Timeline: November 1973- October 1977
Historical Context: Prior to 1967, the secular Zionism of the social democratic Labor government and its antecedent–which ruled from Israel’s independence through 1977– dominated American perceptions of Zionism. The lesser-known, smaller religious Zionist movement saw Israel’s victory in the Six Day War as a miracle; the sign of God’s hand in history. Consequently, Zionism began increasingly to be understood in messianic terms. Many of the settlements created on territory gained in 1967 were actually secular communities founded for the purpose of securing the borders. Over time, however, religious Zionists began to dominate the settler movement. They emphasized the religious imperative to settle “Greater Israel” according to God’s commandment. Many mainstream liberal Jews, whose understanding of Zionism had been shaped by the labor Zionist concept of Israel as a “light unto the nations”, felt uncomfortable with this approach.
Our immediate and overriding concern is peace in the Middle East. Our concern grows out of our love and respect for the people and the land of Israel as well as our understanding that the continuity of Jewish life in the Diaspora is inextricably linked to the existence of Israel.
We are not innocent bystanders. If we share the anxieties about Israel’s policies, we have the responsibility to say so. If we detect mistakes that might have catastrophic consequences, we must not ignore or swallow our concern…For the sake of Zion, we shall not be silent. –Breira statement, 1975
In March 1973 an invitation-only gathering of rabbinical and graduate students took place at Rutgers University Hillel. Among the difficult topics on the agenda were the future of Israel in light of Palestinian nationalism and the growing Israeli settler movement. The original group took the conversation public the following summer, holding periodic public discussions in New York City. This forum was entitled “A Call to Discussion of Israel-Diaspora Relations”.
Following the Yom Kippur War a few months later, in which the “invincible” Israel of 1967 showed its vulnerability and sustained heavy losses (thus demonstrating the urgent need for peace with its neighbors), the group announced the formation of a national and explicitly Zionist organization, Breira: A Project of Concern in Diaspora-Israel Relations. Their definition of Zionism included a commitment to social justice; Breira supported workers’ rights, intra-communal justice and peaceful coexistence with the Arab communities.
The goal of Breira was to try to influence American Jewish communal support for Israel. with what later was called the two state solution. Breira sought “to build creative links between independent minded Diaspora and Israeli Jews based on shared values and traditions, as well as a shared responsibility and commitment to solving the problems which confront the Jewish people as a whole.”
The group wanted to reach influential people in the United States and made an effort to maintain contact with influential Israelis who were even then dovish like former Generals Meir Pa’il and Shlomo Gazit.
According to Breira member Carolyn Toll Oppenheim, “prior to 1948 it was legitimate for the Diaspora to support one Zionist political party over another. After the formation of the State [of Israel] that changed. We were told not to get involved in their internal things.”
According to founding chair Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, breira – “alternative or choice,” referred to the intransigence of both the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership and successive Israeli governments in their refusal to explore a peaceful long-term resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It was also meant to challenge the popular slogan ain breira – “there is no alternative,” i.e., that there was no way forward but the status quo.
Breira attracted many prominent intellectuals, rabbis, and Jewish communal leaders, including a large number from Hillel Foundations (at least eight Hillel directors served on its Advisory Committee.) Members included Rabbi Balfour Brickner, Director of the Department of Interreligious Affairs at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now URJ) and co-chair of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the State of Israel Bonds; Rabbi Everett Gendler, renowned for his activism and his contributions to progressive prayer books, journals and anthologies; Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and founding editor of Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility; Rabbi David Silverman of the Jewish Theological Seminary; Arthur Waskow, then of the Institute for Policy Studies; and Rabbi Max Ticktin, associate director of the national B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation. (Because Ticktin was in charge of personnel for Hillel, there were stories that circulated that claimed “a number of Hillel directors were reassigned or were even fired.” There was consistent pressure from members of Bnai Brith, especially leaders of Bnai Brith lodges in the Washington area.)
Breira also attracted a number of young Jews, thereby providing a forum for intergenerational dialogue. Members were religious and secular, Zionist and non-Zionist, mainstream and leftist.
Activism Strategy: Breira’s essential strategy was to encourage conversation about Israel-related topics that had previously been considered “taboo” within the mainstream American Jewish community. Intra-communal debate, they argued, would only strengthen the community. Breira advocated internal dialogue while also taking public positions supporting direct negotiations between the Israeli government and legitimate Palestinian leadership, an end to settlement activity, and the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian entity with West and East Jerusalem as the respective Israeli and Palestinian capitals.
Breira recognized that Israelis would determine the course of their country, while also maintaining that American Jews should be able to talk openly about their opinions. As a rule, Breira did not address U.S. politics directly, nor did it put much focus on other issues facing the American Jewish community, although some members advocated doing so.
Membership/Chapters: At its height, Breira had 1500 members (and many more sympathizers); some of its 10-15 local groups emerged from CONAME affiliates. Some young radical Jews were involved, but the organizational culture of Breira was one of Jewish community insiders wanting to transform the status quo. Jewish intellectuals, rabbis, rabbinical students, and communal professionals predominated, many of who had extensive experience in and connection to Israel, including a number who had spent time with the emerging Israeli Zionist peace camp.
Activities: Breira’s core activities reflected the erudition of its members. Its monthly newsletter, Interchange, showcased articles by leading American and Israeli thinkers on topics including the socioeconomic gap between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, the religious/secular split, and the emerging Gush Emunim (“Bloc of the Faithful”) messianic settler movement. Their policy statements and editorials were placed in Jewish magazines and newspapers; Breira also published a collection of essays by Israeli doves.
In 1974, Israel elected a handful of MKs who supported the two-state solution. This brought added legitimacy to the American peace camp. Breira organized national speaking tours featuring Israeli dissidents such as Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti, former Labor Party Secretary General Aryeh Eliav, MK Marcia Freedman, and retired Major General Mattiyahu Peled.
Breira openly criticized Israeli government policy for the first time in 1976, when uncritical support for Israel had become the central focus of American Jewry. After a Gush Emunim march led to violence, they circulated an “Open Letter to Israel’s Leaders,” disapproving of Israel’s 9-year occupation, land expropriation and suppression of Arab dissent. As Labor was in power, however, many Labor Zionist leaders and other liberals who would later become the voices of dissent in the American Jewish community (such as Rabbi Arthur Herzberg, Albert Vorspan, and Leonard Fein), criticized Breira for breaking ranks. This severely limited Breira’s ability to expand its influence within the Jewish community.
The twin concepts of dialogue and mutual recognition were also central to Breira’s approach. When Yasser Arafat addressed the United Nations in November, 1974, Breira activists distributed leaflets calling on Israelis and Palestinians to recognize each other’s national identity. Breira organizers were among the Jewish leaders who met with Palestinian moderates and Egyptians before Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. These meetings were later used to malign Breira alone, by critics selectively ignored the fact that representatives of mainstream Jewish organizations had also participated in them.
Breira held one national conference on February 20, 1977. That was four months before Menachem Begin and the Likud party took control of the Israeli government, allowing Labor supporters in the U.S. to be openly critical of Israeli policy.
Contributions & Closing: Breira was the first Jewish organization to introduce the legitimacy of dissent in the midst of unquestioning communal solidarity with the sitting Israeli government. As is often the case with trailblazers, Breira was unprepared for the vitriolic attacks against it. Americans For Safe Israel (AFSI), a small organization led by supporters of Meir Kahane’s far-right Jewish Defense League, published “Breira, Alternative to Zionism,” using innuendo and guilt by association to paint Breira as nothing more than a disguised pro-Fatah solidarity group.
The AFSI critique was picked up by other groups, many of who made no reference to the pro-settler association of its author. AIPAC distributed the pamphlet widely. Staff in Jewish communal organizations who were members of Breira received threats regarding their future employability. Anyone in attendance at a meeting where “questionable” positions were presented was considered a traitor to the Jewish people. The National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council urged American Jews to shun any individual who advocated negotiations between Israel and the PLO. Breira became viewed as a threat to Jewish-American loyalty to Israel.
The success of the attacks both reflected and reinforced the prevalent view that dissent within the American Jewish community could hurt Israel’s security. It also underscored the difficulty that Breira staff, members, and allies had in supporting one another under significant duress. The 1977 annual report of the Conference of President of Major Jewish Organizations made clear that “dissent ought not and should not be made public…because the result is to give aid and comfort to the enemy and to weaken that Jewish unity which is essential for the security of Israel.”
The fact that much of the Breira leadership was comprised of Jewish communal professionals who were vulnerable to the disapproval of lay leaders, on whose financial support they were dependent, also contributed to the organization’s demise.
Breira disbanded formally in October of 1978.