A section from the article “Lessons Learned in Organizing American Jews” by Cherie Brown, Tikkun July/August 2001

Overcoming Isolation to Become Effective

1981. The New Jewish Agenda, founded in this year, was one of the best progressive Jewish organizations that we ever launched. The goal of New Jewish Agenda was to be a “progressive voice in the Jewish community and a Jewish voice in the progressive community.” After all the brutal attacks on the leadership of Breira, New Jewish Agenda decided that the policies of the Israeli government would never be challenged successfully without a multi-issue Jewish organization in the United States that could help American Jews break through their Israel-only politics.

However, two weeks before the founding convention of New Jewish Agenda , I started getting urgent phone calls every day from Jewish activists all over the United States. The founding conference had not even taken place yet, but many had already decided that the meeting could not possibly come up with left-enough politics, so they were organizing to set up another fringe caucus! Instead of joining forces and building a unified coalition, these Jewish activists were recreating the all too familiar feeling of isolation by attacking the conference agenda , deciding it would not be left enough, Jewish enough, etc.

New Jewish Agenda was a response, in part, to the attacks from mainstream Jewry on Breira. But what ultimately killed NJA, in my opinion, were not the attacks from the outside, but the attacks on leadership from within the organization. The staff was never completely trusted. Weakened by ongoing bickering and attacks from within, Agenda finally folded.

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 coalition with other like-minded Jews, will find any excuse to recreate the same isolation. For many, it is just too unbearable to imagine that there is an alternative to functioning on the fringes of the Jewish community. However, we cannot build an effective campaign to end the occupation without a strong commitment to support the leadership of that campaign. The leadership must know that they have a mandate to lead—and not be afraid to be creative, to take risks when needed, and to apply the organization’s principles in circumstances where there has not yet been time to talk everything out.

In short, ultra-democracy can paralyze effective organizing. Needing a decision from every member before any action can be taken hamstrings the leadership, slows action to a standstill, and ends up watering down the activism to the lowest common denominator. The reality is that many people participating in such an “ultra democracy” process end up feeling more alienated and less inclined to stay part of the movement.