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April 29, 1927 - August 27, 2008
Abraham Jacob Nathan was a free spirit and a visionary. In 1966, as tensions mounted between Israel and Egypt, he flew a small plane named “Shalom One” to Egypt to discuss peace with Egyptian President Gamel Abdul Nasser. Nathan attempted to repeat the deed in early 1967, shortly before the outbreak of the Six Day War. Turned away by Egypt, he was arrested by Israel and imprisoned for forty days. During the 1980s and early ’90s, he served two more prison sentences for defying Israeli law by meeting with Yasser Arafat and other PLO leaders. Nathan put his life on the line by going on hunger strikes in 1978 and 1991 to protest the building of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and to urge direct Israeli talks with the PLO. Near starvation, he asked that his epitaph be “Nisiti” — Hebrew for “I tried.”
Nathan was born in Iran into a wealthy family and educated in Bombay, India. He joined the British Royal Air Force at age 16 and served as a fighter pilot during World War II. He emigrated to Israel in 1948 and immediately volunteered for military service as a fighter pilot for the nascent Israeli Air Force. He settled in Tel Aviv, where he owned an art gallery and then an American-style restaurant popular with the bohemian crowd. Some credit him with introducing the hamburger to Israel.
In 1965, he entered public life by running (and losing) for the Knesset on the pledge that he would fly to Egypt on a peace mission. But he signaled his devotion to peace much earlier. After visiting several of the Arab villages that he bombed in 1948, he expressed shock over the damage he had caused and befriended many Arab civilians.
After his unsuccessful forays into Egypt, Nathan purchased a freighter, installed radio equipment and named it “The Peace Ship.” It was partially funded by former Beatle and peace activist John Lennon. Nathan positioned the ship in the Mediterranean off Tel Aviv and, in 1973, he began broadcasting mainly in English as the “Voice of Peace.” In addition to featuring news in Hebrew and Arabic, the station interviewed celebrities and became the first in the region to play rock music.
During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, he used “Voice of Peace” to appeal for a ceasefire. In 1977, before Israel and Egypt began negotiations leading to the Camp David accord, he sailed “The Peace Ship” through the Suez Canal and distributed candy and toys to Egyptian children. Later that year, he met with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who initiated peace talks with Israel.
In 1993, Israel repealed the law under which Nathan had been prosecuted for consorting with the enemy. The government negotiated directly with the PLO and signed the Oslo accords. Nathan used this opportunity to scuttle his Peace Ship/radio station, which was also in financial and legal difficulty. In 1996 and 1998, Nathan suffered strokes that caused partial paralysis and deprived him of speech. He lived in a nursing home until his death.
Nathan never identified with any political party. Uri Avnery, a close friend and one of Israel’s most radical peace activists, commented upon his death that “Abie did not address people’s minds, but rather their hearts. He wanted to bring peace, and did that through feeling.” Nathan organized aid to refugees victimized by war, famine and natural disasters all over the world. He participated in some of these relief missions himself, in Lebanon, Biafra, Cambodia, Nicaragua, and, most recently, for Rwandans stranded in Zaire. Nathan was affiliated with the Sarvodaya International Trust for Peace, an Indian-based multi-faith organization dedicated to Gandhian principles of non-violence and universal human rights.
November 7, 1926 - January 26, 2008
A towering intellect of the anti-communist left, Abraham Brumberg was born in Palestine — an odd place for a son of a leader of the Jewish Labor Bund, which was famously anti-Zionist — but his family returned to Poland when he was a young boy. He attended a Bundist elementary school, where he imbibed a heady mix of socialism, Yiddish and secularism. “We were taught,” he wrote, “to admire socialists like Karl Kautsky and Jean Jaures, and to condemn Vladimir Lenin, once a good socialist who had gone dreadfully wrong . . . in . . . setting up a dictatorial state that in time became more anti-working class than many capitalist countries in Europe.”
After the outbreak of World War II, his family escaped to Vilne, which soon became part of Soviet-occupied Lithuania. A Bundist militant who did not accept Soviet rule could not long survive there, which prompted the family to flee across Russia to Japan, with the help of Chiune Sugihara, and onward to the U.S. in 1941. Others in Brumberg’s family were not so lucky: Most of his mother’s family fell victim to the Nazis, and his grandfather and two uncles were executed by the Soviets.
Brumberg served in the U.S. Army in World War II and used the GI Bill to acquire a college education. He received a bachelor’s degree in social science from City College in 1950 and a master’s in Soviet studies from Yale University in 1953. While there, he interned for the U.S. Information Agency and, much to his surprise, was offered the editorship of its new journal, Problems of Communism. He remained at its helm for eighteen years, until 1970. Although a U.S.-government publication, it was quite open to a range of interpretations of Soviet-style communism, rejecting the approach that depicted the Soviet Union as a static totalitarian monstrosity.
Brumberg clearly chose the U.S. camp in the Cold War, but said that he “had no sympathy for its ideological simplifications, nor for the idea that it should be supported by military means . . . by propping up unsavory albeit ‘anti-communist’ foreign leaders” or by engaging in CIA “dirty tricks.” From 1972 until his retirement in 1980, he ran the U.S. Information Agency’s research department, but clashed with the agency’s leadership over their conservative bent.
His writings appeared in the New York Review of Books, The Nation, Dissent, Foreign Affairs, The Economist, The New Republic and the Times Literary Supplement. He wrote a memoir, Journeys Through Vanishing Worlds (2007) and edited numerous anthologies focusing on reform movements in the Soviet Union and communist Poland.
In 1999, he wrote a long article for Jewish Social Studies on the history of the Jewish Labor Bund that examined its strengths and weakness. He encapsulated its unique characteristics as devotion to the Jewish working class, to democratic principles, to Jewish solidarity and to Yiddish culture. He emphasized that the Bund’s lasting legacy is the principle of do-ikayt (hereness), which affirms the necessity of cultivating strong Jewish communities in the countries where we live.
An accomplished singer, Brumberg collaborated with “labor’s troubadour” Joe Glazer on an album, My Darling Party Line (1968), which satirized communist conformity. He was a devoted Yiddishist and made two Yiddish-language albums: Of Lovers, Dreamers and Thieves: Yiddish Folk Songs from Eastern Europe (1981) and The Many Faces of Yiddish Poetry (2001). Brumberg also wrote Yiddish articles and poetry and acted and directed in the Yiddish theater.
October 15, 1915-April 6, 2008
The veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade have lost another comrade, Abe Osheroff, who died at 92 in Seattle, three days after speaking at the dedication of America’s first monument to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in San Francisco. The monument includes a quote from Osheroff that summed up his life: “If you look out the window and see a hungry emaciated child and do not feel a desire to do something to make the world a little better — then you are not a complete human being.”
He was born to Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants in New York City and graduated from City College. He was a radical even before the Great Depression. By 16, he had been arrested and beaten by police for fighting against tenant evictions. Four years later, he was organizing steel workers in Ohio and coal miners in Pennsylvania. Along the way, he joined the Communist Party. In 1937, after seeing a newsreel of German warplanes destroying the Spanish city of Guernica, he volunteered to fight with the Abraham Lincoln Brigades to defeat fascism in Spain. He was wounded in the Battle of Belchite. Nine hundred out of the three thousand volunteers did not make it back alive.
In 1940, Osheroff ran for the New York State Legislative as a Communist Party candidate. As soon as the U.S. entered World War II, he volunteered for the Army and fought in Europe. After the war, he taught at the Jefferson School of Social Science. In 1951, he went “underground” to escape potential arrest during the McCarthy period.
He quit the Party in 1956, after the Khrushchev revelations about Stalin’s murderous regime. Moving to Venice, California, he organized against real estate developers to protect the Venice canals. In 1964, at a critical juncture in the civil rights movement, he went to Mississippi for Freedom Summer and helped build a community center for Black people. His car was firebombed. In 1985 he traveled to Nicaragua to support Sandinista social policy and help build cooperative housing for peasants.
Relocating to Seattle in 1989, he joined that city’s anti-war movement and, despite failing health, became deeply involved in protesting the U.S. war in Iraq. In 2006, he was arrested at a sit-in.
Osheroff’s documentary film about fighting fascism in Spain, Dreams and Nightmares, was released in 1974. A second film, Art in the Struggle for Freedom (2000), has been shown at many universities and high schools.
Bennett Muraskin is the author of Let Justice Well Up Like Water and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore. A key activist in the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, he conducts the “In Memoriam” column for Jewish Currents.