May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.
by Rabbi Burt Jacobson
Allan Solomonow was one of the most remarkable and courageous human beings I have ever met, and he was a personal hero of mine. Allan was one of the very first American Jewish activists to work on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. While there were prominent American Jews who opposed the occupation, it was Allan who initiated the first organizational effort to find a solution to the issue. He advocated for mutual recognition, dialogue between Israel and the PLO, commitment to non-violence, compromise, a two-state solution, and a nuclear-free Middle East.
In 1970 Allan, together with a number of Jewish intellectuals and academics, cofounded CONAME, the Committee for New Alternatives in the Middle East. This was the first American organization to focus attention on a non-violent solution to the Israel/Palestinian divide. Members of CONAME included Noam Chomsky, Paul Jacobs, Robert J. Lifton, Sidney Morganbesser, and Seymour Melman. Allan was the Executive Director of CONAME from 1970-74. CONAME eventually advocated for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, for encouraging mutual recognition, and CONAME pressed for an end to settlement activity and to U.S. military aid to Israel and the Arab countries.
Allan and his family came to the Bay Area in 1983 to become the director of the Middle East Peace Project of the American Friends Service Committee. This was the very same year that I was preparing to start Kehilla Community Synagogue, which would be the first synagogue to stand for a two-state solution. I started Kehilla, in large part, because of my standpoint on Israel and Palestine. With the radical views I held there was no existing synagogue that would have hired me as its rabbi.
Allan and I met in the mid-1980s and I found him to be a lovely and thoughtful man. We immediately discovered that our positions on Israel and Palestine were virtually identical, and over the years we supported one another in our work for justice and peace in the Middle East. We had both been mentored by Rabbi Everett Gendler, the father of Jewish non-violence. I learned a great deal from Allan. Early on I had been a strident critic of Israel, seeing things in black and white terms. Allan was a model of how to stay calm, how to speak from my center, and how to listen compassionately to those with whom I disagreed.
Allan and Ofelia soon became members of Kehilla. I recall one High Holy Days when Rabbi David and I decided to make justice and peace in Israel and Palestine the major theme of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Of course, Allan was our featured speaker, and his vision and his words were indeed powerful.
Allan broke through the constraints that kept opponents from dialogue. He was willing to speak with anyone and everyone in Israel, Palestine, the Arab countries, and the U.S. government. And he really knew how to listen. He had tremendous determination and patience, and was willing to dialogue in a respectful manner with those with whom he disagreed. He met with members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, including Yasir Arafat. He travelled a great deal to the Middle East, meeting with leaders in different Arab states.
Allan attempted to reach out to leaders in the American Jewish community, but for the most part he was turned down. Some rabbis were privately supportive, but they would not let their names go public for fear of losing their positions. Here in the Bay Area Allan was attacked over and over by the representatives of the Jewish community. In an interview in 2014, Allan said:
“Up until I retired from American Friends Service Committee, the Zionist community in the Bay Area had undertaken a project of getting me fired, which continued for 20 years. And it was very extensive and well-documented. I was at one time accused of being the person for whom Arafat is a puppet. They claimed that it was I who pulled Arafat’s strings and told him what to do, which is one of the most wild statements I can imagine.”
In the Jewish community both Allan and the AFSC were portrayed as demons. Allan said that, “We tried very hard and for a long time to get one of the Jewish organizations to invite a Palestinian to speak, and one organization finally agreed. And I drove him to the speech. And as we walked in the Israeli Counsel General was saying, ‘There is no Palestinian who wants peace.’ over and over again. And I stood up and I said, “We brought you a Palestinian who believes in peace. Do you want to hear him?” The Counsel General stormed out of the room. But the people who were there were profoundly impressed.”
In 2014 Allan was interviewed by Aliza Becker, the director of the American Jewish Peace Archive. Toward the end of the interview, Aliza asked Allan how he saw the future.
“Probably almost as dismal as I have ever been. People are beating at the doorposts only to say, ‘They’re bastards! No, no! They’re terrorists! No, no, they are after us! No, no! There have always been anti-Semites!’
“I am saddened to see millions of dollars going into the well of stopping BDS—Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel. We’ve had so many years of conflict, we’re finding it hard to move out of the quicksand. Let no one speak of demonizing BDS unless they have another idea or another non-violent answer to ending the deadlock. Everything I am hearing from Israel and from Palestine is that people are becoming more divided. They are more brittle in their views. They are less open-minded.”
Speaking to Allan the past few years I found him morose about the situation. It is a bleak time for Palestinians and for Jewish activists in Israel and the U.S., as a right-wing government in Israel, whose actions are still determined by the trauma of the Holocaust and two millennia of anti-Semitism, continues to oppress the Palestinians.
In her 2014 interview, Aliza Becker asked Allan what advice he had for young activists today.
“First of all, follow your conscience. Don’t make up excuses not to act. Act when you’re moved to do so. And admit when you’re wrong. You can learn from making mistakes and taking chances.
“I think second is to always be courteous, open minded, and receptive to the people you deal with. Never turn away from what they are telling you. When you hear what they are saying ask yourself, would this be good, would it move things in a positive direction?
“And finally, if I can take a lesson from the Presidential campaign right now I would say the last thing in the world we need is more labels, more categories, more seemingly sensible excuses. We don’t need simplistic answers: ‘Let’s go and bomb them! Let’s take their oil! Let’s build a wall!’ Anyone who comes up with something like this deserves to be interrogated. We need to pay attention, to listen to one another better. And we need more kindness.”
In the story of the Exodus it is Moses who takes the starring role, for Moses represents the quest for liberation and justice. But in later rabbinic literature, Moses’ brother, Aaron, is given as much prominence as Moses. Aaron, the high priest, is lauded by the rabbis because for him peace between people was central. Unlike Moses, Aaron was willing to compromise for the sake of peace. And he would do whatever he could in order to get people who were struggling with one another to sit down together and forge a common vision. Hillel the Elder taught: “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving humankind, and bringing them near to the Torah.” (Pirkei Avot 1:12) In the American Jewish movement for peace between Israel and Palestine, Allan Solomonow was our Aaron.
Allan’s efforts were not in vain, for he touched the lives of so many people who became advocates for justice and peace in the Middle East. In the Talmud we are told, “Bamakom asher ain anashim, hishtadel li’hi’yot ish . . . In a place where there are no mensches, strive to be a mensch.” That was Allan Solomonow. Our deep hope is that Allan’s vision will one day become a reality. Kain y’hee ratzon, may it be the divine will.