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Biweekly Column
Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Jewish Peace Group Faces
Difficult Questions

Dennis Fox

December 5, 2002

About 150 people came to Brookline's Temple Beth Zion last week to check out Brit Tzedek v'Shalom/Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace. Created after Israel's incursion into the West Bank last winter, the national organization is now establishing local chapters to help advance a middle-of-the-road solution to Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Brit Tzedek has its work cut out for it.

The new organization is one of many groups aiming to reshape Israeli and United States Middle East policy. Indeed, there are now so many Jewish and Jewish-affiliated peace groups that organizers of last week's presentation felt compelled to clarify how their group is different and why it is necessary.

Brit Tzedek seeks to become a mass membership organization at both the national and local levels. It aims to counter the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which claims to represent American Jewry when pressing US decision makers to support every Israeli action. Although Brit Tzedek may never match AIPAC's finances, organizers hope to match its numbers. Recent polls show widespread American Jewish support for the two-state, end-of-Occupation compromise Brit Tzedek advocates.

One organizer told me after the meeting that Brit Tzedek is to the political right of Workmen's Circle, Brookline's Yiddish-culture center to which many Brit Tzedek members belong. To Workmen's Circle's left he put Visions of Peace with Justice in Israel/Palestine (also based in Brookline; I'm now a member). That general typology seems reasonable enough. But since some local activists simultaneously belong to all three, I wonder if organizational proliferation will bring energy-draining duplication of effort.

Brit Tzedek's creators argue that, to attract thousands of members, they must persuasively link their founding principles to Israel's well-being. So they emphasize the status quo's danger to Israel's security, economy, and democracy, and the organization won't form coalitions with other groups -- even other Jewish groups -- that don't share all its views. Returning Palestinian refugees to Israel, for example, is not on Brit Tzedek's agenda; nor are proposals for Israel and Palestine to form a single democratic secular state.

Since Brit Tzedek embraces the international near-consensus on a Middle East solution, backed in theory by Israeli and Palestinian authorities as well as by the majority of American Jews and Israelis, the group will likely grow.

Yet the issues it won't address remain important. Even if they're papered over for now, they'll likely return later, because they go to the origins, and to the heart, of the conflict. Efforts to resolve that conflict rather than just briefly manage it must confront differences not just among American Jews but between Israelis and Palestinians.

I recently uncovered a 1969 college history paper in which I made the case for what was then called a "bi-national state." Two years after first visiting Israel, three years before returning with a group I co-founded aiming to create a new kibbutz, I already knew Israel's national rebirth had brought with it dispersion and oppression. This I had learned from other Zionists, Israelis who predicted endless violence and injustice while their government intentionally planted new West Bank settlements where they'd be impossible to remove.

Can Israel be both Jewish and democratic? Is Zionism inherently oppressive? Should Israel be a state like any other, or strive to be moral instead? These questions were old even then, stemming in part from the 1880s when some of the newly arriving Jewish settlers criticized others who displaced Arab villagers with scarcely a second thought.

The questions remain uncomfortable.

There's another issue. Emphasizing what's best for Israel may make strategic sense when organizing American Jews, but ultimately it diverts attention from the general principles of justice any solution must embrace. The one-sided focus makes it difficult for some on the other side to see in Brit Tzedek much reason to applaud, or to consider for themselves what sort of violence-ending resolution might be workable as well as fair to both sides.

Agreement must come from those who disagree with one another. Eventually, Jewish peace groups will have to work with Palestinian peace activists who begin with different principles. In the meantime, though, Brit Tzedek's departure from AIPAC's hard-right line offers reason for cautious optimism.

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Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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