“Have…a lot of patience, but don't let having patience slow down your activism, [and] don't expect results right away.”
March 31, 2015
In her two decades as a professional peace advocate, Gail Pressberg served as a confidential courier between ground-breaking Israeli and Palestinian two-state advocates and designed a successful campaign to gain the first (and only) Jewish peace group admittance into the Conference of President of Major Jewish Organizations. Pressberg recounts her work from 1977 to 1997 at three different organizations: American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP), and Americans for Peace Now (APN).
Pressberg started as director of the AFSC Middle East Program in 1977. Shortly thereafter, she was asked to deliver messages from Member of Knesset (Israeli parliament) Mattiyahu “Matti” Peled to Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) member Issam Sartawi “to see if there was some possibility of Israeli Zionists talking to PLO nationalists.” AFSC gave her the go-ahead, given the Quaker belief in bringing together parties in conflict.
Typically, Pressberg would first meet Peled and his colleagues at the Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, an Israeli organization that supported two states. Peled would report on the meetings to then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Sartawi to PLO Chair Yasser Arafat. One of the key issues they addressed was shifting the PLO position that all of historic Palestine should be a democratic, secular state to a position favoring a two-state solution. Fatah, the major branch of the PLO, came to accept it.
Pressberg’s relationship with Sartawi led to an invitation to address a 1988 meeting of the Palestine National Council (PNC) in Algiers about the two-state solution and the Israeli peace movement. She spoke in front of 500 people – perhaps the only Jew ever to address the PNC.
This dialogue, Presberg believes, taught Israelis in the peace movement about dovish Palestinians and educated PLO leaders about the peace movement in Israel. She believes Israeli-PLO dialogue was key leading up to the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. “Otherwise, the Palestinians never would have been there.”
In 1997, Pressberg became the executive director of FMEP in Washington, DC. Under her leadership, the group supported the publication of the first book on how a Palestinian state could live next to Israel. No Trumpets, No Drums: A Two-State Settlement Of The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict by Mark Heller and Sari Nusseibeh was published in 1991. During Pressberg’s tenure, FMEP also initiated a settlement-monitoring project and brought many Israelis and Palestinians to meet with members of Congress.
Pressberg was hired as the co-director of APN’s new Washington, D.C. in 1990. She thought it would be a good opportunity to become more politically involved, given that her previous work had been education-focused.
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APN was the only Jewish organization that supported President George H.W. Bush’s 1991 demand that Israel freeze its settlements in the Occupied Territories before the U.S. would grant $10 billion in loan guarantees to help resettle Soviet immigrants. Together with then APN-board chair Peter Edelman, Pressberg co-wrote Congressional testimony that Edelman delivered successfully to Congress.
In 1993, APN applied for membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Pressberg systematically organized a campaign to win. In the process, several APN leaders including Pressberg were attacked as “people who don't have the interests of the Jewish community at heart.” Much to the surprise of the Conference leadership, APN “won in a secret ballot at 27 yes, 19 no.” After that, the Conference changed the rules for admittance requiring more than a simple majority.
After the historic signing of the Oslo agreement in 1993, Congress acted “as if Oslo never happened.” Israel’s Likud Party brought right-wing Israelis on Capitol Hill in an effort to undermine Oslo. APN brought dovish Israeli generals and Knesset members to explain “why it was important for the future of this earth,” at a time when they had very few overt allies, The American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was caught in the middle, because it was supposed to support the Israeli government. Their support, according to Pressberg, was tepid. They didn’t do anything to actively promote Israeli policy.
Pressberg will never forget a meeting with Rabin at the Conference of Presidents. She recalls: “I have never seen anybody treat an Israeli leader so rudely. It was really horrible.” When some disagreed vocally with Oslo, Rabin became furious. “He yelled back…gave his military history and his political career as both Defense Minister and previous Prime Minister. [He explained]…how it was in Israel's interest and no one was going to tell Israelis what was good for Israeli security.”
How have things changed over the years? Twenty years ago it was not possible to get thousands of people to attend a Jewish dovish conference. While increased interest has opened up opportunities for groups like APN and J Street, a lot of American Jews, unfortunately, have become weary of the protracted conflict and are no longer interested. “Israel's a little embarrassing.”
In 1997, Pressberg resigned her position. She believed that “it was really time to let a new generation take over APN.”
Pressberg shares her counsel for current activists:
- “Have…a lot of patience, but don't let having patience slow down your activism, [and] don't expect results right away”
- “Do your homework about what you say.”
- Learn the important “buzzwords” in the Jewish community and establish your pro-Israel bona fides.
- “Don't let criticism and attacks ruin your self-esteem.”
Gail Pressberg was born and grew up in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Both parents were active in Jewish organizations, her mother with Hadassah and B'nai Brith Women and her father with B'nai Brith and the Anti-Defamation League. She didn't travel to Israel for financial reasons, but Israel was a major part of their family life.
Pressberg took her first trip to the Middle East in the mid-1970s. She traveled with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), where she was already working in a nonviolent training program. The tour traveled to Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza and Israel. Afterwards, she visited cousins and friends of people she knew from home.
In 1977, Pressberg was hired as director of AFSC Middle East Programs, including both overseas and domestic Middle East peace education programs. As part of her job, she couriered messages between Member of Knesset Mordechai “Matti” Peled and Palestinian Liberation Organization member Issam Sartawi. She also organized tours, including a 1984 tour of Peled and PLO member Mohammed Milhem, who had recently been deposed as a mayor in the West Bank mayor. She worked with New Jewish Agenda to bring their voices to synagogues. PBS produced a Frontline special based on the tour called "The Israeli and the Palestinian."
Pressberg became the Executive Director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in 1987 and then in 1990 became the co-director of the new Washington, D.C. office of Americans for Peace Now. Pressberg left her position at APN in 1997 but continues as a Senior Policy Advisor.
Pressberg is presently a Senior Fellow at the Civil Society Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting breakthroughs in civil society that address pressing issues of the day. She primarily leads its stem cell policy efforts. She also serves on the Board of Directors in the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the Foundation for Middle East Peace.