Many former Breira members and other activists felt a burning desire to revive Jewish organizing in a more comprehensive manner than the volunteer-run Shalom Network had been able to accomplish. They also wished to avoid the devastating attacks that had destroyed Breira. According to Rabbi Gerry Serotta, “we felt that the only way to affirm that we were not attacking Jewishness itself by criticizing Israeli policy was by dealing with the broad spectrum of American Jewish life”.
In May 1979 Serotta invited former Breira members and other like-minded Jews to an “Organizing Committee for a New Jewish Agenda.” The group held a founding conference on December 25, 1980. Over 1200 Jews from across the denominational spectrum came together on the heals of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential victory. Their motto was: “A Jewish voice in the progressive community, a progressive voice in the Jewish community.”
Eventually five task forces were established: Middle East Peace, Worldwide Nuclear Disarmament, Economic and Social Justice, Peace in Central America, and Jewish Feminism. Each task force coordinated their work at the local and national level.
Laying claim to the tradition of “kol yisrael areivim zeh b’zeh,” (all Jews are responsible for one another), NJA affirmed “the right and necessity of Jews everywhere to engage in democratic debate and open discussion regarding Israeli policies.” While never using the word “Zionism,” the platform based its principles for peace on a commitment to the existence of Israel.
The Principles of Peace from the NJA Platform included the following:
- The Jewish people’s right to national self-determination in the State of Israel.
- National self-determination for the Palestinian people.
- Mutual recognition and peaceful relations among Israel, the Arab states, and the Palestinians.
- Withdrawal by Israel from territories occupied since June 5, 1967.
The NJA platform included four planks on Israel:
(1) Relations Between Israel and North American Jewry;
(2) Internal Social Life in Israel;
(3) Israel, The Palestinians and Arab Neighbors: and
(4) Israel and the International Community.
This carefully worded document guided NJA Middle East peace work for 12 years.
When organizing around Middle East issues, NJA considered the entire Jewish community its constituency when organizing around Middle East issues. The organization utlized a multi-layered strategy of addressing both organized and unaffiliated Jews. Local chapters were encouraged to find their own way of implementing this strategy, fostering creativity, energy and commitment from a wide range of Jewish activists.
NJA’s Middle East grassroots organizing engaged large numbers of American Jews who had not been raised as Zionists, and others who had abandoned Zionism as adults. For them, Zionism had come to mean uncritical support for the settlement enterprise supported by most American Jewish organizations. This support was among the reasons that many of these Jews were unaffiliated, but they still longed for Jewish community. NJA filled that need.
This balancing act required significant organizational energy. Every statement and campaign was assessed from the point of view of Palestinian solidarity and human rights activism, as well as concern for Israel’s future as a secure democracy. NJA activists believed these motivations were syncretic and necessary, but finding language and organizing actions to express both was an enormous endeavor.
By 1985, when NJA held its first National Convention in Ann Arbor, MI, the organization had over 5,000 members with chapters in 50 North American cities. The chapters operated with a high degree of autonomy and were very different from one another. Some focused on bringing NJA’s views to their local Jewish communal organizations, others focused on bringing their views to unaffiliated Jews active in progressive causes. Many chapters consciously created safe spaces for discussion among Jews who loved Israel and were deeply troubled by the increasingly deadly cycles of violence.
The National Task Force on Middle East Peace led tours to Israel and the West Bank, coordinated national speaking tours of Israelis and Palestinians, and issued press statements after significant events, such as when the Israeli peace activist Emil Grunzweig and the moderate Palestinian leader Issam Sartawi were murdered within a few months of each other in 1983.
NJA organized a “Call for a West Bank Settlement Freeze” in 1983. Signed by 5,000 American Jews, the call was addressed and brought to the General Assembly of Jewish Federations meeting in Atlanta. NJA brought MK Chaim Ramon (Labor Party) to speak in favor of the freeze; the motion was heard and tabled.
NJA activists trained themselves in the structure and culture of Jewish communal organizations. Local chapters sought inclusion in local Jewish Community Relations Councils; when blocked from membership, they mounted campaigns for openness.
PBS produced a television special on the 1984 Israeli-Palestinian speakers’ tour that NJA co-sponsored with the American Friends Service Committee. It featured Peace Now leader Mordechai Bar-on (a former IDF officer and member of Israeli Knesset) and deposed West Bank Palestinian Mayor Mohammed Milhem. The 1989 Women in Dialogue tour with Jewish-Israeli Edna Zaretzky and Israeli-Palestinian Mariam Ma’ari was hosted in 17 cities.
In 1985 NJA executive director Reena Bernards (1981-86) and Christie Balka, then co-chair of the Middle East Task Force, traveled to Nairobi for the UN Decade for Women Non-Governmental Organization’s (NGO) Forum. After several months of coalition building and dialogue work, they sponsored a forum featuring an Israeli and West Bank Palestinian panelist each arguing for two homelands for two peoples. For the audience of over 400, who ranged from the rejectionist camp in the Arab world to very right wing Israelis, it created an atmosphere significantly different than the previous two conferences where Zionism-as-racism dominated the discussion.