Our immediate and overriding concern is peace in the Middle East. Our concern grows out of our love and respect for the people and the land of Israel as well as our understanding that the continuity of Jewish life in the Diaspora is inextricably linked to the existence of Israel.
We are not innocent bystanders. If we share the anxieties about Israel’s policies, we have the responsibility to say so. If we detect mistakes that might have catastrophic consequences, we must not ignore or swallow our concern…For the sake of Zion, we shall not be silent.
–Breira statement, 1975
Breira was the first national Jewish organization to advocate for the establishment of an independent Palestinian State alongside Israel, known as the two-state solution, and to introduce the legitimacy of dissent in the midst of unquestioning communal solidarity with the standing Israeli government. It was founded by a group of young people who had met at a national Havurah conference in March of 1973. Among the difficult topics they discussed were the future of Israel in light of Palestinian nationalism and the growing power of the Israeli settler movement. They took the conversation public the following summer, holding periodic public discussions in New York City in a forum entitled “A Call to Discussion of Israel-Diaspora Relations.” In November of 1973, they announced the formation of a national and explicitly Zionist organization, Breira: A Project of Concern in Diaspora-Israel Relations.
According to chair Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, breira – “alternative or choice,” referred to the intransigence of both the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership and successive Israeli governments in their refusal to explore a peaceful resolution of their conflict. It was also meant to challenge the popular Israeli slogan ain breira – “there is no alternative,” i.e., that there was no way forward but the status quo.
Breira’s goals were two-fold: to take advantage of the window of opportunity for territorial compromise following the 1967 Israel-Arab War to establish the basis of a two-state solution and to open dialogue about the American Jewish community’s relationship to Israel. Their slogan expressed their sense of urgency: "Time is not on our side."
Breira attracted many prominent intellectuals, rabbis, and Jewish communal leaders, including a dozen Hillel directors; several of these had close relationships with like-minded Israelis. Members included Rabbi Balfour Brickner, Director of the Department of Interreligious Affairs at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now URJ); Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and founding editor of Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility; Rabbi David Silverman of the Jewish Theological Seminary; Rabbi Robert Gordis, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary; and leading conservative congregational rabbi and Rabbi Max Ticktin, associate director of the national B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation.
In addition to a large constituency of rabbis, Breira’s membership included young Jews who had been involved in anti-war and civil rights movements; many had been involved in the presidential campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy campaigns in l968. There was tension in the group between those who advocated for a grassroots community-based approach to making social change and those who endorsed a grass tops approach of recruiting influencers in powerful positions.
At its height, Breira had 1500 members (and many more sympathizers) and some 10-15 local groups. Members were religious and secular, Zionist and non-Zionist, mainstream and leftist.
Breira’s main strategy was educational – encouraging conversation through intellectual forums. Its monthly newsletter, InterChange, showcased articles by leading American and Israeli thinkers on topics including the socioeconomic gap between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, the religious/secular split, and the emerging Gush Emunim (“Bloc of the Faithful”) messianic settler movement. Their policy statements and editorials were placed in Jewish magazines and newspapers.
The group also took part in Jewish community demonstrations and engaged in dialogue with peace-minded Israelis and Arabs. Breira organized national speaking tours featuring Israeli dissidents such as former Labor Party Secretary General Aryeh Eliav.
Breira was criticized in 1974 when it distributed leaflets calling on Israelis and Palestinians to recognize each other’s national identity during a Jewish community demonstration against PLO leader Yasser Arafat who was to address the United Nations.
In 1975, the group’s executive director gave testimony on the two-state solution on Capitol Hill for the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, “speaking for himself” and not Breira.
When Breira openly criticized the Israeli Labor government’s nine-year occupation, land expropriation and suppression of Arab dissent through an “Open Letter to Israel’s Leaders” in 1976, many Labor Zionist leaders and other liberals criticized Breira for breaking ranks.
Following the group’s one national conference on February 20, 1977, public criticism of Breira increased when a small pro-settlement group called Americans For A Safe Israel (AFSI), published a widely circulated pamphlet entitled, “Breira, Counsel for Judaism.” It used innuendo and guilt by association to paint Breira as a pro-Fatah solidarity group in disguise. Breira became widely viewed as a threat to Jewish-American loyalty to Israel.
The success of the attacks both reflected and reinforced the prevalent view that dissent within the American Jewish community could not be tolerated. It also underscored the divisions within Breira between establishment Jews, whose livelihoods were more vulnerable to establishment attacks, and young and more radical unaffiliated Jews. Unable to sustain itself financially, the organization formally disbanded in October of 1977.
Following is the text from the Breira brochure
WHAT IS BREIRA?
A CHOICE for pluralism as the basis for healthy development of Jewish culture and society in Israel and around the world.
AN ALTERNATIVE to internal intolerance and fear of dissent which keeps so many sensitive and intelligent individuals out of Jewish communal life.
A CHOICE for holding Jewish leadership accountable to the demands of Jewish traditions and values in decisionmaking and distribution of resources.
AN ALTERNATIVE to reliance on the wealth and status of American Jews and the military strength of Israeli alone to guarantee the survival of our people.
A CHOICE for shared responsibility among Israeli and Diaspora Jews for the future of the Jewish people.
AN ALTERNATIVE to the domination of world Jewish communal structures by Israeli political parties and self-appointed Diaspora elites, and to the reduction of every moral and intellectual decision in Jewish life to a matter of compatibility with current Israeli governmental policy.
A CHOICE for greater security for the Jewish people based on a peaceful resolution of the political conflict between Israel and her Arab neighbors, including mutual recognition of Israeli and Palestinian national rights.
AN ALTERNATIVE to the lack of coordination between Israeli and American leadership in developing a common initiate toward the Arab world, and to the lack of initiatives to avert the terrible consequences of the entire world of ongoing warfare in the Middle East.
200 PARK AVE. SOUTH – ROOM 1315
NEW YORK, NEW YORK 10003 (212) 674-5533
A “Choice” for Shared Responsibility Between Israel and the Diaspora
Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf (New Haven)
Rabbi David Wolf Silverman (New York)
Rabbi Max Ticktin (Washington, DC)
David Tulin (Philadelphia)
Inge Lederer Gibel (New York)
John Ruskay (New York)
Rabbi Balfour Brickner (New York)
Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer (New Haven)
Mike Masch (Philadelphia)
Arthur Waskow (Washington, DC)
BOARD OF DIRECTORS
Rabbi Doug Krantz
Rabbi Charles Lippman
Prof. Sidney Morgenbesser
Rabbi Michael Robinson
Rabbi Gerry Serotta
Dr. Morton Siegel
Rabbi Israel Dresner
Rabbi Louis Bogage
Rabbi Ya’akov Rosenberg
Rabbi Al Axelrad
Rabbi Stanley Kessler
Prof. Jacob Neusner
Prof. Don Peretz
District of Columbia
Rabbi David Saperstein
Prof. Michael Meyer
Rabbi Stanley Ringler
Rabbi Steven Schatz
Rabbi Leonard Beerman
Rabbi Richard Levy
Dan Gillon, Associate Director
Faye Ginsburg, National Co-Ordinator
Arthur H. Samuelson, Editer, interChange
A monthly review of issues facing Israel and the Diaspora
Breira publishes interChange, a monthly review of issues facing Israel and the Diaspora. Regular reports from correspondents in Washington, DC, Jerusalem, and New York offer insight into the effect that developments in American, Israeli, and United Nations’ policies are likely to have on the American Jewish community. In addition, interchange provides coverage of new ideas and experiments, which are revitalizing American Jewish institutions and culture.
Recent articles include:
For Free Discussion in the Jewish Community – Irving Howe
How Secure is Israel –Mattiyahu Peled
Are We Doing the Right Thing for Soviet Jews – Sam Kassow
Lebanon: Is iI Good for the Jews – Don Peretz
Do American Jews Want Democracy in Jewish Life? –Melvin Urofsky
Is Zionism Dead? – Noah Lucas
American Jews and Israel: The Last Support – Nathan Glazer
EDITORIAL ADVISORY COUNCIL
Arthur A Cohen
Charles E. Silberman
David Wolf Silverman
Breira promotes public discussion concerning Diaspora-Israel relations through a series of open community forums during the year. The forums call on scholars, community leaders, and professionals, visiting Israelis and other to stimulate open public discussion on a variety of current issues. The forums take place in major cities and are widely publicized to a cross-section of the Jewish community.
In addition to interchange, Breira has undertaken to publish material otherwise unavailable to the American Jewish public on issues relevant to our concerns and for use by groups setting up community meetings and local study groups. A series of pamphlets is being planned dealing with fundamental issues related to the Middle East conflict and Diaspora Jewry.
From time to time, Breira arranges national speaking tours for responsible Israeli and American personalities who can provide critical insight concerning a wide range of problems in Jewish life In addition, Breira maintains a national speakers bureau which the Jewish community is invited to make use of.
In order to ensure widest possible participation, Breira Chapters have been formed in nine major cities. The national office relies on chapter input in the drafting of principles and platform, and to serve as an educational network across the nation. In addition, local groups have been successful reaching out into the community by sponsoring educational events and organizing their own Speakers Bureaus for interest groups such as synagogues, Hadassah, JCRCS, and local Hillels.
National Membership Conference
As part of Breira’s program to promote democratic discussion of issues, a National Members Conference is convene annually. In addition to the election of the National Board , the Conference is intended to establish an intellectual, dialogue and program platform within which a broader coalition of individuals and groups within the community can become involved in our work.
The 1976-77 Conference is scheduled for February 20-22 (Washington’s Birthday Weekend) in Washington, D.C. The theme of the conference will be structured around educational seminars and policy making commissions which will allow members to work closely on policy recommendations on specific issues.