Remembering Harold M. Shapiro, z"l

Harold M. Shapiro, President, Chair, and President Emeritus of the U.S.-based Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz USA) since its inception, died a year ago on February 28, 2017 at age 89. To honor Shapiro's life, we share edited excerpts from the American Jewish Peace Archive interview with his daughter Karen S. Shapiro, a Los Angeles-based film, TV and theater producer, about her father's work and how she is continuing his legacy.

Partners for Progressive Israel 2012 Israel delegation: Karen Shapiro is 2nd from right and her father Harold Shapiro is far right. Behind them is the late Theodore Bikel.

My father was a proud Jew. I remember him always wanting to support Israel, but while I was growing up, his caring was from afar. Every year he would donate to the Jewish National Fund. 

I believe my father's first trip to Israel was when we traveled together as a family in 1970.  We went again in 1975 when I was in college over the December holiday break. He didn't get personally involved until very close friends who lived in Be'er Sheva, invited him to come visit in 1990. This was soon after he sold his business, moved to New York, and found himself in an early retirement. 

My father's friend would tell him these horrendous stories about what was happening to the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank at that time. Dad's response was, "Jews don't do that to other people." Dad was a successful businessman in part because he cared about every employee who worked for him, no matter what job they had. He had an open door policy that people could come in any time to talk about anything. He treated everyone with respect.

This friend told my father, "Come to Israel, and I will show you. I will take you on a personal tour, and you will hear these stories." Dad went and was appalled by what he heard. He saw firsthand the effects the occupation was having on the Palestinians as well as its threat on Israeli democracy.  

This friend then took my father to Jerusalem where he introduced him to many political leaders including Shulamit Aloni, a member of Knesset who was the leader of Ratz, the left-wing party whose focus was on human and civil rights including women's rights, separation of religion and state and was against the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.  She asked Dad, "Would you form an American organization that supports us and the work we're doing here?" My father said, "Yes." 

Harold M. Shapiro with Member of Knesset Shulamit Aloni

My father along with Arthur Obermayer, Lenny Grob, and others founded two groups in 1990. The political arm, American Friends of Ratz, promoted the agenda and raised funds in the U.S. for the Israeli political party Ratz (it was legal then). The charitable arm, called the Education Fund for Israeli Civil Rights and Peace, supported the values of Ratz; human/civil rights at home and a just peace with Israel's neighbors.

My own pro-Israel activism started when my father started these groups. Israel was something Dad and I both cared about. We could do this together and be connected in our work. 

My father initially focused on raising money for the Ratz Party in Israel. He was a connector; he would connect people and resources. He brought his skills as a businessman to fundraising. 

The thing that I will remember most were the annual week-long trips he would organize to Israel. These annual symposiums were his pride and joy. He believed that there was nothing comparable to the actual first-hand experience of meeting and hearing stories from those in Israel and Palestine. Every day participants would go from eight in the morning until late at night. It was about learning what was going on in the trenches and hearing what we as Americans could do to help out. The schedule would always change based on what was relevant at the time in the region. Participants would meet with leaders of peace, human rights, education, and civil rights groups including a day in the Knesset meeting with leaders of most of the political parties, as well as time in Gaza and the West Bank. Sometimes my father would lead optional side trips meeting with the leaders in Syria, Jordan, or Egypt. For over 20 years, these symposiums gave participants a first-hand knowledge in a similar way to what he had experienced on his initial political trip to Israel.

Harold M. Shapiro with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat 

T he goal was to educate Americans so they would support a two-state solution along with civil and human rights in Israel, so that they would come back to the U.S. and be active;  engage in conversations with their friends about what they had seen and learned. 

My father had personal relationships with a lot of world leaders and they would often meet on these trips. He was on the White House lawn when the Oslo agreement was signed.

When Ratz merged with the Mapam and Shinui parties to form Meretz as a unified political party in 1997, I got a call from someone with Americans for Progressive Israel (the American support group associated with the Israeli political party Mapam whose origin dated back to an organization of graduates of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement in the 1940's ) asking why there were two groups with similar purposes working on behalf of Meretz.  Shortly after that call, the two groups merged as Meretz USA (changing its name to Partners for Progressive Israel in 2011).

My Dad was the biggest optimist you would ever meet. He always had the belief that Israelis and Palestinians could live side by side and care for each other as human beings and that Israel would welcome all people. He believed that Israel could be a state for Jews, as well as a state for all people. That was what he worked so hard for, that's what he dedicated his retirement to.

Harold M. Shapiro with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin


Harold M. Shapiro
On March 3rd, Partners for Progressive Israel produced "Celebrating Harold", an evening of music, poetry and 90 years of memories where people gathered and paid tribute to Dad. All of the entertainers including actors Tovah Feldshuh, Len Cariou and Barbara Barrie; Rumi-scholar, Coleman Barks; magician, Tom Verner; and musician, Timothy Frantzich shared their stories of Dad. The evening was filled with Dad's spirit in every way.  

From June 14-21, 2018, Partners for Progressive Israel will lead another Israel Symposium, this time in honor of Dad. One evening of the week-long tour will be devoted explicitly to Harold's memory, but the entire trip will be conducted in the spirit of what he envisioned as a gift to progressive Americans concerned with peace in the region and a humane Israel.  I will be on the trip and am looking forward to sharing the experience with new people who might want to get involved with Partners for Progressive Israel.  The organization will continue to inform Americans on the issues of peace, democracy, justice and equality in Israel and the territories it controls through all its programs.  I look forward to continuing the work my father started with vision, dedication and optimism.  Even though he is no longer here, I feel as though my Dad is watching over us and guiding the way.


The mission of the American Jewish Peace Archive is to document through oral history the accounts of Jews in the United States who have worked in support of Israeli-Palestinian peace and reconciliation since 1967, and in so doing, to facilitate dialogue and inquiry between the generations, to provide primary source material for scholars, and to provide guidance and inspire hope for the future.