Why Did NJA Shut Down?

There is no conclusive agreement as to the reasons behind Agenda’s official disbanding in 1992. A letter about the closing from 1993 National Co-Chairs to chapters celebrates and reflects on the work that Agenda did to foster Jewish organizing, but also notes:

Paradoxically, this proliferation of progressive Jewish voices was part of the challenge NJA could not overcome. In a more competitive environment groups with narrower focus and less cumbersome deliberative processes found it easier than NJA to plan programs, attract members and publicity, and raise money.

The co-chairs go on to list, in question form (for example, “Did we have too much Middle East focus or too diffuse a range a concerns?”) other issues that may have contributed to the financial crisis and 1992 decision to lay off the paid staff (Executive Director Irena Klepfisz and Program Administrator Linda Eber) and close the national office. In recent years, a few other opinions have been published. At the 2002 founding Brit Tzedek v’Shalom conference, veteran Jewish peace activist Cherie Brown reflected on the lessons she had learned over the years,

What did I learn from New Jewish Agenda? That progressive Jews who have functioned in isolation for so long, when given an opportunity to form a national organization with other like minded progressive Jews will find any excuse to recreate the same isolation. It seems just too unbearable to imagine that there is an alternative to functioning on the fringes of the Jewish community.

Brown recalled that leading up to NJA’s December 1980 founding convention, she heard from many progressive Jewish activists who were already strategizing about how to influence the meeting, “already expending energy to set up another fringe caucus.” Brown concludes, “What ultimately killed NJA, in my opinion were not only the attacks from the outside, which were many, but also the attacks on each other from within… The staff was never completely trusted or backed to lead the organization. Weakened by ongoing bickering and attacks of each other from within, Agenda finally folded.” But Brown’s speech does not reflect a consensus opinion from NJA alumni. A year earlier Brown had published the same message in her article “Lessons Learned in Organizing American Jews” published in Tikkun Magazine. Christie Balka, former national co-chair, and Reena Bernards, former director, responded with a letter to the editor of Tikkun. Balka and Bernards claim the story of NJA’s demise is much more complicated, and offer an overview of multiple issues that, in their opinions, contributed to Agenda’s struggles and eventual end.

“DUAL FOCUS “

NJA’s mission to be a Jewish voice among progressives and a progressive voice among Jews was both a strong-point and a real organizational challenge. Balka and Bernards write,

At best, it led to strategies that were flexible and creative; at worst it led to chronic disagreements about who we intended to organize and how – perhaps the in-fighting to which Brown refers. Although some of these vigorous debates may have been unnecessary, others were about valid political differences that still exist among progressive Jews.

Many of these debates were about Middle East Task Force policy, such as a controversy about the issue of opposing US financial and military aid to Israel, or tension between those who identified as Zionist and those who did not. One especially fraught controversy in 1986 concerned members of NJA’s Bay Area chapter’s endorsment of a position around US aid to Israel that was not reflective of Agenda’s national position. This tension eventually led to a mediation that resulted in revoked memberships for some members of the Bay Area chapter. The long process was exhausting for all involved. Other debates included topics such as whether it was acceptable to have women-only events sponsored by NJA, whether it was “baiting” of some kind to reject members of the New Alliance Party from NJA membership (when it was believed that the NAP was attempting to infiltrate NJA), and others that reflected confusion about target audience. Second, Balka and Bernards point to issues of organizational culture:

While other national progressive organizations turned their attention away from the grassroots and toward the Beltway, NJA remained committed to grassroots organizing and a vision of participatory democracy. Again, this had both strengths and weaknesses. It engaged many activists who had previously been excluded from Jewish communal politics, including women, lesbians and gay men, working class Jews, and others, giving us a Jewish and political home. At the same time, NJA’s organizational culture demanded a lot of members, decision making was slow, and potential supporters were alienated. NJA’s organizational culture resulted in chronic underfunding, and ultimately the organization exhausted its resources.

NJA’s organizational culture also reflects the tensions of NJA’s “dual focus.” NJA members affiliated with Re-Evaluation Counseling brought a focus on group process and identity-based organizing. After 1985, members of NJA’s feminist task force spoke often about the goal of building feminist process into all areas of NJA’s work. The effects of these influences included increased use of “consciousness raising” activist models, and an inward-looking “personal = political” track. Leadership development and commitment to building equitable power dynamics inside the organization were relevant strategies to change the Jewish community, but they were not effective ways to build the kind of organizing campaigns and solidarity/coalition work that were part of NJA’s mission and initial strategy. Many Jewish Leftists, familiar with traditional, mission-driven organizing campaigns, chose not to work with NJA because of the process-heavy organizational culture.

SISTER ORGANIZATIONS

NJA’s existence supported the development of a number of spin-off single-issue organizations during the 1980s. Balka and Bernards reflect a similar theme to that of the 1993 letter from NJA’s board about closing down:

NJA’s radical edge paved the way for other groups to organize a more mainstream constituency. In addition, NJA served as an informal training ground for many who became staff and leaders of these organizations. There came a point in the late 1980s when it appeared that single-issue groups were gaining steam and NJA was not needed as much. If creating a sense of possibility and an infrastructure for progressive Jewish politics is any measure, NJA was surely a victim of its own success.

NJA’s leadership incubation contributed to the creation of many organizations that are still around and making a difference today. As leaders in NJA’s five Taskforces became experts in their fields, it may have been advantageous to create single-issue organizations that were not held back by the complicated democratic process of NJA. In other instances, such as that of The Shalom Center, the existence of a single-issue group (working in solidarity with NJA) meant that funding for the project would not be compromised by NJA’s controversial politics around Israel or gay rights. NJA’s founding as a multi-issue organization had been a strategic attempt to avoid becoming an easy target like Breira, but by the late 1980s the political climate had changed and NJA’s multi-issue structure may have been a burdensome one. In my interview with Gerry Serotta, he reflected on this trend,

Jewish feminist groups formed, Jewish sanctuary groups formed, solidarity groups with the Israeli peace movement and all of those things sort of split off from Agenda because it’s much easier to do those things than to try to hold together “the movement.” But I grew up with the [60’s-style holistic] movement so I wanted to start the Jewish progressive movement, not 15 different Jewish organizations working on [separate] issues. But it’s easier to be a Jewish environmental project than it was to hold together a holistic progressive Jewish organization. Since Agenda went out of business there hasn’t been anything like that.

ADDITIONAL FACTORS

DEBT

The issue of long-term debt, at one point reaching $60,000 and possibly higher, was a barrier to NJA’s success. Below are notes from two National Steering Committee (NSC) Treasurer’s reports from 1987, which give an indication of the strain caused by this debt.

  • January 1987: “Laurie Kauffman reported that we are in better shape than ever but still in trouble. Living with severe debt is horrible and emotionally taxing on the staff and officers. As a result of the precarious state of our finances we can’t afford to take risks, can’t provide seed money for projects… It is very difficult to plan expenditures when the flow of income is so unpredictable… most chapters are not even able to raise money to support all of their own political work, never mind national work.”

  • October 1987: Treasurer Laurie Kauffman “reported that we are either in a fundraising/income generation lull or in the early stages of a downward spiral… the shortfall was across the board and spared no category of income including dues.”

The notes continue, offering insight into tensions within the leadership,

Other NSC members, in response, said that people needed more information about the financial situation, that new NSC members felt frustration over discovering a mess that they are expected to help clean up but which they didn’t feel they had helped to make, that the debt situation is a continuing problem but that its recent growth is unhealthy and dangerous to the organization, that the convention as a debt creator and fundraising distractor, hurt the overall situation severely, that the South Africa tour also distracted attention and resources, that it is a tribute to the staff and to Laurie that this is being handled so well under the pressure it generates…

Notes from the January 1988 NSC meeting report that “The national debt of the organization has more than doubled in the past year from $30,000 to just over $60,000.” The organization paid its bills by receiving multiple loans.

ATTEMPTED INFILTRATION BY THE NEW ALLIANCE PARTY

In December 1987, NJA’s National Steering Committee (NSC) passed a contentious resolution about the New Alliance Party (NAP).

No member of the NSC may participate in a public leadership position in any campaigns, publications or activities of the NAP. Further, the NSC strongly discourages all NJA members from identifying themselves as members of NJA in campaigns, activities and publications of the NAP.

In the position paper that follows, it is explained that at the October 1987 NSC meeting a member of the NSC identified her/himself as a member of the NAP and explained that they had been asked to serve as a connection to the Jewish community for the Lenora Fulani presidential campaign on the NAP ticket. By this time, the national NJA office had already heard from over a half-dozen chapters to report a sudden “influx” of new NJA members affiliated with NAP, and invitations from NAP for event co-sponsorships. The position paper briefly explains concerns about the NAP and refers to more information in an attached article.

A host of frightening disclosures and sobering revelations are made in the accompanying article. They include the relationship between NAP leaders and anti-Semite, neo-fascist Lyndon LaRouche, the manipulative use of psychotherapy to recruit people with emotional problems seeking help to a political agenda, the cult-like and anti-democratic internal operation of the group, the “window dressing” use of women of color to describe the group as Black-led, and the Party’s public embrace of Minister Louis Farrakhan whose actual anti-Semitic statements are advertised, published and distributed by the NAP.

At the October meeting, the NSC discussed relations with the NAP for over four hours. The resolution above was passed by a vote of fifteen for, five against, and two abstentions. The NSC also agreed that the staff should distribute information to all chapters explaining what the NAP is and why the resolution was passed. The three page letter from Executive Director David Coyne (and attached article by Political Research Associates‘ Chip Berlet) lays out concerns about NAP’s apparent attempt to infiltrate NJA, offers some history and context of NAP’s dangerous behavior, and also addresses concerns that NJA is “baiting” NAP. Coyne wrote,

I know that most NJA members and our top elected NJA leaders are extremely scrupulous and determined in their civil libertarian instincts, reflexively and militantly opposed to any baiting or bashing be it “red” (communist/Communist), “pink (socialist and (C)communist sympathetic), PLO, “terrorist” and gay/lesbian. We have, as individuals and as an organization, found ourselves too often and too recently on the excluded side of just that kind of thinking. This was not an easy discussion for NSC nor was the decision made lightly or without a great deal of concern for both the precedent and the principle.

NJA did actually expel 20 members of the 21-member Manhattan chapter because of their disruption of the organization and NAP membership. At the July 1988 NSC meeting, notes from the State of the Organization review report that “our confrontation with the infiltration by the NAP evidenced principled political maturity of which we can be proud.”

For another thoughtful opinion on the end of NJA, check out Ethan D. Bloch’s “One Voice Less for the Jewish Left

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