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Section 6: Committee on New Alternatives in the Middle East (CONAME)

Timeline: Summer 1969 – August 1975

Historical Context: In 1969, none of the longstanding U.S.-based peace organizations – American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Fellowship of Reconciliation (which included the Jewish Peace Fellowship), the War Resister League, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) – had a Middle East program, although AFSC and WILPF had each issued a one-page policy statement. Concurrently, a growing number of Jews and non-Jews active in the 1960s anti-Vietnam War peace movement were sympathetic to the non-violent ideology of these groups.

Involvement in the civil rights, anti-poverty and anti-Vietnam war movements of the 1960s and early 1970s shaped the liberal and radical perspectives of many Jews. As the nationalist identity movements such as Black Power began to emerge and the women’s movement taught that “the personal is political,” young Jewish activists began to reflect on their identity as Jews in the context of their politics. Many felt a kinship with the nascent Israeli peace movement, viewing it through the lens of the anti-Vietnam War movement. They also felt increasingly uncomfortable in a left that often adopted a one-sided pro-Arab perspective and viewed Zionism as racism and colonialism.

In January 1970, the American and Canadian Friends Service Committee published Search for Peace in the Middle East; a book that sought to provide perspectives of Arabs and Jews and the “rights and interests of both …be recognized and reconciled on some just and peaceful basis.” They concluded that the most viable option was the prompt and faithful implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 242; two-states based upon 1967 borders.

Brief Description: Committee on New Alternatives in the Middle East (CONAME) was formally founded in September 1969 by Noam Chomsky. The majority of the membership and founding board were Jews, and it served as a meeting ground for both Zionists and non-Zionists. Noam Chomsky, Richard Falk, Rabbi Everett Gendler, Irene Gendzier, Paul Jacobs, Robert Jay Lifton, Seymour Melman, Don Peretz, and others spearheaded the initial committee. If people were mobilized around the Middle East as they had been around peace in Indochina, many believed, there would inevitably be a tremendous response. According to founder and Executive Director (ED) Allan Solomonow, “We thought that all we had to do was to mobilize public opinion for a year or two and we’d have a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.”

Initially the group considered restricting membership to Jews but decided otherwise; discussion within the Jewish community of concessions in the interest of peace became moot after the “Three Nos” of the September 1967 Arab League’s Khartoum Resolution: “No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel.”

They struggled with the question that comes from being the first to take a stand. Who was their constituency? What positions should they take beyond an ideology of non-violent engagement?

In order to develop their program, CONAME spoke with national peace groups and with the National Council of Churches; the group consulted with a variety of Israelis and Palestinians who advocated peace and coexistence. Members reviewed writings by Israeli and Palestinian moderates and the executive director conducted a fact-finding mission to Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and the Occupied Territories to find voices of peace, both Israeli and Arab.

CONAME eventually advocated for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, encouraging the U.S. government to explore mutual recognition between Israelis and Palestinians (the concept of two states hadn’t yet been popularized), and pressed for an end to settlement activity and military aid to Israel and the Arab countries. CONAME eventually advocated the formation of a separate Palestinian state.

Activism Strategy: CONAME sought to educate and open up dialogue among Americans, with a particular focus on reaching Jewish and Arab Americans with a message about the options for achieving peaceful co-existence. Americans needed to know that what seemed impossible was, in fact, possible.

Membership/Chapters: CONAME had neither a membership nor chapter structure.   Packets of general information and news articles about peace activism in the Middle East were periodically sent to interested parties. Individuals signing organizational statements were added to the mailing list and stationary. They had 8-10 loosely affiliated groups across the U.S. that hosted events, disseminated materials, and built contacts.

Activities: CONAME organized speaking tours of Israeli and Palestinian pairs (including Meir Pa’il and Raymonda Tawil, and Amos Kenan and Jamil Hamad); Israeli speakers would meet with Palestinian groups and Palestinian speakers with Jewish groups. CONAME also arranged tours of Israeli draft resisters. They facilitated dialogues in New York between Palestinian supporters of the PLO and Jewish supporters of Israel’s right to exist. They produced reading lists that included diverse perspectives on the conflict. CONAME took out signed ads in prominent newspapers advocating their positions, most notably a large ad in the New York Times in late 1975 calling for mutual recognition between Israelis and Palestinians. Its  200+ signers included many rabbis and Jewish academics.

CONAME tried to engage their critics. For a while, Americans for a Safe Israel and CONAME invited their activists to one another’s programs. CONAME activists regularly addressed their critics at Commentary Magazine.

Contributions & Closing:  CONAME Executive Director Allan Solomonow took a job initiating the Middle East Peace Project (MEPP) at the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and CONAME’s Assistant Director Robert Loeb left to become the Executive Director of Breira (see below) in 1973. With two new peace organizations in place, one Jewish and one interfaith, many came to believe that CONAME was no longer needed.

CONAME stepped into uncharted territory with openness to learning and experimentation. Their groundwork, while not exclusively targeting the Jewish community, helped set the course for the two-state Jewish peace movement.

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