Founding Convention, December 1980

Over 700 people attended NJA’s founding conference on December 25, 1980, and over 300 were turned away for lack of space. The choice of date was not random, as Christmas is usually a day when American Jews face alienation in our officially secular, but Christian–dominated, national culture. The conference featured a few different tracks: educational sessions focused on Jewish progressive approaches to historical and modern political and social issues; creation of a “conference community” through religious and cultural events, caucuses, and get-to-know-you exercises; and, not least important, the work of creating a national organization through work on a Conference Unity statement, By-Laws, and Taskforces.

Banner image from 1985 NJA Convention. Photo by Jacob Bender.

BATTLE OVER THE BY-LAWS: DRAMA AND PASSION

In a 1981 article in the New Jewish Times, conference attendee Jonathan Mark offered an entertaining and enlightening retrospective of the decision-making process of the NJA conference, which I draw from throughout the following section. Mark notes that on the second day of the conference, Thursday, a vote was made to formulate not only a broad unity statement, but also specific amendments on controversial issues (especially the Middle East). Though work to create the Unity Statement had been going on for over six months leading up to the conference, there would only be two days for writing, debating, and voting on the amendments. Mark, who was critical of the decision to take on controversial amendments, felt that the Leftist Caucus had dominated the hearing on Saturday’s voting process.

An all-group Havdala (ending Sabbath) service at nine o’clock on Saturday night brought the attendees together in a moment of holding hands and singing. Then the lights came on and it was “time for battle over agenda by-laws.” Some conference attendees had spent the past two days creating a proposed set of by-laws, but the rushed group process yielded a relatively meaningless document. Word-by-word debate over the by-law proposal went on for hours, as Mark explained “the procedure is almost paralyzed from the start by games of parliamentary jabberwocky and Talmudical fishing expeditions in which trivial ‘points of procedure,’ ‘points of information,’ and ‘points of clarification’ produce a de facto filibuster by delegates from across the spectrum.” By half-past midnight only 492 of the 700 conference attendees were left, dropping away from the tiresome process in streams and floods. Quorum called for 328 votes.

Despite the group frustrations and tensions, a culture of Jewish humor also pervaded the proceedings. Mark remembers that at 1 a.m. a bunch of conference participants broke the tensions with hilarious antics:

Merry Pranksters walk around with balloons and scaffolding on their heads, mimes clown and juggle in the aisles, jokes are exchanged about a new organization for militant feminists and gays entitled ‘New Jewish Gender.’ And, to parody the dozens of single-issue caucuses, a Jew playing possum is carried to the center of the stage and announced as ‘the Dead Caucus,’ representing dead Jews everywhere and their contributions to Judaism.

The bylaws were passed at 2:15 a.m., and the crowd went wild! Mark wrote, “A wild stampede of relief and exhilaration sweeps the delegates out of their seats and into dancing snake-lines through the aisles, swirling into circles of Israeli dancing in a demonstration that lasts over 40 minutes.” Jeff Oboler is quoted in Mark’s article with the powerful reflection that this end-of-the-process celebration was “a magnificent moment for Jews. Was there any other time in Jewish history when Orthodox danced with Marxists, when straights danced with gays?”

At 3 a.m. a relatively moderate unity statement passed, and tensions and frustrations built with the recognition that there were still a bunch of radical resolutions to tackle. Mark writes about another moment of creative problem solving, “a woman approaches the microphone and leads the delegates in The Itsy-Bitsy Spider Climbs Up the Water Spout, followed by whoops and wild applause.”

LOST QUORUM, STRAW-POLL RESOLUTIONS

At 5 a.m., after more hours of debate, quorum was finally lost and the session recessed. Reconvened at 8:15 a.m., a quorum was never reached on the last day of the conference. The couple of hundred attendees who showed up did pass the resolutions (“inadvertently called ‘revolutions’ by the caller of the roll,” writes Mark) in a straw poll, but Agenda leaders were clear that Sunday’s decisions would have no impact on Agenda policy. These resolutions, passed by more than 70% in the straw polls, included support for a broad range of issues1:

  • Diversity and democratic decision-making within Jewish community
  • Peace and mutual self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians (a two-state solution)
  • Sane energy and anti-nuclear policy
  • Economic Justice in the U.S. including worker’s rights and affirmative action
  • Opposition to Racism and anti-Semitism
  • Feminism, Reproductive Rights, and Lesbian/Gay rights
  • Anti-war, and for human rights in foreign policy
  • Jewish rights in other countries, especially threatened communities
  • Support for Ethiopian Jews to be taken in by Israel

HOW CAMPAIGNS WERE CHOSEN

At the founding conference, a 25-member Executive Committee (EC) was elected. The EC agreed that the straw-poll resolutions should function as guides and not mandates of NJA policy, and proposed establishing taskforces for each proposal area. For further campaign-priority input, a survey was given at the founding conference. 200 responses returned, and this prioritized issues list emerged:

  • Peace between Israel and neighbors
  • Integrate new vision of Jewish spirituality and politics
  • Promote social and economic equity in America
  • Fight anti-Semitism
  • Reverse the arms race
  • Strengthen Jewish education, culture, & community in North America
  • Improve relations between Jews and other minorities
  • Women’s rights, including reproductive freedom
  • Civil liberties for all groups including Lesbians and Gays
  • Restore a sense of mutual responsibility between Jews of Israel and various diasporas
  • Develop safe and responsible energy and environmental policy
  • Structure new patterns of childcare/employment in Jewish and general community

NJA eventually agreed on five primary campaigns: Israeli and Palestinian Peace; Worldwide Nuclear Disarmament; Economic and Social Justice; Peace in Central America; and Jewish Feminism. Taskforces coordinated these campaigns, and each had a representative on the National Steering Committee (NSC). There were also smaller Working Groups within taskforces and many shorter-term campaigns and strategy conferences.

NATIONAL PLATFORM

At a November 28, 1982 Delegates Conference in NYC, sixty-five elected representatives of NJA chapters and at-large members from across the US consented on a National Platform. Their statement explained that, “The platform represents the climax of an extensive cooperative process that began at Agenda’s founding conference in 1980. It represents our current political analysis with respect to the major issues of the day. We anticipate that it will be revised and amended as needed in the years to come.” The Platform, distributed to all conference attendees and all those on the mailing list, included a general Statement of Purpose and specific statements on 18 issue areas. The following are topic headings of each issue area:

  • Jewish Communal Life in the United States
  • New Jewish Agenda’s Feminist Commitment
  • Women in the Work Force, Family, and Reproductive Rights
  • Lesbians and Gay Jews
  • Jews with Disabilities
  • Anti-Semitism
  • Racism
  • Affirmative Action
  • Civil Liberties
  • Energy and Environment
  • Economic Justice
  • The Labor Movement
  • Relations between Israel and North American Jewry
  • Internal Social Life in Israel
  • Israel, the Palestinians, and Arab Neighbors
  • Israel and the International Community
  • World Jewry and Threatened Jewish Communities (Soviet, Ethiopian, Argentine Jews)
  • Militarism and the Nuclear Arms Race

1 these resolutions were carefully and specifically worded. In this list I offer only brief headings to reflect the general meanings of the proposals.

Rally image from NJA Newsletter # 13, Fall 1983. March for Jobs, Peace, and Freedom. Photo by Jacob Bender.
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