Timeline: April 30, 2002 to December 31, 2009
Historical Context: The 1993 Oslo Accord was designed to begin a five-year interim period during which a permanent agreement would be negotiated between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Great hopes for reaching that agreement at the July 2000 Camp David Middle East Peace Summit were dashed when the meeting between President Bill Clinton, Israeli PM Ehud Barak, and PA Chairman Yasser Arafat ended without resolution.
On September 28, 2000, Israeli Likud opposition leader Ariel Sharon made a provocative visit to the Temple Mount surrounded by hundreds of Israel riot police. The following day, Palestinians launched the al-Aqsa (or Second) Intifada. The level of violence rose as both Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli military intervention escalated. When the uprising ended in 2005, the estimated death toll was approximately 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israeli Jews and Arabs; the majority on both sides were civilians or others not taking part in the hostilities.
In January 2001 a renewed effort to negotiate a resolution took place at the Taba Summit in Egypt. After six days of intense negotiations between the Israel and the PA, the talks were tabled in anticipation of pending Israeli election with a joint statement: “The sides declare that they have never been closer to reaching an agreement and it is thus our shared belief that the remaining gaps could be bridged with the resumption of negotiations following the Israeli elections.” Israeli PM Barak was not able to present an agreement to voters before elections on February 6th and when Labor lost to the Likud Party’s Ariel Sharon by over 25%, formal negotiations ceased.
The Second Intifada coupled with the inability to reach a final-status agreement led a number of American Jews to question the wisdom of the status quo and the endless cycle of violence. A number of a grassroots anti-occupation groups started in diverse communities. In May 2001, a Chicago group organized the JUNITY (Jewish Unity for a Just Peace) Conference, bringing together anti-occupation American and international activists to network and create a platform for common action. Unfortunately, the conference ended in disarray around the question of the two-state solution.
At the same time, the American Jewish establishment, which had previously supported the Oslo Agreement, withdrew its support for the peace process as it followed PM Ehud Barak’s lead in blaming Palestinian intransigence for Oslo’s failure. Conversation on the possibility of two states practically disappeared from Jewish community discourse; the dominant narrative b was focused on protecting Israelis, who were living under siege by Palestinians.
Brief Description: BTvS emerged at the height of the Second Intifada, when the hope of final status negotiations was within recent memory. Many of the group’s founding board members, including Aliza Becker, David Albert, Cherie Brown, Marcia Freedman, Neal Gosman, Ira Grupper, Yossi Khen, Rabbi Rebecca Lillian, Steve Masters, Penny Rosenwasser, Rabbi David Seidenberg, Nicole Dannenberg Sorger, and Donna Spiegelman, met at the JUNITY Conference. They began a post-conference discussion listserv as a way to keep in touch. In less than a year, the group had chosen a name in Hebrew and English, authored founding principles with a clear endorsement for two states, and planned a founding conference that was held in April 2002.
BTvS was founded on the assumption that the U.S. could take leadership in brokering an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. The group’s populist focus was to organize the majority of American Jews who supported two-states into an advocacy and political bloc. Because the issue had become so contentious in the Jewish community, BTvS also sought to open up community dialogue on the conflict.
BTvS was boots-on-the-ground style activism, as members across the country mobilized in their local communities. They engaged in dialogue with the leadership of mainstream synagogues and other Jewish organizations; participated in Jewish community events; joined Jewish Community Relations Councils (JCRCs), sponsored regular community events; and wrote op-eds and letters to the editor in local Jewish media. Some communities organized local Rabbinic Cabinets, bringing sympathetic rabbis to network and strategize at a time when talking about peace with Palestinians was contentious. Most importantly, BTvS became a resource on current events and legislative issues to members of Congress and their staff. For many in Congress, meetings with BTvS were a refreshing opportunity to have an honest conversation about a contentious issue.
BTvS was strictly an American organization that did not have an official relationship with any Israeli peace group or political party. It did, however, organize multi-city speaking tours for Israeli and Palestinian grassroots peace activists, politicians and pundits in synagogues, Hillels and JCCs. BTvS was the first to bring to American Jewish audiences the Bereaved Parents Circle (2002), pilot refuser Yonatan Shapira (2005), Shovrim Shtika/Breaking the Silence (2005), and Israeli and Palestinian members of Combatants for Peace (2007). Other tours featured former Knesset Deputy Speaker Naomi Chazan, former Labor party leader Amram Mitzna, pundit Daniel Levy, and BTvS president and former MK Marcia Freedman.
BTvS campaigns were central to galvanizing support, educating wide audiences, and providing concrete steps that could help advance peace. The 2003 “Call to Bring the Settlers Home to Israel,” the first BTvS campaign, garnered 10,000 signers and highlighted the fact that a majority of settlers reported they were willing to relocate to Israel proper with appropriate compensation as part of a peace agreement.
On several occasions, BTvS organized campaigns in close collaboration with other organizations. It participated in a multi-pronged effort to promote support for the 2007 Annapolis peace conference, a Bush administration effort to reignite Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. BTvS joined forces with other pro-Israel and pro-peace organizations to rally outside the Naval academy during the conference; they also co-sponsored a Capitol Hill Briefing, and cooperated on other activities.
BTvS’ collaborative approach was particularly effective in advocacy efforts. A Washington, DC office that opened at the end of 2005 brought together Jewish, Christian and Arab organizations to work on a series of legislative initiatives. One of the more significant successes was the bi-partisan Ackerman-Boustany letter to Secretary Rice expressing support for the Annapolis conference; it secured 135 House signers from both sides of the aisle. BTvS used cutting edge advocacy software to quickly reach a broad constituency.
Education was also a major BTvS priority. This included training chapter activists, offering original educational materials, listserv postings on current events, programs for chapters, and periodic Town Hall Conference calls with prominent politicians and policy makers. During the Gaza War, around 1000 people participated in a series of four such calls.
The extensive growth of BTvS was due to systematic grassroots outreach at Jewish communal and chapter-sponsored events, campaign mobilization, and online and traditional media ad placements. A volunteer Harvard-based statistician, Donna Spiegelman, spearheaded these efforts, regularly analyzing data for the effectiveness of each approach. The top leadership of BTvS was predominantly female – founding board president Marcia Freedman, and executive directors Diane Balser and Aliza Becker — and a commitment to women’s leadership was central to the organization.
Even when six full-time staff were employed, hundreds of BTvS volunteers continued to donate many hours a week Staff members built strong personal relationships with grassroots activists. However, after 7 years, it became clear that passion alone was not enough; success required greater resources. Thus, the BTvS Board was very supportive of joining forces with J Street in 2010.
Membership/Chapters: BTvS was a membership organization based upon local chapters. At its peak, BTvS had 40 chapters throughout the U.S. It grew from 200 founding members to a network of over 50,000 in seven and a half years.
Activism strategy: The BTvS strategy was two-pronged: to organize the majority of American Jews who already supported two states into a cohesive advocacy group; and to open conversation on Israeli-Palestinian peace within the Jewish community so as to reach past the entrenched fears of the Second Intifada.
Activities: BTvS’ main focus was on organizing, advocacy, media, education, and training. These pieces were often brought together through national campaigns. “The Spirit of Geneva” demonstrates the BTvS organizing model. In late 2003/early 2004 there were three Israeli initiatives to jumpstart the peace process. The most prominent, The Geneva Accord, a model final-status agreement with resolution of all outstanding issues negotiated by many of the same people present at Taba. The second – a broad statement of principles called The People’s Voice Initiative on which a two-state resolution could be based – was crafted by Ami Ayalon, former chief of the General Security Services (Shin Bet), and Sari Nusseibeh, President of Al-Quds University. Lastly, the One Voice ballot was launched with the intent of using referenda on both sides to demonstrate the prevalence of moderation.
BTvS launched its multi-pronged “Spirit of Geneva” campaign on, December 1, 2003, the launch date for the Geneva Accord. It consisted of a series of activities promoting a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict centered around support for all 3 initiatives.
- A BTvS delegation attended the Geneva Accord signing ceremony in Switzerland, along with a documentary filmmaker.
- BTvS members delivered copies of the Accord with Swiss chocolates to every member of Congress.
- BTvS supporters lobbied their Representatives and Senators to back Senate Res. 276 and House Res. 479 introduced by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Lincoln Chafee (R-RI) and Representatives Lois Capps (D-CA) and Amo Houghton (R-NY) in support of the three peace initiatives.
- Chapters around the country held press conferences to promote the Geneva Accord with local Jewish and Arab leaders.
- BTvS created a guide to hosting house parties that included a showing of the Geneva Accord film for use by chapter activists.
- The national listserv provided regular updates about the progress of the three initiatives.
In 2006, BTvS added rabbinic organizing to its agenda, often making it central to its message and grassroots activity. For example, the 2008 “A Time To Choose: A Rabbinic Letter to Senators Barack Obama and John McCain” was the centerpiece of a chapter-based campaign to reach out to Jewish clergy. The letter received a record 1028 signers, more than any previous Middle East peace-related rabbinic initiative. The campaign involved signer op-eds, extensive radio coverage, news stories, YouTube videos, and local and national ads in Jewish media. Significant connections were made between BTvS chapters/activists and local rabbis and cantors.
BTvS’ efforts were particularly important when the Jewish community was encouraged to rally unconditionally behind the policies of the extant Israeli government, rather than engage in open dialogue or dissent. During the 2006 Lebanon War, BTvS chapters held emergency community meetings, house parties, and discussion groups. They called for an immediate ceasefire and return to negotiations when in attendance at solidarity rallies. During the 2008-09 Gaza War (Operation Cast Lead), BTvS chapters held more than 30 events across the country, many attracting hundreds of participants eager to engage in much needed dialogue about the war.
BTvS conferences and training institutes were central to its work. For its first four years, BTvS held large national conferences with prominent Israeli, Palestinian and American keynote speakers, as well as sessions with prominent academics and Congressional leaders. BTvS activists and staff shared their skills on topics ranging from how to have a difficult conversation about the conflict to effective outreach to young adults. In 2006, BTvS shifted its focus to annual activist training and Hill advocacy through it National Leadership Training Institute and Advocacy Days. Among those who spoke at Advocacy Days were Representatives Charles Boustany, Earl Blumenauer, Lois Capps, Susan Davis, Barney Frank, Betty McCollum, Jan Schakowsky, and Henry Waxman.
In addition to lobbying, chapters began to make regular visits to their Representatives offices during the August and December breaks. These meetings allowed activists to develop relationships that could be leveraged when relevant legislation came up. For example, a 2007 Senate resolution calling for “the appointment of a Special Envoy for Middle East peace,” secured more than a third of the Senate as signers, a five-fold increase in signers from the previous pro-peace Senate legislation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2003.
Other advocacy-related activities included the Denver chapter’s well-received delegation to the 2008 Democratic National Convention and the Seattle chapter’s influence on the 2004 Democratic party state platform.
Closing and Contributions: BTvS integrated with J Street on January 1, 2010 to form the core of J Street’s field program and its Rabbinic Cabinet.
BTvS’ unique ability to organize brought together the previously amorphous American Jewish majority that supported U.S. leadership in negotiating a two-state solution into a significant constituency. Its principles and activities inspired a high level of volunteerism among hundreds of activists, many of whom stayed in leadership positions for five years or more and played a key role in building this movement.
BTvS gave Jewish clergy a platform from which to speak publicly – whether as signatories to one of the many rabbinic letters, writing for rabbinic publications, hosting BTvS events or speaking from the pulpit. The networks that BTvS started among clergy were crucial to building support in Jewish communal leadership at a time when mainstream organizations were reluctant to engage.
BTvS brought the diverse voices of Israeli and Palestinian peace activists directly to Jewish communities throughout the U.S. These programs were noteworthy for promoting a wide range of non-violent strategies in Israel and the Occupied Territories.
In addition to sparking conversations on the two-state position at a time when the mainstream Jewish community virtually silenced them, it initiated bipartisan action and dialogue between Jewish constituents and their elected representatives on both sides of the aisle. It challenged the assumption that there was only one way to be pro-Israel.