Where Do We Go from Here?
Building an American Jewish Peace Movement

By Diane Balser, CEO [Bio]

The Present Situation
 
Israel's recent withdrawal from Gaza has created a window of opportunity for Brit Tzedek v'Shalom to build on our past successes and organize a uniquely American Jewish voice for peace around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We have an opportunity to express the hopes of the hundreds of thousands of Jews in this country who would urge our government to exert its influence, and make a peaceful resolution to this conflict a high priority for the United States.
 
We were greatly relieved to watch the withdrawal unfold with relative ease. Fears of bloodshed or chaos proved unfounded. While the Palestinian Authority is still struggling with the power vacuum left in the wake of Israel's withdrawal, it is undeniable that the successful return of occupied territory has set a precedent and changed the discourse permanently. In addition, attitudes toward Israel have softened internationally as a result of the pullout.
 
Historically, the American Jewish community has been closely connected to Israel's national project, and it only makes sense that our relationship with the state has grown and changed along with it. In the lead up to the evacuation, we began to see signs of change and realignment within the community. There were struggles both here and in Israel between those who support the idea of land for peace and those that supported "land for piece." In the end, the voices of moderation prevailed and the policy of "Greater Israel" was defeated.

Some of those who backed the withdrawal, however, would be content to see the land exchange stop there. We in Brit Tzedek supported the disengagement as a first step towards a negotiated two-state solution, not as an end unto itself. By bringing our "Gaza First, Not Gaza Last" campaign to pro-Israel rallies and synagogue social halls, we provided a clear and unwavering voice for those in the Jewish community who have long supported reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians.
 
The moderate leadership of the Palestinian Authority has made it clear that it wants to negotiate with Israel, end the violence on both sides, and ultimately establish a Palestinian state at peace with Israel. There is clearly a partner for peace and thus another window of opportunity for the Jewish peace camp. Yet, as surely as these windows have opened, they can also close.
 
There are many factors now in play that may become decisive in how we look back at this historic moment: turmoil in Gaza, expanded settlement construction in the West Bank, an increasingly tenuous ceasefire, great political uncertainty for both Israel and the Palestinian Authority and upcoming elections for both peoples, and a dearth of fresh diplomatic initiatives on the horizon. The Road Map is inoperative. Moreover, Prime Minister Sharon's refusal to negotiate with the Palestinians until there is a complete cessation of violence, for all practical purposes, places the future of the two peoples in the hands of a single bomber. It also leaves Abbas, whose agenda is predicated on negotiations, in an untenable position, and the Jewish world seemingly powerless, to move the peace agenda forward.

In another example of how quickly political tides can turn: Just this morning, Amir Peretz, the newly elected leader of the Labor Party, stressed that reaching a peace accord with the Palestinians is at the top of his priority list. Standing at the grave of Yitzhak Rabin, he said: "We will not rest until we reach a permanent agreement (with the Palestinians) that would secure a safe future for our children and that would provide us with renewed hope to live in a region where people lead a life of cooperation and not, God forbid, where blood is shed." Upon his election yesterday, Peretz announced his intention to pull his party from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government, advancing the likelihood of early general elections. Labor had initially joined the governing coalition under the leadership of Peretz's predecessor, Shimon Peres, to shore up support for Sharon's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
 
What Should Brit Tzedek Be Doing?
 
We need to put forth our message:

We have seen that many Israelis and American Jews have come to accept the return of land as the "lesser of two evils." However, ongoing unilateral moves cannot permanently solve the conflict. Already today it is evident that the Gaza withdrawal was insufficient. We must move forward with the momentum created and shift the thinking towards the desirability of a negotiated settlement and the creation of a Palestinian state, not only for the sake of the Palestinian people but for the Jewish people as well. Only a negotiated settlement, resulting in two viable states with internationally recognized borders can bring about physical safety, economic security, and self-determination for both peoples. Likewise, only with a negotiated settlement will Israel be able to resolve the historic tension that has accompanied the state since its inception vis- a-vis the Arab and Muslim worlds; it will, at long last, give Israel unfettered entree to the community of nations. This would hasten a paradigm shift in the thinking of most American Jews.

We need to focus on our program:

Particularly in light of the lack of initiatives coming from political leaders in the United States and Israel, it is imperative that leadership on the issue needs to come from the grassroots.

We need to have a concrete, and specific agenda that we can bring to our elected officials which calls on the US government to:
 
1. Do everything in its power to see to it that neither side takes action that will serve to predetermine the outcome of final status negotiations. Israel must end all settlement expansion, including natural growth. The Palestinians must work consistently to uphold their commitment to prevent terrorist attacks on Israel.
 
2. Assist the Israeli government and/or enlist the help of the international community in providing funds for West Bank settlers to return voluntarily to Israel proper.
 
3. Continue to financially aid the Palestinian Authority in order to strengthen its moderate leadership as an effective counterweight to Hamas and other armed militant groups.
 
4. Make the resolution of the conflict a top priority by appointing a high-level US envoy to be present on the ground now to monitor the evolving situation, to ensure compliance by both sides, and to resolve the political difficulties that continually present obstacles to progress towards a negotiated settlement.
 
We need to organize:
 
We need to continue building an organization that is politically effective — whose voice will be heard both inside and outside the Jewish community. As we have been doing, we need to continue to provide a clear and recognizable voice, becoming a force within the Jewish world while also becoming the go-to organization for politicians seeking to better understand the conflict and the potential for peace. This requires that we become a regular presence everywhere from campuses to Capitol Hill, from meetings of Jewish community organizations to synagogue social halls, from local Jewish media to national media. We need to add members, strengthen our grassroots, attract Jews from all walks of life and change the very language with which this country discusses the Middle East. At times when there are no fresh diplomatic initiatives, that is not the time to give up, but rather, it is the time to lay the groundwork to organize, to make possible such initiatives in the future.
 
In the coming months, Brit Tzedek is planning home district advocacy meetings with Congressional offices, as we did last spring throughout the United States. We are also opening a Washington, DC office in order to have a consistent and visible presence on the Hill. Across the country, we are holding house parties for new and old members to learn, think about, and discuss the conflict and possibilities for peace; we are embarking on chapter-based campaigns to increase our presence and raise our profile in the media; and we are encouraging everyone to talk to their friends and make each one a Brit Tzedek activist.

Bio:
Diane Balser, PhD is the CEO of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace. She is a veteran activist on the issue of Israeli-Palestinian peace and in the women’s rights movement. Dr. Balser served as the Executive Director of the Women’s State-Wide Legislative Network and Alliance for more than a decade, founding and building the largest network representing women on public policy issues in Massachusetts. Dr Balser has trained parliamentarians and women’s organizations in the Republic of Ireland and served as a consultant and trainer for Hadassah, ORT and the Israeli Women’s Network. At the Third International Women’s Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, she co-led a forum on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1996, Dr. Balser joined the faculty of Boston University where she taught Women’s Studies until joining the staff of Brit Tzedek this summer.

 

Dr. Balser has strong ties to the peace movement in Israel, and has been involved in Middle East peace issues with the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council, the Boston chapter of the Workmen’s Circle and as a member of her synagogue’s Israel Action Committee.  She has held many positions in Brit Tzedek, including that of vice-president of the board, chair of the national Advocacy and Public Policy Committee and founding chair of the Boston chapter of Brit Tzedek. She has been instrumental in developing strong ties between Brit Tzedek and public policy leaders. Dr. Balser has represented the organization in a national coalition of Jewish peace organizations and traveled to Geneva, Switzerland to witness the signing of the Geneva Accord.



Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, The Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace
11 E. Adams Street, Suite 707
Chicago, IL 60603
Phone: (312) 341-1205
Fax: (312) 341-1206
info@btvshalom.org
www.btvshalom.org


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