On January 11th, my mother, Ruth Epstein, died at the age of 100. She was born in 1915: World War I was raging, Woodrow Wilson was president, the typhoid epidemic was spreading and Congress rejected giving women the right to vote.
Her mother spent her early years in County Cork Ireland, being part of a large group of Lithuanian Jews who hired 3 boats to take to them to America, only to learn that the "goniffs" had dropped them in English-speaking Ireland instead. Her father came from Russia, and shared numerous stories with us - none of which were ever confirmed - of his exploits with the Czar. She was engaged in the world, offended by injustice and devoted to the state of Israel until her last breath.
Eighteen years ago, my mother's response to my sharing the news that I was to become the President and CEO of Americans for Peace Now was: "You know Debbie, if your father was alive today, he would be very unhappy with your choice of job". To which I responded, "I believe you're right. But given where he is now, I believe that he's thinking this is just what I ought to be doing." And thus began a long, challenging and inspiring dialogue between my mother and me on the topic of the state of Israel.
Israel - the dream and then the reality - was a fundamental element of my parents' lives. They believed deeply in the need and the imperative of a Jewish state. My father's cousin - Eliyahu Eilat - was the first Ambassador to the United States, then Ambassador to the UK, and then President of Hebrew University. My mother's uncle, Max Bobtelsky, was the head of the Chemistry Department at Hebrew University and has been credited with developing the desalinization project for Israel. Not unlike other American Jews of their generation, my parents invested in Israeli bonds, raised money for Hadassah, the IDF, Israeli war veterans and a myriad of other Israeli causes. And although my mother volunteered her time to many causes, none was as dear to her as Hadassah hospital, as evidenced by the fact that at age 94, she was still serving as her local Hadassah president.
In the early years of my tenure at APN, we pretty much agreed to disagree. Her view of the Jewish state remained almost unchanged from the dream envisioned and defined by Ben Gurion. Her Israeli narrative began with the holocaust, rejoiced in the founding of the state of Israel and celebrated the miracles of the 1948 war of independence, the Six Day War, the Entebbe Raid. My Israeli reality includes the occupation, the current assault on democracy and other intolerable actions by Bibi Netanyahu's right-wing government. In spite of our differences however, she never passed up an opportunity for me to speak to her Hadassah chapter or the residents of her senior living community each time I visited her in Florida. She kvelled at my presentation, in spite of having privately urged me the night before to "Please take it easy on the criticism of Israel" and, of course, to please keep my hair out of my face. It was always clear to me by the questions asked at these events that the Israel the participants were asking me about had not existed for many, many years. Although the guests were informed and well-read, articles or news coverage that they encountered about occupation, civil rights violations, or dangers of settlement were all dismissed as "unfair media coverage of Israel".
Our discussions were never easy. To understand why those of us at APN do the work we do requires first giving up the idealized view of Israel and recognizing modern day Israel with all of its warts and weaknesses, particularly those brought on by many years of occupying another people. This was a painful process for my mother. It requires viewing the solution to the problems facing modern-day Israel not as a zero-sum strategy, but as a way for both Israel and her Arab neighbors to live side-by-side in peace. It requires visualizing a Palestinian state next to the secure state of Israel. And it requires understanding that the best way to invest in a future for Israel that is as enlightened as its past, is to invest in peace. And furthermore, that peace will multiply the benefits of the good work of important organizations like Hadassah.
We didn't finish the work we were doing on understanding and accepting one shared reality as relates to Israel, though we made much progress. My mother did accept totally that I, and the leaders, staff and supporters of Americans for Peace Now, do the work that we do because we love and care about Israel and its future. And she understood, in spite of finding it very frightening, the urgency and sometimes rage in our tone and in our message.
Every year she wrote a check to APN to support our work, and one of her last generous expressions of her love for me was to tell me that she wanted to designate APN, along with Hadassah, for contributions in her memory. I believe that this gesture is a tribute to the difficult and critical work that the entire APN community does to ensure a future for Israel consistent with the values of this smart feisty woman whom I deeply miss.
President and CEO
Americans for Peace Now