To the Editor:
At a time when we’re seeing a resurgence of progressive Jewish organizing, it’s helpful to understand why previous efforts waned. The ones with which we’re most familiar took place in the 1980s within the context of New Jewish Agenda (NJA). While Cherie Brown identifies in-fighting and lack of support for leadership as the causes of NJA’s demise (“Lessons Learned in Organizing American Jews,” Tikkun July/August 2001), as former national cochair and executive director, we can attest that the reasons were far more complex.
First, it’s important to recount NJA’s successes. Begun in 1980 as a multi-issue progressive organization, NJA raised consciousness about nuclear disarmament, racism and anti-Semitism, lesbian and gay liberation, U.S. policy in Central America, and Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. NJA introduced many American Jews to the Israeli peace movement and to Palestinians for the first time. It educated local Jewish communities about a two-state solution and the need to negotiate with the PLO, during a time when uttering those words was considered heretical in some circles.
While no one has offered a definitive explanation as to why NJA closed its doors in 1992, one would have to include these factors:
1. Dual focus: NJA was created to be a Jewish voice among progressives and a progressive voice among Jews. This had strengths and weaknesses. 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.
2. 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.
3. Sister organizations: NJA’s existence supported the development of a number of single-issue progressive organizations during the 1980s. These included American Friends of Peace Now, New Israel Fund, Jewish Fund for Justice, The Shalom Center, The Shefa Fund, Bridges magazine, and others. 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.
Would we want to build a new organization in the likeness of New Jewish Agenda? No way! We live in a new era, one in which the challenges and opportunities facing the Jewish community, the Left, and the world are vastly different than those of the 1980s. But understanding where NJA succeeded and where it failed will help put the next wave of organizing on more solid ground.
Chevy Chase, MD