The all-volunteer Shalom Network was formed in Washington, D.C. in October 1979 by a group of young Jews who met at a conference sponsored by New Outlook, the English-language Israeli dovish Zionist magazine. The conference sought to took advantage of the explosive growth of the peace camp following the demise of Breira in 1978.
One month after Breira closed its doors, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made his historic visit to Jerusalem to start peace talks with Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
When the talks on withdrawal from Sinai began to falter, a group of 348 Israeli reserve officers and soldiers published an open letter to the Prime Minister calling on their government to take advantage of this historic opportunity for a negotiated peace between Egypt and Israel. The letter read: “A government that prefers the existence of settlements beyond the Green Line to the liquidation of the historical conflict and the establishment of a system of normal relations in our region will awaken in us questions concerning the justice of our way.” Shortly thereafter, 200,000 Israelis signed a petition supporting the reservists. This provided public pressure for the eventual September 1978 Camp David Accords leading to the Israeli withdrawal from the Egyptian Sinai it had occupied in 1967 and a peace treaty with Egypt. Israel’s first mass peace movement was born.
Then, in August 1979, US Ambassador to the U.N. Andrew Young was fired for meeting with a member of the PLO in efforts to delay a UN report calling for the creation of a Palestinian state; in doing so, he broke a US promise to Israel never to meet directly with the PLO until it recognized Israel’s right to exist. US pro-Israel policies thus became a topic of widespread public discussion, rather than an issue discussed privately among Jews.
The New Outlook Conference featured a contingent from Peace Now as well as Members of Knesset (MKs) from the Israeli political parties endorsing a two-state solution – Mapam, Sheli and the Citizens Rights Movement/Ratz – thus providing an opportunity for Jewish activists to engage directly with Israeli peace activists.
The Shalom Network brought together a national network of Friends of Peace Now groups, grassroots progressive Jewish organizations independent organizations such as Kadima in Seattle. Their goals were to strengthen two-state activism, promote honest and meaningful dialogue with Palestinians, and express solidarity with Peace Now in Israel. The group operated out of the offices of the MEPP, directed by Allan Solomonow. Among other initiatives, the Network arranged for a number of off-the-record meetings between PLO leadership and prominent American Jewish figures.
The main strategy was to provide resources to grassroots peace groups with minimal resources, organize networking among them, and create a more receptive (or less combative) community environment through outreach to mainstream Jewish organizations regarding their positions.
The network had approximately 25-30 groups, many of which were influenced by the growth of identity politics and the women’s movement. Consciousness-raising encouraged people to explore how one’s own identity was shaped by ethnicity and other group identities (gender, class, religion, disability, etc.). Progressive Jews who had not necessarily identified as Jewish began looking inward, examining how the history of Jewish oppression and their own family history had shaped them. Several people in the Shalom Network were involved in Re-evaluation Counseling, an international peer counseling organization whose theory on the internalized oppression of Jews helped individuals to increase their self-awareness. Many Jews begin to feel that Israeli-Palestinian peace was an authentic way for progressive Jews to express their Jewish identity without compromising their values.
There was a growing sense that silence signified complicity with the status quo, and that American Jews were partly responsible for enabling Israel’s policies because of the extensive support given Israel by the US government. These local Jewish groups explored issues such as inclusive modes of religious practice, confronting anti-Semitism, and challenging anti-Israel attitudes sometimes encountered among non-Jewish groups on the left.
The Shalom Network had four main activities:
- Publication of a newsletter with updates on the activities of member groups, allowing members to network with one another;
- Strengthening local Middle East peace activism through training and a speaker’s bureau that included American and Israeli doves;
- Organizing two delegations to visit Israel and the Occupied Territories;
- Lobbying mainstream Jewish groups regarding the possibility of mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO and establishment of a Palestinian state.
The Shalom Network played a key role in supporting local Jewish groups involved in Middle East activism at a time when there was no national organization with paid staff to fill the void left by Breira’s collapse. When the New Jewish Agenda formed in 1980, the Shalom Network became the core of its Middle East Task Force. Americans for Peace Now, founded in 1981, continued the solidarity work with its Israeli counterpart, Shalom Achshav.