“The issues that appeared to be political are actually emotional at core, and stem from the Holocaust. Israel probably has the best military in the world but acts as if the pogrom is right around the corner…The fight was not about borders or mutual recognition or a Palestinian state. These were just surrogates for what's going to make Jews feel secure.”
November 28, 2014
As a young man in his 20s, Robert Loeb became executive director of would be the most controversial Jewish initiative of its day, Breira: A Project of Concern in Diaspora-Israel Relations, the first American Jewish Middle East peace group, founded in 1973. Loeb saw the founders of Breira as “good Jewish kids who loved Israel and wanted to see it survive,” but in the mid-1970s, the Jewish community wasn’t ready to accept an organization that endorsed what was later to become the status quo: a two-state solution.
Loeb began working on Middle East peace issues in 1972 at the Committee on New Alternatives in the Middle East (CONAME). The group organized tours of intellectuals, journalists, and military officers who supported a more even handed approach to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Loeb felt the Christian groups that CONAME worked with didn’t understand the emotional component of the conflict. He found that Jews and Arabs would gravitate toward each other, “because even though in many ways they hated each other, they also respected the intensity of the feeling on the other side.”
Through his connections in the havurah movement, Loeb became involved with the Breira Working Committee in 1973, a group of young Jewish peers. Most were rabbinical students or aspiring Jewish communal professionals who “felt that the increasing militancy around Israel was dangerous, both ultimately for Israel's survival and also dangerous for Israel-Diaspora relations.” Loeb was hired as executive director.
Breira believed there was a “window of opportunity for territorial compromise that would be the basis of a two-state solution and that the longer one delayed and the more Israel created facts on the ground in the form of settlements, the less viable that solution would become.” Their catch phrase was, "Time is not on our side.” Initially the group dealt with these issues through open discussion, but eventually started taking policy positions.
According to Loeb, Breira endorsed a two-state solution but “didn't have a program” to realize it. While Loeb met a few sympathetic people on the Hill, “we weren't strong enough to mount a political effort.” When Breira took positions in direct contradiction to Israeli government policies, e.g. opposition to settlements, the established Jewish community “became nervous.”
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There was “a sense” in the group “that there needed to be a shift in Israel-Diaspora relations from a less Israel-centric position. Some were disturbed at the way Israel had become the central fundraising mechanism for all things Jewish…Others…felt that the notion of Israel as a Jewish state was highly contradictory.” At different points, they tried to address these issues, but “there wasn't a position that anybody knew to advocate for” and the discussion never “really got off the ground.”
“The political side of the organization took precedence maybe partly because that was where there was unity and because of the natural tendency of young guys in their 20s to want to be out there on the battlements.”
“The organizational dynamics,” said Loeb, “were heavily influenced by men. There wasn't a senior woman.. either in the core leadership or on the staff, and in retrospect that was probably a problem."
Breira’s leaders were totally unprepared for the virulence of the attacks launched on their credibility. Board meetings became increasingly acrimonious. Those whose current or future jobs might be threatened wanted to “tone it down,” while the radical unaffiliated contingent felt this was an opportunity to “go for the jugular.” Loeb tried unsuccessfully to find “some middle position…to bridge the gap between these two sides of the organization.” It was those internal divisions, in his view, that tore Breira apart.
Breira didn’t survive, but it put the two-state solution on the American Jewish agenda for the first time and cultivated future leaders. The group also created a bigger space and some legitimacy for discussion of these issues. “A lot of that energy later got reorganized and refocused by J Street.”
Loeb shares some of his reflections:
- The issues that appeared to be political are actually emotional at core, and stem from the Holocaust. Israel probably has the best military in the world but acts as “if the pogrom is right around the corner…The fight was not about borders or mutual recognition or a Palestinian state. These were just surrogates for what's going to make Jews feel secure.”
- The current Israeli leadership doesn’t think a Palestinian State is in its best interest, so you need “some real leverage” instead of “positioning a critique as a friend of Israel…We wore out that box, and it's been worn out by others. There's got to be U.S. pressure on Israel, and how you do it is a tough problem.
- “We should form the "alter kocker (old fart) corps. The Israelis ought to draft all the old people and the Palestinians ought to draft all the old people. We'll be totally inept at fighting, so we're more likely to make peace.”
Robert Loeb was born in 1948 in Chicago. Loeb didn’t have a strong relationship with Israel while he was growing up, but he did have one with with Judaism. He was active in the Congregation Solel youth group in Highland Park, Illinois under the rabbinate of Arnold Jacob Wolf, who he subsequently recruited as chair of Breira. Loeb attended the University of Chicago as an undergraduate where he met the Hillel Rabbi Max Ticktin, also a founding member of Breira. As a young adult he was politically involved with both the Civil Rights and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement.
Loeb was the first University of Chicago student to earn credit for a year abroad at Hebrew University. While there he adopted an Orthodox lifestyle and especially loved celebrating Shabbat. However, he “found the attitudes toward Palestinians in direct contradiction” to the struggle for civil rights he had known in the United States.
After graduating, Loeb founded and directed the Jewish Draft and Military Counseling Center in Chicago. In 1972, he moved to New York City and became the assistant to Allan Solomonow, Executive Director of the Committee on New Alternatives in the Middle East (CONAME).
In 1973, Loeb became the founding executive director of Breira: A Project of Concern in Diaspora-Israel Relations. He remained until just before the group closed in 1977.
Loeb worked for the Telecommuncations Coop Network until 2000 and thereafter as an independent consultant. He recently served as U.S. liaison to the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (PRIME) supporting the development of the curriculum Side-By-Side and the training of teachers in the region.