The Jewish Peace Fellowship (JPF) was founded by three groups of antiwar activists to support Jewish conscientious objectors to military service in World War II. Two of the groups had formed under the leadership of Rabbi Isadore Hoffman, one consisting of Columbia University graduate students and the other of Jewish conscientious objectors. Rabbi Abraham Cronbach, Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, and Jane Evans led the third group.
JPF, the first explicitly Jewish pacifist voice in the Jewish community, is a nondenominational Jewish organization committed to active nonviolence as a means of resolving conflict. It draws on traditional Jewish sources such as the Torah and the Talmud and on contemporary peacemaking sages like Martin Buber, Judah Magnes and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Under the presidency of Rabbi Michael Robinson, JPF affiliated with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an international interfaith pacifist organization formed by clergy during World War I. Close cooperation continued with FOR under Naomi Goodman's presidency until her death in 2005, and to the present under the leadership of Murray Polner and Stefan Merken.
JPF membership peaked during the war in Vietnam. By the summer of 1970, JPF had 1250 members and 2000 additional friends and supporters.
In the 1970s, JPF shifted its focus of concern from the Vietnam War to the Middle East, promoting nonviolent alternatives to resolve the conflict. The group’s view was contentious in a community where most Jews placed their faith in military solutions.
Following the 1967 Israel-Arab War, JPF rabbis began to quietly tour Israeli and Palestinian peace activists in the US in coordination with non-Jewish peace organizations. JPF’s role was to arrange speaking engagements with Jewish audiences. (The Christian peace groups had less trouble arranging talks and raising funds for these trips).
One of the earliest speakers JPF co-sponsored in 1971 was the noted Palestinian journalist/activist/poet/author Fouzi al-Asmar whose searing book "To Be An Arab In Israel," was published in 1975. He very well may have been the first Palestinian voice American Jews heard protesting the treatment of Israeli Arabs in post-1967 Israel.
In 1983, JPF toured two young organizers from Yesh G’vul. an Israeli organization of combat veterans who had refused to serve in the 1982 Lebanon War and later expanded its opposition to include refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories. It startled American Jews to hear voices of Israeli conscientious objectors at a time when most Jews thought such a position in Israel would be unthinkable, even as so many Jewish men had taken similar position about the US draft for the Vietnam War. Though JPF is not a political organization, JPF laid the ground for American Jews to grapple with their political positions about Israel by providing forums to learn about Israel’s own youth protesting against its military policies.
In 1984 JPF launched the Abraham Heschel Peace Award to bring public awareness about Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers. Recipients have included Abie Nathan, Rabbi Bruce Cohen, and Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR). Nathan, one of the few pilots in the Israeli 1948 war of Independence, was renowned for his Voice of Peace offshore pirate radio station, where he broadcast ideas of peaceful co-existence to the whole Middle East. He also went on widely publicized hunger strikes to protest settlement construction. Cohen received the award for co-founding Interns for Peace, with Israeli Arab Farhat Agbaria, in 1976. The group’s mission is to foster personal relationships between Israeli Arabs and Jews by involving them in community projects, helping build understanding through common action. RHR is, the only rabbinic voice in Israel explicitly dedicated to human rights. JPF awarded the efforts of RHR to oppose home demolitions of Palestinians in Israel, to help Palestinian farmers to harvest their olive trees amidst settler attacks, to challenge land confiscation in the Occupied Territories, and to conduct human rights education with youth.
Today, JPF’s most important function is at the root of its founding mission: lending support to Israeli conscientious objectors who find themselves isolated within Israeli society. JPF helps publicize their needs with peace groups in the US. It works with closely New Profile, a movement to demilitarize Israeli society that supports individual conscientious objectors with information on the Jewish traditions of nonviolence, with support on proceeding with a case of appeal, and with financial support.
The Israeli military deals with conscientious objection by repeated “disciplinary imprisonments” which are imposed “in camera” by the direct commanding officer, thus avoiding court-martials, which would provide publicity and where the accused then has rights to be represented by a lawyer and call witnesses. Objectors are often called again and again to do reserve duty and upon each refusal sentenced to a new short term of imprisonment. Many of these refusers are men with families who need financial help to support their families while they are in prison. JPF publicizes the individual cases of these refusers to its members and gives them addresses of Israeli officials to whom to write support letters.
Many rabbis have been involved in JPF’s leadership. In addition to those previously mentioned, the rabbinic leaders have included: Rabbis Al Axelrad, Leonard Beerman, Phil Bentley, Sheldon Blank, Stanley Brav, Israel (Sy) Dresner, Everett Gendler, Marc Gopin, Lynn Gottlieb, Richard Levy Jerome Malino, Douglas Krantz, Hershel Daniel Leifer, Reuven Kimmelman, Hershel Matt, Sanford Ragins, Sidney Regner, Victor Reinstein, Ruth Sohn, Myra Soife, Max Ticktin, Sheila Peltz Weinberg, and Arnold Jacob Wolf.