Meeting People Where They Are
By Carinne Luck

Over the past five years, Brit Tzedek v'Shalom has been in a unique position to think afresh about organizing in the Jewish community.  With its two-fold goals of educating a grassroots base of American Jews and then mobilizing that base to change US foreign policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we have adapted many traditional organizing strategies to the particular circumstances in which our activists find ourselves.

This has required breaking with commonly used Jewish organizational practices, most notably the institutional tendency to organize in a top-down fashion. Creating a new model was not easy or quick, in no small part because of the sheer sensitivity of the issue. Israel, after all, represents our survival, our safety - without Israel, many feel, there could be another Holocaust.

In building our model, it has been important to acknowledge that while such existential fear can at times be hyper-inflated, it is often justified - and regardless, it is felt genuinely by many in our community. One of the cardinal rules of community organizing is that you organize people where they are, not where you want them to be.

Thus, our first step has been to provide a safe space for Jews to question Israeli policy or consider openly what it means to be truly pro-Israel. It can be a painful journey for many to consider, often for the first time, that this is not a one-sided conflict, that Israel too has missed opportunities to create peace.  Only by creating this space do we allow individuals and communities to expand their frame of reference.

We must next delineate our message clearly and carefully by re-framing what constitutes Israel's best interest.  We must shift the focus from continuation of a deadly conflict to a two-state solution that will bring durable peace, thereby asserting in everything that we do that we are pro-peace because we are pro-Israel.

The next step has been to create a strategy that allows members and interested supporters to feel invested enough to take action, offering meaningful, substantive ways for individuals to get involved and take steps that can lead to real change. This includes organizing informative house parties, meeting with elected officials in their home offices, writing letters in support of Brit Tzedek campaigns, and so on.

But such work can only be truly successful if approached on a grassroots level, within an organizational structure that gives each activist respect and responsibility. This we achieve through the establishment of local chapters, which in turn take on the work of educating ourselves and our communities, creating in-roads to Jewish institutions, and raising the public profile of the Jewish peace movement. The chapters then work in close coordination with the national organization to create the necessary political pressure to change US foreign policy.

At all these stages, Brit Tzedek organizes with care and consideration for the unique set of local challenges that face American Jews who wish to change the status quo vis-a-vis Israel. Due to the deeply traumatic nature and sheer complexity of this issue, Brit Tzedek's message must always preserve nuance. There is no one person or institution to blame for the perpetuation of the violence between Israelis and Palestinians.  There is no single piece of legislation that could "change everything".

Nor can we rely on some of the better-known "direct action" modes of organizing. We cannot march in the streets, we cannot strike, or boycott, or commit civil disobedience - such actions would drive away many of the Jews we must still win over and would not move us any closer to our goal.

So instead we have a long-term project: trying to move a significant portion of the American Jewish community to create a shift in consciousness. Our Let's Talk campaign brings all of these aspects into focus: First we need to allow ourselves simply to talk about the issue, then we need to educate ourselves, and then we need to take action and increase the "talking" in our communities.

Our chapters have become increasingly successful at doing just this, developing sustainable strategies and setting goals for their own communities. They have become expert at identifying their local resources and understanding that they need not just sheer numbers, but also effective group leadership and the backing of respected Jewish community leaders, to be truly effective.

They regularly reach out to Jews of all backgrounds and denominations, as well as Jewish institutions and leaders such as rabbis and the heads of Jewish federations and Jewish Community Relations Councils (JCRCs). A key part of this process is successful media outreach, which allows individual chapters to amplify their many educational efforts: films, speaker tours, discussions, panels, house parties.

With successful networking and trainings, the chapters have been able to engage activists and members in both national and local advocacy initiatives such as participating in legislative action alerts, phone trees, petitions, letters to Congress, and meetings with their Senators and Representatives.

As such, our chapters provide a mechanism for Brit Tzedek to implement our strategy in communities throughout the country, demonstrating that we are a powerful national force.

Our recent Grassroots Leadership Training Institute and National Advocacy Days 2007 exemplified why we have become a recognized force within the Jewish community, and a growing voice in Washington. During the Training Institute, chapter activists participated in, and in some cases led, workshops on leadership development, on listening and talking to those in our community who may disagree with us, and on developing local strategy.

Perhaps most encouraging, though, was the fact that when chapter activists met with their Members of Congress and staff, it became clear that there has been a shift in the perception of how the American Jewish community deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We met greater receptivity at those meetings - we were being listened to, as true representatives of our local Jewish communities.  We met with more Members of Congress directly (over 30 in-person meetings).  And we didn't just receive lip service; since our meetings in DC, 13 of the Representatives and 11 of the Senators that we met with have signed on as cosponsors to the two pro-peace, pro-Israel bills we were lobbying on: the Davis Mideast envoy resolution, H.Res.143, and the Feinstein/Lugar resolution on Israeli-Palestinian peace.

We have gained a rhythm - we have established our model for organizing. We have figured out what works and what doesn't. We will keep growing - and we need to keep providing chapters with ways to win victories small and large, to keep us all truly engaged, even when the work is so very hard.

Brit Tzedek is becoming more and more effective because we are following the principle of organizing people where they are, not where you want them to be. In this way, we have created a substantive alternative model for what it means to be pro-Israel.

It is truly affirming to have been a part of developing this strategy and doing this work with the thousands of activists who volunteer hours and hours of their time. Five years into our organizational history we have proudly arrived at a shared vision and understanding of our work - at a time when it is deeply needed in the Jewish community.

Carinne Luck recently departed from her position as Director of Chapter and Grassroots Development at Brit Tzedek v'Shalom after nearly three years of service.  We wish her the very best in her future endeavors. Carinne will continue to be a member of the New York City chapter.

Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, The Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace
11 E. Adams Street, Suite 707
Chicago, IL 60603
Phone: (312) 341-1205
Fax: (312) 341-1206

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