American Jewish Peace Archive: An Interview with Arthur Samuelson01-20-2024
In lieu of the ongoing war in Gaza, the Hannah Arendt Center has decided to publish excerpts from the American Jewish Peace Archive — a project of Jewish American activist and oral historian, Aliza Becker, that is sponsored by the Center. Hoping to serve as a comprehensive archive of American Jewish activism on behalf of self-determination for both Jews and Palestinians, the Archive contains over 200 transcripts from interviews with U.S. and Israeli Jews whose activism spanned the years 1967 to 2017. Last week, we shared our first published excerpt, an interview with Robert K. Lifton who served as the President of the American Jewish Congress from 1988-1994. Lifton’s perspective, as a leader of mainstream American Jewry, provided a poignant viewpoint from which to consider the history of dissent on Israel within America.
This week, we are sharing an excerpt from a transcript from Becker’s interview with Arthur Samuelson, recorded in July, 2015. Samuelson has a long and deep relationship with Israel. In 1969, he went to Israel at just 17 years old, living for 6 months in Kibbutz Ein Gev. “I was drawn to socialism and I was drawn to the idea of the kIbbutz more than I was to being Jewish,” Samuelson told Becker in 2015. Jumpstarting a lifelong relationship to Israel, as both a state and a culture, Samuelson’s perspective is one that is timely and often sidelined from conversations within the diaspora today. “I identified with what Zionism meant in terms of reviving and preserving the Jewish people. The State was a means towards that end, but it wasn't an end unto itself to me,” he explained to Becker.
Samuelson went to Hampshire College, a year after the experimental college opened and created one of the first courses on the Holocaust, which received national attention. When the war came in 1973, he returned to Israel to help out on one of the kibbutzim he had been on, and then remained in Israel for three years, working as Assistant Editor for the Israeli peace magazine New Outlook, which served as a forum for Israeli doves, and was active in the left-wing party, Moked. In 1974, he went to interview PLO officials in Beirut as part of his undergraduate thesis on the development of the Israeli peace movement, and published an article in the Israeli press recording his experience.
Upon returning to the US, Samuelson remained engaged with Israeli politics, culture and activism, primarily as a writer for American magazines like The Nation and Harper’s, where he offered his perspective “to give voice to a [Left] opinion on Israeli politics, but also partially to protect Israel from an anti-Israeli Left.” He also became involved in Breira, a group active from 1973-1979 “which worked to promote discussion among the public about issues concerning contemporary Israeli politics such as the Palestinians, peace, Israeli-Diaspora relations, and alternatives facing the State of Israel.” Breira also became the first national Jewish peace group to endorse a two-state solution.
Though Samuelson has long stopped working on Israeli issues professionally, he remains a fervent reader of Hebrew literature and has spent a considerable amount of time in Israel. Recently, he found himself deeply engaged in Israel’s democracy movement, which emerged in reaction to the Netanyahu Government’s highly controversial 2023 judicial reform. Though that movement did not center the Palestinian question, its diversity and agility provided a “context for the peace movement [to hypothetically] function [in the future]” he told me on January 17th, 2024 — though the possibility of a future peace movement in Israel has been deeply challenged by the October 7th massacre and Israel’s subsequent military assault on Gaza.
Samuelson, who was in Israel on the 7th, explained this moment of Israeli political rupture to me clearly: “If before this, you believed that the Palestinians were not interested in peace, then what just happened proves you were right. But if you believed before this that there needs to be a Palestinian state, or this will happen . . . well, you've also been proven right.”
The following transcript pertains to Samuelson’s time in Israel in the ‘70s, when he was working in the country as a journalist. His reflection on being in Israel when Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat, spoke at the Knesset, provides a poignant space to reflect on a moment where the course of history was altered and new possibilities for peace were forged. Sadat’s speech at the Knesset, which took place in 1977, served to further the Israel-Egypt peace process, which would culminate in the signing of the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.
The following is taken from a conversation between Aliza Becker and Arhur Samuelson on July 8th, 2015. It has been edited for length and clarity. The entire transcript can be read here. It was recorded on July 8, 2015 and includes discussions of Samuelson's relationship to Israel as a young man, his travels in Israel in the late '60s and '70s, his involvement in the nascent Jewish Peace movement and Breira, his work as an American journalist in Israel in the '70s, and broader reflections on developments in Israeli-American discourse.
SAMUELSON: It was so different in 1975, 1974, where you had the Palestinians denying that Israel existed and the Israelis denying that the Palestinians existed. But even still, they knew each other in the West Bank. They talked to each other. They remembered each other from the Mandate years. I remember when I was living in Israel, I read Midnight's Children which is about the partition of India, which had Holocaust proportion of violence. And in Salman Rushdie's book, I was blown away by the hatred between the Muslims and the Hindus. It seemed to differ from the Arab-Israeli conflict, as it was called back then. They didn't hate each other. It hadn’t taken on this metaphysical hatred that religion now has done. It was a political dispute. It was a rights dispute. Now it's about God. That's pretty scary stuff.
The American Jewish Peace Archive is a project of Aliza Becker under the sponsorship of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. The Archive is in the process of being finalized for public view. For questions pertaining to the American Jewish Peace Archive or how to access interviews, please contact Aliza Becker at [email protected]
I ask myself sometimes: What if Israel had recognized the PLO beforehand? Would it have mattered? And in a certain sense it did happen. Oslo is what we were working for. And I know people who have stayed connected with this issue and believed in Oslo were really challenged by what happened. It challenged their opinions. Many of them have basically said that there's no solution. It doesn't matter what we do anymore.
I went back to Israel after Breira was sort of pushed to the wall. And I started writing magazine articles for The Nation magazine about Israel, partially to give voice to a [Left] opinion on Israeli politics, but also partially to protect Israel from an anti-Israeli Left. I got an assignment to write an article about why Israelis no longer believe in peace. And I got there and so did [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat, which was a little inconvenient for me at the time, but it was also an amazing time to be there. And I wrote these articles about what it was like being there at a time of miracle, when everything all of a sudden seemed possible.
I could have gone to the Knesset when Sadat spoke, and I was actually planning on going, but I decided at the last minute that I didn't want to go: that I could watch it on TV, and that it would be better to spend the time watching other people watching it on TV.
So I went to these two families that I knew. One of them was a Yemenite family; their grandparents had walked from Yemen. They had been involved with Begin all their lives. They were Orthodox, but I lived in their house when I'd come to Tel Aviv. They adopted me as a family. They didn't mind that I made a telephone call at Shabbat even though they didn't. They loved me. The fact that we had different political opinions didn't really matter in a lot of ways.
And so we watched Sadat's speech. And they could understand him in Arabic. And these are people who thought the Arabs all want Israel dead, that the Arabs only understood force. But they were really moved by what they were hearing. There was this moment where a kind of cognitive dissonance occurred; they're watching something that's not supposed to ever happen. They eventually snapped back into the old paradigm, but there was this moment that I captured that I wrote about where something that was not possible, seemed possible. And I was really moved by that.
And then I went to another family that I knew and they were Holocaust survivors. They were in the Labor Party and politically they were like, “If it'll give us peace, sure, let's get rid of the territories.” They just wanted peace and quiet. I watched the exact opposite response to the speech; the father started telling me this story, out of the blue, about having been involved in the war with the partisans and how he was betrayed by the Polish partisans who handed him over to the Germans or something: something happened that involved deep, deep betrayal. And I'm thinking, Why is he thinking about that now? Why is he thinking about distrust of gentiles; he should like [Sadat’s speech]! Because that stuff comes to the surface. I mean that was what was amazing. All these things were happening. And that was really profound. Everything seemed possible back then that doesn't seem possible now.