Lessons

The American Jewish Peace Archive preserves the past and from it derives guidance and inspiration in finding a way forward toward peace.  

  • Specific actions by American Jews have helped to advance peace in the region and can continue to do so.
  • Strategic community organizing has led to a sea change within the American Jewish community on attitudes toward Palestinian self-determination and the two-state solution.
  • Because effecting social change can take decades, it is helpful to look at short-term impact on the path to victory.

 

Why Diaspora Jews should get involved

We have been told that Diaspora Jews have no right to tell Israel it needs to take risks for peace. Yet, the Israeli Declaration of Independence calls on all Jews to help build up and redeem the Jewish national homeland. We have the right and the responsibility to be a part of building a home that lives up to Judaism’s highest ideals. (Rabbi Rachel Mikva)

There’s a lot of tikkun olam to be done in the world and many worthy causes, but this one has the wallop of authenticity, and we need to play a special role. It’s a tragedy that the first Jewish state in 2000 years has found itself in the position of occupying and suppressing another people. This issue should be our priority, because it’s about our people. (Tom Smerling)

Some Jews fought for Israel as “our opportunity” to have a model nation based on social justice that would be “a light to the nations.” (Diane Balser)

Israeli friends of Breira said, ‘Don't be quiet! We need you to be a voice for us in the Diaspora. We need your support. You should not give in to the notion that if you don't live here, that you can't say anything.’ We needed them to validate us and they needed us to support them, so they didn’t feel like they were crying out in the wilderness.” (Rabbi Richard Levy)

By creating a movement that emboldens the people in Israel and Palestine to find a way together to create freedom and dignity for all people, all Jews can achieve the liberation – the equality, freedom, and democracy – they have long sought. (Carinne Luck)

Some may question why you have chosen to work on this issue, when there are problems that are far worse. Any activist has to make choices. You can't address all the problems of the world or you'll be paralyzed and completely ineffective in any of it. (Rabbi Rachel Mikva)

Working for justice in Israel/Palestine gives me a practical application for the values that Jewish study has helped me to hold. Jewish tradition and texts are rich in themes of peace and justice. I think that because I'm involved in work for justice in the Middle East, these Jewish themes and values feel much more real and tangible to me. (Liza Behrendt)

Finding a home in the movement

In the Jewish peace movement, there is a wide range of organizations. Don’t try to shoehorn everyone into one organization. Everyone needs to be able to find a home somewhere along that spectrum. (Tom Smerling)

You don’t have to agree with everything an organization does to back it. You can express your disagreements, but the bigger challenge is to learn how to support leadership on a day-to-day basis. (Diane Balser)

Patience

Patience. I didn’t want any part of that. But I would have been far less frustrated and might have been able to stick things out longer if I hadn’t needed results on my own timetable; if I had had a longer view. (Rosalie Riechman Pressman)

You have to be very patient, because it's like dripping water on a stone. It's very hard to make people change views that they've held for a long time. (Robert K. Lifton)

There’s an interesting overlap between the urgency of the campaign mindset and the urgency of Ashkenazi Jews. Our ancestral trauma has fed into behavioral patterns where everything seems extremely urgent, when the reality is that it isn’t.I sometimes felt that if I didn't make that one last phone call, that there were dire life or death consequences in Israel and Palestine. If I had gone home and taken a bath instead, it would have had no impact on people living in the region. I advise Jews who have the mindset that tends to make them feel like everything is urgent to take a step back, so that it doesn't totally envelope our logic. (Andrew Gordon-Kirsch)

Optimism

Activists are professional optimists. When you’re working within that 1% of possibility, you don’t have time for the 99%. You’re immersed in enlarging the 1%. (Tom Smerling)

As activists we want to stay positive, but in order to keep going for the long haul and avoid burnout, we also need to create spaces to listen to each other and to  heal from discouragement and feelings of  hopelessness. (Cherie Brown)

Sustainability

Figure out what you’re good at and hire people to do what you’re not good at, because otherwise you’ll spend 80% of your time trying to be adequate at the 20% you’re worst at. (Tom Smerling)

It’s important that the activist organizations we're building put policies in place that explicitly endorse rest and rejuvenation. (Andrew Gordon-Kirsch)

A sense of humor is a valuable asset. Dark humor about the Middle East got a lot of us through a lot of through the hard stuff. (Rosalie Riechman Pressman)

It’s important to always have fun. Somewhere down the line we get these messages that as we get older we can't have fun in the work that we do. It's certainly hard to find fun aspects of peace activism, but we have to keep our zest for life and our creative minds if we want to keep moving forward. We have to stay lighthearted even as the work gets heavy. (Andrew Gordon-Kirsch)

Winning people over

To be an effective activist you've got to familiarize yourself with the arguments of your opponent and be able to see their point of view. (Ezra Bernstein)

Listening is one of the most important acts. (Rosalie Riechman Pressman)

The best way to build a relationship is try to understand the other person's point of view and try to explain your point of view in such a way that meets the other person’s logical and emotional need. (Robert K. Lifton)

Legitimacy

Don’t try to build your legitimacy by denouncing people who are two inches to your right as sell outs, and those two inches to your left as radicals, because then you isolate yourself. (Tom Smerling)

It's a huge failure of the Jewish community that we tend to deem other Jews as treif.  However, strategically speaking, if we want to mobilize large numbers of Jews, we don't want to be blacklisted. If too many people think we are untouchable, we will not be as effective as we need to be.I do recognize that whether or not we are deemed as treif isn't entirely in our hands, but we have to be smart and think strategically about what kinds of language, action, and political stands we want to embody in order to attract the biggest base possible, so mainstream US Jews are no longer willing to follow those in power. (Andrew Gordon-Kirsch)

I didn't spend all these years gaining Jewish legitimacy to take it with me to the grave, but when I spend it, I want to get a return for it. If you spend your legitimacy little by little you never run out. (Counsel from Ted Mann as recalled by Tom Smerling)

Community building

It’s slogging work. It's slow. It's hard…The only way to keep it going is to be part of a community that you trust and work well with and to have somebody who is a confidant who will support you, both personally and economically, so that you're not out there alone. You have to like the people you're working with, and you have to feel good about the way they work. You have to feel that they have integrity, that they are thinking well, that you are sharing a value system. Otherwise the difficulty of actually making a change becomes overwhelming and you want to quit, because you don't like to hit your head against the wall all the time. If you have a community that you can strategize with, gripe to, complain to, and laugh with, it makes it easier. (Carol Hutner Winograd)

People join our movement not only because of the political issue, but also to have a sense of belonging, to have a sense of community, to have people that they can care about, and be close and connected to. Time for relationship building and community building is key to political success. (Cherie Brown)

Build partnerships because it can be lonely work and you need a lot of company on the journey. (Rabbi Rachel Mikva)

Whether it's a J Street U Chapter or a group in your synagogue or people you meet on the Upper West Side to schmooze with, it’s really important to find a group you enjoying being with. (Kenneth Bob)

Nuance

Looking back, I was very self-righteous and always thought I was right. In truth, sometimes I was and sometimes I wasn’t. It’s very dangerous to think you’re always right, because then you don’t know the subtleties that you’re not letting in. Also self-righteousness can lead to bitterness and it’s toxic to live with bitterness. (Rosalie Riechman Pressman)

An activist must take a simplistic approach. You can't say that Israel is evil or that Palestine is evil. You've got to be capable of nuance and seeing shades of grey and accepting the flaws in your own arguments. The downfall of movements is to simplify and to demonize and to do what your enemies do. (Ezra Bernstein)

These things we're dealing with are very nuanced, so it's very important to be open-minded. You won’t have a lot of success in being overly dogmatic, whatever your point of view is. I'm willing to listen and learn to adjust my position. (Kenneth Bob)

 

Strategy

I don't think that peace is always the issue. Justice is the issue. Peace is a vehicle toward justice in the best of all worlds, but there are also times when the two don't go together. (Jonathan Brandow)

The current Israeli leadership doesn’t think a Palestinian state is in its best interest, so you need some real leverage instead of positioning a critique as a friend of Israel. We wore out that box, and it's been “worn out” by others. There's got to be U.S. pressure on Israel. How you do it is a tough problem. (Robert Loeb)

The top won't change in and of itself. At the end of the day, the grassroots can't be underestimated partly because people vote. Also, politicians can only go so far as the people that they claim to represent. The real issue is how significant a base you have that backs your position. (Diane Balser)

Recognize the distinction between declarative politics and strategic politics. Declarative politics is where you seek to express yourself and say the whole truth. It’s cathartic and principled. Strategic politics is when you set a goal and you try to move towards it, usually without a lot of declarations. (Tom Smerling)

I'm not sure that you can organize a movement just around Israel. Even my parents' Labor Zionist group wasn't only about Israel, even though that may have been what initially brought them together. They created an ongoing community. What’s going to happen to a group like J Street that is only about Israel when the game looks like it's over? Then the thing falls apart, because that's all there is. In order to be ongoing, you can’t just have one issue – you need to grow and evolve. (David Biale)

Tactics

The goal of an event, regardless of how many attend, is to recruit one person who you can involve afterwards. Then the event is worthwhile because that person can continue to build your chapter. (Andrew Gordon-Kirsch)

Breira overemphasized the value of making rabbis central to its work. The leadership was convinced that rabbinic support also meant support from congregants. They failed to recognize that there is often a significant gap between the laity and the rabbi in the average liberal congregation. Mainstream national Jewish organizations had cultivated ways of reaching these lay people directly. (Max Ticktin)

Offering a politician good ideas for policies can be more important than making sure he or she is in your pocket. (Diane Balser)

You’ve got to be an opportunist when you’re working in a small organization. There are moments when you can make a difference. You’ve got to have your army ready, your coffers full, and be poised so when that moment comes, you can make that difference. (Tom Smerling)

Education & dialogue

Educate thyself. You really have to know what you are talking about. That means spending time in Israel. Do an internship at some organization. Study abroad. Visit the West Bank. (Kenneth Bob)

There is a lot to be learned from engaging in dialogue and listening to other people's perspectives in a respectful manner where you can disagree in a humane way. Then the tension is not so elevated and you can actually hear people's stories. However, while we might feel good about ourselves because we've been able to share our story and hear those of others, at the end of the day, people's lives aren't being changed in Israel and Palestine. It also can be sort of a copout, because you don't have to put forth a political position.Dialogue is under the educational umbrella and education is a very important building block. At the same time, if we get complacent with education alone, we're inflating our own egos, and we're not working towards justice. So, education has to be coupled with political activism. (Andrew Gordon-Kirsch)

The quality of activism depends in part on the activists’ level of knowledge. An effective activist needs to study this subject deeply. …We taught ourselves Hebrew, and we educated ourselves around the history of Zionism and the conflict….We traveled Israel on our own on buses, and we mingled with the people. We got to know the country, for good and for ill. (David Biale)

Israel and the conflict

It was devastating for many of us to discover that the same Israel that had saved our existence from the Holocaust systematically oppressed the Palestinian people. Some Jews avoided it and other Jews took a position that Israel shouldn't exist. It took us years to work through the pain of the experiences of the Holocaust and our feeling of privilege and guilt in the U.S. My generation had to work to learn how to live with the contradiction that you could both support Israel and also fight against the bad policies toward Palestinians. (Diane Balser)

The more you engage honestly with Israel as a Jew, the more you will feel the need to speak up, but you have to understand what you’re talking about. I don’t think there can be one simple ‘understanding’ of a society with people from dozens of countries who come with a vast array of social and political experiences.You have to understand the on-going conflicts that people on the ground face. You have to understand why people are reluctant to adopt your point of view. Try to understand what goes into people's makeup, and what makes them see things the way they do. (Jonathan Brandow)

Support Israel in every way and every institution you possibly can. Get people to understand what Israel has contributed to humanity, which is tremendous, whether it be Technion or Hebrew University or Weizmann—tremendous contributions to humanity at this point. And it's an absolutely marvelous country in every way. And it doesn't get a fair shake. And it is our outpost in a very turbulent part of the world. And it's very important. We should be backing them tremendously in every way. (Lester Crown)

Zionism existed before the Holocaust, but the fact that nobody wanted Jews in Europe made Israel the place that had to exist to combat anti-Semitism and liberate the Jewish people. That gave Israel tremendous meaning.The devastation of the Holocaust caused many Jews to understand the need for a Jewish homeland. Zionism had money and political power, but it also had the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people. (Diane Balser)

Advocating for reconciliation of Israelis and Palestinians through the creation of one democratic, secular state is like saying, "Oh, this divorced family has had such a hard time negotiating differences and boundaries and dealing with their children. They should just get re-married and everything will work out." (Reena Bernards)

I think that the American Jewish experience in multiculturalism is something that Israel is going to have to eventually adopt. I think they won't have any choice. It's already happening to a great extent in a city like Tel Aviv. It's a very different country then when I first started going there… But, just as with the civil rights movement in this country, it took some very ugly stuff before change is possible. It’s a very, very long process. (David Biale)

Young Adults in the Movement

As a young adult, it's been really useful and important for me to ask questions and learn from my elders, and also to ignore them at times. It's a part of my coming into my own power where I get to make decisions. To only take the direction of older people is to perpetuate a system of adultism where we're totally disenfranchised, but to completely ignore them is not smart or strategic and also perpetuates ageism, as our elders have a lot to teach us. (Andrew Gordon-Kirsch)

Many young adults are making the same mistake that my generation made, which is to pit themselves up against the Jewish world rather than to see themselves as organizing everybody, from the right to the left. You shouldn’t automatically assume antagonism. (Diane Balser)

The Left and Israel

The Left has to this day refused to take a position on anti-Semitism or to recognize the Jewish people right to self-determination. That has been very detrimental for American Jews who as a result do not feel that they have allies they can turn to in the progressive movement. This needs to change. (Diane Balser)

Women in the Movement

Insufficient representation of female voices is an issue that must be addressed. Most U.S. Middle East peace organizations working to affect policies are still male-dominated. On conference calls, one man after another will often speak. It is not until there is some sort of intervention that one will hear a female. Some will say that women lack experience. Well, it depends what kind of experience you are seeking. (Diane Balser)

Israel and the Arab States

Israel is a Middle Eastern State, and as such, its survival can't be based on the protection of the American government. It has to be based on winning allies in the region. We need a consciousness shift from one of fear and distrust to one of potential alliance with the these countries, while we also have to fight against anti-Semitism.(Diane Balser)

I told the Arab state leaders that if they wanted Israel to make a deal with the Palestinians, they had to appeal directly to the Israeli people to push their government in that direction and to make it clear to them that once they resolved the issue with the Palestinians they would be fully accepted by the other nations of the Middle East politically, socially and economically.I recounted to them the Aesop fable about the wind and the sun having a contest to see which one could get a man to take off his coat. The wind blew furiously and the man’s response was to pull the coat tighter around him. But the sun shone on him and basking in the warmth of its rays, he took off his coat. For the Israeli people to respond, Arab states have to make them feel warm and secure. (Robert K. Lifton)

An aspect of our liberation as Jews is wrapped up in Palestinian liberation. If we're still seeing each other as ‘other,’ then we're holding ourselves back from our collective liberation and from being allies like we would naturally be if there weren’t so much racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism getting in our way. (Andrew Gordon-Kirsch)