Despite NJA’s emphasis on multi-issue organizing, The Middle East Task Force (METF) was central to NJA’s work. In a joint interview with NJA founder Rabbi Gerry Serotta and former NJA National Director/METF member Reena Bernards, both reflected on a feeling that NJA had a historic and singular role to play, and that the METF was the most burning issue for Jews as Jews. Reena said, “There were other places to do social justice work [as Jews], but really no other place to express your desire for Israel/Palestine peace. Friends of Peace Now was getting organized right around the same time, but they were much more cautious, because their Israeli partners kept them cautious. It’s like that now, too.” Gerry added, “They were single-issue, and directed by the Israeli peace movement. Agenda was only place since Breira had died for criticism from the Diaspora.”
Between the end of Breira and the beginning of New Jewish Agenda, Jewish activism around Israel/Palestine had continued, and Agenda joined a field that was still deeply controversial and heated within the Jewish community. The first Organizing Committee of NJA (OCNJA) meeting in May 1979 mobilized partially in response to the forced resignation of UN Ambassador Andrew Young because of Young’s meeting with Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. In the summer between that first meeting and the formal founding Agenda conference in December 1980, two smaller Jewish-American groups released controversial New York Times statements opposing Israeli settlement in the West Bank. In my interview with Gordon Fellman, who was co-chair of the METF for five years (1982-1987), he remembered that the mission-tension within NJA as a whole was also very present in the METF
Our task in the METF was to persuade Jews not to be anti-Arab racists and to persuade Leftists not to be anti-Israel rejectionists. I found that kind of exciting, a challenge because nobody else was doing that at the time. Within Agenda were people who wanted to give up on the Jewish community and stand firmly with the Left. I, and a number of others, thought that was a mistake and we should really be working in the Jewish community to change consciousness as well as on the Left. We went through this over and over again.
Invasion of Lebanon
NJA was the only American Jewish organization that clearly opposed the war in Lebanon from its onset in June 1982, shortly after Agenda’s founding. Local chapters were able to mobilize first, including a public statement by NJA’s Washington DC chapter (WANJA) two days after the June 6th Israeli invasion of Lebanon, a statement and protest vigil by Massachusetts chapter Khevre, and a City Hall protest by Philadelphia NJA. On June 30th, New Jewish Agenda (National) published a full-page ad in the New York Times denouncing the Israeli invasion of Lebanon politically and spiritually, signed by the entire membership of NJA (including more than 40 U.S. rabbis). NJA also organized town meetings. At one in Boston, foreign policy experts Noam Chomsky and Irene Gendzier were featured speakers, as well as NJA’s own Gordon Fellman.
In 1983, Agenda circulated a petition for a “Freeze on Settlements in the West Bank.” It was signed by 5,000 American Jews and enabled a public education campaign about the effects of settlement policies on the Middle East peace process. Agenda brought the Settlement Freeze petition to the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations (a year after success there with the Nuclear Freeze petition). In my interview with Gerry Serotta, he explained,
The Council of Jewish Federations is really the heart of the establishment; it raises most of the money in the Jewish community. They rarely take political resolutions, but they have discussions when they have an annual meeting, when it’s like the entire organized Jewish community is there! You have to bring a resolution through a local federation. Well, [an NJA member’s] father was a major giver in Minneapolis, so the Minneapolis/St. Paul federation brought a resolution that said “We think the American Jewish community should recommend to the state of Israel a freeze on settlements on the West Bank.” This was in 1983! The fact that we got it on the floor was a tremendous victory and it was reported widely that the Jewish community is considering this thing. It was tabled after some discussion, not defeated. We brought Haim Ramon to the CJF meeting, he was the youngest member of the Labor party in the Knesset at the time and a very outspoken dove, so we brought dovish politics into the heart of the establishment, successfully! We were a far-left gadfly but we were part of the community.
Christie Balka remembers that this success reflected on the power of Agenda’s diversity and resulting unpredictability,
We were there to act like nice boys and girls and organize quietly among delegates. You have to understand, this was one of the first times I’d shaved my legs! But they were scared to death that we were going to sit-in or do guerrilla theater, so they passed the resolution quickly. It shows that if you can appear unpredictable, you have more strength than your numbers would predict.
Nairobi UN Forum
In 1985, NJA sent a delegation from the Feminist Task Force to Nairobi, Kenya, to attend the UN Decade for Women Non-Governmental Organization’s (NGO) Forum. This NGO Forum gathered over 14,000 representatives while the simultaneous official Decade for Women Forum was attended by 2,000 government representatives. NJA’s delegation, including Executive Director Reena Bernards and National Co-Chair Christie Balka, presented a successful dialogue at the NGO Forum that had been organized collaboratively over many months between feminist Jewish, African-American, and Arab activists, and changed the tone of a major conversation at the Forums.
The UN Decade for Women Forum began in 1975 in Mexico City, followed by a 1980 Forum in Copenhagen. In 1975, a “Zionism equals Racism” resolution had passed the UN Forum, to the dismay of Jewish and Israeli feminists. This was the first time such a resolution had passed within a UN body – soon followed by a similar resolution at the UN General Assembly. The 1980 Forum was reportedly disastrous, with Palestinian-Jewish tensions and raging disputes interrupting participants from building consensus on any other issues. Palestinian representatives and those from other Arab nations denied Israel’s right to exist, and Jewish women reported widespread verbal abuse and anti-Semitism. Jewish representatives responded by rejecting the inclusion of Palestinians in the Forum and attempting to silence the voices of any who expressed criticism of Israel.
Members of NJA returned from the Copenhagen forum with clear intention to do the coalition-building work necessary to shift the conversation. To that end, they convened three NYC meetings between Arab, Jewish, Black, and other feminist leaders. Yet, this successful campaign was not without growing pains. A letter of critique from Carol Haddad, a representative of the Feminist Arab Network, to NJA’s Feminist Task Force, identified and challenged the ways that NJA organizers had invited African-American and Arab feminists to the table late in the process, and had tightly controlled the conversation. The letter criticizes one Jewish dialogue organizer’s anti-Arab racism in a recent article, and generally questions whether the Jewish women offering an invitation to dialogue are committed to really addressing anti-Arab racism or simply seeking “dialogue for the sake of dialogue.” The letter illustrates the necessity of NJA’s ongoing work to address internal community issues of white privilege and racism, in addition to their external work to challenge anti-Semitism.
In Nairobi, Balka and Bernards attended daily Jewish caucus meetings at a Nairobi synagogue, formed a caucus with Peace Now, and attended numerous workshops on Middle East topics. They distributed 4,000 copies of the NJA brochure offering guidelines for the dialogue, including these two:
- Israel will not be singled out as a unique violator of human rights. Nor will the Palestine Liberation Organization be singled out as a terrorist organization. Standards for human rights and international conduct should be applied uniformly to all countries.
- The equating of Zionism with racism is divisive and inaccurate. Zionism is a multi-faceted movement for Jewish national liberation and it is therefore unconstructive to the process of dialogue to assert that it is equivalent with racism. (This is not to deny that racist policies do exist within Israel.) It is in the interest of all women including Palestinians that the issue not be addressed in this way.
NJA held a major public workshop at the NGO Forum, “Israeli and Palestinian Women in Dialogue: A Search for Peace,” with speakers Mary Khass and Lisa Blum. According to a year-end report on the collaborative dialogue, “[Speakers] shared their mutual concerns over the continuing hostilities, the impact of violence on their respective communities, and the need for mutual recognition and self-determination for both the Jewish and Palestinian people.” Balka is quoted in a Kansas City Jewish Chronicle article saying that this was the best-attended workshop at the NGO Forum, and it was translated into five languages. NJA also coordinated two off-the-record meetings between Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian, Arab-American, European Jewish and American Jewish women.
The “Zionism = Racism” declaration was again brought to the UN Forum in 1985, proposed by the Soviet Union and supported by Iran and Syria. The language was struck down in large part due to Kenya’s peacemaking negotiations. In the paragraph in question, “Zionism” was replaced by “and all other forms of racism,” language that eventually passed by consensus including representatives from the Soviet Union and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
This was a big victory for NJA – they had played a crucial role in shifting a deadlocked conversation towards dialogue, with international impact. An NJA Press Release quotes Christie Balka: “Many of us are committed to continuing these discussions now that the conference in Nairobi is over. I found a hunger for contact on all sides. New Jewish Agenda intends to persist in the dialogue.” After the 1985 Forum, NJA attendees spoke around the country about the process and outcomes of their organizing.
NJA led two intensive political study missions to Israel and the occupied territories in the summers of 1983 and 1984, meeting with academics, journalists and leading political figures. A later tour led to creation of the 1991 video “This is the Moment: Israelis and Palestinians Talk.”
U.S. Speaking tours
- NJA and American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) co-sponsored a national speaking tour (in 1984) of Peace Now leader Mordechai Bar-on (former IDF officer and member of Israeli Knesset) and Mohammed Milhem (deposed West Bank Palestinian Mayor), resulting in a PBS television special, “The Arab and the Israeli.” These speaking tour dialogues were followed by local discussions between American Jewish and Arab communities.
- A 26-city tour by Dov Yermiya, the oldest reservist in the IDF and a civil rights and anti-racist activist in Israel, with Palestinian Munir Fasheh.
- Agenda co-sponsored (With AFSC and the Palestinian Human Rights Campaign) a tour by Tamara Berger — a founding member of the Committee Against the War in Lebanon and a member of the Israeli Committee in Solidarity with Bir Zeit University. Rita Giacaman, Palestinan professor at Bir Zeit University, spoke with Berger on this tour.
With the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and others, Agenda hosted a U.S. tour by Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery and Palestinian journalist Hanna Siniora.
NJA and ADC co-sponsored Israeli singer Sara Alexander and Palestinian singer Ismael Saleh.
NJA protested Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin when he spoke in Los Angeles in 1982. In November 1983, NJA protested Ariel Sharon at a Hebrew Academy banquet in San Francisco. Over 2,000 demonstrators turned out, organized by NJA along with the ADC, National Lawyers Guild, and the Committee for Academic Freedom in the Israeli Occupied Territories. In 1985, NJA joined protests against violent anti-Arab activities in Los Angeles, including the murder of Alex Odeh, Director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s Southern CA office.
Alex Odeh’s murder brought NJA face to face with the Jewish Defense League (JDL), and the realities of right-wing Jewish terrorism. Richard Silverstein, then regional director for New Jewish Agenda in Los Angeles, has written about his experiences on his blog, “Tikun Olam,” which I quote in part below.
The local NJA chapter took out an ad in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal mourning Alex’s death and calling for Jews to commit themselves to the ideals for reconciliation he represented. After his death, Agenda held a December, 1985 Hanukah party and invited Alex’s brother, Sami, to join us in lighting candles… NJA wasn’t the only courageous group, because it took enormous bravery for Sami to come to our event. Jews had just murdered his brother, yet he felt it important to reach out to a Jewish group to say that there was a just resolution of the conflict available to both sides. Also, his fellow Arab-Americans probably suspected him as well for joining with “the enemy.” Just as Jews suspected those who embraced Palestinians, the latter suspected their own who embraced Jews. I had enormous respect for Sami’s symbolic gesture. After Agenda ran the ad memorializing Alex, I received a threatening phone message on my office answering machine saying (I don’t remember everything he said but I’ll always remember this phrase): “Odeh was just a fuckin’ dead sand n****r. Watch yourselves.” I was of two minds about the message. 1985 was still before the age of widespread terror. It was still hard to believe that a Jew would commit murder for a Jewish cause. And in those days (and up to today), the Left deeply mistrusted the FBI. But I resolved in light of Alex’s murder that anyone who could leave such a message was capable of causing me great harm. I called an attorney who was a local chapter member and asked his advice regarding what I should do. I then decided to call the FBI. They came to my office (I later got in trouble with the national organization because I allowed the FBI into our office, which we shared with another “controversial” Nicaraguan cultural group), listened to the tape and immediately said: “That’s Earl [Krugel, of the JDL]. I’d know that voice anywhere.”
NJA organized opposition to the JDL, founded in 1968 in the United States by racist rabbi Meir Kahane, who also founded the Kach political party in Israel, advocating expulsion of all Palestinians. The story above demonstrates that Agenda and members of the Arab American community seeking to work together were facing serious and rabid opposition from right-wing Jewish groups. This thread of virulent racism and hate from a fringe group within the Jewish and Zionist communities does not indicate a widespread position, but it did have the potential for derailing any work towards reconciliation between the Jewish and Arab/Palestinian American peace movements. To their credit, members of the LA communities were able to continue to work together, despite this violent attempt to destroy their partnership.
World Zionist Congress
In early 1988, NJA supported Israeli peace groups’ mobilization of progressive representatives at the 31st World Zionist Congress (WZC). In the year before the WZC, NJA collected 650 new members for Americans for Peace in Israel, the US affiliate of Israeli peace group Mapam. Together, NJA, API, Mapam and another Israeli group Ratz (Citizen’s Rights and Peace Movement), collected enough votes to bring four delegates to the WZC. NJA METF members Reena Bernards, Gordie Fellman, and Paul Saba attended as supporters. Fellman was to have a seat as a delegate, but the WZC leaders created a new rule about not counting gift memberships, and thereby discredited two of the four Progressive Zionist seats. Still, NJA members were able to use their attendance at the WZC as a networking and movement-building opportunity.
“Breaking the Silence” Conference
In 1985, NJA co-organized a 4-day conference on the Middle East called “Breaking the Silence” with AFSC, Mobilization for Survival, and the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee. Activists came from 25 states.