“Until there's peace, there is the need to continually educate and continually bring people together.”
1981 to the present
New Jewish Agenda
October 1, 2013
Reena Bernards learned about the two-state solution after Egyptian Prime Minister Sadat made his historic 1977 trip to Jerusalem. She decided then, “that's where I want to put my energies.” It would become a major emphasis of her activism– first as the National Director of New Jewish Agenda (NJA) from 1981-86, and then in 1988 as co-founder of the Dialogue Project.
NJA’s motto was to create “a Jewish voice in the progressive community, and a progressive voice in the Jewish community.” The multi-issue grassroots group addressed issues ranging from Jewish feminism to Central American solidarity. For Bernards, the group’s “key mission” as a Jewish organization was to work for Middle East peace.
NJA’s Middle East Task Force faced an internal conundrum throughout its existence: how to bridge an organizational split on strategy. Some viewed their role as pragmatic. They sought ways to effectively garner support within the American Jewish community for peace and reconciliation with Arabs. Others saw their role in moral terms, wishing to make a declaration in support of Palestinian rights.
Bernards was in the former camp, believing that Jews have something “unique” to say,” a “responsibility” to work for peace, and “a special opportunity” to strategically impact U.S. government policy. She believed that NJA should prioritize working in the mainstream American Jewish community, because “If we're not talking with and impacting our own community, then what good are we?”
Bernards used a “Moses versus the prophets metaphor” to explain her position. “Moses got the Jews out of Egypt. He was a great organizer. The prophets held up a moral compass and talked about the dangers that would happen if the people didn't change their course of action. Those roles are very different, and I was always on the side of wanting to be more like Moses.”
NJA’s most important contribution, Bernards believes, was bringing the perspectives of Palestinians and of the Israeli peace movement to the American Jewish community during “the very difficult times between 1981 and Oslo.” A 1984 NJA tour of Knesset member Mordechai “Morele” Bar-on and former West Bank Mayor Mohammed Milhem was particularly exciting for her, because it was “the first time a lot of Jews had met a Palestinian.” PBS Frontline filmed the tour and made it into a special: "The Arab and the Israeli."
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Another highlight for Bernards at NJA was participating in the 1985 United Nations (UN) Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Women’s Conference. She organized preparatory meetings among Jewish and Arab American woman leaders. She aspired to create a positive exchange of ideas and to avert the hostility that had erupted between the two groups at the 1975 and 1980 conferences of the UN Decade for Women.
To that end, NJA sponsored the session, “Israeli and Palestinian Women in Dialogue: A Search for Peace,” with Israeli lawyer Lisa Blum and United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) kindergarten director Mary Khass. With women in attendance from throughout the world, Bernards remembers the session as “a very difficult experience,” but historically significant. For the first time, “an Israeli and Palestinian agreed to mutual recognition and two states” at an UN-sponsored Conference.
Another significant NJA contribution was the 20 or so Jewish-Palestinian dialogue groups they formed across the country. Bernards describes how they “would come together in living rooms, have talks, and then at some point maybe do a presentation in the community or at a university...There was a struggle at that time within the...American Palestinian community of whether to support two states...The fact that they had connections to Jews, I think made an impact in terms of movement both here and over there.”
In 1988, Bernards founded the Dialogue Project which brought together high-profile mainstream Jewish and Palestinian female leaders in regular dialogue until 1996. She initiated it after the First Intifada broke out, when there “was the feeling in the Jewish community of despair, of real pain, really not understanding what was going on. How could Israeli soldiers be breaking bones? How could Israeli soldiers be shooting rubber bullets at children?” She sought “to extenuate that voice a bit, and to give it a political edge.”
At a weekend dialogue workshop outside of NYC, Bernards and Palestinian American Najat Arafat Khelil led separate caucuses that formulated 20 points of agreement including two-states. The women spoke to the points in Jewish-Palestinian teams at synagogues, universities, and Arab American events.
One point of disagreement at the workshop was the meaning of Zionism. During a particular contentious conversation on the topic, one of the Palestinians leaned over to [a Jewish woman] and said ‘Where did you get those shoes? I really like them!’ There was this feeling like we as women can break through the tension and find ways to connect and then again come back to what we care about.”
When the group traveled together to Israel and the Occupied Territories in 1993, Pulitzer-prize winner author David Shipler wrote a New York Times opinion piece about a day trip they took to a refugee camp in Gaza followed by a tour of Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum.
Bernards and Khelil and the other Jewish and Palestinian teams of speakers often received hostile responses from audiences, and were even picketed outside a synagogue in Florida. But after the Oslo agreement was signed in 1993, Bernards describes the surprise that awaited her and Dialogue Project co-facilitator Khelil in the Social Hall of a synagogue where they were scheduled to speak. Each of the tables was alternatively set in blue and white, or green, black, and red – the colors of the Israeli and Palestinian flags. “We were both moved at the tremendous transformation that had taken place so quickly.”
Bernard shares her counsel for young activists.
- “Until there's peace, there is the need to continually educate and continually bring people together.”
- Advocating reconciliation of Israelis and Palestinians through the creation of one democratic, secular state is like saying, "Oh, this divorced family has had such a hard time negotiating differences and boundaries and dealing with their children. They should just get re-married and everything will work out."
- The Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) Movement against Israel will be viewed as hostile by Israelis unless it clearly supports two states. It won't create the internal conflict around an untenable situation that you aim for as an organizer, but instead will be dismissed as anti-Israel.
Reena Bernards was born in 1954 in Schenectady, New York and spent much of her childhood in Rockaway, Queens. She has a large extended family in Israel: seven of her grandmother’s nine siblings immigrated to Mandatory Palestine in the 1880s. Her mother spent her teenage years in Tel Aviv and shared stories about how exciting life was around the time of the founding of the State. Bernards’ father was a Conservative rabbi who had marched in Selma with Martin Luther King.
Bernards attended Brandeis University as an undergraduate and received master’s degrees from Harvard University and the University of Maryland at College Park. After working as a community organizer, Bernards served as the national director of New Jewish Agenda from 1981 until 1986. In 1988 she founded the Dialogue Group bringing together prominent Jewish and Palestinian-American women. The group met regularly until 1993 and then had a final meeting in 2002.
For many years, Bernards worked as a consultant in conflict resolution, multi-cultural diversity, and organizational development in North America, Europe, and the Middle East. She presently works as a family therapist, counselor, and diversity trainer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.