“Some view Israel only as an oppressor, and then miss the ways in which Israel is also targeted, often vilified, and left isolated in the world. Others only see Israel as oppressed, and then miss the ways in which Israel also acts as an oppressor to the Palestinian people, particularly with the Occupation. You have to acknowledge both parts of reality.”
October 3, 2013
February 9, 2015
For more than four decades, Cherie Brown has led unique training programs for Jewish peace activists that combine activism and leadership development with healing work, recognizing that unhealed emotions and trauma interfere with our ability to implement effective strategies for resolving the Israeli Palestinian conflict. She shares insights gleaned from her involvement with four organizations from the late 1960s through 2009, along with ideas emanating from her work counseling Jews in Re-evaluation Counseling on the relationship of Jewish oppression, Jewish fears for survival, and Israel.
As a member of the Jewish Radical Community of Los Angeles in the late 1960s, Brown studied the writings of pioneering Socialist Zionist Ber Borochov. The group sought to figure out a progressive relationship to Israel “as Jewish leftists who were opposed to the War in Vietnam but still wanting to support Israel.” They endorsed both Jewish and Palestinian self-determination.
With the group, Brown participated in a successful direct action seeking funding for Jewish organizing. Posed as waiters at a Jewish Federation dinner, the group moved some to tears by singing "Zog Nit Keyn Mol," the anthem of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, before announcing their demand. Brown learned an important lesson about the impact of “very deeply Jewish symbols.” Their emotional resonance is an effective tool in reaching more mainstream Jews. She used that lesson in her Israeli-Palestinian peace advocacy.
In 1971, Brown got involved with Re-evaluation Counseling, an international peer-counseling movement that has a strong commitment to both Jewish Liberation and Palestinian Liberation, and shortly thereafter became an international leader of its Jewish liberation work As the training director of the Shalom Network, founded in 1979 to link Middle East peace activists nationally, Brown initiated training programs that included healing work.
One of her Shalom Network programs which she later utilized with other peace groups, focused on developing leadership skills in organizing for Middle East peace within the Jewish community. She taught how to listen to people who have strong emotions, ”particularly when we disagree with them.” Brown explains, ”Often underlying rigid position taking, is fear for security and survival. It’s important to take the fear into account when developing strategies and tactics.”
The Holocaust, according to Brown, has left Jews with “very deep traumatic scars. Israel was, is and will be a place that represents deep security and the hope that there will always be a safe place to go.” The hostility “that gets targeted towards Israel by the rest of the world” sometimes makes us feel that we must be“100% positive about Israel all the time.” These feelings can get in the way of clear thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Brown notes humorously that among Jews you typically have ten Jews with 20 opinions, but on Israel you have 20 Jews with one opinion.
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Brown wrote numerous articles on these issues for the Boston young adult Jewish newspaper Genesis 2 and subsequently for Tikkun Magazine.
Key to her analysis is the idea that “some view Israel only as an oppressor, and then miss the ways in which Israel is also targeted, often vilified, and left isolated in the world. Others only see Israel as oppressed and miss the ways in which Israel also acts as an oppressor to the Palestinian people, particularly with the Occupation. You have to acknowledge both parts of reality.”
Brown also believes that every Jew can have some relationship to Israel. It is the homeland of the Jewish people and a primary base for building Jewish life. However, she does not believe that every Jew needs to live there. “We want to have secure, safe, vibrant...places for Jews” wherever they live.
Prior to the founding conference of New Jewish Agenda in 1980, Brown heard a number of people express concern that it was “not going to be left enough They were unintentionally replicating an all too familiar experience of being on the fringe, without allies, because it felt familiar." To be successful, Brown believes, activists need to instead operate with the assumption that they can build allies and they have the capacity to win.
Brown recounts what led to the founding of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom. In 2001, there was a conference in Chicago entitled JUNITY (Jewish Unity for a Just Peace) organized around the principle of ending the occupation. The conference organizers made an intentional decision not to explicitly endorse two states. Brown felt that the conference lacked balanced support for the right of both Jews and Palestinians to a homeland, and she was not alone.
“A group of us … came away feeling we needed something else.” That group, including Brown, helped to found Brit Tzedek v’Shalom. Brown made sure Brit Tzedek had a pro-active positive message: “We are Jews. We love Israel, and because we love Israel, we need to see two peoples, two homelands, two peoples, two states.”
Today, Brown believes that there is a huge need for intergenerational dialogue. Young activists can learn the wisdom of their elders including the mistakes they made “over these decades.” Elders can learn new ideas and “fresh ways of organizing” from young people. “If we can create the spaces to listen to each other and build authentic intergenerational relationships based on genuine mutual respect, I think we are going to be able to build much stronger coalitions to move the work forward on Israel and Palestine."
Brown has salient advice for current activists:
- 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”
- 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 be able to listen to each other and to heal from discouragement and feelings of hopelessness.”
- “Even in the moments of deepest discouragement are the seeds for change.”
Cherie Brown was born in 1949 in Cleveland, Ohio into a family with a strong commitment to Israel. She attended the University of California at Los Angeles as an undergraduate and received a master’s degree from the Harvard School of Education.
Brown first visited Israel in the summer of 1969 both to study Yemenite dance with the Imbal Dance Theatre and to attend a conference of Jewish young adult leftists from around the world at the Givat Haviva Institue, which is dedicated to creating a society based on the principles of equality, cooperation, empowerment and understanding. As an anti-war activist and a campus leader of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Brown was heartbroken by the militarism she saw in the wake of the Six Day War.
From 1968-1971, Brown was a member of the Los Angeles Jewish Radical Community. She attended the national conference of Breira in 1977. In 1979, Brown met several others at the New Outlook Conference who proceeded to then found the Shalom Network together; she became its national training director. The group subsequently became the nucleus of the Middle East Task Force of New Jewish Agenda on whose board she served. In the late 1990s, Brown co-founded Break the Silence with Rabbis Mordechai Liebling and Arthur Waskow, which produced a series of high profile pro-peace ads during the Second Intifada.
In 2002, Brown became the founding Vice President of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom. From 2011-2013, Brown taught a course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for rabbinical students at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Brown founded the National Coalition Building Institute in 1984, where she continues to serve as Executive Director. Brown has been the International Jewish Reference Person, Re-evaluation Counseling since 1976.
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