The Committee on New Alternatives in the Middle East (CONAME) was founded by Allan Solomonow and other anti-Vietnam War activists who were sympathetic to a non-violent ideology and wanted to apply this perspective to the Israel-Arab conflict at a time when none of the longstanding US-based peace organizations –Fellowship of Reconciliation (which included the Jewish Peace Fellowship), the War Resister League, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) nor American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), – had a formal Middle East program. They believed that if people were mobilized around the Middle East as they had been around peace in Indochina, there would inevitably be a tremendous response.
The majority of the membership and founding board were Jews, and it served as a meeting ground for both Zionists and non-Zionists. Noam Chomsky, Richard Falk, Rabbi Everett Gendler, Irene Gendzier, Paul Jacobs, Robert Jay Lifton, Seymour Melman, Don Peretz, and others spearheaded the initial committee.
Initially the group considered restricting membership to Jews but decided otherwise; discussion within the Jewish community of concessions in the interest of peace became moot after the “Three Nos” of the September 1967 Arab League’s Khartoum Resolution: “No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel.”
They struggled with the question that comes from being the first to take a stand. Who was their constituency? What positions should they take beyond an ideology of non-violent engagement?
In order to develop their program, CONAME spoke with national peace groups and with the National Council of Churches; the group consulted with a variety of Israelis and Palestinians who advocated for peace and coexistence. Members reviewed writings by Israeli and Palestinian moderates and the executive director conducted a fact-finding mission to Israel, the Occupied Territories, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt to meet Israeli and Arab voices of peace.
CONAME eventually advocated for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, encouraging mutual recognition and pressed for an end to settlement activity and military aid to Israel and the Arab countries.
The group sought to educate and to open up dialogue among Americans, with a particular focus on reaching Jewish and Arab Americans with a message about the options for achieving peaceful co-existence. Americans needed to know that what seemed impossible was, in fact, possible.
CONAME organized speaking tours of Israeli and Palestinian pairs (including Meir Pa’il and Raymonda Tawil, and Amos Kenan and Jamil Hamad); Israeli speakers would meet with Palestinian groups and Palestinian speakers with Jewish groups. CONAME also arranged tours of Israeli draft resisters. They facilitated dialogues in New York City between Palestinian supporters of the PLO and Jewish supporters of Israel’s right to exist. The group produced reading lists that included diverse perspectives on the conflict and took out signed ads in prominent newspapers advocating their positions, most notably a large ad in the New York Times in late 1975 calling for mutual recognition between Israelis and Palestinians. Its 200+ signers included many rabbis and Jewish academics. They periodically sent packets of information and news articles about peace activism in the Middle East to interested parties. They had 8-10 loosely affiliated groups across the US that hosted events, disseminated materials, and built contacts.
CONAME tried to engage their critics. For a while, Americans for a Safe Israel, an American counterpart to the Land of Israel Movement and CONAME invited their activists to one another’s programs. CONAME activists regularly addressed their critics at Commentary Magazine.
In 1975 CONAME closed after founding Executive Director Allan Solomonow left to start-up the Middle East Peace Project (MEPP) at the Fellowship of Reconciliation. CONAME stepped into uncharted territory with openness to learning and experimentation.