Most American Jews perceived Israel’s swift victory in the 1967 Israeli-Arab War as a miraculous event that inspired immense ethnic pride Some on the Left viewed Israel as a colonist venture that had displaced the Palestinian nation and supported the PLO’s position that the Jewish state should be replaced by secular Palestine. A third group, consisting largely of young people, were proud of Israel and supported its right to self-defense but had grave concerns about Israel’s occupation of lands acquired during the 1967 war and the nascent settlement movement. They wanted the Israeli government to pursue peace with its Arab neighbors, and they supported Palestinian self-determination.
When the civil rights movement transitioned from a universal and humanitarian struggle of diverse races to one of ethnic self-empowerment and “black power,” many Jewish activists found themselves in search of a new role. Inspired by the wide range of emerging social movements that addressed issues such as feminism, gay rights, and Chicano power, some Jews were inspired to organize their own ethnic movement.
Young people formed a range of independent Jewish groups in the late 1960s and 70s that combined political activism, study, and consciousness-raising. Israel was core to a number of the groups, but it was only one among many issues that they addressed. Others included: freeing Soviet Jewry, developing more meaningful Jewish education for youth, exposing anti-Semitism on the left, establishing independent havurot (small prayer and learning communities) and supporting feminism and gay rights.
According to the Jewish Virtual Library, in 1969-70 there were independent Jewish student groups operating on about 80 campuses under various names: Concerned Jewish Students, Jewish Student Union, Radical Jewish Union, Na’asseh and others. Membership generally ranged from 10 to 50 per group. While each group operated differently, they shared many values and strategies.
In addition to the student groups, youth in their 20s formed groups: Chutzpah, Jews for Urban Justice, Jewish Liberation Front, and Jewish Radical Community of Los Angeles, and Tzedek, Tzedek among others.
Many of the methods used by this youth movement reflected those of their age cohort. They published independent newspapers that addressed the political, social and cultural issues gripping their generation through a Jewish lens. They staged sit-ins against the Jewish establishment, operated as a constituency group within the anti-war movement, founded cooperative Jewish living spaces, held national conferences on topics of the day, and conducted self-education sessions on current events. Some unique aspects of their work included writing alternative prayer books that incorporated radical, humanistic, and feminist traditions in Jewish culture and supported their critique of US foreign and domestic policy, founding magazines and alternative Jewish education organizations, and organizing groups to emigrate to Israel.
In 1969, many of these independent Jewish student groups joined into a loose coalition that evolved into the North American Jewish Student Network of the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS), or “Network” for short. Network prided itself in openness to all political views and addressed the complete range of Israel and Jewish issues. Both the leadership and the majority of the active students in that period were predominantly leftist, though Network effectively closed in 1978, shortly after the Begin administration assumed power.
Leaders of the various independent newspapers organized in 1970 as the Jewish Student Press Service (JSPS). It provided news on “all aspects of Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora” and also held an annual meeting of student editors in the United States and a three-week seminar for journalists in Israel. Both Network and JSPS were partially funded by the World Zionist Organization (WZO). JSPS exists to this day, and in 1991 began publishing the national news magazine New Voices.
Some in RZA came from political backgrounds of civil rights and anti-war activism, having had little or no previous contact with the long-established Zionist groups. They were swept up in the post-1967 defense of Israel's existence against leftist claims that it had no right to exist mixed with significant criticism of the emerging settlement movement, which most believed would be temporary. Others came from traditional mainstream socialist Zionist youth movements such as Habonim, Dror and Hashomer Hatzair. There was some political tension between the two segments, as the former were highly critical of the parent parties of Zionist youth groups that dominated the then-ruling coalition in Israel.