Brit Tzedek v’Shalom (BTvS) was founded on April 30, 2002 by a group of American Jews at the height of the Second Intifada. Final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority were within recent memory. In January 2001 peace talks were tabled in anticipation of the pending Israeli election with a joint statement: “The sides declare that they have never been closer to reaching an agreement and it is thus our shared belief that the remaining gaps could be bridged with the resumption of negotiations following the Israeli elections.” After Israeli Prime Minister Barak’s Labor Party lost to the Likud’s Ariel Sharon, formal negotiations ceased.
Many American Jews were disturbed both by the violence from Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli military responses. A number of grassroots Jewish anti-occupation groups started to form across in the US and internationally. Many of the groups came together in May 2001 at s conference entitled, JUNITY (Jewish Unity for a Just Peace) Conference to explore creating a platform for common action. Unfortunately, the conference ended in disarray around the question of a two-state solution.
A group of individuals who met at the JUNITY two-state caucus continued to correspond following the conference. Ultimately, they decided to form a new Jewish peace organization that explicitly endorsed two-states. BTvS was founded on April 30, 2003 at the group’s first national conference in the Washington, DC area. It grew from 200 founding members to a network of over 50,000 in seven and a half years.
BTvS was founded on the assumption that the US could take leadership in brokering a status agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. The group’s populist focus was to organize the majority of American Jews who supported two-states into a political bloc. Because the issue had become so contentious in the Jewish community, BTvS also sought to open up community dialogue on the conflict at a time when conversation on the possibility of two states had practically disappeared from Jewish community discourse.
BTvS was boots-on-the-ground style activism, as members across the country mobilized in their local communities. They engaged in dialogue with the leadership of mainstream synagogues and other Jewish organizations; participated in Jewish community events; joined Jewish Community Relations Councils (JCRCs), sponsored regular community events; and wrote op-eds and letters to the editor in local Jewish media. Some communities organized local Rabbinic Cabinets, bringing sympathetic rabbis to network and strategize at a time when talking about peace with Palestinians was contentious. Most importantly, BTvS became a resource on current events and legislative issues to members of Congress and their staff. For many in Congress, meetings with BTvS were an opportunity to have an honest conversation about a contentious issue.
BTvS was strictly an American organization that did not have an official relationship with any Israeli peace group or political party. It did, however, organize multi-city speaking tours for Israeli and Palestinian grassroots peace activists, politicians and pundits in synagogues, Hillels and Jewish Community Centers (JCCs). BTvS was the first to bring to American Jewish audiences the Bereaved Parents Circle (2002), Shovrim Shtika/Breaking the Silence (2005), and members of Combatants for Peace (2007).
BTvS campaigns were central to galvanizing support, educating wide audiences, and providing concrete steps that could help advance peace. The 2003 “Call to Bring the Settlers Home to Israel,” the first BTvS campaign, garnered 10,000 signers and highlighted the fact that a majority of settlers reported they were willing to relocate to Israel proper with appropriate compensation as part of a peace agreement.
BTvS participated in a multi-pronged effort to promote support for the 2007 Annapolis peace conference, a Bush administration effort to reignite Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
A significant success in conjunction with other peace organizations was the bi-partisan Ackerman-Boustany letter to Secretary Rice expressing support for the Annapolis conference; it secured 135 House signers from both sides of the aisle.
Education was also a major BTvS priority. This included training chapter activists, developing original educational materials, programs for chapters, and periodic Town Hall conference calls with prominent politicians and policy makers.
In 2006, BTvS added rabbinic organizing to its agenda, often making it central to its message and grassroots activity. For example, the 2008 “A Time To Choose: A Rabbinic Letter to Senators Barack Obama and John McCain” was the centerpiece of a chapter-based campaign to reach out to Jewish clergy. The letter received a record 1028 signers, more than any previous Middle East peace-related rabbinic initiative.
During the 2006 Lebanon War, BTvS chapters held emergency community meetings, house parties, and discussion groups. They called for an immediate ceasefire and return to negotiations when in attendance at solidarity rallies.
Two years later, during the 2008-09 Gaza War (Operation Cast Lead), BTvS chapters held more than 30 events across the country, many attracting hundreds of participants eager to engage in much needed dialogue about the war.
For its first four years, BTvS held large national conferences with prominent Israeli, Palestinian and American keynote speakers, as well as sessions with prominent academics and Congressional leaders. In 2006, BTvS shifted its focus to annual activist training and Capitol Hill advocacy through it National Leadership Training Institute and Advocacy Days.
In addition to lobbying, chapters made regular visits to their Representatives offices during the August and December breaks. These meetings allowed activists to develop relationships that could be leveraged when relevant legislation came up.
BTvS integrated with J Street on January 1, 2010 to form the core of J Street’s field program and its Rabbinic Cabinet.