Amichai (Ami) Kronfeld’s death on Sept. 1 deeply saddened the extensive group of his family, friends, and colleagues here and abroad. It represents a major loss to the activist peace community.
Ami was a very humane and effective worker for a just peace for Palestinians and Israelis, one of those who had been through a personal, philosophical, and political struggle with a very difficult past, with the horror and disillusionment he experienced as a young Israeli soldier in three wars (1967, the war of attrition with Egypt, and 1973).
For the past 30 years he worked tirelessly for peace in the Mideast, never losing hope, constantly writing, translating, and publicizing important information about the situation on the ground. Ami greeted pessimists with a brilliant wry skepticism that only he could summon: “Even the Holocaust came to an end,” he would comment, an observation that kept us focused on continued political activity.
His years with the Israeli army left him with absolutely no tolerance for war and military power. His devastating experience in three wars actually transformed him into an outspoken critic of Israel’s militarization of society and a fervent opponent of its brutal occupation and settlement of Palestinian lands.
His unstinting political activism reflected his passionate concern: as a founder and organizer of peace groups in Ithaca, N.Y., in the early 1980s; co-founder of American Friends of Yesh Gvul (There is a Limit, an Israeli organization formed by those who refused to participate in Israel’s war against the Palestinians); and other groups, including New Profile, an Israeli feminist anti-militaristic organization which, according to Ami, was “the first to focus on militarism and the cult of power as major threats to Israel’s moral and political survival” and Courage to Refuse, soldiers (Refusniks) no longer willing to carry out government policies in the occupied territories.
He was also a co-editor of the newsletter of Jewish Voice for Peace; and as one of the four who initiated Jews Against the Occupation, a Bay Area based campaign that drew several thousand signers nationwide to an advertisement in the New York Times. His e-mail messages and Internet columns during the Intifada constantly reminded us of the devastating cost of the occupation for both Palestinians and Israelis.
Speaking with his usual candor at a fundraiser in 2001 for Yesh Gvul and New Profile, Ami tried to explain his difficult transformation from military warrior into peace activist. He refused a direct order to execute an Egyptian prisoner of war in 1967, but, as he said, “saw dozens of captured Egyptian soldiers summarily executed, Palestinian women and children shot at just because they were trying to return to their homes in the West bank, young Israeli soldiers in Gaza harass and humiliate Palestinian men old enough to be their grandfathers.”
Although he believed the 1973 war was entirely unnecessary, he said, “I did what I was told and more or less followed the path I was expected to follow.” For years he struggled to understand why “I could not find it within myself to stand up and say hell no, I won’t go.”
“Given the uniformity of Israeli culture at the time,” he continued, “and my need to be a part of it, there was simply no way for me (and people like me) to resist the overwhelming pressure to conform.” His recognition of the terrible consequences that resulted from the confluence of uniformity, conformity, and obedience underscored his passionate and very vocal support of soldiers who refused to participate in Israel’s brutal occupation.
Ami saw in Yesh Gvul “the very first time in the history of Israel that soldiers dared question, collectively, the right of the government to use force whenever and wherever it felt like it. Yesh Gvul provides the absolutely crucial moral and social support for soldiers of conscience who, unlike me, dared to challenge the overwhelmingly powerful military establishment.”
In 2003, in an essay entitled “The Shoe is on the Other Foot,” Ami, a philosopher by training, provided a philosophical basis for his position: that one must refuse to recognize and accept the intolerable, even criminal, authority and power of those who rule. The growing numbers of soldiers of Courage to Refuse brought another wonderful moment of Ami’s needed optimism: “What does matter,” he wrote in that essay, “is the fact (and it is a fact, whether one likes it or not) that an ever expanding number of soldiers no longer unconditionally recognize the power of the Israeli army to tell them what to do in the Occupied Territories. If this trend continues, the government would have to change its policies, because, as Brecht would have put it, the government cannot fire its subjects and elect new ones to rule over.”
“It is important that the soldiers of Courage to Refuse understand how much power they wield,” he continued. “Not individually—as individuals each of them is powerless—but as a group.”
So Ami had mapped the terrain from his experience as a young soldier to the growing refusal to allow the government to take soldiers’ obedience for granted. Ami’s life and thinking delivers a powerful political and moral message that needs always to be remembered.
Amichai was born 1947 in Hadera, one of the first agricultural towns established in Israel and named for his uncle Amichai Honig, the first Jewish pilot from Palestine who died fighting with the British RAF in World War II. His mother’s family had lived seven generations in Palestine and Israel; his father’s family were founders of Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, part of the heroic saga of the building of Israel that Ami eventually viewed critically, partly because he had no tolerance for nationalistic jingoism, but also because he came to know the price the Palestinians paid for its fulfillment.
In his teens Ami moved to the nearby Kibbutz Gam Shmuel, where the leftist ideology of the day nourished his concern for egalitarianism, candor, and justice. He flourished as an accomplished athlete, musician, modern dancer, and writer, and developed a passionate commitment to critical thinking and political engagement. But his youth was interrupted in 1967 when he was drafted into the military.
Ami met Chana at Tel Aviv University where she was his teacher, and during their marriage of more than three decades, they shared a relationship in which each was both teacher and student. Their daughter Maya, now almost 20 years old, shares her parents’ critical, musical, philosophical, and literary interests.
Chana and Ami arrived in Berkeley in 1975, where he earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy and she in Comparative Literature. He taught at Cornell University where he earned a Masters degree in Computer Science, concentrating on artificial intelligence. His book, Reference and Computation: An Essay in Applied Philosophy of Language, published by Cambridge University Press, focuses on these two fields of interest.
After working for several years in the computer industry, he recognized that he could no longer be a part of the global corporate world and returned to Berkeley. He taught philosophy at UC, Berkeley and at Santa Rosa Junior College, and also returned to his life long passion, jazz, drumming with his band, “The Lincoln Street Brigade.”
Music and philosophy finally converged in the last project on which he was working: the congruence of the mathematical structure of West African rhythm and jazz with the harmonic structure of classical music. This work was interrupted by his death after a very difficult two-year battle with brain cancer.
Donations in Ami’s memory may be made to Jewish Voice for Peace (www.jewishvoiceforpeace.org).