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Section 12: Project Nishma

Timeline: 1989 to 1997

Historical Context: Beginning in 1987, a spontaneous uprising–known as the First Intifada–swept the Palestinian territories. The world was riveted by media coverage of both the revolt and the Israeli policy of breaking the bones of youthful stone throwers. In 1988, Secretary of State George Schultz, attempting to end the stalemate in the peace process,  proposed a means to restart long stalled peace talks based on the Israeli-supported UN Resolution 242. The Resolution calls for Israeli withdrawal from territories it had been occupying since 1967 in exchange for peace with its neighbors. Prime Minister Shamir responded in a radio interview published in the New York Times: ”It is clear that this expression of territory for peace is not accepted by me.”

This propelled U.S. Jewish Senators Rudy Boschwitz (R-MN) and Carl M. Levin (D-MI) to circulate a Senate letter addressed to Schultz in support of his peace efforts, expressing specific concern over Shamir’s comment. “We hope that the Prime Minister’s statement did not indicate that Israel is abandoning a policy that offers the best hope of long-term peace. Israel cannot be expected to give up all the territory gained in 1967 or to return to the dangerous and insecure pre-’67 borders. Resolution 242 does not require it to do so. On the other hand, peace negotiations have little chance of success if the Israeli Government’s position rules out territorial compromise.

Thirty Senators signed the bipartisan letter including staunch Israel supporters Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), Alan Cranston, (D-CA), Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), Howard Metzenbaum (D-OH), and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ).

Shamir’s indignant response was widely publicized.  “It is the free and democratic people and government of Israel that will have to decide the issues of peace and security,” wrote Shamir. Following vicious attacks on the letter’s authors, few senators challenged the Israeli government.

In 1988, following a secret meeting in Stockholm at which five American Jews were present, PLO leader Yasser Arafat condemned all forms of terrorism and recognized the state of Israel within pre-1967-borders. (Arafat deputy Nabil Sha’ath credited secret friendships with American Jews, who sometimes served as intermediaries for Israelis who were prohibited from direct engagement, as crucial to the PLO decision to publicly embrace the two-state solution.) Jordan renounced all claims on the West Bank, eliminating the “Jordan option” long favored by many Israelis and paving the way for Palestinians to represent themselves in negotiations. Israel continued to refuse negotiations with the PLO, but the U.S. opened a dialogue with the organization.

A number of prominent retired Israeli generals began to speak out in favor of a “land for peace” deal, arguing that it was in Israel’s security interest to pull out of the occupied territories. Four of these retired Israeli generals toured the U.S. in 1988.

In 1989, the American Jewish peace movement was largely grassroots; most activists saw themselves as outside of the mainstream organized Jewish community.

On July 6, 1989, 18 months into the First Intifada, the first suicide attack within the Green Line was carried out by Islamic Jihad on a crowded Tel Aviv bus , killing 16 passengers.

Brief Description: In 1989, individuals associated with Americans for Peace Now and supporters of other progressive Israeli organizations met to strategize on how best to enlist the American Jewish communal leadership in allowing alternative Israeli perspectives to be heard in the U.S. This group launched Project Nishma –Hebrew for “Let us Listen and Hear,” an independent educational project on Israeli security in the context of the peace process.

Project Nishma began during a pro-settlement Likud government. Organizers identified Jewish community leaders who might be willing to hear alternative perspectives; they, in turn, would invite friends and colleagues to invitation-only events featuring high- level retired Israeli military leaders. Those who came to the initial events and were open to the land-for-peace argument were encouraged to hold events of their own. Through this networking, Project Nishma developed a core of supporters from the grass-tops to help expose the myth of unanimous Jewish communal support for Likud government policy. In the end, over 100 Jewish leaders sponsored Project Nishma.

These sponsors hosted briefings for Jewish leaders by senior Israeli defense analysts; published and distributed articles on defense related topics; analyzed American Jewish opinion; and articulated a security-focused, pragmatic position on the peace process. It was understood that it would serve Israel’s security interest to end its rule over Gaza and the West Bank, provided that extensive, Israeli enforced security arrangements were part of any negotiated settlement.

Activism Strategy: Three interrelated components emerged in Project Nishma’s strategy:

  • Education — working with former Israeli generals to build a core constituency of prominent Jewish leaders with dovish leanings;
  • Advocacy — encouraging active, even-handed and effective U.S. peace diplomacy prior to and during the Oslo peace process;
  • Public diplomacy – breaking the ice with Arab players, particularly the PLO and Syria.

Membership/Chapters: Project Nishma did not have members or chapters. However, it did have a Sponsoring Committee comprised of its  individual supporters.

Activities: Project Nishma’s first phase was educational. They received two start-up grants to host Israeli generals, many with Labor party roots. The Project developed a letterhead with a long list of the names of those who endorsed their approach; it became increasingly difficult to attack and isolate any one of these prominent Jewish leaders.  Their presence provided legitimacy to the effort and made it easier for others to support the views of the Israeli “military doves.”

After listening to the generals over a period of time, most of Nishma’s leaders wanted to become more vocal. This launched Nishma’s second phase – advocacy in support of U.S. peace diplomacy.

There had been earlier efforts to break the myth of unanimous Jewish support for the policies of Shamir’s Likud government. Project Nishma’s “Letter of Forty One” was a milestone. It was presented to Shamir in November 1989 when he spoke at The Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly (GA), the premier annual event of the mainstream Jewish community. Signers included the chairs and presidents of AIPAC, The Jewish Agency, The United Jewish Appeal, The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, The National Council of Jewish Women, and The American Jewish Committee. The Letter made it clear that applause for Shamir’s speech did not necessarily indicate broad-based support for the government’s policies.

The letter, which received extensive press coverage, said, in part: Just as public opinion is sharply divided among Israeli citizens on how peace and security can most constructively be pursued, so American Jews too hold diverse views…More basically, profound differences exist with respect to the principles of land for peace with secure borders, a principle that some reject outright, but, we believe, most American Jews do not reject…Please do not mistake courtesy for consensus, or applause for endorsement of all the policies you pursue.”

When Esther Leah Ritz, one of the signers of the “Letter of Forty-One,” was asked if others agreed with her, she replied, “I don’t take polls, but everyone I talk with seems to agree with me.

Shamir waved off the letter, dismissing the signers. When asked about it on a talk show, he shot back “Who are these ‘leaders’?” His flippant response set the stage for a larger project during his 1991 visit to the White House, which was preceded by the annual General Assembly. The Wilstein Institute of Jewish Policy Studies, along with Project Nishma, released a Survey of American Jewish Philanthropic Leaders. Polling several hundred members of the Council of Jewish Federation’s national board and presidents of local Jewish Federations, they found an overwhelming majority were “security-oriented doves,” with half of them supporting public dissent.

Project Nishma held a press conference the day before Shamir was to speak and announced that many of the Jewish leaders at the GA would be at odds with his policies. This made international news, further debunking the myth of unified American Jewish support for Likud policies.

In 1992, a Labor government came to power under Yitzhak Rabin, a retired general, and Shimon Peres, a former defense minister. Nishma’s focus shifted to actively supporting  the government’s efforts and defending Israeli leadership against attacks by hawkish American Jewish groups such as Americans for a Safe Israel. The Project also initiated dialogue between Jewish and Arab leaders, both in the U.S. and in the Middle East.

When Israel’s military doves formed Israel’s “Council for Peace & Security,” Nishma continued its relationship with the group. In 1992, Nishma quietly helped fund and prepare an opinion survey of all of Israel’s retired generals and former heads of intelligence agencies. The findings revealed that Israel’s top-level military leaders overwhelmingly supported  trading “land for peace with security,” generating headlines in Israel.

The same year, Project Nishma organized a joint statement by American Jews and Arabs asking President-elect Clinton to give top priority to continuing the Middle East negotiations. Signers included the executive directors of the American Jewish Congress and of the National Association of Arab Americans.

Immediately after the White House hosted the signing of the Oslo Accords, Nishma held an Arab-Jewish celebration at the neighboring Hotel Washington. Featuring Israeli and PLO diplomats, the event drew over 400 Israelis, American Jews, Palestinians, and Arab-Americans in support of the Accords.

Project Nishma then moved on to a third organizational phase – public diplomacy. With a green light from the Rabin government, Nishma initiated dialogue between Jewish leaders and the Syrian ambassador, and later brought groups of American Jewish leaders to visit Syria and to meet with its foreign minister. Nishma’s leaders toured refugee camps in Jordan and the West Bank, and, after Oslo, met with Yasser Arafat in Gaza (and were among the first to fly from Gaza’s new airport).

In 1996, Project Nishma arranged a meeting with 15 Arab American and 12 Jewish American organizations to demonstrate support for American–led peace talks. Jewish organizations included AIPAC, ADL American Jewish Congress, and the Jewish National Fund.

Closing and Contributions: Project Nishma created a home for dovish mainstream Jewish leaders unwilling to join a grassroots peace organization like Americans for Peace Now. Nishma helped educate them on the security benefits of peace. Their subsequent involvement in peace advocacy benefitted from their status in the Jewish community. They also provided a centrist security framework for two-state solution advocacy. In 1997, Project Nishma merged with Israel Policy Forum and became IPF’s Washington, DC office.

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