NJA’s Early Evolution and the Legacy of Breira
The first seeds of NJA came during the last board meeting of a group called Breira: A Project of Concern in Diaspora-Israel Relations (1973-1978). The name, Hebrew for “Alternative,” was a response to the common phrase “Ain breira” or “There is no alternative” an Israeli Labor Party slogan used to justify military aggression much in the way “National Security” is used in American political rhetoric. Breira was founded in response to the 1973 Yom Kippur War in Israel (known as the Ramadan War to Muslims), and advocated mutual recognition between Israelis and Palestinians. In Torn at the Roots, Michael Staub quotes national chairperson Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf about the mission of Breira,
The name betokened our desire for an alternative (breira in Hebrew) to the intransigence of both the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the several governments of Israel. We proposed what has come to be known as the two-state solution, now more than ever the chief possibility for a peaceful, long-term resolution of the Middle East conflict. (281)
Breira’s impact in the Jewish community was threatening to right-wing Jewish organizations, especially those advocating settlements in the Palestinian territories. By 1978, Breira had been destroyed by other Jewish organizations — the most prominent detractor was American for a Safe Israel (AFSI). In an interview I did with NJA founder Rabbi Gerry Serotta, he recalled that at the end of Breira’s life as an organization the board was consumed with dealing with financial and legal issues. Serotta, concerned that Breira’s work would not be carried on, turned to John Ruskey (one of Breira’s founders and Serotta’s roommate at the time) and asked, “What are we going to do next? Who’s going to start a successor organization?” Ruskey told Serotta “You do it!”
Gerry Serotta and his local Breira chapter (Rutgers, NJ) wrote a “New Jewish Manifesto” a multi-issue progressive Jewish statement that could be used as an outreach and organizing tool. Next, Serotta had a meeting with Hillel (Jewish campus organization) directors at the national Hillel conference in December 1978. Many in that group shared Serotta’s feelings of alienation within the mainstream Jewish community, and need for a forum to organize as progressive Jews. Coming out of the Hillel meeting, there were two competing strategies: a new organization or a move to advocate for a broader agenda within existing groups. In fact, Serotta and Al Axelrad went to a board meeting of Americans for Progressive Israel (API), a socialist-Zionist group, to encourage a shift to “Americans for Progressive Klal Israel ” (Klal Israel means “all the people Israel”, the global Jewish community rather than the nation.) API expressed some interest, but this strategy did not generate the same energy as visions of a new organization. Most of the Hillel folks wanted to work within an organization that would be broadly focused (beyond Israel) from the beginning.
ORGANIZING COMMITTEE FOR A NEW JEWISH AGENDA
In May 1979, following the circulation of a “Call for a 1980 Congress of Progressive Jews,” Serotta invited two hundred Jewish Left leaders to gather, and sixty joined in New York to discuss and strategize about the lack of organizational context and options for progressive Jews. By Serotta’s memory, the meeting attendees were about half women and 10-20% Jewish professionals such as rabbis, and educators. That meeting created the Organizing Committee for a New Jewish Agenda (OCNJA), a name suggested by Jack Jacobs, and set the goal of holding a national Jewish conference to establish a “new Jewish agenda. ” The demand for a national organization, however, did not become clear until close to the actual conference. In a 2004 interview, Reena Bernards, national director of NJA between 1981-1986, suggested that the grassroots desire for a membership organization combined with the hesitancy of the conference organizers to commit to that goal may have contributed to the insecurities people brought to the conference, and the resulting power struggles over the platform. By the time of the conference, there were 2,000 people on the mailing list including 15 local multi-issue progressive groups. Some local groups had formed in response to the initial national organizing efforts of OCNJA, though they were not official chapters yet. These groups were in San Francisco, Ann Arbor, Detroit, and Boston. OCNJA members also organized by attending the Havurah conference, and the Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education (CAJE), and networking with existing radical Jewish collectives like Chutzpah in Chicago, Boston Committee to Challenge Anti-Semitism, Project on New Jewish Alternatives in Madison, and Kadima in Seattle.
WHY WAS NJA MULTI-ISSUE AND GRASSROOTS?
From the earliest days of NJA, founders promoted the creation of a solidly multi-issue platform. The origins of this political priority can be traced directly to founders’ experiences in Breira (1973-1978). Breira had been a single-issue group advocating a two-state solution and mutual respect for the nationalist desires of both Israelis and Palestinians. Breira was founded just a few months before the Yom Kippur War (1973), which heralded an unprecedented level of support (financial and otherwise) from American Jews to Israel. While Breira’s work to encourage dialogue and recognition of the rights of Palestinians was at first met with relatively positive reviews from Jewish press and organizations, the group was eventually destroyed by a brutal smear campaign. At the time, any recognition of Palestinian nationalism was seen as high treason within the Jewish community — and any visibility of a diversity of Jewish opinions was seen in mainstream circles as airing of dirty laundry that threatened to seriously hurt Israel’s safety.
ATTACKED BY AMERICANS FOR A SAFE ISRAEL
In 1977, Rael Jean Isaac wrote a thirty-page pamphlet called “Breira: Counsel for Judaism.” Published by Americans for a Safe Israel (AFSI), the pamphlet sharply critiqued Breira for speaking out about Israel as American Jews. The mainstream Jewish community received Isaac’s rejection of Breira as that of a neutral observer, but in fact Isaac was closely affiliated with the Gush Emunim settlement movement (as a U.S. advisory board member) that Breira had been challenging. This fact was not acknowledged in AFSI’s pamphlet. Isaac made a specific point of redbaiting– a good 2/3 of the pamphlet focuses on Breira’s affiliation with the radical New Left by association with Arthur Waskow. Waskow was involved in many progressive protests (most famously the 1968 Chicago DNC) and wrote the first Freedom Seder, bringing together Jewish and Black activists during the days following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. These allegations did irreparable damage. Opponents in the mainstream Jewish community labeled Breira a Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.)-front group, Jewish organizations fired many of those affiliated with Breira, and other Jewish groups picketed Breira gatherings with signs such as “Death to Breira” and “Breira Means Suicide.” The group was discredited and politically paralyzed within the Jewish community. Coming out of the traumatizing end of Breira, many believed that Breira had been especially vulnerable because it was a single-issue group and because it had a large steering committee full of important Jews but had never built a truly grassroots movement. Indeed, history seems to bear out this theory. In many other ways, NJA came to look a lot like Breira:
- Breira leaders were among the founders of NJA
- Emphasis in both organizations was placed on mobilizing a diverse Jewish constituency across differences of gender, generation, religious/secular affiliation, and Zionist/non-Zionist/anti-Zionist political positions
- Both organizations aimed to create public forums to encourage discussion of taboo topics
- Both built much of their base from Hillel and the Havurah movement
- Both groups included leadership otherwise affiliated with the New Left
Yet NJA’s grassroots base and multi-issue organizing laid a strong foundation to take controversial positions without being destroyed like Breira. Gerry Serotta was one of those early NJA-organizers who felt that multi-issue organizing would lead to more credibility in the Jewish community. After Breira’s fall, and cognizant of Jewish fears about anti-Semitism on the Left, Serotta and others worked to carefully avoid public perception as just another anti-Israel group (who happen to be Jewish). Serotta believes that single-issue and expert-centered organizing made Breira an easier target to destroy:
I was on the losing faction of Breira… I was very strongly of the opinion that we would have better credibility as a Jewish organization if we were multi-issue rather than just, in effect, a Left or progressive Zionist organization. So we did have a plank in the platform but everybody felt that our specialization was the Middle East, and that’s where we had our strength and that’s why people were attracted to Breira. But I didn’t agree. I thought it made us too easy to destroy. And there was another reason why it was easy to destroy Breira, it went for a “dissident elite” of establishment types who felt that Israel’s policies were self-destructive. We had a number of prominent American Jewish leaders, rabbis, editors, and intellectuals who were associated with us, but those people were very easy to pick off. They were more sensitive to criticism and they didn’t have a grassroots behind them. My two main critiques of Breira and its ability to be effective were that it was too single issue and too elite in its organization.
The fact that Agenda survived for over a decade where Breira was destroyed in less than half that time may not only have been a result of Agenda’s multi-issue platform and grassroots movement-building. NJA may also have benefited from a change in the political context. Avi Rosenblit, in his senior thesis titled “New Jewish Agenda and the Lebanon War,” shows us that many scholars mark the 1982 invasion of Lebanon as a watershed event that entirely changed the political landscape for American Jewish peace activists. Rosenblit argues that the Lebanon invasion, and especially the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, exposed and undermined the silencing of dissent by American Jewish leaders. The resulting climate offered more opportunities for criticism of Israel within the Jewish community. Rosenblit writes,
American Jews never approached a consensus on the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and during the Lebanon War [the American Jewish community] was evenly divided on whether or not to withdraw from these areas. Polls of the Jewish community in the early 1980s illustrate that settlements were not the only issue on which they had strong, divergent, and critical opinions. Specifically during the war in Lebanon, American Jews responded less favorably to Israeli policy than they had at any time in Israel’s history. (7)
New Jewish Agenda survived for a decade where other Jewish groups calling for civil rights and nationhood for Palestinians (before and since Agenda) have been destroyed. While this was certainly due to many factors, the impact of Agenda’s commitment to activism in the Jewish community as progressives and in the progressive community as Jews had a huge impact on NJA’s ability to take strong critical stands without losing credibility. Though AFSI wrote and published a 1987 attack-paper about New Jewish Agenda by Jean Rael Isaac (“The Anti-New Jewish Agenda”) and distributed a second document called “New Jewish Agenda: Dissent or Disloyalty” in 1989, AFSI’s attempt to discredit NJA was not as successful as their anti-Breira campaign. Gerry Serotta says, “It was true that NJA could not be killed no matter who tried to attack us in the way that Breira was… You couldn’t kill NJA because we were part of the community.”