Kassen ’76 leads pro-Israel lobby in time of conflict
As violence flares up in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians once again, American activists on both sides are vocally advocating for their causes. Michael Kassen ’76, the president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has perhaps the most influence in shaping the pro-Israel message within the United States.
“Israel has always been important to both me and my family,” Kassen said, explaining that his decision to join AIPAC came shortly after the second intifada — a period of violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians beginning in September 2000. “We were just heartsick at what was going on.”
Kassen recalled his first visit to Israel came in 1968 — just eight months after the Six Day War between Israel and Egypt — when his family went to pay respects to his grandfather, who had been buried there three years earlier.
He said his grandfather’s life story in many ways helped shape his view on Israel. Born in Ukraine in 1900, his grandfather moved to Baltimore when he was 12 and ran away from home when he was 17 to join the Jewish legion of the British army fighting in Palestine during World War I.
“He was a young Zionist and he wanted to fight for what he believed in,” Kassen said.
During the conflict, a bullet grazed Kassen’s grandfather’s hand, leaving a scar that he would later show his grandson. “That experience meant a lot to me,” Kassen said.
Kassen explained that the current conflict is a difficult time for Israel and an important time for their group. He noted that there are millions of Israelis currently living out of bomb shelters due to the daily rocket attacks from Gaza.
Though the Gaza situation is on the front of everyone’s minds at the moment, Kassen explained that the greatest challenge facing Israel is the perception that Iran desires a nuclear weapon.
Before taking over the top position at AIPAC, Kassen led a career in finance, becoming a Chief Investment Officer at asset management firm Neuberger Berman following their initial public offering in 1999. He became a recognized figure in the financial world early in his career, even appearing on the cover of Money magazine in 1982 after turning a 56 percent return on the relatively unknown Fidelity Select Technology Portfolio that year.
Kassen officially became a member of the organization in 2001, after being persuaded by a friend. He joined AIPAC’s board in 2004 and was asked to become its president in early 2011. His two-year term began in March of this year.
Dr. Anthony Rothschild ’75, a former roommate of Kassen, remembered him as a “renaissance man” during his time on campus.
“He knew a lot about art and music,” Rothschild said. “He was very well-rounded; we used to play tennis and squash in Dillon [Gymnasium] from time to time.”
Kassen said he looks back fondly on his time at Princeton. Although he wasn’t very involved with political activism or Jewish organizations on campus, he does remember enjoying the High Holiday services that were held in Richardson Auditorium every year.
A member of Charter Club, Kassen said he never experienced any anti-Semitism at Princeton during his undergraduate years.
“Most of my Jewish classmates would say it was a great place to be,” Kassen said, noting that it may have been a little more uncomfortable for Jews just 10 years earlier.
He explained that though Israel wasn’t as contentious an issue during his time at Princeton, it was still very much on students’ minds, particularly after the high-profile massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
“America as a country is more pro-Israel today than it was then,” he said. Nevertheless, he explained that the notion of Israel as an aggressor is still a common belief found on many college campuses.
Julie Gross ’75, who has been friends with Kassen since their time at Princeton, said she is confident in his ability to run the organization successfully. Gross explained that his ability to deal well with a variety of people and his willingness to hear other people’s opinions will serve him well as his organization navigates delicate and important issues.
“He’s so intellectual, and it’s unusual because it’s combined with such a moral compass,” Gross said. “I feel that his personality is so suited for being a leader.”
AIPAC, the largest pro-Israel lobby in the country, currently has around 100,000 members and plays a significant role in shaping U.S.-Israeli relations.