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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

The Jewish Advocate

Peace, peace, But there is no peace
By Penny Schwartz - Advocate Correspondent

November 7, 2003

National conference comes to Boston in search of a new vision for peace between Israel and Palestinians

BOSTON An unexpected promise of peace between Israel and the Palestinians blended with an enthusiastic appetite for political action at a national conference -sponsored by the Chicago-based Brit Tzedek V'Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, held Oct. 31 - Nov. 2 at Boston's Park Plaza Hotel.

The gathering, which attracted hundreds from around the country as well as a small counter demonstration from the New England Committee to Defend Palestine coincided with the recent release of the Geneva Initiative, also called the Geneva Accord, a tentative pact reached several weeks ago between influential Israeli and Palestinian leaders, who met over a period of two years outside of formal diplomatic circles and without official approval by the Israeli government or Palestinian Authority.

"Two weeks ago, I presumed I was going to deliver a depressing talk," said Naomi Chazan, a professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and known as one of the country's outspoken champions of women's rights, in her opening remarks Friday night Standing against a backdrop with Brit Tzedek's slogan "Bring the settlers home," Chazan, a former deputy speaker of the Knesset, declared: "Israel was on a path of destruction. I could not see any light until the announcement of the Geneva Initiative."

The proposed accord has been harshly denounced by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and by his predecessor, Ehud Barak. But Paul Wolfowitz, the U.S. deputy secretary of defense who is a close adviser to President Bush, recently voiced support for the plan formulated by former Israeli Shin Bet security chief Ami Ayalon and Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh. "There is a significant grassroots movement that has already gotten some 90,000 Israeli signatures and some 60,000 Palestinian signatures in support of principles that look very much like the road map favoring a two-state solution," he told a Georgetown University audience, according to JTA.

In addition, face-to-face meetings between Israeli and Palestinian officials have been reported in the last few days.

"There is no way to win this conflict militarily," said Israeli Knesset member Amram Mitzna. Mitzna, the former mayor, of Haifa, a retired major-general from the Israeli military command, former Labor Party chairman and a candidate for Prime Minister. "I'm sure that the Geneva Agreement will be at the end of the day the agreement that will be signed. The only question is how much time it will take and how many people will lose their life in the process."

The views of American Jews are critical to the peace process, according to Chazan, Mitzna, and Stephen P. Cohen, an American proponent of the field of unofficial diplomacy and a Middle East expert. Their views were well-received by the crowd of about 500 attending the conference, including key political figures from the Israeli left and political, religious and scholarly leaders from around the United States.

Conference-goers came from a diverse group of students, middle-aged professionals, and religiously observant men and women. One local participant, Bob Baseman, a nurse practitioner from Sharon, came to the conference after seeing an advertisement in the newspaper. "I have finally found people of a kindred spirit," Bob Baseman said. "I've never been on the leading edge of anything, and I'm surprised the ideas of the Geneva Initiative are not more in the mainstream. They seem to make so much sense. I am not a leftist, not an activist I feel my conscience relieved that I can speak out against the settlements as a barrier to peace."

His wife Bonnie, an art teacher, concurred. "I care about Israel, I want to know it will be safe. I want to know that it will be there. Right now, if things stay the way they are, it will only get worse. Let's give this a try," she said.

Over the course of the weekend, several poignant moments stood out. Six hundred people stood for a Havdalah service at the beginning of the Saturday evening session. As sticks of cinnamon were passed around the hotel's Imperial Ballroom, Mitzna called for a moment of silence to join with the tens of thousands of Israelis who, earlier in the day, had gone to Rabin Square in memory of Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated eight years ago. Taking his turn at the microphone, one man identified himself as a Palestinian living in the Boston area. He had been personally confronted by a Palestinian protester as he entered the hotel mat day. "How can you forget what Amram Mitzna did during the first Intifadah?" screamed the Palestinian acquaintance. "I didn't forget," this man said plainly and boldly to Mitzna. "But, it's time for healing. I believe in you and what you're doing.".

Some conference participants expressed "gratitude" that an American Jewish organization was taking a risk by openly differing from the policies of the Israeli government as well as established Jewish organizations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "There is room for more than one voice," Brit Tzedek President Marcia Freedman said. "We cannot maintain the occupation and the existence of a Jewish democratic state," Freedman said.

Freedman, a Knesset member in the mid-1970s, is no newcomer to unpopular political decisions. She was a founder of the Israeli feminist movement in the 1970s and has been an active member of the Israeli peace movement.

U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), in a talk on Saturday afternoon, said that the settlement policy was a serious error from every perspective, and it was preventing Israel from being a democratic Jewish state. Frank asked the audience to let their views be known to their elected representatives. It is "perfectly American," he said, to be able to criticize the policies of the Israeli government. "The true test of friendship," he said, "is to be able to tell a friend he's made a mistake."

Mitzna, in his keynote address Saturday night, said that the scope of me Geneva Accord, which ad-, dresses the full range of issues and disputes between Israelis and Palestinians, turns on its head the notion that, "There is no one to negotiate with and nothing to negotiate about," the position he claimed had become the mantra of the Israeli government Mitzna said the Geneva Accord represents Israel's best hope to achieve a democratic Jewish state.

A far smaller crowd returned for the final sessions on Sunday morning which featured a Palestinian perspective and a presidential candidates' forum. A soft-spoken James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, who said he "grew up on Anne Frank," acknowledged that while dialogue between American Jews and Palestinians is everywhere, they often fail to recognize the real fears. "You were the cowboys and we were the Indians," he said. Calling the "cult of suicide" frightening and troubling, Zogby said, "the daily lives of people must be transformed."

The gloves came off a bit when the representatives of three presidential candidates spoke on behalf of their candidates. Representing the campaigns for Dr. Howard Dean and U.S. Senator John Kerry were two Massachusetts veterans of politics as well as leaders in the Jewish community. Steve Grossman, the national co-chair of the Gov. Howard Dean campaign, is the former chair of the Democratic National Committee, a former candidate for governor and former head of AJPAC. Alan Solomont, advisor to U.S. Sen. John Kerry, is chairman of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies. Many years their junior, but equally impassioned and articulate, Charles Lenchner, represented the campaign of Dennis Kucinich; Lenchner is also a Brit Tzedek member.

Solomont said the Bush administration was late in its efforts to try to help resolve the Middle East conflict and that President Bush was "essentially walking away."

"Inaction is no act of friend-ship," Solomont said, and he affirmed Kerry's position supporting the two-state solution. As president, Kerry would appoint a special envoy to the Middle East, Solomont said, graciously suggesting that Grossman would make a very good candidate for the post.

Grossman described Gov. Dean as a "risk-taker for change to serve the cause of peace in the Middle East," noting that Gov. Dean has taken positions not always politically safe. As president, Grossman said, Howard Dean would appoint former president Bill Clinton as a special envoy to the Middle East, as someone who had gained the respect of all parties involved.

Lenchner, who grew up in Israel and served two months in Israeli prison for refusing to serve in what he called the "occupied territories" following his enlistment in the Israeli Defense Forces, said that Kucinich supports the Geneva Initiative and the removal of the settlements.

The shouting match outside

On Saturday night, Nov. 1, before Mitzna's speech, about 20 protesters from the New England Committee to Defend Palestine chanted and shouted provocative slogans across the street from the entrance to the Park Plaza Hotel. Aimee Smith of Cambridge, who denounced the two-state solution as "apartheid," argued with Aaron Tabackman, a conference attendee. After the exchange, Tabackman said that he was especially disturbed that the Palestinian protesters supported suicide bombings.

A smaller but equally loud counter counter-demonstration took place across the street, organized by the Free Republic Grassroots Committee, who shouted back at the Palestinian group. Uniformed Boston police officers stood in front of the hotel and kept the peace. Aaron Margolis from the North Shore said his group showed up after learning on the Internet that the Palestinian group would be protesting. Margolis, who's traveled to Israel twice, accused the Palestinian group of having no interest in peaceful coexistence with Israel. Margolis said he was unfamiliar with Brit Tzedek and did not know who was speaking at the conference.

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