Robert H. Asher, a Chicagoan who helped make AIPAC, who founded IASA, the Israel Arts and Science Academy, and charmed everyone he ever met – except for anti-Zionists – has died at the age of 94.
A successful lighting-fixtures tycoon turned full-time do-gooder, Bob was pre-deceased by his wife and life partner-in-good-works, Mary Jane. They had been married for a mere 69 years – and, Bob added, the last time we visited, “11 months.”
My wife, four children and I had the privilege of meeting Bob and MJ 12 years ago, thanks to our shared passion for IASA, the life-changing school of excellence our oldest daughter attended then. But in the American Jewish community, Bob was best known as one of the “Gang of Four,” a group of business leaders who, starting in the 1960s, helped turn the once-marginal American Israel Public Affairs Committee into a formidable force for defending Israel – and expressing America’s highest democratic values.
Understanding former speaker of the House Tip O’Neill’s insight that “all politics is local,” Bob based his Israel activism in his home state of Illinois. In 1982, one local congressman, Paul Findley, proudly called himself “Yasir Arafat’s best friend in Congress.” Findley later compared Arafat the terrorist to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Bob could not stomach such obscene assaults on truth, on America and on the Jewish people.
“There was a real desire to help Findley out of Congress,” Bob said with typical Midwestern understatement to Jeffrey Goldberg, when interviewed for a 2005 New Yorker profile on AIPAC.
Bob found a Springfield lawyer, Richard Durbin, who was willing to take on Findley, despite Findley’s 22 years in Congress. Bob wrote letters to many business colleagues and crisscrossed America, raising funds for his new friend. “And,” Bob recalled, “the gates opened.”
In 1997, Congressman Durbin moved from the House of Representatives to the Senate, where he remains. With that move, Durbin replaced his close friend, Democratic senator Paul Simon, who retired. Back in 1985, Simon had moved from the House to the Senate – also thanks to Bob’s urging. Simon defeated three-term senator and long-time Israel-basher Charles Percy.
Not interested in fame or glory
Bob wasn’t interested in power, fame or glory. He simply wanted to do the right thing – for Israel and America. As AIPAC’s president, he took that same philosophy national, helping the organization grow into a formidable force celebrating the shared interests and shared values uniting the American people with Israelis.
Although he would not have used these phrases, Bob balanced his Political Zionism with Identity Zionism. He and MJ did not just worry about Israel’s body – they worried about the Jewish people’s soul. While absolutely committed to guaranteeing that the Jewish state would survive, they also wanted to see it thrive.
In 1981, leveraging their love of music and of summer camp, they helped launch MATAN, a music and dance camp – named after the Hebrew acronym for Special Camps for Young Stand-Out Musicians. MJ served as program director, Bob as a one-man PR and fundraising team. They also donated hundreds of musical instruments to young Israelis.
Having visited Israel regularly since 1948, Bob and MJ realized that in 1980s’ still-socialist-friendly Israel, “excellence” was a dirty word. This heavy-handed egalitarianism made them fear that smart, creative and ambitious children were not going to be nurtured, especially if these students lived in the periphery.
They realized that summer camps – and the occasional burst for a few days during Hanukkah or Passover – would not suffice. Bob recalled in a 2015 interview with The Jerusalem Post, that, with their friend and MATAN’s camp director, Raphi Amram, they thought of something that did not even exist yet in the United States – “an interdisciplinary school... founded on three principles: excellence, leadership, and public service.”
In 1990, after three years of lobbying, fundraising, brainstorming, and institution-building, IASA – also called informally in Hebrew “madaim v’umanuyot,” science and art – began.
Its campus, the Schusterman Campus of the Israel Center for Excellence through Education, honors the Oklahoma-based miracle-workers Lynn and the late Charles Schusterman. It is poetically located, altneuland-style, in Jerusalem, between the Malha mall symbolizing modern Israel and the Biblical Zoo.
From the start, the school was highly selective and incredibly generous, following a policy of needs-blind admissions: “We have a rule,” Bob explained, “first get accepted and then we do everything we can to provide assistance to our students.”
IASA admissions were highly competitive because the Ashers wanted “youngsters who are very curious and willing to work hard.” But Bob always had a “first question” about every applicant: ‘is he a mensch? Is she a mensch? That’s what we are looking for – youngsters who have this level of intellect and curiosity have the ability to make the greatest contribution to Israeli society, but unless the path is shown to them it doesn’t necessarily happen.”
Inevitably, especially at the start, critics accused the Ashers of “elitism.” Bob brushed off the criticism: “If you are talking about elite education then yes, we are – but when you visit the school you see the map of Israel.”
Over the decades, satisfied, challenged, stretched students have come from over 100 communities, from North to South. The school sought out and still seeks out religious and non-religious Jews, as well as Christians, Muslims, Druze and Bedouin students – whoever wishes to learn.
Some years, over 90% of students in the high school dormitories received at least some financial aid. Such generosity harmonized Israel’s traditional egalitarianism with its growing commitment to excellence.
ON THE school’s 25th anniversary, Bob articulated his vision: “People accomplish things because they don’t know they can’t – that is really what education is and we must not stop a youngster from wherever he thinks he can go.”
When my daughter attended, the high school struck me as a magical mix of Zionist summer camp and Harvard. I found that even with high standards, frequent tests and crushing workloads, the school was a surprisingly happy place, featuring class talent nights, silly bonding games, and a warm family feeling uniting students and staffers.
Over the years, the Ashers’ Excellence Empire, formally called the Israel Center for Excellence through Education, has included expanding IASA school to include a middle school; running educational summer camps; organizing in-school enrichment programs, Excellence 2K, in 250 Israeli schools; developing curricula; teaching teachers; coaching visitors from India, Singapore and North America.
Bob and MJ lived well. After they gave up their Jerusalem apartment, they hosted us for wonderful breakfasts or lunches at the King David Hotel. But they earned the highest of Northeastern compliments: They were New York savvy but Midwestern nice. They were always so down-to-earth, so welcoming. They rubbed elbows with the top Israeli and American politicians and philanthropists but never put on airs or name-dropped.
I first met Bob when he was in his late 70s. He not only impressed me with his warmth and dignity, but he was one of those striking, still-good-looking men, despite his advancing age. He had an almost regal bearing, balanced by his folksy intimacy.
A year or two later, he underwent serious surgery that disfigured his face. The late-in-life challenge didn’t stop him. When he and MJ first visited our house for Shabbat dinner, my kids were totally charmed. He would make some joke about “his looks” or “his straw” and having broken the ice, just continued doing what he had been doing for decades – dazzle all who met him. His whole life was one long symphony of grace – leading forcefully, giving generously, living graciously and gratefully.
In 2015, about three years after the long-time Hawaiian senator Daniel Inouye died, Bob was interviewed for an Oral History Project about his friend since 1982.
“He was a hero of the United States for sure, and of Israel too,” Bob proclaimed. And recalling their first meeting, Bob said of Inouye: “He was always such a modest man and never looked for public acclaim – and I didn’t realize in the beginning how lucky I was going to be to share 30 years with the senator.”
Bob Asher unknowingly eulogized himself that day, eight years ago. Bob also was a modest American-Israeli hero – a true mensch of mensches who sought out other mensches. Watching the video of this interview after hearing of Bob’s death, I was jealous of senator Inouye. The senator shared 30 years with Bob and MJ; my family and I were not even half as lucky. May his name and memory be for a blessing.
The writer is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American History and four books on Zionism. He is the editor of the new three-volume set Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People (www.theljp.org).