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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

 

Brit Tzedek Goes to Washington: Grassroots Group Seeking Peace in Israel Opens D.C. Office

Washington Jewish Week

January 25, 2006

by Eric Fingerhut

Rob Levy says he has been receiving a good reception in his first few weeks as the new Washington representative of Brit Tzedek V'Shalom.

One congressional staffer, he reports, told him, "Just you being here has made a difference," while another asked happily, "Where have you been?"

Levy says that reaction comes because his group supports the United States' "playing a critical role as a broker" in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for a two-state solution, something that is not always emphasized by other pro-Israel organizations.

"We feel we have the same goal [as other groups], a strong and secure Israel, but we [have] different tactics and avenues of reaching that goal," Levy said.

And one Hill staffer, who did not want to be identified, said that some in the House and Senate see Brit Tzedek as articulating a valuable viewpoint.

"I think members know from their community ... [that] there are diverse opinions [on Israel], but don't always hear diverse opinions" from those who lobby them in Washington, the staffer said. Brit Tzedek "adds to the voices."

The not quite 4-year-old Brit Tzedek, which bills itself as a "Jewish alliance for justice and peace," opened its D.C. office in early December, but the group officially inaugurated it on Tuesday of last week with a reception on Capitol Hill that drew about 75 people.

The organization emphasizes its grassroots nature ‹ it claims 31,000 supporters in 32 chapters across the country. Levy said that in addition to building contacts with congressional offices in Washington, an important component of his job will be "activating and mobilizing" those outside of Washington to call and write their senators and members of Congress.

"The opening of the Washington office ... is bringing the grassroots to Washington and Washington to the grassroots," Levy said, adding that the group extensively discusses and debates among its membership before coming to policy positions.

The new Capitol Hill office also is exciting for Brit Tzedek's D.C. chapter, said chapter chair Rebecca Zimmerman.

"It's a great resource for ideas and events, a great opportunity to get our membership excited," she said. The D.C. chapter has several hundred people on its listserv, she said, and attracts an average of about 30 people to events.

Levy, 25, comes to Brit Tzedek after a year as a Capitol Hill staffer in then Sen. Jon Corzine's (D-N.J.) office. Before that, the former New Jerseyan spent a year as a legislative assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

He said the two jobs were the "perfect combination" of preparation for his position at Brit Tzedek.

"The RAC taught me a lot about advocacy, the connections [between] peace, Judaism, Jewish values ... [and] helped me learn a lot about the D.C. Jewish scene, acquainted me with the major players," he said. And on the Hill, he learned how a Senate office works and "how a legislative staffer receives an advocacy organization" and what kind of information they want to know from him.

His first project last month was mobilizing Brit Tzedek supporters to advocate for a letter sponsored by Reps. Lois Capps (D-Calif.)and Henry Hyde (R-Ill.). A total of 108 members of Congress signed onto the missive commending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for her role brokering an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians on the Rafah border crossing and urging her to continue "robust" U.S. involvement.

That letter was an Americans for Peace Now-led initiative, and Levy said he hopes to build coalitions with groups such as APN and the Israel Policy Forum, as well as others in Washington.

APN assistant executive director Lewis Roth said that his organization is willing to work with Brit Tzedek on a "case-by-case basis."

He added, however, that the two groups do differ on some policy positions. For example, he said, Brit Tzedek had supported soldiers refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza, something with which APN has not been involved.

Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism director Rabbi David Saperstein, who spoke at Brit Tzedek's reception last week, said he sees the organization as "kind of right in the middle of the dovish" groups in the Jewish community, adding that Brit Tzedek has a lot of support from congregations in addition to individuals.

"Having another ... sensible, thoughtful, pro-peace process voice [in Washington] will strengthen that voice to more fully reflect the spectrum of voices in the American Jewish community," Saperstein said.When Brit Tzedek formed in the spring of 2002, its members called for ending the occupation and bringing home the settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, among other positions, and some in the Jewish community perceived the group as being on the left-wing fringe of the mainstream.

The group's stance no longer seems so radical, said Brit Tzedek president Marcia Freedman, but that is not because Brit Tzedek has changed its positions.

"We have stayed exactly where we are," said Freedman, but "perceptions are shifting."

"Thanks to [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon," she noted, it is no longer controversial to use terms like "occupation" or call for an end to settlements.

And Freedman said that after building up a strong grassroots organization, Brit Tzedek now wants to use its "clout ‹ baby clout, but it's clout" to advocate on the national level.

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