Larry Wolf, a musician who lives in Westchester County, NY, heads a chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace but only became an activist five years ago, during Israel’s assault on Gaza in summer 2014, when he was in his late 60’s. I interviewed him in June.
Q. It took you till 2014 to get on the Palestine issue, and I would never shame you because this issue is not going to go away until many other people make the transition you made. We can’t just wait for them to die off. So I wanted to quiz you about your mental process. What allowed you to go through that doorway so we can encourage such an epiphany for others.
Gotcha. I had a feeling that’s what we were going to discuss and I’ve been going through my entire background to see what I can remember after so many years. Israel had no interest for me at all growing up, even when I was in Hebrew school — Sunday school. And Judaism had very little interest for me. As a matter of fact as soon as I could get out of school after confirmation I was out of there. We’re going back to the dark ages. I was a sophomore in 1961 in high school.
But one of the things I remember from Hebrew school was that we would see movies of Holocaust victims. And then after that we would hear about bonds for Israel. Well obviously I mean the movies of the Holocaust victims were very shocking for a sophomore. The rest of it for the most part never took hold. But after I got out of high school I had nothing to do with any of it. As opposed to so many of people I’ve talked to since then: they had the struggle of how do I wean myself away from Zionism and how do I wean myself away from these myths, these stories that I’ve been hearing for my entire life. I never had that. My parents never talked about Israel. They never talked about Judaism. My father thought religion was a crock of shit; he said any God that would allow your mother to be as sick as she is [with multiple sclerosis] is no God at all–that was how he felt.
So it wasn’t really until 2014 when Operation Protective Edge came about. I had started to be in contact with high school acquaintances. We had a little blog and I would hear how horrible these Palestinians were. They were monsters. Second Holocaust here we go. I thought– Really? I’ve always been for the underdog and so for whatever reasons I just never could go hook line and sinker for the Zionist approach.
So I started to do some research. One person I read was Norman Finkelstein, and I got very taken by his articles. And a fellow I met was Bob Schaible, the head of Maine Voices for Palestinian Rights. He sent me a lot of articles and the first time we met we were together talking for six hours about this whole subject. And I began to look at What’s really happening here. And I was taken aback by the injustices of it all.
Your parents were both Jewish?
Yeah. My father’s family came from Poland. They moved here in the mid 1880s. So they escaped the pogroms and I believe that they were peasants, shtetl folks. My great-grandparents were pretty much Orthodox Jews. My grandfather was orthodox and became conservative. My father was raised conservative and became Reform. And my brother and I were raised Reform and we’re nothing. Basically unaffiliated.
Tell me about the high school blog.
I went to Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati. And before the 50th reunion the class of 1963 opened up a web page. Then one person had squabbles with how the reunion was being run, the anti-gay rhetoric, and he said To hell with all of you, I’m starting my own blog. And that blog consists of mostly Jewish kids with a few gentiles. We’re talking about 250 kids in the official site, and the little blog had 14 or 15 people. I was asked to join it. They’re all liberals. Very progressive in their civil rights. They’re PEPs. [Progressive Except Palestine].
And your gay friend is Jewish?
Yes and very pro-Israel. We do not speak now!
Do you remember the first incident?
That’s very clear. There’s a gentile member of this blog who went to Israel and saw the wall, and the backyard of Israel, and got castigated. It was a couple of years ago. He said peace has to come when everybody is free to go worship at the holy sites in Jerusalem, when Jerusalem is really open to all. One guy said, “You of all people should know better than to make that kind of statement. Since 1967 people of all faiths and everywhere around the world could come and worship the holy sites.”
And I said, “That’s bullshit.” I challenged him where no one else would. And by the way, there were a few critics of Israel’s policies in that high school class blog class but none, save yours truly, dared to stand up and challenge the Zionists in our group to any great extent. [Wolf wrote, in part:]
It is fact that Gazans and Palestinians from the West Bank are forbidden to travel to East Jerusalem to visit their holy sites without a permit from the Israeli government. It is also forbidden for Palestinians living in East Jerusalem to travel to Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank, without a permit. Unfortunately for Palestinian Christians, Easter coincides with Passover. Israel usually imposes a closure on the occupied territories during Jewish holidays, which means permits are automatically canceled and people with permits will not be able to cross checkpoints into East Jerusalem, which Israel considers part of its territory since it annexed it after its occupation in June 1967. Given that these permits are rarely if ever given to Palestinian Arabs for the purpose of visiting holy sites, I don’t understand the basis for your claim that people of all faiths have never been dealt with so equally and respectfully. And not only are Gazans denied permits to visit the holy sites, getting a permit to leave Gaza for medical treatment is also very difficult.
He laid into me. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” And he called my remarks anti-Semitic. That was the first time anybody ever called me antisemitic. That was the first real altercation.
So when that exchange happened you had become awakened already?
I had become awakened a good year before that. I’d already been immersed in it and belonged to Jewish Voice for Peace.
Was there anything about your remarks that might have been interpreted as anti-Semitic?
Oh no. I didn’t say anything except the facts. I responded [in part]:
You cannot dispossess hundreds of thousands and murder thousands of people (1947-49), steadily take away their land and bulldoze their homes (West Bank since 1967), imprison and starve their children (Gaza) and expect them to submissively accept it. Despite these facts of Israel, you prefer to be enthralled by a story/myth of Israel’s innocence and therefore are unable to see the true cause of Israel’s woes.
As to your judgment of my comments as anti-Semitic, save that judgment for when it counts. The continued misuse of the term Anti-Semitic renders the term meaningless. Does criticism of our American government make us anti-American or traitors? If not, then why are those, Jews especially, who criticize Israel’s policies labeled anti Semites? The fact that anti Semitism is on the rise and will continue to do so with the coming of the next administration makes it all the more imperative to differentiate between real anti Semitism that needs to be condemned as opposed to silencing people whose views on the actions of the Israeli government differ from yours. I for one will not be silenced.
To which another member of the blog responded:
You, sadly, have bought into a narrative that at its core is antiSemitism.
There are a lot of rancorous political discussions that happen online that don’t snag us. This one snagged you. Did what you saw in 2014 during the Israeli assault on Gaza play a part?
Yes. I can’t even call it the Israel Palestine conflict because Israel had all the guns and ammunition, and Palestine has nothing, but I would see on television or on websites where Gaza was just blown to bits.
Why didn’t it happen in 2008-09?
Because I didn’t pay any attention to any of it in 2008-09.
So it was this argument among people that you cared about that caused you to open your ears?
Exactly right. They would go on and on about these hideous monsters. And no forgiveness. I mean they were just the scum of the earth. There were three or four people that just went off on the Palestinians. They were terrorists, they didn’t deserve to live. Yada yada, doo-dah-day. And people said, you know, I’m concerned about Palestinians. Meaning they were pro-Palestinian and they were trying to understand the situation. But one person came on like gangbusters. She was basically shutting the blog down. You couldn’t talk about this. I asked myself, Is this really true? [An example of the argument a high school classmate made against Palestinians:]
Did you ever ask yourself why the Egyptians didn’t want Gaza back after the six day war, or the Jordanians didn’t want the West Bank back?
The first job of any nation is the security of its own people. If the United States found itself under constant threat of annihilation we would obliterate our enemy.
I am more than willing to discuss Israel’s shortcomings as well as its incredible discoveries and advances in so many of the sciences in its short existence if you and others like you would look at the rest of the world, especially the countries in the Middle East and make honest comparisons.
One conversation that got to me, I had lunch with a former classmate in New York city and he said, These Palestinians, they’re worthless people. What have they ever contributed to society. Have they won any Nobel prizes? Are they doctors? They contribute nothing. It was basically like talking to some southern racist about black people. And I was stunned.
Did you say anything?
I said, “I’m stunned.” I said, “How could you justify the taking of somebody’s land to form your own state? What justifies you to do that?” And he really didn’t give me an answer. He was very upset with me. This was our land since you know 4000 years ago. Yada yada yada yada. Also he’s a Holocaust-a-phobe. We suffered this, we suffered that. So I started listening to Norman Finkelstein. I started reading. I read Miko Peled’s book. I got pretty much through most of Ilan Pappe’s book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. The more I read the more interested I became in the whole subject.
What was your first Norman Finkelstein book?
I think “The Holocaust Industry”.
Who told you to read it?
Pat Hanna [a professor of linguistics]. She had the same views on Israel Palestine and was stunned by the attitudes of our classmates toward Palestinians.
Is she Jewish?
No. She’s atheist.
Can you give me a sense of what sort of political engagement you have had in your life?
Well being a child of the Vietnam age: civil rights, abortion rights, pro-choice.
Were you engaged on those questions, more than just an observer?
Other than marching a few times in the 70s or late 60s, I have not been actively engaged. Among friends I’ve been outspoken. But I never got up and spoke on a soapbox. I would say that this is really the first time I have taken such an active interest in anything political, to this extent.
How do you explain that?
I ask myself every day, and I don’t know if I have an answer. I will say this, despite the fact that I don’t observe Judaism, I don’t even know when the holidays are most of the time– there is something there that grabs me and I don’t know if it’s cultural. I don’t know if it’s Judaism itself. But I still have a strong, strong feeling about my grandparents and my great-grandparents being born in Poland. There’s something there.
And when my friend Pat came to New York from Utah, she loves the Lower East Side, and we spent the whole day down there. We went to the Bialystoker synagogue. It’s an amazing amazing edifice. And I would just sit there and I was just mesmerized by those places. Then Eldridge Street synagogue.
Are you moved to worship because of this?
No. Beside the fact that the Palestinians need equal rights– and that’s the whole purpose of my getting involved– there’s still a strong feeling that Judaism is at risk of losing itself, if it hasn’t already. The one thing that keeps us all together is one word, Torah. Without the Torah, what are Jews? Nothing.
But you don’t have Torah.
I don’t have Torah.
So you’re nothing?
That’s a very good question. This is what I am conflicted about. I know first place, I would not set foot inside a temple that flies the flag of Israel. And I don’t have any use for the way the religion is observed. You can teach a parrot how to say the prayers and you can teach a monkey how to drink the four cups of wine. Right? Basically the religious education was rote learning. You sit down, you do this. That’s not Judaism.
Torah is law. And don’t you ultimately have a strong sense of something being wrong, so that essentially is a question of Torah.
Well yeah I have a sense of something being very wrong. But then again what do I know? I haven’t been involved in anything Jewish for you know most of my life.
But right now Jewish is important to you?
Give me a minute. [laughing] Palestinian rights are more important. Human beings are more important.
What faith is your wife from?
And do your children have religious identity?
Do you feel bad about that?
I don’t. My wife does. My son doesn’t. When he got close to thirteen, he was going to a ton of bar mitzvahs, and he said, I want to get a bar mitzvah. I said, Why? And he hesitated. Oh, the cake and stuff. I said Well guess what, Sam you’re not getting bar mitzvah’d. If he had had a sincere and heartfelt reason for wanting it, he would have gotten it. But now he’s very happy he was raised without a religion.
What do you do for a living?
I’m a musician. Mostly classical. These days I’m an organist at St Barnabas Episcopal church.
You have been a keyboard man all your life.
What has your engagement on this question involved in the last couple years?
I’m actively involved with Westchester JVP. I serve as the chapter coordinator. To the extent that JVP Westchester is involved in supporting other groups like Wespac— I’m involved. I attend as many events as I’m able to to get to that support other groups. There are things I’d like to be involved with more. One of them is Birthright. Birthright seems to be a young man and young woman’s endeavor. So it’s difficult for older people to be on the forefront of that. But I need to learn more about the mechanics of what goes on in terms of opposing Birthright.
Do you have any advice for people who are not engaged?
It’s very important for other people to be engaged. And you’ve got to have an open mind. You have to read. So much of this is education. If you don’t know the other side of the narrative, you’re never going to move one way or the other. And I adhere to Gideon Levy’s words of wisdom. It’s not going to happen in Israel. It’s going to have to happen outside Israel. I am a supporter of BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions].
You’ve never been there?
No; and I hate to say, I have no desire to go there.
Why do you believe what you’ve read?
I talk to Palestinians. I talk to people who have been there. And reading material that I think is more factual from people who live there, the Ilan Pappes, the Avi Shlaims, the Gideon Levy’s– I have not found anything yet that I would question to any great extent.
It seems that the big change for you was the high school reunion blog.
I think part of it was working out in a strange way some unresolved issues that I had had toward this group of Jewish people that I had so-called grown up with. And I was working through things because I never felt part of this group, I never felt really part of the Jewish community. You know in the Jewish community in Cincinnati, it was really a divided community in the sense that there were the Russian Jews, there were the German Jews, and the twain hardly met. There were economic divisions. Certain people lived certain places, others didn’t. And I always felt that God forbid Hitler would come along, what difference does it make– a Jew is a Jew is a Jew. And it always bothered me, and I don’t know if I had a chip on my shoulder or I was trying to work through an understanding of this, but here is an issue that I began to realize, that this divided Jews from other Jews.
So I kept reading and reading and reading and I finally got to the point– I have no one to talk to about this. And I looked to groups. I was getting hungry to have conversations with people about all of this. I looked at J Street. And I chose JVP. So I called the national office and I said Is there anybody in my neighborhood you could direct me to. And they said well Priscilla Read and Bob Herbst. And so we had lunch together once, in White Plains, and Bob is asking me somewhat the same questions you’re asking me now. I started going to meetings and I listened and listened and it was nice to be around people who felt somewhat the same that I did.
Then a year passed and Priscilla asked me to represent the Jewish contingent to one of the state assemblyman, when they were trying to pass an anti-BDS bill. She also asked me to go to meet with some of the Board of Legislators in Westchester about their resolution. And so I went with her. I began to talk with other people, began to state my case. Then a couple of years later she asked me to meet at Kirsten Gillibrand’s office.
So I got involved more and more… I became chapter coordinator. I really don’t know if I did anything consciously, but I just knew the conscious thing was I wanted to be involved with people who were for Palestinian rights and were not afraid to criticize Israel for what they were doing.
Do you enjoy that public work?
If I know my subject and I am prepared. I do my best speaking for funds from the church [St Barnabas] when it has to do with Palestine… There is an organization from the diocese that’s called the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. I would invite people to come to our church from that group. I pleaded for funds for emergencies particularly the al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza. I had no problems getting up there.
You have a kind of a diverse religious experience.
My wife is Episcopalian. She is the warden of the church. I’m just a lowly organist and choir director.
In the divide in the Cincinnati Jewish community, where was your family? And were you the brunt of discrimination?
Good question and thank you for asking it. My father did not do well in business. My father was not considered by many standards successful. He struggled. I remember him walking and pacing the floors at night wondering where his next dollar was going to come from. So we were not considered financially elite. That was one of the circumstances. And my mother, for 21 years she suffered with multiple sclerosis. So that kind of put their social life on ice in many respects. I remember one affair that I attended. There was a wedding and my mother and father were invited. Everybody else was sitting with everybody else socializing, and my mother and father come, my father wheeling my mother, and they sat at a table by themselves. It broke my heart. Very few people came over to speak with them. It was painful to watch.
There were definite social divides. In the Israel question, we were the first generation after the Holocaust, World War 2, where many folks imbued their children with this loyalty to Israel… Bonds for Israel, these little tin boxes, the coin boxes, any money you can spare for Israel. That’s what we grew up with. A lot of the folks were very very pro Israel.
You put money in those boxes?
I didn’t. But I can picture them right now.
A lot of Jews have faced a great internal barrier, the concern that their family would throw them out, and they would face social ostracism or go against parents and grandparent. That caused Richard Goldstone, an eminent judge in South Africa, to sort of recant his human rights report on Gaza because he was becoming a heretic in the Johannesburg Jewish community. Did you ever fear the consequences?
I have felt at times fear of confronting people and getting called every name in the book– until I got called every name in the book and then it went away. They called me an antisemite, a self hating Jew. So maybe this high school group is a Petri dish for me really working out all those things. I got called an Aryan at the Westchester board of legislators meeting. This guy didn’t know me from a hole in the ground. He thought I was a Nazi. Here I am, a little Jewish kid from Cincinnati Ohio.
But this is 2019 and it’s not your first day at the fair. Now you’re engaged in this it’s fulfilling to you. It’s highly meaningful and you’re going to be around. What’s your age?
I’m 73 and will be 74 next month.
Are you an anti Zionist?
What does that mean to you?
It means that Zionism has nothing to do with Judaism. It means that Zionism has co-opted Judaism. The two things that Zionism has done: it’s destroyed the Palestinian community or it is in the process of damn near destroying it. And it is in the process of destroying Judaism, as I knew it.