Don Peretz

“I guess an alternative will soon have to be found or we'll be involved in another swamp of violence.”

Peace Activism
1949 - 2000
Breira
Committee on New Alternatives in the Middle East (CONAME)
Jewish Peace Fellowship
American Friends Service Committee

Interview Date
September 8, 2014

Interviewer
Aliza Becker

The Interview

Don Peretz’s Jerusalem-born father, whose Sephardic family had lived in the Middle East for hundreds of years, was highly influential in his life’s work for Arab-Israeli reconciliation. Peretz described him as “an ardent but a peaceful Zionist,” who believed in furthering peaceful relations between Palestinian Arabs and Jews. His father spoke Hebrew, Ladino, English, Arabic, French, and Yiddish.

During World War I, Peretz’s father came to the US, leaving behind his large family to avoid being drafted into the Ottoman Turkish army. He came with an urgent message from his friend Aaron Aaronsohn that he passed on to several prominent American Jewish leaders. Aaronsohn was concerned that the Turkish alliance with Germany could lead Jews to suffer the same fate as the Armenians. Ultimately Aaronsohn set up a spy network for Britain that helped them conquer Jerusalem.  

During his youth in Baltimore, Peretz was a supporter of Hashomer HaTzair. According to Peretz, the group had initially supported “a bi-national Jewish-Arab State” with “equal standing for both groups.  But that idea as such melted away gradually over the years …”

Peretz was inspired to declare himself a conscientious objector during WWII under the influence of a Quaker professor at Queens College and Rabbi Isidore Hoffman, a neighbor and pacifist who served as the Jewish chaplain at Columbia University.

Peretz subsequently joined with a small group of other Jewish pacifists as one of the first members of the Jewish Peace Fellowship (JPF), a group founded by Rabbis Abraham Cronbach and Isidore Hoffman, and Jane Evans. He describes JPF as “a handful of Jews who were pacifist, although not necessarily anti-war” who sought to create an organization similar to that of the Quakers and Mennonites “but with an emphasis on Jewish traditions and writings” They published a newsletter and later a magazine with a pacifist outlook and advocated for alternative service for conscientious objectors. At Peretz’s recommendation, they also emphasized the importance of peace between Jews and Arabs.

During World War II, Peretz registered as 1-A-0 Conscientious Objector, meaning that while he objected to serving as a combatant in any kind of war, his convictions permitted him to serve in the military in a non-combatant position. After completing a course in Japanese at the University of Minnesota, Peretz served as an interpreter for a medical unit in Okinawa.

Peretz then spent two years in Mandatory Palestine under the GI Bill of Rights as a student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After refusing to join the Hagana --the , Jewish paramilitary organization --because of his pacifism, He worked as a stringer to the radio correspondent for NBC.

Following the 1948 War, Peretz worked for a year for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a well-known Quaker organization. He directed a unit in Acre that distributed United Nations rations to approximately 50,000 Palestinian refugees scattered in villages throughout the Galilee in northern Israel. “Where I worked they seemed to regard me as one of the Quakers, although many of them knew that I was Jewish.”

Interestingly, in 1998, the AFSC asked Peretz and his wife May, to return to the villages he had worked with in 1948 to see how things had changed over 50 years. Journalist Atallah Mansour, an old Palestinian friend and former Arab affairs journalist for Haaretz accompanied them on their two-month visit.

One big change Peretz noted was that they didn’t see a single camel, whereas they were “quite prevalent in 1948 as beasts of burden.” People had automobiles “instead of donkeys or camels.” They also had abandoned their traditional garb for Western style clothing indistinguishable from the Jewish population. Many of the Arab villages had signs in Russian indicative of the influx of Russian immigrants.  He also met a number of political activists “who were campaigning for Arab political rights in Israel, for better education, equal education opportunities for Arab youth.”

After he returned from the Middle East, Peretz worked as a media evaluator for the Voice of America, “attempting to determine the influence of the Voice of America in the Middle East.” He then applied for and received Ford Foundation grant to do a study of Palestinian refugees from 1952-52. Subsequently, he attended Columbia University where he received a master's degree and doctorate based on that research.

In the mid-1950s, Peretz was hired by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), when “you could call it a liberal, broadminded Jewish organization sympathetic to the idea of a Jewish State in Israel but non-Zionist.”

As the situation for Jews in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon was growing increasingly dire, the AJC sent Peretz to investigate the situation. There was so much anti-Jewish sentiment that the “Jews in Egypt who had been more or less integrated nearly all fled.  They had property confiscated and demonstrations against them, making life terribly uncomfortable.”

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In his travels, Peretz met some “broadminded Arab socialists: including then foreign minister of Syria who were sympathetic to his mission. It occurred to him “that if some prominent world figure were to come to the Middle East on behalf of the Jews, that it might have some influence.”

The AJC responded to his proposal: "Well, if you can find a prominent socialist leader who is willing to go and talk to Arab leaders, we will support that."  They suggested talking to Norman Thomas. The two of them would then travel to the Middle East to talk with leaders about the repressive conditions for the Jewish communities on the condition that Peretz would come with him.

AJC funded Peretz and Thompson to spend several months traveling in the Middle East. They met with President Nasser of Egypt, with King Hussein of Jordan, with Golda Meir in Israel, and with the leaders of the Ba'ath Party in Syria. “It was a completely different Ba'ath Party at that time then what it has become – basically a rightwing nationalist party.”  

Several months later after returning home, Peretz received a Christmas card from Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Peretz’s wife Maya commented that “it was pretty unusual for a Muslim to be sending a Christmas card to a Jew.”  

Peretz also did research for AJC on the situation for Arabs in Israel. “Little was known about them in the American society, especially among American Jews.”

Peretz reported to AJC “that it required a positive effort on the part of Israel to make the Palestinians in Israel feel comfortable [to be] part of the State.  The fact that it was constantly called the Jewish State obviously made the Palestinians in the country feel uncomfortable and discriminated against. And of course there was discrimination in in allocation of government funds.”

Peretz found that “the AJC became more and more a kind of spokesman for any Israeli policy.” Increasingly, they submitted anything that he wrote to the Israeli Embassy to have it approved.  The Israeli government objected to Peretz’s emphasis on “the inequality of Jews and Arabs in Israel and to the difficulties that the Israeli Arab citizens were having. The Israeli authorities considered him a Jew writing Arab propaganda. If there were things they didn't like, they urged the American Jewish Committee not to publish them.” Because of this, Peretz ended up resigning from his position at the AJC.  

After teaching at a several colleges, Peretz was recruited by Ward Morehouse at the New York State Education Department to be his assistant. He worked for five years in Albany at the State Education Department promoting foreign area studies at schools and colleges in New York State until being hired by the State University of New York in Binghamton to head their Middle East program in 1966.

He also received a grant from the U.S. Institute of Peace and did a study of Arab property or Israel and Arabs in a book that was published by the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Peretz ended his interview with advice for young activists. He advised them to support peace organizations; to write articles for their publications; to do whatever is possible to help resolve the growing pro-violence tendency in the country. “It's hard to think of alternatives but I guess alternatives, more or less, will soon have to be found or we'll be involved in another swamp of violence.”

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Biography

Don Peretz was born on October 30, 1922 in Baltimore, Maryland. He passed away on April 29, 2017 at age 94.

Peretz attended Queens College for three years from 1939-41. Inspired by two role models - his Quaker college professor  and a pacifist rabbi who was a neighbor - Peretz became a conscientious objector during World War II. He also joined other Jewish pacifists as an early member of the Jewish Peace Fellowship, founded in 1941. Peretz was sent by the army to the University of Minnesota to study Japanese. Peretz was then assigned as a non-arms bearing Japanese interpreter for a naval medical unit tending to wounded civilians from the Battle of Okinawa.

In 1946, Peretz took advantage of the G.I. bill for WWII veterans to travel to Mandatory Palestine, his father’s homeland, and study at Hebrew University. The following year, he worked as a correspondent for NBC News, reporting on the growing conflict in the region. In 1949, Peretz worked for a year as a representative of the American Friends Service Committee with the UN Relief for Palestine Refugees in the northern city of Acre and the western Galilee.

After spending a year working for the Voice of America, in 1952, Peretz was awarded a two-year Ford Foundation grant to study the Israeli Arab refugee problem. This research, one of the first major academic studies of the 1948 Palestinian refugees, was later to become his doctoral thesis at Columbia University. It was published in 1958 as a book entitled Israel and the Palestine Arabs.

Peretz worked for the American Jewish Committee for a year in the mid-1950s during which he traveled throughout the Middle East to help address hardships affecting Jewish communities in several Middle Eastern countries causing many to flee. He also conducted research on the status of Israeli Arabs.

Afterwards, Peretz taught at several colleges including Hofstra University, Long Island University, Hunter College and Vassar College. He also served as a fellow at the United States Institute of Peace.

Peretz next worked at the New York State Board of Education for five years prior to beginning a 25-year tenure as a professor at SUNY-Binghamton. From 1966 to 1992, he taught and directed the school’s Southwest Asia North Africa Program. In the 1970s, Peretz worked with the pacifist multi-denominational Fellowship of Reconciliation helping arrange meetings for US activists on Middle East peace delegations.

In addition to his thesis, Peretz wrote 11 books, among them The Government and Politics of Israel, Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising, The Middle East Today, and Israel and the Palestine Arabs—and over 300 articles for various journals, including Foreign Affairs and the Middle East Journal.

Photo Gallery

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