Timeline: 1981 to the present
Historical Context: Shalom Achshav /Peace Now was founded in 1978 after 348 Israeli reserve officers and soldiers published an open letter to Prime Minister Menachem Begin calling on him not to squander an historic opportunity when peace talks with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat were in danger of collapsing. Shortly thereafter, 200,000 Israelis signed a petition supporting the reservists; this provided public pressure for the eventual September 1978 Camp David Accords. Israel’s first mass peace movement was born.
Shalom Achshav came to international prominence following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in June 1982 after a series of PLO attacks launched from Lebanon. A U.S. brokered ceasefire allowed for the safe evacuation of Yasser Arafat and PLO fighters to Tunisia and guaranteed the safety of refugees and civilians residing in refugee camps–primarily women, children, and elderly men. On September 14, Lebanon’s president-elect Bachir Gamayel, a Christian Maronite whom Israel supported, was assassinated by a Syrian loyalist. Within hours, Israel violated the ceasefire and positioned troops around the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps near Beirut. Phalangist Christian militias loyal to Gamayel entered the camps, ostensibly to root out Palestinian militants.
Between September 16 and 18, Phalangist militias took revenge against the camp residents whom they incorrectly presumed to be behind the assassination. A massacre ensued; estimates of the number of Palestinians killed, mostly women, children and elderly men, vary from under 700 to upwards of 3500 as noted in a Jerusalem Post article by Tamara Zieve on September 23, 2012.
Peace Now was the principal organizer behind a mass demonstration on September 25th calling for the government to establish a special commission to investigate the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. In what was heretofore the largest demonstration in Israeli history 400,000 protestors (10% of the population) converged on Tel Aviv’s Zion Square. In response, the Begin government appointed the Kahan Commission. Their report of February 8, 1983 concluded that Israel was indirectly responsible for the massacre and that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon bore personal responsibility “for ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge.” The Prime Minister was reluctant to accept the report’s recommendation that Sharon and other high-ranking military officials be dismissed.
Peace Now organized a demonstration two days later to pressure the government to take action. It was met with a counter-demonstration by right-wing activists, one of whom threw a grenade at the peace group, killing prominent Peace Now activist Emil Grunzweig and injuring several others. As a result of mounting public pressure, Begin adopted the Kahan Commission‘s recommendations. Ariel Sharon stepped down as Defense Minister, but remained in the government as minister without portfolio.
Brief Description: Almost as soon as Peace Now was founded in Israel, support for its work began in the U.S. In 1981, Shalom Achshav appointed Queens College professor Mark Rosenblum as their U.S. representative. He subsequently brought together the various ad-hoc solidarity efforts under once umbrella –American Friends of Peace Now–to be based in New York City. The name was shortened to Americans for Peace Now in 1984.
The outrage provoked by the Sabra and Shatila massacres drove many progressive American Jews to Middle East peace activism, propelling APN’s initial growth as a grassroots organization with nationally recognized progressive Jewish leaders. APN activists worked within local communities to promote the principles of Peace Now and to raise funds for the Israeli movement.
APN activists could genuinely state that they represented hundreds of thousands of Israelis on security and peace-related issues. Beginning in 1983, APN invited its leaders on trips that included meetings with Shalom Achshav activists as well as visits to West Bank settlements. Upon returning home, they were able to speak about the issues based upon personal experience.
While its positions were initially outside the mainstream, APN sought to become a respected Zionist voice that could normalize discussion of the two-state solution and bring it inside the communal tent. Public events were held in Jewish venues and APN chapters joined their local Jewish Community Relations Councils.
In 1988, after PLO leader Yasser Arafat denounced all forms of terrorism and recognized the state of Israel within pre-1967-borders, Shalom Achshav led a 100,000-person demonstration calling on Israel to negotiate with the PLO. The Israeli government refused, although the U.S. government did open up dialogue and took an active role in peacemaking. As a result, APN began to promote policies that encouraged American action with the White House, State Department, and Congress.
When the intensity of the first Intifada escalated in 1989 along with the Israeli response, Shalom Achshav organized “Hands around Jerusalem,” – 25,000 Israelis and Palestinians linked hands to encircle the walls of the Old City in a chain of peace
In 1993, APN joined the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations despite significant attempts by the Zionist Organization of America and others to keep them out. Within the Conference, APN continues to work with other American Jewish groups to support Israeli-Arab peace. In 1990, APN established the Center for Israeli Peace and Security in Washington, DC to coordinate its U.S. advocacy efforts and build crucial support for the peace process among U.S. decision-makers. When the national headquarters of APN moved to Washington, the government relations advocacy efforts of the Center were taken over by APN’s national staff. Grassroots activity moved from a chapter-based model to a national and increasingly electronic action network.
Activism strategy: APN strategy is four pronged:
1. Be an authoritative source for balanced information on the Israeli-Arab conflict;
2. Advocate for U.S. policy positions from the perspective of Jewish Americans who are pro-Israel/pro-peace;
3. Build a base for political activism and grassroots outreach to Jewish and Arab American communities, university students, and the public at large; and
4. Provide financial and other support for the work of the Peace Now movement in Israel.
Membership/Chapters: APN started out as a chapter-based organization. As of 2012, it maintains a regional office in LA and a chapter in south Florida, but otherwise has deactivated most of its former chapter structure. Instead, it maintains a very large grassroots online activist network supplemented by public events in a small number of locations each year.
Activities: APN promotes and raises funds for the work of Shalom Achshav in Israel, i.e., public campaigns, surveys, dialogue groups, street activities, vigils, demonstrations, and its widely respected Settlement Watch. Founded in 1990, Settlement Watch monitors – and protests – the building of settlements, new housing tenders, and the expropriation of lands in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Its mission extends beyond support for the Israeli peace movement. APN is – and remains – one of the most prominent voices in the American Jewish community and Washington advocating for Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab peace, often in opposition to AIPAC and other communally influential voices.
In 1990, APN was the only Jewish organization to advocate for settlement-related conditions on loan guarantees to Israel. After skyrocketing immigration from the former Soviet Union, Israel requested loan guarantees from the U.S. to help finance the resettlement of 600,000 new immigrants. President George H.W. Bush, who had clashed repeatedly with then-Israeli president Yitzhak Shamir (Likud) over settlement construction, insisted that any such guarantees be linked to Israeli settlement policy, a position rejected by the Shamir government and the bulk of the organized U.S. Jewish community. The loan guarantees were approved in August 1992, after Yitzhak Rabin had become Prime Minister, and included a requirement that funds spent on settlements would be deducted annually from the total aid amount.
In 1992, APN worked with AIPAC to draft the language of the Middle East plank of the 1992 Democratic Platform committees on behalf of U.S. Jewish community: “support for the peace process now under way in the Middle East, rooted in the tradition of the Camp David accords…with no imposed solutions.” Language on loan guarantees and moving Israel’s capital to Jerusalem were not in the platform.
The break-through represented by the 1993 Oslo Accord presented an important opportunity for APN. The organization voiced strong support for the Oslo Accords through a media campaign, advocacy on Capitol Hill, and within the American Jewish community (especially at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organizations). Its representatives attended the White House signing ceremony.
A decade later, APN played a central role in promoting the model permanent status agreement known as the Geneva Initiative in the US. It brought Geneva Initiative leaders to Washington to meet with Secretary of State Colin Powell and members of Congress, and it introduced and promoted a pro-peace resolution in both the House and the Senate.
APN also was active in pressing Congress to support the Roadmap for Middle East Peace authored by the US, Russia, the European Union, and the U.N. During the mid-2000s, APN worked closely with other peace organizations to rally bi-partisan support for Congressional initiatives in support of two-states. In 2007, it organized public support for the Annapolis Peace Conference.
For years, APN has publicized the increasing number of “price tag attacks” by radical settlers, who, according to the New York Times, “exact a price from local Palestinians or from the Israeli security forces for any action taken against their settlement enterprise.” In November 2011 Shalom Achshav was itself the target of two such attacks: death threats spray-painted on the Jerusalem home of Settlement Watch director Hagit Ofran, and a bomb threat at the organization’s Jerusalem office. Multiple death threats were sent via email.
APN was the only major Jewish organization to support the Palestinians’ bid to upgrade their status at the United Nations in both 2011 and 2012.
Key Contributions: APN has long played a key role in the American Jewish peace movement from its start as a solidarity group to its evolution into a fierce advocate for pro-peace pro-Israel U.S. policy, while maintaining close ties with its Israeli partner.
APN is the go-to organization for news and analysis on Middle East peace-related issues on Capitol Hill. It has developed and maintained strong relationships with members of Congress, congressional staff, and executive branch officials, providing information and analysis on key issues and legislative initiatives. APN’s Legislative Round-Up is widely recognized as “must-read” material for anyone interested in the intersection of US policy making and the Middle East.
Today, APN is the most prominent Jewish Zionist organization working in the U.S. to achieve a comprehensive political settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict through education, outreach, media, legislative, policy and continued support for Shalom Achshav in Israel. Many of the positions long-advocated by APN and Shalom Acshav are now accepted by most American Jews and Israelis as necessary for a peaceful, secure future for Israel.