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In Memoriam: Stanley Sheinbaum

Bennett Muraskin
September 28, 2016

(JUNE 12, 1920--SEPTEMBER 12, 2016)

by Bennett Muraskin

STANLEY SHEINBAUM is proof positive that there is such a thing as a progressive millionaire. (Julius Rosenwald and Edward Filene are other examples.) In a career that spanned over five decades, he secured the release of a leftwing political prisoner in Greece; raised funds for the defense of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times; met with Yasir Arafat to convince him to renounce terrorism and recognize the existence of Israel; led the campaign to oust Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates when his subordinates beat Rodney King; and helped convince the University of California to divest of its holdings in South Africa. He was also a major fundraiser for Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, John Anderson, Jesse Jackson, and Bill Clinton.

Sheinbaum's origins were humble. He was a child of the Depression in New York City who did not complete high school until 26 and barely got into college. Yet he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in economics from Stanford University and then won a Fulbright scholarship to study international finance in Paris.

By the mid-1950s, Sheinbaum was on the faculty at Michigan State University. Assigned to coordinate a technical assistance program for the South Vietnamese government, he discovered in 1959 that it was a front for the CIA and quit. Several years later, in 1967, he spilled the beans to journalist Robert Scheer and they co-authored an exposé that appeared in the influential New Left magazine, Ramparts.

Scheinbaum then became an active opponent of the U.S. war in Vietnam, speaking at anti-war teach-ins and twice running for Congress on an anti-war platform. This led to his work on behalf of Daniel Ellsberg, for whom he assembled a team of attorneys and raised $1 million for his legal defense. (The charges were dismissed after revelations that President Nixon operatives had broken into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office.)

Sheinbaum also raised funds for the Southern California ACLU, enabling it to pursue cases promoting school desegregation and curbing the use of excessive force by the LAPD.

DURING his ten-year stint with the ACLU (1972-1982), Sheinbaum was appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to the University of California Board of Regents, where he led a divestment campaign against South Africa for its racist policy of apartheid. In the early 1990s, he was appointed acting Los Angeles police commissioner by Mayor Tom Bradley. Sheinbaum reformed police practices in the aftermath of the notorious beating of Rodney King. In this capacity, he once entered a park and defused a confrontation between the police and protesters, which involved gang members and could easily have escalated into violence.

On the electoral front, Sheinbaum's cocktail parties in his spacious Orange County home brought together Hollywood stars, activists, and aspiring candidates to raise money for progressive causes. He also collaborated with Norman Lear (creator/producer of television's All in the Family) to create People for the American Way, a bulwark against the radical right on social issues.

Perhaps Sheinbaum's most courageous and controversial act was his trip to Stockholm, Sweden in 1988, heading up a delegation of American Jews whose goal was to lay the groundwork for peace talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. The result was PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat's agreement to renounce terrorism and recognize the State of Israel, which led to the 1993 meeting on the White House lawn and the famous handshake between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin paid the ultimate price for his gesture of friendship when he was assassinated. Sheinbaum was vilified for placing his arm around Arafat's shoulder, but defended his action, declaring: "I think I did something that I would have done for any people, if I had the opportunity. And in this particular instance, I did it for Israel . . . These are my people and I'm not going to walk away."

Sheinbaum's fortune came from marrying into the Warner Brothers family and from smart investments. In 2012, he published a memoir with a grandiloquent title: Stanley K. Sheinbaum: A 20th Century Knight's Quest for Peace, Civil Liberties and Economic Justice. He earned it.

Bennett Muraskin conducts the "In Memoriam" column for Jewish Currents and is a contributing writer to our magazine. He is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.