It was a simple death notice in the Washington Post: “Author, and Middle East expert, Alfred M. Lilienthal, age 94, died peacefully Monday, October 6, at his home in Washington, D.C.”
He may have died peacefully, but Alfred’s life was hardly peaceful. I know because I was his cousin, as well as his friend.
From the time Reader’s Digest published his article “Israel’s Flag Is Not Mine” in September 1949, Alfred became known as America’s leading Jewish anti-Zionist. He spent his entire professional life in a one-man crusade against Israel.
He was the first Jew to be formally invited to Saudi Arabia by the founder of the Saudi state, King Ibn Saud. He was a friend and supporter of Yasser Arafat and treasured a photo, hung prominently in his study, inscribed by Arafat: “To Al-Farid” (“The Unique”). His first book, “What Price Israel?”, became a best-seller. As a Jew who championed the Arab cause, he was a hero in the Arab and Muslim world.
Alfred once worked for the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism. They let him go because his views were so passionately pro-Arab and anti-Israel that even fellow ACJ members were offended. In later years, he offered to endow a chair at one of his alma maters, Cornell University. But he attached so many strings that Cornell turned down the gift.
He spoke at anti-Zionist gatherings in Libya and Iraq in the 1970s, and championed the United Nations “Zionism is racism” resolution in 1975. Sadly, he also became involved with Holocaust deniers, going so far as to write, “‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ may be a fraud. … Any informed literary inspection would have shown it could not possibly have been the work of a teenager.”
Alfred loved San Francisco and traveled to the city with great frequency. As his own activism increased, San Francisco was a natural destination as it was a center of anti-Zionism. The ACJ claimed that one-third of its national membership was from San Francisco.
The Lilienthals of San Francisco always embraced Lilienthals from New York as family. No matter how distant the relationship, a cousin was a cousin and was embraced immediately. Alfred was a frequent guest at family dinners. Whether he was at 2007 Franklin St., the Haas-Lilienthal House, as the guests of Aunt Alice and Uncle Sam Lilienthal, or at my grandparents’, Florine and Edward Bransten, at 1735 Franklin St., Alfred was always welcome.
When Alfred came to San Francisco in the late 1970s I went to hear him speak at San Francisco State University. We had a wonderful meeting and developed a genuine friendship. He inscribed all of his books to me with great warmth. We both understood the great divide that separated us ideologically, but found that we enjoyed our discussions.
On one memorable occasion I was attending an American Zionist Youth Foundation conference in our nation’s capital, and brought some of America’s leading college and university Zionist activists to Alfred’s apartment to meet with him and to debate a clear and present nemesis. We all had an unforgettable experience with America’s leading Jewish anti-Zionist.
We certainly were an odd couple, a Zionist and an anti-Zionist. Alfred once described me as “the young energetic head of the Zionist movement in San Francisco … a nice guy, despite his views on Israel.” Over the years, our relationship deepened. In 2001 he wrote an autobiographical play titled “The Apostate.” In this dramatic presentation of his life and views, he chose to make me his foil.
Alfred and I debated about Zionism, Israel and our identity as Jews with great passion, in public and private, but we never said a harsh word to each other. We understood that we viewed our passionately held convictions through completely different eyes. We agreed to disagree agreeably.
This was remarkable, because Alfred was not an easy-going man. He spent his entire life trying to prove that he was right. However, the passion of his life, his anti-Zionist crusade, proved to be a failure.
I once wrote him, “My dear Alfred, you are a sincere and dedicated exponent of your position. The fact of the matter is that history and reality have nullified your position … [It] is an anachronism.”
On a personal level, I will my miss my cousin Alfred. We enjoyed each other’s company. As for his positions on those vital issues we debated through the decades, I am glad his views did not prevail. My hope is that Alfred will find the peace in death he failed to achieve in life.
John F. Rothmann is a talk show host on KGO 810 AM and is on the faculty of the Fromm Institute at the University of San Francisco. He served as president of the Zionist Organization of America in San Francisco.