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Section 8: The Shalom Network

Timeline: October 1979 –Summer 1982

Historical Context: One month after Breira closed its doors, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made his historic visit to Jerusalem to start peace talks with Prime Minister Menachem Begin. When the talks on withdrawal from Sinai began to falter, a group of 348 Israeli reserve officers and soldiers published an open letter to the Prime Minister calling on their government to take advantage of this historic opportunity for a negotiated peace between Egypt and Israel. The letter read: “A government that prefers the existence of settlements beyond the Green Line to the liquidation of the historical conflict and the establishment of a system of normal relations in our region will awaken in us questions concerning the justice of our way.”

200,000 Israelis signed a petition in support of the letter, resulting in the formation of Shalom Acshav – “Peace Now.” More than 30,000 people attended the first organizing meeting on April 1, 1978. Israel’s first mass peace movement helped bring about the September 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, in which the Sinai peninsula was returned to Egypt in exchange for an end to hostilities.

In July, 1978, Americans for Progressive Israel published ads in Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post in which 560 American Jews announced their support for Peace Now.

That same year,  Moment Magazine editor Leonard Fein organized the “Letter of the 37” in support of Peace Now. Signers included Saul Bellow, Irving Howe, Daniel Bell and Martin Peretz. In 1979, Fein organized a second letter in response to the dramatic acceleration of Israeli settlement in the West Bank, including a proposal for a precedent-setting Israeli settlement on the outskirts of Nablus, a major Palestinian population center. After some 400 notable Israelis (including Haim Bar Lev and Abba Eban) signed a newspaper ad critical of this development, Fein sent PM Begin a letter signed by 59 prominent American Jewish figures protesting those settlement policies. Signers included two past chairs of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and several ranking lay leaders of the UJA.

In August 1979, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Andrew Young was fired for meeting with a member of the PLO in efforts to delay a UN report calling for the creation of a Palestinian State; in doing so, he broke a U.S. promise to Israel never to meet directly with the PLO until it recognized Israel’s right to exist. U.S. pro-Israel policies thus became a topic of widespread public discussion, rather than an issue discussed privately among Jews.

Two months later, the English-language Israeli dovish Zionist magazine, New Outlook, held an international conference in Washington, DC. Taking advantage of the explosive growth of the peace camp, they brought a Peace Now contingent as well as MKs from the Israeli political parties endorsing a two-state solution – Mapam, Sheli and the Citizens Rights Movement/Ratz – thus providing an opportunity for Jewish activists to engage directly with Israeli peace activists.

Brief Description: The all-volunteer Shalom Network was formed by young Jews – Cherie Brown, Louise Schloss, Alan Solomonow, and Al Stern – who met at the 1979 New Outlook Conference. Filling the void left by the demise of Breira, they brought together a national network of Friends of Peace Now groups,  grassroots progressive Jewish organizations such as Chutzpah in Chicago and Kadima in Seattle, and others.. Their goals were to strengthen two-state activism, promote honest and meaningful dialogue with Palestinians, and express solidarity with Peace Now in Israel. The group operated out of the offices of the MEPP, directed by CONAME’s former director Allan Solomonow. Among other initiatives, the Network arranged for a number of off-the-record meetings between PLO leadership and prominent American Jewish figures.

Activism strategy: The main strategy was to provide resources to grassroots peace groups with minimal resources, organize networking among them, and create a more receptive (or less combative) community environment through outreach to mainstream Jewish organizations regarding their positions.

Membership/Chapters: The network had approximately 25-30 groups, many of which were influenced by the growth of identity politics and the women’s movement. Consciousness-raising encouraged people to explore how one’s own identify was shaped by ethnicity and other group identities (gender, class, religion, disability, etc.). Progressive Jews who had not necessarily identified as Jewish began looking inward, examining how the history of Jewish oppression and their own family history had shaped them. Many in the Shalom Network were involved in Re-evaluation Counseling, an international peer counseling organization whose theory on the internalized oppression of Jews helped individuals to increase their self-awareness. Many Jews begin to feel that Israeli-Palestinian peace was an authentic way for progressive Jews to express their Jewish identity without compromising their values.

There was a growing sense that silence signified complicity with the status quo, and that American Jews were partly responsible for enabling Israel’s policies because of the extensive support given Israel by the U.S. government. These local Jewish groups explored issues such as inclusive modes of religious practice, confronting anti-Semitism, and challenging anti-Israel attitudes sometimes encountered among non-Jewish groups on the left.

Activities: The Shalom Network had four main activities:

  • Publication of a newsletter with updates on the activities of member groups, allowing members to network with one another;
  • Strengthening local Middle East peace activism through training and a speaker’s bureau that included American and Israeli doves;
  • Organizing two delegations to visit Israel and the Occupied Territories;
  • Lobbying mainstream Jewish groups regarding the possibility of mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO and establishment of a Palestinian state.

Successes and Closing: The Shalom Network played a key role in supporting local Jewish groups involved in Middle East activism at a time when there was no national organization with paid staff to fill the void left by Breira’s collapse. When the New Jewish Agenda formed in 1980, the Shalom Network became its Middle East Task Force. Americans for Peace Now, founded in 1981, continued the solidarity work with its Israeli counterpart, Shalom Achshav.

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