Timeline: December 25, 1980 through 1992.
Historical Context: Many progressive Jews were horrified by Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980, whic ushered in a new era of conservatism. Not only would progress be slowed on important issues such as women’s rights and economic justice, but there was the potential rolling back of hard-won civil rights gains from the 60s and 70s.
Many former Breira members and other activists felt a burning desire to revive Jewish organizing in a more comprehensive manner than the volunteer-run Shalom Network had been able to accomplish. They also wished to avoid the devastating attacks that had destroyed Breira. The idea of a progressive multi-issue Jewish organization in which Middle East peace was one aspect was once again floated among activists. According to Rabbi Gerry Serotta, “we felt that the only way to affirm that we were not attacking Jewishness itself by criticizing Israeli policy was by dealing with the broad spectrum of American Jewish life”.
Not long after the founding of NJA, many progressive Jews were propelled into Israeli-Palestinian peace activism by the 1982 Lebanon War and the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
Brief Description: In May 1979 Rabbi Gerry Serotta invited former Breira members and other like-minded Jews to an “Organizing Committee for a New Jewish Agenda.” The group, which included Adena Davidson, Jeffrey Dekro, Jack Jacobs, Eli Schaap, Carolyn Toll, and Jonathan Wolf, held a national conference on Christmas day 1980. Over 1200 Jews from across the denominational the event, which focused on a progressive Jewish agenda. Their motto was: “A Jewish voice in the progressive community, a progressive voice in the Jewish community.”
Five task forces were eventually established: Middle East Peace, Worldwide Nuclear Disarmament, Economic and Social Justice, Peace in Central America, and Jewish Feminism. Each task force coordinated their work at the local and national level.
Laying claim to the tradition of “kol yisrael areivim zeh b’zeh,” (all Jews are responsible for one another), NJA affirmed “the right and necessity of Jews everywhere to engage in democratic debate and open discussion regarding Israeli policies.” While never using the word “Zionism,” the platform premised its principles for peace on a commitment to the existence of Israel.
The Principles of Peace from the NJA Platform included the following:
We believe that to be successful and lasting, a comprehensive settlement must embody the following principles:
- The Jewish people’s right to national self-determination in the State of Israel.
- National self-determination for the Palestinian people.
- Mutual recognition and peaceful relations among Israel, the Arab states, and the Palestinians.
- Withdrawal by Israel from territories occupied since June 5, 1967.
- Guarantees for Israeli security with recognized borders and mutually agreed-upon provisions responding to the fears and real security needs of all concerned parties.
Toward These End, We Join With Israelis and Other in Calling For:
- Renunciation by all parties of all violence, including terrorism, as means to achieve their aims.
- Recognition by the Arab states and the Palestine Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) of the right of the State of Israel to exist within secure and recognized borders.
- Recognition by the State of Israel of the right of Palestinians to national self-determination, including the right to the establishment, if they so choose, of an independent and viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and an end to the repression of the Palestinians.
- Direct negotiations between Israel and legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people, including the P.L.O., on the basis of mutual recognition and a commitment to peaceful co-existence.
Activism strategy: The NJA platform included four planks on Israel: (1) Relations Between Israel and North American Jewry; (2) Internal Social Life in Israel; (3) Israel, The Palestinians and Arab Neighbors: and (4) Israel and the International Community. This carefully worded document guided NJA Middle East peace work for twelve years.
NJA considered the entire Jewish community its constituency when organizing around Middle East issues. Theirs was a multi-layered strategy of addressing both organized and unaffiliated Jews. Local chapters were encouraged to find their own way of implementing this strategy, fostering creativity, energy and commitment from a wide range of Jewish activists.
NJA’s Middle East grassroots organizing engaged large numbers of American Jews who had not been raised as Zionists, and others who had abandoned Zionism as adults. For them, Zionism had come to mean the uncritical support for the settlement enterprise supported by most American Jewish organizations. This support was among the reasons many of these Jews were unaffiliated, but they still longed for Jewish community. NJA filled that need.
This balancing act required significant organizational energy. Every statement and campaign was assessed from the point of view of Palestinian solidarity and human rights activism, as well as concern for Israel’s future as a secure democracy. NJA activists believed these motivations were syncretic and necessary, but finding language and organizing actions to express both was an enormous endeavor.
Membership/Chapters: By 1985, when NJA held its first National Convention in Ann Arbor, MI, there were chapters in 50 North American cities and over 5,000 members. The chapters operated with a high degree of autonomy and were very different from one another. Some focused on bringing NJA’s views to their local Jewish communal organizations, others focused on bringing their views to unaffiliated Jews active in progressive causes. Many chapters consciously created safe spaces for discussion among Jews who loved Israel and were deeply troubled by the increasingly deadly cycles of violence.
Activities: The National Task Force on Middle East Peace led tours to Israel and the West Bank, coordinated national speaking tours of Israelis and Palestinians, and issued press statements after significant events, such as when the Israeli peace activist Emil Grunzweig and the moderate Palestinian leader Issam Sartawi were murdered within a few months of each other in 1983.
NJA organized a “Call for a West Bank Settlement Freeze” in 1983. Signed by 5,000 American Jews, the call was addressed and brought to the General Assembly of Jewish Federations meeting in Atlanta. NJA brought MK Chaim Ramon (Labor Party) to speak in favor of the freeze; the motion was heard and tabled.
After the General Assembly, NJA members went on to collect another 5,000 signatures on the statement which read “Out of concern for Israel, we call for a West Bank Settlement Freeze…We believe that a negotiated exchange of territory for peace will contribute to the Israel’s long-term security, enhance its democratic character and promote justice for Israelis and Palestinians…” NJA activists stood in front of Jewish Community Centers collecting signatures and also sought endorsements from other Jewish and progressive organizations.
NJA activists trained themselves in the structure and culture of Jewish communal organizations. Local chapters sought inclusion in local Jewish Community Relations Councils; when blocked from membership, they mounted campaigns for openness. PBS produced a television special on the 1984 Israeli-Palestinian speakers’ tour that NJA co-sponsored with the American Friends Service Committee. It featured Peace Now leader Mordechai Bar-on (a former IDF officer and member of Israeli Knesset) and deposed West Bank Palestinian Mayor Mohammed Milhem. The 1989 Women in Dialogue tour with Jewish-Israeli Edna Zaretzky and Israeli-Palestinian Mariam Ma’ari was hosted in 17 cities.
In 1985 NJA executive director Reena Bernards (1981-86) and Christie Balka, then co-chair of the Middle East Task Force, traveled to Nairobi for the UN Decade for Women Non-Governmental Organization’s (NGO) Forum. After several months of coalition building and dialogue work, they sponsored a forum featuring an Israeli and West Bank Palestinian panelist each arguing for two homelands for two peoples. For the audience of over 400, who ranged from the rejectionist camp in the Arab world to very right wing Israelis, it created an atmosphere significantly different than the previous two conferences where Zionism-as-racism dominated the discussion.
Closing and Contributions: New Jewish Agenda closed its door shortly before the 1991 Madrid Conference (the forerunner of the 1993 Oslo accords). Former activists cite several reasons for the closure of New Jewish Agenda: long-term debt; an organizational culture that resulted in personal attacks on volunteer leaders and professional staff; tension over equal geographical representation; rigid adherence to an unwieldy process; struggles over prioritization of domestic versus Middle East peace work; divisions between religious and secular Jews; and controversy in the mainstream Jewish community over positions on equal rights for lesbians and gays in addition to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When New Jewish Agenda closed, much of its work, including its projects on Israeli-Palestinian peace, was taken up by single-issue groups such as Americans for Peace Now.