Groundbreaking Israel-Palestine peace advocate Rosalie Riechman Pressman looks back (1968-77)

I started the American Jewish Peace Archive in order for Israeli-Palestinian peace activists today to know on whose shoulders they stand. My project is to collect their moments of travail and triumph as lessons for us today. I’ll begin with one of the few women activists during this period.
You’ve likely never heard of Rosalie Riechman Pressman, whose work in the early 70s reverberates today. She worked professionally for two secular groups: as a Washington lobbyist for the 100 year-old Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (1968-72) and as Middle East Peace Education Coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee (1973-75). Rosalie was also active in Washington, DC with Jews for Urban Justice and Tzedek Tzedek (1968-73) and served on the national board of Breira (1973-77). How many peace activists today even recognize those organizations?
Rosalie grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Northeast Philadelphia, and as a teen was a youth group leader in Young Judea, a left-central Zionist youth group. She spent a year in Israel (1962-63) after graduating from high school. She was also involved in Vietnam-era anti-war activities.
Here are just a few snippets from my conversations with her about the earliest days of Israeli-Palestinian peace work:
On bringing the first pro-peace Israelis to Congress

“In 1972 I started to introduce people on Capitol Hill to the wide range of thinking in Israel about how to achieve peace with Palestinians. This was a point at which the two-state solution was pretty much not even on the agenda. I brought MK Meir Pa’il to meet Senator Jim Abourezk, from South Dakota who was of Lebanese decent. My memory is of Jim bringing out his guitar and them singing together. Although their camaraderie was far from a high level political exchange, it was also deeply gratifying. I would replicate that in a heartbeat.”
On being a female leader in the 1970s
“I was not only the sole woman on the founding board of Breira, but I was also one of few who wasn’t a rabbi. The part that was difficult was that I was intimidated about speaking. I remember after one meeting being very, very unhappy with myself that I hadn’t said anything, and telling myself I was going to speak at the next meeting no matter what. I guess I didn’t even care if I had anything to say. I just wanted to prove to myself that I could hear my voice at that meeting. I did, and I was pleased that I did.”
On her greatest accomplishments
“I brought several people together who probably wouldn’t have otherwise known each other. Sometimes they were one-event instances that I believe made imprints that were remembered for years; and in other cases they were long-term and deep political and personal relationships. I introduced the Jewish journalist I.F. Stone to Kamal Boullatta, a Palestinian artist who lived in Washington. They both craved the human and learning experience that they found in each other.”
On what peace activists might find useful today

“Looking back, I was very self-righteous and always thought I was right. In truth, sometimes I was and sometimes I wasn’t. It’s very dangerous to think you’re always right, because then you don’t know the subtleties that you’re not letting in. Also self-righteousness can lead to bitterness and it’s toxic to live with bitterness.”
“Who wants to hear about patience? I mean I certainly didn’t want to hear about patience. But I would have been far less frustrated and maybe able to stick things out longer if I hadn’t needed results on my own timetable; if I hadn’t needed to see things done that really couldn’t be done; if I had had a longer view.”
“I remember a lot of dark humor about the Middle East, which really got a lot of us through a lot of very difficult things.”
A Grand Passion
“The passion that propelled me had a lot to do with righting wrong and making peace. But to the degree that someone has a passion for something even bigger or grander like Judaism itself, that bigger passion can cushion many frustrations.
“Listening is a very, very important act – one of the most important.”
Posts in this series include:
American Jewish Peace Activists Tell Their Stories
Jerome M Segal: Israel-Palestine Peace Pioneer

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.