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Remembering our dear friend Ambassador Sam Lewis

Wednesday 26 March 2014, by Communications and Development Office

Earlier this month we were saddened to hear of the death of Ambassador Samuel W. Lewis, an old friend of the community and a member of the board of the American Friends of Neve Shalom – Wahat al-Salam.

Our history with Sam goes back all the way to 1979. At the time, the community was still very young. It’s educational encounter workshops between Jewish and Arab high school students had just begun. This work began to come together at about the same time that the late Wellesley (Pinchas) Aron, learned about the village. Aron, a Rotarian, had been trying for years to establish peace work that would bring young Arab and Jewish students together and had initiated a peace education project in Jaffa. Nava Sonnenschein came from WAS-NS to observe his project and invited him to visit the village. He liked what he saw and in February brought a group of young people for an encounter meeting there.

Shortly afterwards, he was to meet Ambassador Lewis at a Rotary Lunch, and he in turn invited the ambassador to accompany him to WAS-NS. Like Aron, Lewis liked what he saw there and became a loyal friend of the village until the end of his days.

He became engaged very quickly. When the new School for Peace wanted to conduct a large encounter for young people but lacked chairs to seat them, he immediately despatched from the Embassy a hundred chairs. They served the SFP well for many years to come. When, in November 1984 the School for Peace opened new classrooms, Lewis joined the dignitaries for the opening ceremony. Over the years he donated thousands of dollars from his personal account to the village and spoke and benefit dinners and fundraisers across the United States.

Lewis was that rare diplomat who understood that in order to take root, peace depended no less upon educational efforts than upon diplomatic and political processes. Perhaps seeing the example of our village helped him towards this understanding. We cannot say, but the approach became a hallmark of his later work at the United States Institute of Peace and in other forums.

At the very least, it can be said that it took unusual foresight for the Ambassador to take an interest in our village when all it had to show was a few scattered shacks on a barren hilltop, and some fledgling attempts to gather young people together for encounter work.

We value the generosity of spirit and long-lasting friendship both of Sam and of his wife Sallie, who accompanied him to the village on many occasions throughout the years to come.

The full story of our first meetings with the ambassador is told below in the biography of Wellesley Aron, "Rebel with a Cause", by Helen Silman-Cheong, from Chapter 13.

The story is told in the first person by Aron:
[On the Thursday following an encounter meeting that Aron had arranged in WAS-NS] "I went to a Rotary lunch in Tel Aviv and there the newly appointed American Ambassador to Israel, Samuel Lewis, came up to me and asked me what I was doing. I looked him over and said that I didn’t think he’d be interested in my doings. He said, ‘How do you know?’ I replied that I had the feeling that he had other more important things to deal with, such as the political situation and so on. He insisted, ‘No, on the contrary, come and sit down.’ I sat down with him and told him. He said, ‘I’m fascinated and I believe that what you’re doing is most important and I would like to know more about it.’ Here was again a chance to find a friend. I invited him to come out to Neve Shalom one afternoon and see a course of instruction along with Arab and Jewish kids, all teenagers. He came out. He saw it. He said a few words of greeting and wished us well. He took me aside afterwards and said ‘I think your work is most important, most important.’ ‘Well’, I said to him, ‘Mr Ambassador’ ‘You call me Sam’ ‘What I am doing is rather basic. While you went to Camp David with the President signing the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, I was in your consulate in Tel Aviv. You don’t know that, do you?’ ‘No! didn’t.’ I went on, ‘While you were signing the formal peace treaty, I had a meeting in your library down below of twenty to thirty Arab and Jewish children, who were looking at video tapes that you have down there and are never used to help Jewish—Arab understanding. We had tea together, talked together and made friends down there. That, I think was the beginning of the infrastructure for the peace treaty and I think that’s important too.’ He agreed and offered his assistance. I said I didn’t know what he could do at the moment but that I was sure a day would come when he could be of considerable assistance.

"I had been trying for years to interest the Rotary Organisation and clubs in Israel in this concept of mine of peace education almost to no effect. Year after year at the District conference, I got up and asked for the floor when it came to international understanding as a subject for debate, and pro pounded my ideas and there was a tap on my shoulder and I was told to sit down. They said they liked me very much and I had every right to say what I wanted of course but I shouldn’t waste their time. Well this year at the annual conference in Netanya, when I finished my usual twenty-minute exposition, the chairman said that he wanted to say a few words. ‘I want to thank Wellesley Aron for persistently getting up despite the discouragement which he’s had from us and insisting that we should listen to him. I think the time has come to do something about it and I propose that we establish a Rotary committee to deal with this subject and investigate what can be done.’

"Well, I knew then that I had at last broken through. It had taken me fourteen years but it had happened. They formed a committee and Sam Lewis became a member of this ad hoc committee of the Neve Shalom Rotary project. They became a very valuable aid, because now we could reach out and find people who could help us to do something with the things we had in mind. One of the things Sam did was to talk with the Director-General of the Ministry of Education, asking him to be good enough to listen to me. Then he spoke to me and suggested that I prepare a written report of my work, which I did. I met the Director-General and gave him my report and thought that well, that will be about the end of it. It actually could have been except that Sam Lewis had some influence with the man and persuaded this man to go to Neve Shalom. I wouldn’t have him in my school because my course was SO experimental that it could break down at any moment and I didn’t want him to see it. To my astonishment Sam Lewis came with the Director-General Eliezer Shmueli. Those living at Neve Shalom involved in education were equally astounded. I had to find an important man to get someone from the Ministry of Education there. We had been trying to attract the Ministry’s attention for months and had got nowhere, now here was the Director-General asking what the Ministry could do to help. After a thorough review, it was decided that with the small amount of financial aid available, we would be subjected to so many controls as to possibly endanger the development of the curriculum. So we didn’t get very far with him..."

Sallie Lewis, Coral Aron, Sam Lewis
Sallie Lewis, Coral Aron, Sam Lewis, Abdessalam Najjar
Abdessalam Najjar, Sam Lewis, Sallie Lewis, Smadar Kremer, Nava Sonnenschein
At opening of new rooms at the SFP (Sam Lewis at center)
At opening of new classrooms at SFP, Sam Lewis at center
Ed Eisner, Nava Sonnenschein, Richard Dreyfus, Sam Lewis (USA)
Sam Lewis (left) USA

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