“People belong to organizations because they want them to be effective. They want them to accomplish things. . . You've got to know your issues and you've got to know your members. And that should give you what you need to make things happen.”
1985 – 1993
New Jewish Agenda
July 17, 2015
From 1985 to 1993 Jon Weisberger sat on the National Board of New Jewish Agenda (NJA), including a long stint on the Steering Committee. He was especially involved in the Disarmament Task Force, but because the Board and Steering Committee oversaw the work of the organization’s Task Forces, he also had ongoing involvement in the organization’s other issue areas, including its work on the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Like others in the leadership, he focused on “making the organization more of a voice for progressive and left wing Jews “ on multiple issues and building alliances both within and outside of the American Jewish community to “put the organization out in front on a range of issues.” NJA was particularly favorable because its members were predominantly youthful, like Weisberger himself then 35.
What drew him to New Jewish Agenda in particular was the fact that he had been, since 1977, a member of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). The CPUSA, like other Communist parties around the world, including both the Israeli and Palestinian CPs, were strong advocates for "two states, period, plain and simple, and this is not something to debate,” and “that had been their position forever,” or at least since the United Nations voted for partition.
The big questions for him were how to advance a two-state solution. “Do you, say, negotiate with the PLO?”
His CP membership was “not a big secret” and caused no problems considering one of NJA’s issues was the mistreatment of Soviet Jews. But he felt that the major focus of NJA was still the Middle East and that the organization had the capacity to make a real difference on the issue.
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“So what I tended to focus on was how to build alliances by finding common interests and points of view.” Even with all the “wrangling and arguing,” he thought they did well.
While some in the NJA leadership were strongly motivated by Zionism, Weisberger “thought that it was a really bad idea for the organization to allow any of its appeals, any of its rhetoric, any of its positions to be explicitly Zionist,” as it would cut them off from potential allies.
“I really focused on negotiating a two state solution,” recalls Weisberger. The “only way out” was two states. “Sit down with the PLO, talk to them, figure it out.”
A distracting episode in the history of NJA was the appearance of the the New Alliance Party (NAP), sometimes referred to as the Newmanites, whom Weisberger recalled as “really a problem around parts of the left during that period.” Their tactic was to infiltrate left wing and “psychological” organizations under various guises and names and with candidates for political office who were “pretty unsavory types. “NJA was targeted and partially penetrated. Weisberger’s judgment was that it was “ a really creepy, culty conspiratorial kind of thing. But it took time and energy to build a broad enough alliance of people within the organization saying these folks have got to go.” His involvement in that task illustrates much of his pragmatic approach to movement building he had learned in the CP.
“So when the leadership of the organization [NJA] thought that there was this crisis with these NAP folks, then I think they may have seen me as somebody who sort of had some handle on how to deal with this in a way that wouldn't tear the organization apart.”
He doesn’t remember the specifics, ‘but I know that I would have said, go slow, line people up, build such a big majority and such a clear case that when you decide to do something, everybody's going to be behind you, and they're going to see that it's a problem and they're going to agree with the solution. And until you do that - you don't want to make any big decisions in an organization by an 8 to 7 vote….You need everybody on board.”
“There were certainly people in the organization who didn't see any value in thinking about what you say and how you say it, in terms of how it will play in the more mainstream Jewish organizations….From my personal perspective, because my Jewish identity was not religion based or to some extent identity based, “I thought the only reason to have a progressive Jewish organization was to work within the bigger Jewish community, otherwise there's just not much point, at least for me.”
“Weisberger felt that there was a disconnect between the “top crust” of the mainstream organizations claiming to speak for American Jews and the rank and file. In the period of NJA’s activity, ‘it was clear from the way Jewish districts voted and from polls that Jews were still consistent force for peace and democracy [and] justice.” Yet they seemed “generally content to have organizations that don't share those values speaking and acting on their behalf.”
‘So if we want to change that,’ he argues “you can't do that from the outside, you have to become a part of the community in order to reach those people” who were disagreeing with unconditional support of every action of the Israeli government and mobilize them to demand a place at the table among Jewish community leaders. “
‘It was a no-brainer to me that if we had a chapter they should go to [their local] JCRC [the Jewish Community Relations Council] and say, ‘we want to be a part of it and should be a part of it and [will] fight to be a part of it.”
“Some people didn’t see it that way. They saw, “an alternative world in which we would build our own institutions, we do our own thing, we have our own community, we have our own culture. We don't need to build relationships, what we need to do is create strong, vibrant alternatives--culture, congregations. . .I wasn't particularly interested in that. . .
“Operating in an organizational world where you are really trying to affect policy, governmental policy, that means people - at the end of the day that means numbers, numbers of people, and you do that by building alliances and looking to find a place within larger movements and communities.”[
Weisberger didn’t feel NJA was very effective in impacting Israeli or US policy. Nonetheless, the organization had been an important forerunner to future initiatives.
“My impression,” he said, “is that if you look at some of the organizations active today on Middle East and other issues ,that you'll find people who got some kind of start in Agenda or who studied Agenda, or who were watching it.” Just as NJA was built on the ashes of Breira, among other things, “I think other things have kind of come along building off of the legacy of New Jewish Agenda. Knowing no details of the organization at all, it's hard for me to believe J Street would be around or be what it is if Agenda hadn't preceded it.”
And I think the organization helped to move the needle some on the Middle East..in terms of being a loud enough voice for enough people that I think that the more mainstream Jewish community leadership, not so much publicly, but privately, reminded participants, reminded Israeli political leaders and American political leaders, that failure to move on the Middle East would cost them support and enthusiasm from American Jews who did not agree with the Occupation. And I think that played a role in moving the peace process, and I think that New Jewish Agenda played a role in helping to make that happen, and that's a good thing.”
Weisberger’s organizing philosophy is characterized in the advice he would give to today’s young activists.
“You need to organize people and then you need to see what they think, and that dictates what you do. And if you don't have a lot of people in your organization thinking that X is the right thing to do, then don't do it. Don't do it. Find something else.
Stay in touch with the membership, that's the most important thing you can do in an organization. . . [A] successful leader is one . . . who understands the membership and has good instincts as to what the membership thinks, but just as often as possible you want to consult. Actual consultation gets, not just the formalities of what the members think but really all of the stuff that informs their positions and then can use that understanding to move the organization forward towards its goals.
People belong to organizations because they want them to be effective. They want them to accomplish things. . . You've got to know your issues and you've got to know your members. And that should give you what you need to make things happen.”
Jon Weisberger was born in Springfield, Ohio in 1952 and spent much of his youth in Rochester, New York. Neither Zionism nor religious commitment played a large part in his family life. “We were kind of home Sunday schooled for a while, but I determined . . .at a fairly early age that religion wasn't of interest to me, and my understanding of being Jewish had nothing that I can remember to do with Israel.”
So there was no real impediment to his dissenting from policies of the government of Israel, no crisis or turning point. There was, however, a strong influence from his father. “My view of being Jewish was shaped by my dad…that being Jewish means being progressive.”
Jon was an active member of the Communist Party USA from 1977 to 1991 and a member of the New Jewish Agenda Steering Committee from 1986 to 1993. Today, he works as a bluegrass musician and songwriter in Nashville, Tennessee. He was the first recipient of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Songwriter of the Year award in 2012.