I disagree with Cherie Brown’s assessment that NJA became isolated and “fringe” because its members were used to an outsider position. NJA worked to engage the General Assembly of United Jewish Communities, the institutions of Reform Judaism, and other Jewish organizations throughout its lifespan. Rather, I believe that NJA was isolated because the mainstream Jewish community was not prepared to embrace NJA’s progressive visions of a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine and a sanctified place in the community for Lesbian and Gay Jews. Despite the passing of almost two decades since NJA shut down, many institutions in the Jewish community would still reject NJA’s progressive vision. The perspective that NJA people created their own marginalization out of habit may have some truth, but it cannot be argued outside of the realities of homophobia and identification with Israeli nationalism in the larger American Jewish community.
As an organizer and a fundraiser, I’m trained to identify and track measurable outcomes. But as any activist can tell you, the work of social change is not easily measurable, or attributable. I can measure New Jewish Agenda’s impact in a few clear ways:
- NJA mobilized a visible Jewish component of almost every progressive political movement in their decade. In that way, they made an impact on the Left. For example, NJA members’ organizing successfully changed the tone of conversations about Zionism at the 1985 UN Decade for Women Forum, a forum which had previously been a site of hostile anti-Semitism on the Left.
- In the Jewish community, NJA’s impact can be measured in a few ways:
- Membership of 5,000
- Success in bringing resolutions to the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), thus impacting debate and discussion throughout the Jewish community
- Publication of many letters (with long sign-on lists) in the Jewish, American, and Israeli press
- NJA’s perceived power in the Jewish community is implied in the attempted infiltration by the New Alliance Party, and the negative targeting by Americans for a Safe Israel and the Jewish Defense League
- The leadership training Agenda provided has contributed to a number of successful current organizations, many of which spun off of NJA. Former Agenda-ites make up (or have made up) the leadership of many organizations and Jewish community resources including American Friends of Peace Now, New Israel Fund, Jewish Funds for Justice, The Shalom Center, Elat Chayyim Retreat Center, ALEPH/Alliance for Jewish Renewal, Bridges journal, American Friends of Neve Shalom/Wahat Salam, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, A Jewish Voice for Peace, the Abraham Fund, and the Jewish Peace Fellowship (which pre-dated NJA), and many more.
- The personal relationships formed in this organization impacted the course of individual lives greatly. There were many meaningful partnerships – political, romantic, and creative – that came out of Agenda, including a number of co-authored books. When I asked former-NJA members about the group’s accomplishments, this was often the first thing mentioned.
The pages of this project documenting each Taskforce are a collection of achievements by the organization, so NJA’s measurable accomplishments can surely be named. However, the major impacts of their work are hard to quantify. By the time NJA shut down, world events around each of their national campaigns had significantly shifted. How big a part did NJA play, if any, in the Jewish community’s response to the first Palestinian Intifada (1987-1993), the 1992 peace treaty in El Salvador, the dismantling of apartheid including the 1992 lifting of US economic sanctions, the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union, the 1992 election of Democrat Bill Clinton as president?
Most of Agenda’s impact was that of subtle cultural shifting. For instance, today world leaders talk about a “two-state solution” in Israel/Palestine as if that phrase has always been acceptable. The history of New Jewish Agenda (and Breira before that) demonstrates that advocacy of the two-state solution was once perceived as “suicidal” for the Jewish community, and Jewish professionals’ careers were destroyed due to their advocacy of the idea. How did this solution become acceptable in the mainstream American and Jewish communities? The answer has something to do with New Jewish Agenda.