Project Nishma (1989 – 1997)

Project Nishma (“Let us listen and hear,”) was launched in 1989 as an independent educational project on Israeli security in the context of the peace process.

Its goal was to enlist the American Jewish communal leadership in allowing alternative Israeli perspectives to be heard in the US

Project Nishma started by identifying Jewish community leaders who might be willing to hear alternative perspectives; they, in turn, would invite friends and colleagues to invitation-only events featuring high- level retired Israeli military leaders. Those who came to the initial events and were open to the land-for-peace argument were encouraged to hold events of their own. Through this networking, Project Nishma developed a core of supporters from the grass-tops to help expose the myth of unanimous Jewish communal support for Likud government policy. In the end, over 100 Jewish leaders sponsored Project Nishma.

 Project Nishma’s first phase was educational. The Project hosted Israeli generals, many with Labor party roots. The Project developed a letterhead with a long list of the names of those who endorsed their approach; it became increasingly difficult to attack and isolate any one of these prominent Jewish leaders. Their presence provided legitimacy to the effort and made it easier for others to support the views of the Israeli “military doves.”

After listening to the generals over a period of time, most of Nishma’s leaders wanted to become more vocal. This launched Nishma’s second phase – advocacy in support of US peace diplomacy.

It began with the “Letter of Forty One,” presented to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in November 1989 when he spoke at The Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly (GA), was an effort to break the myth of unanimous Jewish support for the policies of his government.. Signers included the chairs and presidents of AIPAC, The Jewish Agency, The United Jewish Appeal, The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, The National Council of Jewish Women, and The American Jewish Committee. The Letter made it clear that applause for Shamir’s speech did not necessarily indicate support for the government’s policies.

The letter, which received extensive press coverage, said, in part:

Just as public opinion is sharply divided among Israeli citizens on how peace and security can most constructively be pursued, so American Jews too hold diverse views…More basically, profound differences exist with respect to the principles of land for peace with secure borders, a principle that some reject outright, but, we believe, most American Jews do not reject…Please do not mistake courtesy for consensus, or applause for endorsement of all the policies you pursue.

Shamir waved off the letter, dismissing the signers. When asked about it, he shot back “Who are these ‘leaders’?” His flippant response set the stage for a larger project during the 1991 General Assembly. The Wilstein Institute of Jewish Policy Studies, along with Project Nishma, released a Survey of American Jewish Philanthropic Leaders. Polling several hundred members of the Council of Jewish Federation’s national board and presidents of local Jewish Federations, they found an overwhelming majority were “security-oriented doves,” with half of them supporting public dissent.

Project Nishma held a press conference the day before Shamir was to speak and announced that many of the Jewish leaders at the GA would be at odds with his policies. This made international news, further debunking the myth of unified American Jewish support for Likud policies.

After Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor government came to power in 1992, ,Nishma’s focus shifted to actively supporting the government’s efforts and defending Israeli leadership against attacks by hawkish American Jewish groups. The Project also initiated dialogue between Jewish and Arab leaders, both in the US and in the Middle East.

In 1992, Nishma quietly helped fund and prepare an opinion survey of all of Israel’s retired generals and former heads of intelligence agencies. The findings revealed that Israel’s top-level military leaders overwhelmingly supported trading “land for peace with security,” generating headlines in Israel.

The same year, Project Nishma organized a joint statement by American Jews and Arabs asking President-elect Clinton to give top priority to continuing the Middle East negotiations. Signers included the executive directors of the American Jewish Congress and of the National Association of Arab Americans.

Immediately after the White House hosted the signing of the Oslo Accords, Nishma held an Arab-Jewish celebration at the neighboring Hotel Washington. Featuring Israeli and PLO diplomats, the event drew over 400 Israelis, American Jews, Palestinians, and Arab-Americans in support of the Accords.

Project Nishma then moved on to a third organizational phase – public diplomacy. With a green light from the Rabin government, Nishma initiated dialogue between Jewish leaders and the Syrian ambassador, and later brought groups of American Jewish leaders to visit Syria and to meet with its foreign minister. Nishma’s leaders toured refugee camps in Jordan and the West Bank, and, after Oslo, met with Yasser Arafat in Gaza (and were among the first to fly from Gaza’s new airport).

In 1996, Project Nishma arranged a meeting with 15 Arab American and 12 Jewish American organizations to demonstrate support for American–led peace talks. Jewish organizations included AIPAC, ADL American Jewish Congress, and the Jewish National Fund.

In 1997, Project Nishma merged with Israel Policy Forum and became IPF’s Washington, DC office.

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