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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace


American Jewish Activism; Lessons Learned In Organizing American Jews For Peace In The Middle East
Presented by Cherie R. Brown

I grew up in a working class Jewish family where there was a deep love of Israel and the Jewish people. My first trip to Israel was in 1968. I had just been elected president of SDS (students for a Democratic Society) at UCLA. I was also active in Hillel; I taught at Leo Baeck synagogue, and counseled rabbis on how to help Jewish students get conscientious objector status. I arrived in Israel just months after the 6 day war, and I was horrified by the militarism I saw. I knew then that a long term occupation could be the downfall of our people. I came back to the United States and I couldn't find anyone to talk to in the Jewish community about my concerns. The only person who would listen to me was my friend Lou Smith who directed Operation Bootstrap in Watts and was equally horrified by the rising militarism in the Black Power Movement

Since then, I have spent the past 34 years working with other Jews, many of whom are in this room, to build Middle East peace organizations within the Jewish community that would advocate for a secure Israel alongside of a Palestinian state. Before I speak about the lessons I have learned, I want to first acknowledge many of the people in this room and the wealth of activism that we represent. How many of you were active in one of the early Jewish progressive organizations in the late 60's when the first progressive Middle East platforms were being discussed?

How many of you were at the founding conference of Breira? The founding Conference of New Jewish Agenda? How many have been involved in Middle East peace work for at least 30 years? For 20 years? For 10 years? How many are brand new to this work? We need all of our wisdom and experience---those who have been working for 30 years---and those who are brand new to the struggle.

What are the lessons I have learned in trying to organize specifically within the Jewish Community? I will describe 7 different efforts I have been involved in, identify lessons learned, and try and relate those lessons to our work now in the current period.

1) The year was 1968. I attended the Peace and Freedom Party convention where the first Zionism is Racism resolution was passed. Several of us walked out of the convention to form a Jewish radical movement in the United States. At about the same time, Arthur Waskow developed the Freedom Seder in Washington, DC; Hillel Levine led demonstrations of young Jewish activists against the Jewish Federation in Boston. Michael Lerner was developing a psychology of activism in the Bay Area. And, I helped found the radical Jewish community in Los Angeles. We all concluded that the only way to fight the anti-Semitism of the Left and the reactionary and militaristic policies of Israel and the new occupation was to build Jewish progressive organizations that could both challenge the right wing policies of mainstream Jewry while at the same time reflect a strong, proud Jewish identity. What did I learn in 1968? That we needed a new analysis that had never been put forward before. Israel did not fit neatly into a classic left wing analysis. We would have to think afresh. We could not let the Jewish community speak for us. But, we also could not leave it to the left to speak for us. We needed a new voice and a separate identity as progressive Jews.

2) The year was 1969. A small group of us in the Jewish Radical Community in Los Angeles spent 24 hours with Sol Alinsky, the grandfather of community organizing in the United States. In an all night marathon session, Alinsky taught us how to choose tactics to win over the Jewish community to our progressive agenda. As a result of that session, we decided to picket the Jewish Federation. We interrupted a $500 plate dinner and stood before the leaders of our community, singing Zog Nit Kamel-the Jewish partisan song from the Warsaw ghetto uprising. A number of Jewish leaders at that meeting sobbed as we sang the partisans song from the Warsaw ghetto. And in that one night we raised $500,000 from the Jewish community to organize progressive Jewish activities. What did I learn in 1969? That we had to sound like Jews. We did not have to be quiet. We did not even have to refrain from picketing or revolutionary tactics in order to win over the Jewish community. But we had to reach their hearts through a commonly shared Jewish language. By singing the song from the Warsaw ghetto uprising-we were saying to these Jewish leaders: We are not different from you. We are not outsiders. We are your sons and daughters. And we are part of the Jewish community.

3) The year was 1978. For the first time ever, Jewish progressives from across the United States met in Washington DC with left wing members of the Israeli Knesset. After listening to the peace activists from Israel, several of us, Johnnie Jacoby, Tom Smerling, Alan Solomonow and I decided that we needed to form a national network. We became the steering committee for a new umbrella organization called the Shalom Network. What did I learn from this work in 1978? That the primary goal in organizing US Jews had to be education. The primary tactic had to be teach-ins. In those early years we led workshops and teach-ins all over the United States. We brought over Israeli and Palestinian speakers for tours. We understood that when Jews were being taught myths about the Palestinian people, our primary work had to be to debunk the myths through education.

4) The year was 1979. It was another Washington DC meeting. This time, with the Jewish Defense League pounding down the door and trying to break into the meeting, we launched Breira, a new national peace and justice Middle East organization. Breira, in Hebrew means choice. For the first time, many Hillel rabbis from across the country joined in the effort and committed themselves to challenge the policies of the Israeli government. There was an institutionalized campaign in the Jewish press to discredit these rabbis. A number of them lost their jobs. What did I learn? That when Jews are terrified, they attack each other quite viciously. I learned that we had to make a solemn pledge to one another -- anytime a Jewish activist is attacked -- we will leap over any mountain to come to their defense. When an attack is taking place, it is no time to quibble over whether or not we support that Jewish activists politics or the tactics they are using. If one progressive Jewish activist is being attacked, we are all being attacked. We cannot get divided from each other.

5) The year was 1981. It was the founding convention of New Jewish Agenda. Agenda was one of the best progressive Jewish organizations that we've launched before or since. The goal of New Jewish Agenda was to build a multi issue Jewish organization that would be a progressive voice in the Jewish Community and a Jewish voice in the Progressive community. What did I learn from New Jewish Agenda? That progressive Jews who have functioned in isolation for so long, when given an opportunity to form a national organization with other like minded progressive Jews will find any excuse to recreate the same isolation. It seems just too unbearable to imagine that there is an alternative to functioning on the fringes of the Jewish community. Two weeks before the founding convention of New Jewish Agenda, I was getting phone calls every day from Jewish activists all over the U.S. The founding conference hadn't even taken place yet. But, they had already decided ahead of time that the meeting would not possibly come up with left enough politics and so they were already expending energy to set up another fringe caucus. Instead of joining forces and building a unified coalition, these Jewish activists were simply recreating the all too familiar feeling of isolation by attacking the agenda, deciding it wouldn't be left enough, Jewish enough, etc. Agenda was a response, in part to the attacks from mainstream Jewry to Breira. But, what ultimately killed NJA, in my opinion were not only the attacks from the outside, which were many, but also the attacks on each other from within. The staff was never completely trusted or backed to lead the organization. Weakened by ongoing bickering and attacks of each other from within, Agenda finally folded. We cannot build an effective new organization without a strong commitment to support individual leadership, including the support of one key leader who will be in charge.

6) The year was 1998. Netanyahu was prime minister in Israel. The New York Times had just published a poll that 80% of U.S. Jews were not in support of the policies of the Netanyahu government. Yet, there was complete silence within mainstream Jewry in the United States. I contacted Rabbis Arthur Waskow and Mordechai Leibling and said we had to do something. We launched the Break the Silence Campaign. We placed ads in the New York Times and in the Jewish and Israeli press. Our primary goal was to break the silence and to help defeat Netanyahu by letting US Jews know that there was an alternative voice that they could sign on to with the ads, supported by many rabbis across the U.S. At one point, we were informed that one of the chief U.S. negotiators had remarked that seeing the Break the Silence ads had kept him pursuing peace initiatives when he had been ready to give up. More recently, the Break the Silence campaign placed a new ad in the New York Times in support of Rabbis for Human Rights and the Olive Tree Campaign in Israel to rebuild trees on Palestinian lands. What have I learned from the work in Break the Silence? That organizing US Jews effectively requires the use of simple, easily recognizable Jewish symbols that can galvanize Jews and help them to make a moral and religious commitment to pursue peace efforts. An olive branch, a Sukkah. These are symbols that many affiliated Jews can relate to.

7) And finally - the year was 2001. I attended the United Nations Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa. I spent a lot of time that week meeting with the leadership of the Jewish Community from around the world and listening to their concerns about Israel and Jews being singled out for special condemnation and attack at the conference. I watched Jewish young people from around the world huddled together wearing T-shirts they made up that week with a Jewish star and a peace symbol on the front and a quote from Martin Luther King on the back that said - "if you are anti-Zionist, then you are also anti-Semitic." The Jewish young people were too scared to make friends with any of the young people of Color at the conference. What did I learn in Durban? That the more Israel gets singled out for attack, the more terrified and isolated Jews become. And the more terrified and isolated Jews become, the harder it is for Jews to build effective coalitions and to win over allies. And without allies who have any understanding of the Jewish struggle or the legitimate rights for a Jewish homeland, it is just too difficult for Jews to be able to look at their own issues of racism, including the occupation.

Over these past 34 years there have been resounding breakthroughs in the peace process, filling us with hope that we just might be making progress. At other times, there have been periods of enormous heartbreak when we witnessed all of our hard work dashed by increased violence and rigid position taking. We are in this for the long haul----for as long as it takes to achieve peace with justice. And it will take longer than any of us would want. Based on all my work over these past 34 years, I'd like to offer 4 practices that should be integrated into Brit Tzedek:

Practice #1-One on one relationship building with Jews in the mainstream Jewish community needs to be at the core of any activist strategy. Vigils, petitions, demonstrations may be necessary----but they alone will not change the hearts and minds of the Jewish community. Each one of us needs to reach out and build several personal, close friendships with members of the mainstream Jewish community back home so they can learn to know us and trust us personally . Over the years I have watched leaders in the Jewish community react quite differently to various Jewish activists-even when those activists shared the exact same politics. For example, before I went to Durban last year, I attended a series of highly contentious forums with Blacks and Jews here in DC who were also going to Durban. There were huge battles about the anti-Israel language being proposed for the UN documents. Later that week, I called one of the key rabbis in the Reform Movement to let him know I would be going to Durban and told him about the work of United to End Racism-one of the groups I was going to Durban with. His response to me was telling: "I've never heard of United To End Racism, he said. But I know Cherie Brown. And if you're involved in leading this effort---then I will support it." And this is what we need to build in the Jewish Community: Jewish leaders in every one of our communities who will say: I don't know Brit Tzedek yet, but I know Aliza Becker; I don't know Brit Tzedek, yet. But, I know David Albert.

Practice #2---Every single one of us needs to make an honest commitment to heal our own scars of internalized Jewish oppression that will get in the way of our being able to communicate to many, many different kinds of Jews and let them know that we LIKE them even if we don't agree with their policies. People won't change, particularly when they are very scared, until we can show them that we care about them, that we understand their struggles, and that we see them first and foremost as human beings. Our people is a traumatized people, especially since the Holocaust. We want U.S. Jews to acknowledge that Israel has been an occupier and an oppressor of the Palestinian people. And yet, many of us are not able to remember that every Jew, no matter how confused they are about Israel is still deeply good. We won't be able to shift policies of American Jews, if we are not prepared to organize them remembering their goodness.

I will never forget several years ago when my father was visiting me in Washington, DC and we decided to attend the U.S. Holocaust Museum. In preparation for our trip to the museum, I began to ask my dad questions that we had never spoken of in our family. I asked him when he first found out about the death camps. He replied to me that no one in the U.S. knew what was happening to Jews in Europe. When we got to the museum, we went to the room where there are newspaper clippings from all over the world, including the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. Many of the articles dated back to 1938, 1939. Article after article spoke of Hitler's design for the Jews, including extermination camps. I walked with my did hand-in-hand and we read each article together. He wept after he had finished reading all of the articles, as he faced that some of the information HAD been there when he was a young adult - it had just been too painful to look at it.

If we do not understand this mechanism: the pull to protect oneself from painful facts, even when it might mean lying to ourselves - we will never be able to organize U.S. Jews around ending the occupation. Many U.S. Jews of my father's generation could not live with themselves if they had to face, in any way, that they might have turned a deaf ear to some of the cries of European Jewry. This same myth-making operates about Israel. U.S. Jews cannot face what Israel perpetrates every day against Palestinian people. And therefore - we adopt a myth of the completely righteous Israelis solely protecting themselves against a hostile Arab population. How do we help our people face this myth with honesty and integrity? What if we thought of every U.S. Jew as a beloved member of our own family - someone who has been trying to do the very best that he or she can, living on top of a lot of unhealed terror. What if we approached every U.S. Jew with firmness but also compassion? As more and more Jews are able to face our own myths, we will be in a better position to also require our Palestinian brothers and sisters to also face their own myths and misinformation about Jews and about the legitimacy of Israel.

Practice #3---We must refuse to collude with any negativity, any bad mouthing, or any divisiveness with any other individual or organization in our Progressive Jewish movement. Many people are concerned now that Brit Tzedek might be in competition with other Middle East peace groups. We are not united yet as one worldwide Jewish peace movement. We do not all share the same analysis of the conflict. And we cannot pretend that we do. And that is OK. It is not a bad thing to have a number of different organizations right now. It doesn't mean we've failed---or that our efforts will be weakened.. In Israel, there is Gush Shalom; Rabbis for Human Rights; Women in Black; Peace Now. And in the U.S., we'll have Brit Tzedek; the Tikkun Community; Israel Peace Lobby; Break the Silence; Women in Black; and APN. Each group has unique strengths and will be able to reach out to different audiences of Jews. We need the efforts of every one of these groups right now. Lets not waste time bemoaning our lack of total unity. Instead, let's make a pact with each other ----that we will not speak badly of any other Progressive Jewish activist. And let's learn what the unique strengths are of every different Jewish Middle East peace group so when someone says---why are there different organizations----we can speak with great pride about Brit Tzedek and at the same time---let people know that we are pleased about the existence of the other groups. The more we can speak well of each others efforts, and work in partnership whenever possible on shared projects, we will gain greater trust in each other. And as this trust builds, we will become more and more united so we will be able to function in the future as one movement of Jewish Middle East peace activist.

Practice #4---We must be committed to breaking through the intergenerational conflicts that could affect our work with each other. We span an age range of at least 5 or 6 decades in this room. I must say I was stopped right in my tracks last year at the Junity conference, when Ira Grouper introduced me, Irena Klepfisz, and Melanie Kay Kantowitz as the ulta cocker panel. How had I suddenly become the older generation, passing down wisdom of the years? I have been working these past many months with a whole new generation of amazing activists who have new energy and passion for taking on Middle East peace issues. I have listened to a few of my battle weary buddies who have been on the front lines with me these past 34 years speak negatively about these younger organizers: "Are they nuts? Don't they know that picketing the Israeli embassy will not win us friends and allies in the Jewish community?" And then I've listened to many of my younger, new friends: "Are all of you nuts? Why should we listen to you? You've had 34 years to bring about peace in the Middle East and look where it's gotten us---so move over and let us try some new things." Lets commit to building a genuinely intergenerational organization that completely values the wisdom and experience of our elder Jewish activists and completely values the enthusiasm and new innovations of our younger Jewish activists.

We are in one of the more painful moments in our people's history. And it will require all of our thinking. In the end, what I have gained in 34 years of being involved in Middle East peace activism is perspective--- a perspective that even in the most discouraging moments when it appeared that there was no hope for turning around the intransigence of our people---we have turned things around. I have seen this amount of terror and rigid posturing before within the Jewish community. And we overcame it. And I have seen this kind of villainization of Israel before by certain segments of the left. And we overcame a lot of it. There is every reason to be hopeful that with all this out-pouring of new energy here this weekend, we WILL move the peace effort forward.

One last important point - Let's not engage in panicked, urgent activity and mistake this for effective organizing. In my experience, I have seen that when my Gentile friends are scared by world crises, they often hide out in the bedroom; when Jews are scared - we build 10 new organizations. Every one of us needs to acknowledge that our hearts are breaking and to heal the feelings of panic about what is happening to our people and to the Palestinian people so that we can keep thinking clearly. We are going to be in this work for a long time until we achieve a just peace. Let's take a big breath, cry as we need to, treat each other well - and move forward on these urgent issues with relaxed thinking so that our new organizational efforts will have a good shot at succeeding.

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