“The Yiddish culture that came here one hundred years ago was a culture of social justice; of organizing; of labor laws; of child labor laws; a forty-hour work week; giving the woman the right to vote. My work for Middle East peace from a perspective of civil rights and human rights was a follow-on to that.”
September 17, 2013
March 20, 2014
Sidney Topol, a groundbreaking innovator and entrepreneur, began his foray into peace activism after retiring. Age has only intensified his deep passion for bringing peace to the Middle East. Topol recounts an early encounter with Israeli political leaders, his efforts to shift the conversation on Israel within the Jewish mainstream, and his involvement with several Israeli-Palestinian peace groups as an activist and philanthropist.
As a child, Topol’s relationship to Israel was the Jewish National Fund pushke his family had on their wall. His immigrant parents “would put pennies and nickels and dimes and quarters” in the blue tin alms box. “It was planting trees and having the dessert bloom. A very lovely rabbi would show up once a month. He had a little silver hammer to open them up and take the money.”
Topol “got involved with Israel” in 1960 when he moved to Italy to work with a joint venture of Raytheon, a company specializing in weapons and military and commercial electronics. In Rome, Topol befriended the military attaché of the Israeli embassy. “Raytheon developed a Hawk missile and was a very important weapon system for Israel anti-aircraft missile. The Israelis had acquired a large number of these missiles.”
During that time, Topol was invited to accompany a delegation of Israelis on a tour of Raytheon’s laboratories and manufacturing facilities followed by lunch in a trattoria. Among the Israelis were Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, future presidents Shimon Peres and Ezer Weizman, and Elkana Kaspi, CEO of the Israeli electronics company Tadiran. Topol was surprised that “they had no Uzis, no guns, no AK45s, no security.”
The 1967 Israeli-Arab War “was a very significant important and emotional event” for Topol as a Jew. “Why, because it showed that not only can we Jews and Israelis be good businessmen doctors, lawyers, Nobel Prize winners, entrepreneurs, but we could be warriors when the time came.” It also “showed the world that we are not going to walk into the ovens ever again without a fight.” He reminisces sadly: After the war “was the time for peace. Instead we started the Occupation, and we started settlements.”
Topol retired in 1990, after a distinguished career at Raytheon and Scientific-Atlanta. He explains, “I was in the corporate world, which is right of center. I had to be cautious, unfortunately, about some of my philosophy and political point of view.” Financial security and retirement meant he no longer needed to be cautious about his political views. “I speak my piece, and I don’t have to be afraid,”says Topol.
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Topol credits Yiddishkeit for his progressive politics. He explains, “I grew up in Yiddishkeit. The Yiddish culture that came here one hundred years ago was a culture of social justice; of organizing; of labor laws; of child labor laws; a forty-hour work week; giving the woman the right to vote. My work for Middle East peace from a perspective of civil rights and human rights was a follow-on to that.”
Topol’s family was great devotees of FDR and liberal democracy, and “maybe even a little more left leaning.” One of Topol’s brothers marched in the Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March of 1965, while Topol was in Italy. “So,” says Topol, “we have a history in the family of human rights and civil rights and social justice. “
After his retirement in Boston, Middle East peace became Topol’s “civil rights issue.” He explains, “It just seemed that this isn't us; we are not occupiers. We have been occupied all our life and how could we now occupy another nation, another group of people.”
Topol served for many years on the leadership council of several mainstream Jewish organizations. “A lot of those people do very good philanthropic work…with issues of poverty and fighting racism and supporting diversity and so forth…but when it comes to the Middle East, they put blinders on. So many in the Jewish leadership talk about the Palestinians, but they never talk to the Palestinians. They think that in order to be pro-Israeli, you have to be anti-Palestinian.”
Topol tried unsuccessfully to open the dialogue on Israel. He recounts: “They won't let us present our viewpoint. They want us to listen and give them money.” Moreover, he couldn’t change the emotional intensity around Israel that “goes back to the Holocaust” and centuries of vicious anti-Semitism. "Ah gornisht vet helfn, as my mother would say: Nothing will help. It won't make one iota of difference.”
After meeting Debra DeLee, President and CEO of Americans for Peace Now (APN) in 2000, Topol became active on the organization’s board. A few years later, he joined the board of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, a grassroots pro-Israel/pro-peace group. When Brit Tzedek joined J Street in 2009, Topol became very involved in the J Street PAC (Political Action Committee) as a board member and contributor to politically sympathetic candidates. Since ultimately the resolution of the conflict will be political, Topol has prioritized building political power through the J Street PAC, so the next president “follows on a course consistent with President Obama and the values of APN, Brit Tzedek, and J Street.”
As a result of his work on peace and reconciliation, Topol has “become interested in the study and practice of nonviolent solutions to domestic gun violence and gangs, but particularly violence internationally with a special emphasis on the Middle East To that end, the Topol Family Fund has donated over a million dollar for fellowships and teaching at ten institutions in the U.S. and Israel. In the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela, Topol aims to create a future generation of experts in nonviolence and diplomacy for aspiring members of the diplomatic corps and non-governmental organizations. Traditional “efforts to contain conflict have ben around for decades,” says Topol, but his goal is “to avoid violent conflict” and to “reignite a peace movement.”
Topol is hopful that one day he will sit on the White House lawn while the President shakes hands with the Prime Ministers of Israel and Palestine. But warns, “They don’t have much time for me.”
Some of Topol’s Jewish golf buddies recently told him, "Sid, you can count on this: there will never be peace between the Jews and the Palestinians." He responded, “I'm sure in Birmingham, Alabama they said, ‘We will never sit on a bus with an African American, never go to school with them… never let them eat in our restaurants.’ Now they're mayors and senators, and bank presidents, so it can happen.”
In conclusion, Topol quotes the Mishna (first written redaction of Jewish oral tradition) "It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it." Pirkei Avot 2:21
Sidney Topol was born in 1924 in Dorchester, Massachusetts. His parents were Yiddish speaking immigrants from Poland. Topol enlisted in the Army Air Corp during WWII, where he was trained as a radar officer.
Topol hold a B.S. in physics and an honorary Doctor of Science Degree from the University of Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard-MIT Radar School and has been awarded the MIT Corporate Leadership Award. Mr. Topol has been inducted into the Satellite Hall of Fame, the Cable Television Hall of Fame, the MTC Hall of Fame and the Georgia Technology Hall of Fame.
Topol was general manager of Selenia Telecommunications, a Raytheon joint venture in Rome, Italy from1960 until 1965, when he became head of Raytheon’s communications division. From there he went to Scientific-Altanta, retiring as Chair and CEO in 1990.
In the Boston area, Topol has served on the board of the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Community Relations, Council of Greater Boston, and Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.
Topol has served on the board of Americans for Peace Now since 2000 and the J Street PAC since 2008. He served on the board of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom from 2004-2009. In 2003, he went to Geneva, Switzerland to witness the signing of the Geneva Accord, a draft agreement to end the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. During that time, Topol was also an active member of American Diaspora Alliance for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, a Boston area dialogue group.
Topol’s newest peace-related venture is funding programs to create leaders of non-violence at ten universities in the U.S. and Israel.
Topol is President of The Topol Group LLC and The Topol Family Fund.