Looking Back at Brit Tzedek Ten Years Later
Brit Tzedek was every organizer’s dream. Perhaps because each of us involved in founding the organization and making it happen was a long-time organizer and activist at the local level. We believed, passionately and from experience, that real change requires a swell of support from the bottom up. From we the people. Yes, we learned again and again, money really matters. And yes, access to those who wield power is important (if we were the grassroots, they were the grasstops). But without organized, committed, decently funded long-term activism at the local level, all is lost against overwhelming dollar and access odds.
Such was the situation when Brit Tzedek came on the scene in 2002. Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum, and Meretz-USA were on the scene, as well as a number of smaller organizations (Rabbis for Human Rights, The Shalom Center, others). But AIPAC dominated the scene all across the board of the organized Jewish community and in Congress as well as the White House. The Israeli peace movement had been seriously weakened by the left’s response to the Second Intifada.
In that atmosphere, what we were attempting to do seemed gargantuan, perhaps foolish. But the first call for a 2-day conference in a suburb of DC at an inexpensive but decent motel was telling, for me at least, that this new movement had a real future. Shulamit Aloni agreed to keynote, and 200 people showed up. About a third were local activists, including many community leaders, representing large Jewish populations the length and breadth of the US. We mostly knew or knew of one another. We had been involved in the Israel-Palestinian issue most of our adult lives. Another third were new to the issue but coming from deep within the organized Jewish community – from high-placed Federation executives to members of local Jewish communal boards of synagogues, day schools, community centers. These were all new faces, each representing a small locus of power within the organized community. Another third, were human rights professionals. For both of the latter groups, their entry into the issue was the result of the ferocity of Israel’s response to the Second Palestinian Intifada (uprising). Israel had formally declared war on the stateless Palestinians under their control and used that pretext to wreak havoc on the West Bank, in particulary, utterly destroying the infrastructure of an incipient Palestinian state, killing and maiming thousands. The silence of our community on anything having to do with Israel in the year of Brit Tzedek’s founding was profound. Speaking about “the situation” was taboo at family gatherings, sometimes even around the dinner table, and in all communal gatherings, the synagogue in particular. For communal organizations, it became a virtue to remain neutral, and the surest way to do that was by refusing to air the subject at all. Nevertheless, the reality of the Intifada and Israel’s military response leaked through the silence via the internet.
Looking at the timeline of Brit Tzedek’s very low-budget activism over the years, I am impressed by how much we did, and I am reminiscent of not only my own endless hours as well as many others who could be called upon whenever for whatever was the emergency de jour.
Our goal, initially, was to break the silence in the Jewish community and give legitimacy to dialogue about the issues once again. That was the easy part. Though we rapidly grew in number and legitimacy, and modestly in budget, by 2007 we knew that on our own, we were not going to be able to change the dynamic in the Middle East, nor even in US politics around the Middle East, but without us, neither was possible. It was our goal that the various extant organizations that constituted the pro-Israel Jewish peace movement would unite or at least federate.
Though we reached a level of cooperation, the ultimate creation of a full-fledged grassroots/grass-tops, well funded movement was the achievement of Jeremy Ben-Ami and J Street. Brit Tzedek’s well-developed, 50,000-strong network of local activists and supporters became the foundation of J Street’s Locals.
In my mind, Brit Tzedek is a success story. We accomplished what we set out to do, even if we were only the first step on the path. These were steps necessarily taken.
Marcia Freedman, Founding President