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Marty Federman, a quietly-inspiring leader, passes on

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Martin Federman, who died on May 10 in his late ’60s, was a legendary figure in the Jewish political world. A thoughtful, gentle man with massive shoulders and a soft voice, Federman came from a religious background and worked as a Jewish educator, leading the Hillel Foundation at Northeastern University in the 1990’s. Then trips to Israel and Palestine caused him to become disaffected with Zionism, and he began working to raise consciousness about Israel’s human rights record.

Federman’s message was optimistic. As he wrote after meeting young Jewish Voice for Peace activists who had been arrested in a protest against Benjamin Netanyahu six years ago, “There is hope for the future.”

For some of us aging ‘60’s activists who are sometimes jaded, tired and burned out this was like a powerful jump start. As one who sometimes despairs of who will carry on with our work, I have rarely experienced an elixir as powerful as these proud young Jews.  These are our children as well as our future and that makes us proud too.

“Marty was an important–central–figure in Boston’s Palestinian rights movement,” Steve Low writes. Low’s experience was like so many others: Federman took him under his wing and sought to explain the complexities of the American Jewish attachment to the rightwing politics of Israel.

Though Federman was a public figure, with a byline in Haaretz, he did not crave attention; and he was most influential in a soul-to-soul way. He listened, and he was forgiving. Phil Weiss met him during the Goldstone Report controversy and last fall at a house meeting in Lincoln. “I can still hear him clucking over Milton Himmelfarb’s mischaracterization of Jewish sociology and saying, The first thing I read in the morning is Electronic Intifada.”

What follows are Federman’s own bio at his blog, which he kept up in 2010-2011; remembrances by Rabbi Arik Ascherman and Nancy Murray; and Federman’s review of the movie Exodus at his blog, which reveals his wit, his honesty, his depth, and his loving spirit.

I have to acknowledge that I was also crying for the loss of my innocent past, a time when the story of Israel was simple, when I could count on the ultimate success of my heroic people.

From Federman’s blog, “About me”:

I come from a politically liberal, religiously right wing Conservative Jewish, Zionist background. Between college [major: religion] and graduate school [concentration: social ethics] I spent a year in Jerusalem. I became a Jewish educator focusing on Jewish ethics/values and the relationship of the Jewish people to Israel. By the mid 80’s I saw that these were on a collision course and became involved in the movement to end Israel’s occupation of Palestine. In three extended trips to Israel/Palestine I kept a journal that was, to my surprise, widely circulated.  A few friends suggested that I start a blog in order to go on observing what was going on in I/P and in the U.S. After some resistance I’ve decided to start this blog. Please feel free to read, think about and comment on what I write here – and, as my Grandma Gussie would have said: Enjoy!

From Rabbi Arik Ascherman:

This morning in Boston [Friday May 12] the funeral of my friend Martin (Marty) Federman is taking place. A few words of hesped:

Marty was a dear friend and dedicated activist, deeply committed to justice. For many years he managed to work within the mainstream Jewish community, while pursuing his vision of a just peace between Jews and Palestinians. He managed to confront and channel into positive activism his anger and distress over injustices perpetrated by the Jewish people, without becoming alienated from his Jewish faith, or losing his love, identification and commitment to Jews and Judaism.

Since the late 90’s, he was my confidante, who helped me understand the dynamics of the Boston area, and who opened many doors for me to the Jewish, activist, Christian and general communities.

He would often say to me that I managed to give him a modicum of hope, when he was filled with despair, and found it difficult to find cause for hope. I believe these were his parting words to me when I last saw him in February.

I recall what I believe was Marty’s last trip to Israel/Palestine. Despite his growing physical limitations, he simply refused not to take part in a demanding field activity. That was Marty, and that was his dedication.

If we are taught that a “Keter Shem Tov,” the crown of a good name, is the most valuable and only thing we can take when we leave this world, and that the one who will dwell in God’s Tent and on God’s Holy Mountain is the one who does what is right, and who sticks to his word and his principles, even if he pays a price (From Psalm 15), than we can believe that Marty is now in a better place, free of his physical ailments and where there is more consensus for his vision of peace and justice. If not, I am sure he is already organizing!

יהי זכרו ברוך
May his memory be a blessing.

From Nancy Murray:

I met Marty Federman in the fall of 2000, when he joined a delegation that I co-led to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  This was at a time when the Israeli repression of the second Intifada was at its peak.   Thinking back on it now, I realize it took considerable courage for him to make his first trip to the Occupied Territories under these circumstances.  I believe he wore his yarmulke throughout, which I also think was courageous given the fact that at the time he had not yet experienced the way Palestinians opened their arms and extended their hospitality to everyone, regardless of their religion, who visited them in good faith.

On his return, as Palestinians were being incessantly demonized in the media, it took both courage and commitment for him to bear witness to what he saw and learned, as he did in our group report-backs and other venues.

He soon joined the Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights, where he formed an especially close friendship with one of our members, the late Sherif Fam, with whom he had lunch on a weekly basis.  I think their relationship served to further broaden and inform the perspectives he had gained on the trip we made together and strengthened his determination to stand in solidarity and be counted.   And he did so, intrepidly, on numerous occasions: I believe it was at a protest on the Brandeis campus where he sustained an injury when failing (or refusing) to move in a timely fashion.

When I last saw Marty — about a week before his death — he talked enthusiastically about his move into a building on the edge of Harvard Square, a location that would enable him again to participate in the many events that were taking place in the area.  I still cannot believe that his steady – and steadying – presence is gone forever from our work and our lives.

Marty Federman’s review of Exodus: “Sailing with the Exodus– Again.” 

The other night I was “cruising” my non-cable TV listings and stumbled on a PBS showing of “Exodus.” I first saw this epic movie as a somewhat post-Bar Mitzvah young man with about six years of four day a week Hebrew School, confirmation class and a solidly Zionist family. I thought Exodus was wonderful. Whenever I speak to groups and talk about my background I say – only partly facetiously – that the two great heroes in my family/community were David Ben Gurion and Paul Newman.
I viewed the film at least one other time many years ago and, frankly, don’t remember much about how I felt except that it was very emotional. So now I offer this review, 50 years after Exodus first opened.
To begin with, despite the stellar cast and production group [Screenplay by Dalton Trumbo based on the best-selling Leon Uris novel; directed by Otto Preminger; starring Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, Sal Mineo, Ralph Richardson, Lee J. Cobb, Peter Lawford, David Opatashu and Hugh Griffith!] this really isn’t a very good film. The dialogue is stilted, sometimes pedantic and frequently preachy.  None of the actors quite overcomes the shortcomings of the script and, at 208 minutes [almost 3 ½ hours!], it’s not long enough to capture the enormous scope of the events yet too long to completely capture my attention.
Then there is the story. Every myth and stereotype is included before the heartbreaking last image fades.  The cast includes every “type” we need for a story like this: There is, of course, Ari Ben Canaan [Paul Newman] the ultimate sabra – hard and prickly as a cactus outside with a soul soft enough to ache for the wall between his father and uncle, and ultimately able to make room in his heart for the shiksa  turned pseudo-Zionist, Kitty Fremont [Eva Marie Saint]; Ari’s father Barak, the Ben Gurion figure [Cobb] and Barak’s estranged brother Akiva, the stand in for Irgun leader Menachem Begin [Opatashu]; the violently angry Dov Landau [Mineo] whose rage – and expertise with explosives – were born in the hell of Auschwitz where his life was saved by blowing up the bodies of his fellow Jews gassed in the “showers”;  the almost unbearably innocent Karen who is the only one who can break through Dov’s shell and, for the sake of the story, has to die; Taha, the “good” Arab, an almost brother to Ari, whose father gave Barak the land on which his village was founded and who, like Karen, must die, hung by the bad Arab followers of the Grand Mufti and a vicious German Nazi.
 And, as for the mandatory plot lines: a boatload of Holocaust survivors ready to give up their lives if they cannot go to Palestine; the charming anti-Semitic young British officer who is outsmarted by the clever Ari; the hostility between the moderate, heroic, good Haganah [represented by Ben Gurion/Barak Ben Canaan] and the extremist, violent Irgun [Begin/Akiva Ben Canaan], but even the Irgun is made up of well-intentioned, misguided Jewish heroes so even they aren’t terrorists [Dov, after blowing up the King David hotel, killing 91 people, reminds us: “We gave them three warnings. If they want their own people slaughtered that’s up to them”; the obligatory scene where the American Presbyterian Kitty first begins to understand it all as she sits on the hill overlooking the Jezreel Valley with an intense Ari, taking in the beauty of the resplendent view of the valley that the amazing halutzim [pioneers] brought, literally, to life [Ari to Kitty: “I know every tree we have planted here”]; teenagers carrying babies with taped mouths on their backs, in dead of night, to save them from the impending Arab attack; and, finally, Ben Gurion/Ben Canaan’s rousing balcony announcement of the UN partition vote, including a heartfelt plea to our Arab “brothers” to stay in their houses and stand with us to build the new nation.
So, here’s the point: everyone should take the 208 minutes to watch this movie. Exodus is the narrative of Israel that my my generation grew up with, never suspecting that any of it might not be true – and certainly unaware of any parallel narrative.  We on the “left” have appropriately demanded that Israelis, Jews and Zionists at very least listen to and acknowledge the Palestinian narrative.  It is just as important that we listen to and acknowledge the Zionist narrative. On the one hand it is only fair to listen to our adversaries and remember, myths are not always false. There was a Holocaust and centuries of the persecution is part of the Jewish experience. And there were Jews who thought they were developing a nation that would include all of Palestine’s people [e.g., Buber and Magnes]. We cannot diminish these realities nor should we.  But, if the morality of this isn’t persuasive enough, think of the strategy. How can we hope to reach our goals of ending the occupation and guaranteeing the civil/human rights of Palestinians without understanding what motivates those who stand in the way of those goals.
I can’t deny that now and again, as I watched the movie, I cried. I could chalk that up to the swelling strains of Hatikvah and the Exodus theme, both used to great effect throughout the film. But, if I am honest, I have to acknowledge that I was also crying for the loss of my innocent past, a time when the story of Israel was simple, when I could count on the ultimate success of my heroic people. For cripes sake: wasn’t Paul Newman there to make everything turn out okay?!?!


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6 Responses

  1. Froggy on May 14, 2017, 2:51 pm

    Goodnight, wise man. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest !

  2. gamal on May 14, 2017, 5:54 pm

    as the ignorant recite near death:

    “O God, forgive Marty and elevate his station among the guided. Send him along the path of those who came before, and forgive us and him, Lord of the worlds. Expand his grave and shed light upon him in it”

  3. echagop on May 15, 2017, 3:13 pm


    Marty was a decent human being who, painful as it was, was able to face the truth about Zionism and dared to share it with others. He faced true believers with gentle challenges
    to the given Zionist narrative. His courage and humanity were the hallmarks
    of his life.

  4. wondering jew on May 15, 2017, 7:09 pm

    He sounds like a very interesting cool guy.

  5. JLewisDickerson on May 17, 2017, 2:57 pm

    For cripes sake, indeed! And by the way, I think I detect a hint of Marty Feldman!

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