Jonathan Brandow

Jonathan Brandow-2

“You have to understand why people are reluctant to adopt your point of view. If you go through life thinking that all those people are just plain stupid, you'll never learn to be able to affect anything. But if you try to understand what goes into people's makeup and what makes them see things in ways that you think miss the point even in their own self-interest, then you might be able to get somewhere.”

Peace Activism
1969 – 1972
Radical Zionist Alliance

Interview Date
April 6, 2016

Interviewer
Aliza Becker

 

The Interview

Jonathan Brandow was the founding director of the Radical Zionist Alliance, an effort to bring together leftist Zionist students nationally that lasted from 1969 to 1974. The group was not only critical of the settlement movement, but also advocated for its member to make aliyah where they could make a direct impact on making Israel a revolutionary society.

Jonathan Brandow entered Brown University as a freshman in 1969, and immediately became immersed in the student anti-Vietnam War movement. “I became exposed to a fair-range of leftist organizations and rapidly became aware…that there was a pretty consistent point of view among those organizations that was anti-Israel and anti-Zionist.” He felt the left was looking at Jews as a people “in a way that no other people were viewed by the left” and began exploring his relationship with Israel and Zionism.

Brandow found similar views publicly expressed in the Jewish underground press in newspapers such as the Jewish Liberation Journal. Inspired, Brandow formed a group at Brown dedicated to introducing a left Zionist perspective to radical politics. He then extended his reach to include in discourse Jewish students across the country who shared his vision.

Through the North American Jewish Students Network, like-minded leftist Zionist students found each other and formed the Radical Zionist Alliance (RZA) at a national conference in Atlantic City in 1969. RZA connected disparate groups in a loose network that advocated for peace and justice in Israel, using terminology from international liberation movements and early socialist Zionist ideologues.

Brandow was elected Founding Director of the RZA’s national network, tasked with unifying two distinct factions and soothing political tensions within the organization. RZA members whose backgrounds were within the civil rights movement and anti-war activism were often swept up in the tide of  the post-1967 defense of Israel, and had little or no previous contact with the long-established Zionist groups. They were highly critical of the parent parties of Zionist youth groups that dominated the then-ruling coalition in Israel, as well as of the emerging settlement movement. The other camp hailed from traditional mainstream socialist Zionist youth groups such as Habonim, Dror and Hashomer Hatzair.

“The nature of the debate with the leftist organizations on campus had to do with whether Israel had a right to exist, or whether Zionism was inherently regressive and racist. RZA believed in the right of national self-determination for Jews in Israel. It also saw that there were two peoples that inhabited the land and couldn't see a future without a concomitant right of self-determination for the Palestinian people as well. That divided us from both the left on one hand and from the right on the other. The main goal was to build a movement to make an impact on the New Left in this country.”

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The majority of RZA activists advocated emigration to Israel as the best means to realize the liberation objective and engage in its social and political struggles, coining the slogan “Be a Revolutionary in Zion and a Zionist in the Revolution”. Brandow took this phrase to heart, making aliya in 1971 to Bat Yam, then a Mizrachi (Middle Eastern and North African Jewry) working class town. He worked as construction laborer and became involved in the Israeli left in an effort to live out RZA ideology. RZA ceased to exist in 1974 folding under the impossible strain of sustaining a U.S.-based organization that successfully advocated that its members make aliyah to Israel.

Two experiences broadened Brandow’s understanding of the challenges faced by those seeking to redress issues of racism and occupation in Israel. The first was a demonstration in Jerusalem on May Day of 1971 sponsored by the Israeli Black Panthers, who were influenced by but unaffiliated with the U.S. Black panthers. Their aim was on social equality and justice for the Mizrachim.

The Israeli Black Panthers “tried to take a cue from the Black Panthers in the US, although it was a completely separate organization. The demonstration would have been akin to a civil rights demonstration in the United States, not that the people were circumspectly non-physical as the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) would have been, but the Israeli police really used it as an excuse to show what they could do. I remember running down a street in Jerusalem with these guys on horseback and batons wailing away at people. I thought, ‘They're doing this to other Jews. There's no reason for this. These people are really not provoking them at a level that should have caused any kind of violent reaction like that.’ I thought, ‘There's a lot of Kent State here, that I would have never had given credence to if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes…’ The possibilities of productive political discourse in Israel began to erode for me a little bit at that point.”

Brandow had another rude awakening at a demonstration protesting Rafiakh, the first settlement in Gaza. “We walked up to the border and when we came up over the rise, the army was there with machine guns pointing right back at us. We were all Jews; there weren't any Palestinians demonstrating that day. It was a rude awakening. The power structure in Israel saw a real threat and was willing to resort to violence to retaliate. It didn't change my perspective on Zionism, it didn't change my perspective on Israel, but it did change my perspective on what the power of the Israeli State had been, had directed itself to do and to become.”

Brandow “began to have significant differences with…policies of the Israeli government and the treatment of Palestinians…and the lack of direction toward a long-term solution to the conflict post-war.”

These experiences and the sheer exhaustion of working as a laborer led Brandow to consider his effort to integrate “into the common mass of Israeli society” unsuccessful.  He returned to the U.S. in 1973 after two years and ceased his activism on issues related to Israel.

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Biography

Jonathan Brandow was born in 1951 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He grew up in a Conservative Jewish household and attended the movement’s Camp Ramah and a Ramah-sponsored trip to Israel. Brandow believes that the image of Israel he learned in the Jewish community growing up was associated “with everything that was good and just in the world…” It was focused on “the kibbutzim and all the good socialist stuff that was happening” and “solidified with the Six Day War” when Brandow was 16.”

Brandow entered Brown University in Fall of 1969 and immediately got involved in the anti-war movement. Discouraged by critical views of Israel held by much of the campus left, he helped organize a campus network of left-leaning Zionists seeking a home in the movement that recognized the right of both Jewish and Palestinian self-determination. He then helped nationally organize Jewish students who felt similarly into the Radical Zionist Alliance, which advocated aliyah to Israel to build a “revolutionary Zion.” 

Brandow lived in Israel from 1971 to 1973 in the working class neighborhood of Bat Yam near Tel Aviv. He worked as a laborer while also taking classes at Tel Aviv University. After two years he returned home discouraged by his inability to foment the revolution of which he had dreamed. He received his B.A. from Brown University in 1973.

After graduating, Brandow became involved in the labor movement as a welder in the in the shipbuilding industry, serving as steward and then president of the Shipbuilders Union at the General Dynamics Shipyard in Quincy MA (1976-85). He later returned to school, earning his M.A. in Public Policy in 1987 from the University of Pennsylvania's Fels Institute of Government.

In 1990, Brandow founded BizMiner (the Brandow Company, Inc.), an economic development consulting operation, where he continues to work. He publishes a blog on Jewish values and economic policy and is the author of The Just Market: Torah's Response to the Crisis of the Modern Economy.

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