1993, Lifton was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy, Honoris Causa degree from Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
As a lifelong entrepreneur, Lifton has been involved in numerous businesses ventures in construction, sports, entertainment, public health, technology, and other fields. He was a Director and member of Executive, Loan and Risk Committees of Bank Leumi, USA and was a Director of Leumi Investments, Inc.
Lifton joined the board of American Jewish Congress in 1987, assuming the presidency in 1988. As president he was involved in the many issues the group addressed, but especially in promoting the group’s policy of separation between Israel and the Occupied Territories, including numerous “Occasional Letters” he wrote about the topic.
Lifton worked closely with Executive Director Henry Siegman to arrange meetings of American Jewish Congress leaders with King Hussein in Jordan and after his death with King Abdullah, President Hosni Mubarek in Egypt, President Hafez Al-Assad in Syria, and with Prince Saud al Faisal, his brother Prince Turki and various members of the royal family in Saudi Arabia. Lifton resigned from the board of American Jewish Congress in 1994.
Lifton developed a close friendship with Yitzhak Rabin prior to his re-election as prime minister in 1992. A conversation on the need for Rabin to have solid base of U.S. support for his peace policies led to the formation of the Israel Policy Forum in 1994. Lifton served as the group’s first board chair. He served as Chair Emeritus and currently is a board member.
In 1994, Lifton together with Henry Siegman initiated the U.S./Middle East Project of the Council on Foreign Relations, serving as international co-chair of the International Board until 1999. The group met with major Arab and business leaders encouraging them to support the two-state solution and to reach out directly to the Israeli people. He stayed with the group until 2003, when he resigned due to the demands of his business.
Lifton served as a member of the executive committee of American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC); a Vice Chair of NJCRAC (National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council); on the Board of Directors of the Abraham Fund; Builders for Peace; the Tel-Aviv Museums; The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA Institute); The International Board of Bar Ilan University, and Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS).
Lifton’s op-eds on Middle East-related topics are published regularly in the Huffington Post, Times of Israel and other media outlets. In his memoir, An Entrepreneur’s Journey: Stories From A Life In Business And Personal Diplomacy Lifton wrote about his personal and business life and in great detail about his Middle East peace advocacy
Lifton is currently Chair and Managing Member of RM Power Systems, LLC and Chair of Bradon Technologies Ltd. He is also an officer and director of a number of other privately held companies.