Of the dozen rabbis associated with Hillel who were leaders in Breira, Rabbi Max Ticktin was the only one to hold a national position with the organization. Founded in 1973, Breira was the first national American Jewish peace group to support a two-state solution openly. Ticktin recounts the concerns that he and fellow Breira founders and activists had about the direction of Israeli policies. He also discusses why the group fell apart so rapidly in 1977. Finally, Ticktin relates the story of his being ‘outed’ for attending a meeting with two Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) representatives, while working as Assistant Director of National Hillel.
Ticktin had long considered himself pro-Zionist. He initially sympathized with the bi-nationalist Zionism of Martin Buber, but in retrospect, by the time he traveled to Israel in the fall of 1947, “that cause was already lost.”
He was a Hillel director from 1948 through 1978, serving as assistant national director in Washington DC for the last six of those years. “Hillel,” asserts Ticktin, “was an important… training ground for younger Jewish professionals who could maintain their own integrity and their own searches and…[ask] questions without endangering their livelihoods.”
As a Hillel director, Ticktin went to Israel many times, where he met with leftist Israelis and Arabs whenever possible. Ticktin and sympathetic colleagues had begun to ask questions about emerging Arab nationalism. They wondered if Israeli nationalism had gone too far to the right by trying to negate such claims. “Many of these concerns of Breira founders began well before 1967, with militarism and human rights being major concerns for Breira leaders.”
Ticktin’s perspective was shaped by his close friendship with Yehoshafat Harkabi, who had served as chief of Israeli military intelligence from 1955 to 1959 and afterward became a professor of International Relations and Middle East Studies. He was supportive of the creation of a Palestinian state and wrote extensively about the need to rethink the old ideology and the dangers of militarism.
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Breira was conceived at the first national meeting of representatives of the havurah (small alternative prayer groups) movement. “What really got us started was the question of the need for a new organization,” Ticktin recounts, was “difficulty getting mainstream Jewish organizations to sponsor forums with Israeli intellectuals and ex-military officers…who were concerned with the growing expansionist rightwing in Israeli politics and… who were beginning to talk about the two-state solution” This was an issue that “they wanted broader segments of the American Jewish community to be aware of.”
The founders of Breira were idealists, who were not considering aliyah in the near future, but felt it was important to support “the kind of Zionism that we felt Israel ought to be expressing.” Their aspirations included Palestinian self-determination and more sensitivity to minorities within Israel.
By bringing to the American Jewish public internal Israeli concerns that were not widely known, Breira brought attention to the question of who speaks and makes decisions in the name of Jews in the American Jewish community. Ticktin believes that raising this issue was one of Breira’s greatest achievements. But in the end, they lost out as the main post-1967 message to the American Jewish community was characterized by an “emphasis on the hatred and disdain that came from Palestinians…building increasingly on the gap between Jews and Arabs.”
Ticktin outlines some of Breira’s challenges:
- “We were very good at lecturing to almost totally sympathetic individuals, but we were not as good at trying to figure out how to reach those who might be open-minded but had not been reached.”
- “Breira “overemphasized” the value of making rabbis central to its work. The leadership was convinced that rabbinic support also meant support from congregants. But they failed to recognize that there is often a significant gap between “the laity and the rabbi” in the average liberal congregation. Mainstream national Jewish organizations had cultivated ways of reaching these lay people.
- “We were naive about the power of the American Jewish establishment and that came out painfully when they began to attack us and limit our activity.”
- Those in Breira didn’t know how to strategically impact Israeli policy. “But we learned more and more as the [Israelis] became articulate and we became better listeners.”
- “Breira operated on a shoestring budget, because its leadership didn’t know how to build a support system with people of means…At the tail end, the small bills that had to be paid to the printer came out of our wallets.”
In 1976, knowledge of a purportedly confidential meeting between two PLO members and five Jewish communal organization representatives became public. This created problems for Ticktin. “The understanding was that we were going to have a free conversation, no notes taken, and no post discussion news release.” For a Jew to meet with the PLO in those days was “an act of treason.” To Ticktin’s dismay, details of the meeting, including names of participants, were leaked to major U.S. and Israeli newspapers.
“A small number of B'nai Brith leaders…was interested in seeing that I would be rebuked or fired or both, because… I was a member of the national Hillel staff with an assignment to recruit people to become directors of Hillel Foundations, placed and trained to serve at various campuses throughout the country.” They started with the accusation B’nai Brith was “not doing anything to silence me...because obviously I was hiring people who agreed with my positions on Israel.” Fortunately, the B'nai Brith staff and many of its officers supported him. “Since there was no concrete evidence that I was expecting...Hillel directors...to agree with the positions of Breira...the accusations basically evaporated.”
In 1978, Ticktin took early retirement after 30 years at Hillel and became an academic.
Rabbi Max Ticktin was born in Philadelphia in 1922, one year after his family immigrated to the U.S. He also had family that had settled in Mandatatory Palestine in the 1880s. Ticktin did his rabbinical studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
In 1947, Ticktin founded a short-lived support organization for the bi-nationalist organization Brit Shalom. He and his wife Esther went to Hebrew University in the fall of 1947, where he met the famous intellectuals affiliated with the University– Gershom Scholem, Joseph Klausner, Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, and others. Classes were cancelled shortly afterwards they arrived, however, due to the violence, and Ticktin joined the Haganah.
Ticktin and Esther had tea with Professor Buber (after having had a meeting with President Judah Magnes) one day before leaving Jerusalem. “He wanted to talk about the difficulties Buber had…in maintaining contacts with Arab intellectuals. They were in great personal danger then if people knew in their circles that they were meeting with Jews. He was quite saddened by that.” Ticktin and his wife left Israel in Spring of 1948 due to his wife’s pregnancy.
Ticktin worked as the Hillel rabbi at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of Chicago from 1948 to 1972 and as the Assistant Director of National Hillel in Washington, DC until 1978. He then became a professor of Hebrew and Yiddish Literature at George Washington University, where he remained until 2014. Ticktin was a founder of Breira in 1973 and served on the board until the organization closed in 1977.