William Berelson, who founded Mideast peace prize, dies at 90

Tiburon's William E. Berelson, a businessman who endowed a prize promoting Mideast peace and donated a soccer field to Israel's Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, died Sunday of last week at age 90.

Just a week before Berelson's death, the 1997 Berelson Prize for Jewish-Arab Understanding was awarded to acclaimed Arab poet Siham Daud, who translated a series of poetry from Hebrew into English and a play from Arabic into Hebrew.

Each year, a Ben-Gurion University committee awards the prize to a person who promotes peace between Israel and its neighbors. Berelson, a member of San Francisco's Congre-gation Emanu-El, held that cause dear.

"The message of peace was an idea very close to his heart," says Philip Gomperts, regional director of the S.F.-based American Associates of Ben-Gurion University. "He really believed that one day peace would come."

Gomperts describes Berelson as a dynamic man into his last years, an avid sportsman who inspired those around him with his love of life and enthusiasm for the causes he embraced.

"He was a true philanthropist," Gomperts says. "He didn't expect anything other than the furthering of his ideals."

Born in 1907 in the northern Chinese town of Yan-tai, Berelson spent much of his youth in California. He graduated from San Francisco's Lowell High School and U.C. Berkeley, one of several institutions he supported over the years.

After receiving a business degree from U.C. Berkeley, he and his older brother David returned to Tientsin, China to work for the Pacific Orient Company, an import-export business specializing in frozen foods that Berelson's parents Jacob and Sarah launched years earlier.

Thus began a career in international business that became a lifelong journey of travel and trade in China and the Far East.

But the Middle East — and the promise of peace in that region — also captured his attention.

"Because he was such a traveler both for business and personal reasons, he really understood and appreciated that different cultures could work together," says Susan Wolfe, former regional director of Ben-Gurion University and a longtime friend of Berelson.

The soccer field that he dedicated to Ben-Gurion several years ago served as a metaphor for the kind of constructive engagement he believed could one day occur in the region, Wolfe says.

"He hoped someday people would be battling on the soccer fields instead of on the fields of battle," she says.

"It was his fervent wish that he would do something to help in some small way advance the cause of peace."

A memorial service for Berelson was held at Congre-gation Emanu-El on Thursday.

Berelson is survived by his second wife, Dorothy "Dottie" Berelson; daughters Patricia Ross of San Ramon and Gayle Leventhal of Beverly Hills, both from his marriage to the late Rae Anixter Berelson; four grandsons; one granddaughter; one great-grandson and many other relatives.

The family requests that donations be made to the William E. Berelson Memorial Fund at the University of California, Berkeley Foundation, 2440 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, CA 94720-4200; the UC Medical Center Foundation for Cardiac Research, 505 Parnassus Ave., #1186, San Francisco, CA 94143; or the American Associates of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, 220 Montgomery St., Room 498, San Francisco, CA 94104.

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.