Jewish Journal

Fighter for Justice

Inventor and survivor Arthur Stern says his views on Israel make him feel like a community outcast.

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Jan. 30, 2003 at 7:00 pm

Arthur P. Stern's life is the stuff of young immigrant-makes-good legend. At 77, the white-thatched grandfather can look back on a brilliant engineering and business career, highlighted by path-breaking inventions and the plaudits of American and Israeli generals for his contributions to their nations' defenses.

So why does the former yeshiva student, Holocaust survivor and ardent Jewish activist, interviewed in his well-appointed Beverly Hills home, feel like an outcast in his own community?

One answer is that the outspoken views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the lifelong progressive run directly counter to those of most of his fellow American Jews.

His world outlook, he said, is propelled by a "naive, emotional sense of justice.... I think it comes out of the Holocaust tradition. I know what injustice is, and I don't want any part of it.... I like my people to be a just people. I am against oppression and exploitation, and I don't care if the oppressed are Jews or Palestinians, or whatever."

Stern was born in Budapest, a descendant of a long line of rabbis and the son of a wealthy lumber merchant, who was a leader of Hungary's Orthodox community. He was educated in both yeshivot and secular schools, and in 1938, he and his brother, like other children of Hungary's Jewish elite, were sent to an Orthodox boarding school in Switzerland.

In September 1939 and the outbreak of World War II, the Stern brothers and their Hungarian classmates returned to Budapest under the parental assumption that Switzerland would soon be invaded and crushed by Hitler's armies, while Hungary would remain neutral.

It was a double miscalculation, but for a while, his life continued almost normally. Stern, like all other young Jewish males over 14, had to report once a week for forced labor mandated by a 1939 law, but he continued to study in yeshivot and secular schools.

As late as the fall of 1943, while the Holocaust was raging in other parts of Europe, Stern began to study law at the University of Budapest, which strictly limited the number of Jewish students in the best of times. The situation changed abruptly on March 19, 1944, when the Germans occupied Hungary, bringing with them SS Col. Adolf Eichmann to organize the deportation of the country's 800,000 Jews.

One of the leading Jewish figures in Budapest was Rudolf Kasztner, a Zionist leader, whom Stern knew well. In a still-controversial episode, Kasztner tried to barter with Eichmann for the lives of 1 million Jews in return for 10,000 trucks and other war materials for the German army, to be arranged through Jewish organizations abroad.

As a token of their earnestness, the Nazis, on June 30, 1944, loaded 1,684 Jews, including 20 members of the extended Stern family, on cattle cars, with the promise that they would be routed through France to neutral Spain. Instead, with the Western allies breaking out of their Normandy invasion beachhead, the train unloaded its cargo at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The new arrivals enjoyed certain perks, such as not having to work, but Stern vividly recalls the constant hunger.

In early December, there was another reversal of fortune. SS Reichsfuehrer Heinrich Himmler had begun to send out surreptitious peace feelers to the Western allies and, as a goodwill gesture, ordered the bulk of the original Kasztner contingent, including the Stern family, to be sent to Switzerland.

At a final roll call at Bergen-Belsen, the commandant called for 30 young volunteers to step forward to load the baggage for the transport, and Arthur Stern stepped forward.

"Actually, we thought we might end up in Auschwitz," Stern recalled.

As the train neared the German-Swiss border, the Nazis ordered one Jew and one German, in civilian clothes, to count the number of Jews in each compartment.

Stern was selected for his compartment and as the train continued on to the Swiss border, he fell into conversation with his German counterpart. Stern told him about the suffering of the Jews, and the German responded that his parents' home in Hamburg had been destroyed by Allied bombers and that the German people were suffering, too.

"Then I did something for which I will never forgive myself," Stern said. "I expressed my regrets to the German for his suffering. That was a cowardly thing to do on my part."

After spending four months in a Swiss refugee camp, Stern entered the University of Lausanne as an architecture student. He switched to electrical engineering, graduating with the equivalent of a master of science degree from the prestigious Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in 1948.

While studying, Stern earned some extra money as a bridge instructor and found among his students Edith Samuel, whose family had left Germany after Kristallnacht in 1938.

"She was never that good a bridge player, but she had other merits," Stern said, and four years later they were married.

In 1951, the U.S. immigration visa, for which his parents had applied six years earlier, came through. Stern arrived in New York and almost instantly received job and university scholarship offers.

He signed on with General Electric in Syracuse, N.Y., to launch an astonishing career. He was a member of the team that developed the U.S. color television system and co-invented the single-gun color picture tube.

In 1953, GE named him project engineer for a one-year crash program to develop the first transistor radio. He finished the job in 10 months.

"Suddenly, I was famous; suddenly I became a macher," Stern said.

After more pioneer work in solid-state circuits and microelectronics, he joined the Martin-Marietta Corp. in Baltimore as head of its electronics division. In Baltimore and at the company's Bunker-Ramo subsidiary in Canoga Park, Stern led the development of advanced mobile missile systems, command-control systems and anti-submarine warfare systems.

He loved living on the West Coast, and in 1965, when Magnavox asked him to head its research lab in Torrance, Stern accepted. Two years later, he moved to Beverly Hills and enrolled his three children in a Jewish day school.

At Magnavox, Stern introduced satellite navigation worldwide to commercial ships and most of the world's navies. Later, he and his team initiated, developed and demonstrated key elements of the Navstar Global Positioning System, now the world's dominant high-precision, all-weather satellite navigation system.

At 65, he took mandatory retirement as vice chairman of Magnavox and president of Magnavox Advanced Products and Systems Co. His peers had honored him earlier with their highest recognition by electing him president of the 340,000-member Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the first Jew to hold the post.

Among many other awards, Stern cherishes one from the Israel Defense Forces Signal Corps, which lauded him in 1984 for lending, at no cost, high-tech military equipment for field trials and use.

Stern acknowledged that during his engineering and managerial career, "I focused 100 percent on the job. Being involved in high-tech research and development is like an addiction, and you become intoxicated by the results. I wasn't much of a family man, though I was always home on Shabbat."

Despite his career success, Stern said, "I really didn't plan for anything in my life, things just happened," so he was unprepared for his retirement.

"When I retired on Jan. 1, 1991, I was literally scared," he said. "I was still retained as a consultant, so I kept going to the office, because I didn't know what else to do."

Forced to stay home for a month by a back injury, Stern examined his life and decided that he might be able to contribute something to the Jewish community. He became involved with a Jewish Federation committee on the absorption of Russian immigrants in Israel and was named by Richard Gunther as chairman of a subcommittee to explore whether some Russians could be settled in the Negev.

One community involvement led to another, and with Stern's willingness "to jump in whenever something needed doing," within five years he was involved in so many organizations that he had hardly any spare time left.

Though a high-level engineer and business executive, two professions known generally for their politically conservative leanings, Stern has always been a self-described man of the left. Thanks to his professional clout, he was able to stand up against racial and age discrimination at work, "but I had to be careful," he recalled.

As a man who has experienced virulent anti-Semitism firsthand, Stern does not believe that world Jewry faces a rising tide of anti-Semitism, and "to accuse Norwegians, Danes and Swedes of being anti-Semitic is just ridiculous," he said.

Anti-Semitism does exist, but much of it is a reaction to Israel's occupation policies, he believes. "All of Europe applauded Israel in 1967, and Israel had the opportunity to become a model occupying power by helping [the Palestinians] to become independent and democratic," he said. "Instead, Israel became the worst occupier, taking the land and establishing settlements, which are considered illegal by everyone, except Israel."

As to the present situation, "nothing justifies suicide bombings, but there is such a thing as desperation," he added. "I've been on the oppressed side, and I am sympathetic to the suffering of the Palestinians."

Stern now has the chance to express his Weltanschauung at a long list of Jewish organizations, on the local and national scenes. His affiliations include the California-Israel Chamber of Commerce (founding president emeritus and former board chairman), The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles (vice chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Committee [JCRC]), the Bureau of Jewish Education (chairman of the investment committee) and New Israel Fund (regional council).

Stern is also a director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance and of the Southern California Americans for Democratic Action and chairman of the California Humanitarian Foundation of Holocaust Survivors. In addition, he has served as the Jewish co-chair of the Los Angeles Arab-Jewish Speakers Bureau and is a member of the Los Angeles Jewish-Muslim Dialog Group.

Nationally, he is a director and regional co-chair of Americans for Peace Now and serves on the national board of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Last year, he received the Tzedek Award of the Labor Zionist Alliance.

Stern hasn't won any popularity contests lately with his outspoken opinions. "Unlike in Israel, there is no longer open debate in the American Jewish community," he charged. "The community has turned to the right and has read me out."

"They can't do anything to me, so I can afford to speak out, but the peer pressure is extremely strong," he continued. "I'm tired of always being in the minority."

Professional leaders of two organizations do not think that Stern's opinions, or minority views in general, are being squelched.

Michael Hirshfeld, executive director of the JCRC in Los Angeles, described Stern as "wonderful, opinionated and an outspoken advocate of what he believes in. I have tremendous respect and admiration for him."

Hirshfeld noted that as a general rule, The Jewish Federation and the JCRC support whatever government has been chosen by the Israelis, but "we allow for a diversity of opinions.... I cannot see Arthur as ever being intimidated."

He acknowledged that a major portion of Jewish public opinion has moved to the right during the course of the intifada, "so that men like Arthur, who were considered part of the center during the heydays of the Oslo agreement, are now on the outskirts, but that may change again in the future."

To Hannah Rosenthal in New York, Stern is "articulate, brilliant, strong-minded and an unabashed progressive." Rosenthal is the executive vice chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which serves as the public affairs arm of the organized American Jewish community, and on whose board of directors Stern serves.

"It's a difficult time," Rosenthal said. "The world seems upside down and our fundamental values are shaken. But Arthur speaks truth to power, and when he speaks, people listen."

Another person, who has participated in many meetings with Stern, points to one weakness in his makeup.

"Arthur has a propensity for losing his temper," said the observer, who did not wish to be identified. "I don't believe he can be intimidated, but he can become grossly emotional, and then he loses all credibility, although he has been more restrained in the last few months."

Stern acknowledged his failing. "Sometimes, not very often, I blow my top," he said. "I'm not proud of that, though I'm not ashamed either, and afterward I always call to apologize."

He gets especially upset when others speak ill of a whole people or nation, such as one opponent's claim that all Muslims are killers.

"Losing my temper, or calling people names, is bad, because for a moment, I walk away from my own humanity," Stern said. "But I can't guarantee that it won't happen again."

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