Tom Smerling

Tom Smerling

“With every generation the peace movement becomes progressively stronger. Some groups fade away, some merge, but the new ones are stronger than ever and pick up where others left off. So progress is not wasted, it’s cumulative.”

Peace Activism
1979 – 2002
Israel Policy Forum
Project Nishma
New Jewish Agenda
Shalom Network
Et Shalom: Time for Peace

Interview Date
October 1, 2013

Aliza Becker

The Interview

Tom Smerling first became engaged in Middle East peace work in the late 1970s, shortly after he “discovered” the Israeli peace movement. That led him to help found a Jewish Middle East peace group, Et Shalom – “Time for Peace” in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul) in 1979. He subsequently became the Midwest Coordinator for The Shalom Network (1980-81), a national network of grassroots peace groups, and then part of New Jewish Agenda, when the Shalom Network merged into the group’s Middle East Task Force. In 1989, Smerling founded Project Nishma (“Let Us Listen”) – an initiative to organize mainstream Jewish leaders – and stayed four years after the group’s 1997 merger with Israel Policy Forum. Smerling’s effort to bring the previously unorganized mainstream Jewish leadership into the peace movement left a lasting impact.

Not long after the 1977 "Roots," mini-series, a lot of people began to examine their own ethnic roots. Smerling recalls, “I realized that being Jewish was central to my life, not peripheral…That immediately brought up the liberal Jewish dilemma: being progressive on all other issues…but here's Israel, the Jewish state, in the situation of being an occupying power, doing things like building settlements and displacing people that were against our values. So how could we reconcile that? When I discovered there was a peace movement in Israel in the mid to late 70s. It was like a revelation...Aha, here's how to reconcile my personal values with my people, my loyalty to my tribe. Here are some Israelis I can identify with… I became evangelical. I could be loyal to Israel, loyal to your values and loyal to your people at the same time by identifying with this group of Israelis."

In 1979 retired General Meir Pa'il spoke in Minneapolis on “land for peace;” i.e. the exchange of territories acquired by Israel in the 1967 War for a peace agreement and Palestinian State. “During the discussion afterwards, some of us stayed…A group of us formed Et Shalom to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace locally… We were isolated. At that time we didn't even know: ‘Are there are any other groups like this anywhere out there? Are we the only ones in the country?’…Somehow we found The Shalom Network… [which linked] the local groups like ours across the country that had sprung up to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of Breira…By default, I became the Midwest representative for the Shalom Network, which facilitated communication among these groups through a newsletter, training, and tours… When New Jewish Agenda got going and grew, we realized it made no sense to have two Middle East organizations. So Shalom Network became the Middle East Task Force of New Jewish Agenda.” (Incidently, I met Reena Bernards shortly after she became Executive Director of New Jewish Agenda; we’ve been married for 26 years.)

When the First Intifada broke out, a number of prominent centrist Jewish leaders were according to Smerling “really troubled by what was going on…. Simultaneously, more dovish retired generals were starting to speak out in Israel…The prevailing view of the mainstream community was that the U.S. should keep its ” hands off.” We wanted to encourage Jewish leaders who were privately sympathetic to a two-state solution to publicly endorse it. We decided to test the waters by bringing over more pro-peace Israeli generals in order to broaden the movement.That experiment in 1989 became Project Nishma," (Let Us Listen, in Hebrew).

“Our organizing principal was simply agreeing to listen to Israeli military and political figures with alternate views. We intentionally chose this low bar instead of more purist principles that would only be endorsed by people with little political clout. Still, simply bringing over generals who differed with the Begin and Shamir governments was itself controversial…

“The strategy worked well, because many Jewish leaders would never have joined any group with the word ‘peace’ in its name but would identify with the retired generals. We ended up with over a hundred prominent leaders as endorsers. Later, board members wanted to act, rather than just listen. At that point, we advanced the view that a significant segment of American Jewish leadership supported the principle of land for peace with security…

“Like the Israeli generals we worked with, we remained hardliners on security. We never advocated telling the Israelis what they should do. We advocated instead for active American peace diplomacy…”

“The Conference of Jewish Federations (CJF) once a year had this big gathering called the General Assembly (GA). The Federations are the most important Jewish communal organization because they raise the money that is then distributed to fund the local Jewish agencies. The CJF is the national coordinating body of all the Jewish Federations. So, it has the most powerful Jewish leaders, because these were the people that provide the money to the community institutions.

“Every year, the Israeli prime minister came to the U.S. to speak at the GA and then meet with the U.S. president. The standing ovation he always received allowed him to say to the president, ‘All American Jews are behind me.’ This would increase his bargaining power, with the implicit threat to unleash AIPAC,if they didn’t like what the President said….

“In 1988, Shamir said that his standing ovation shows “when the president asks me to stop building settlements, and I say 'no way,' he knows I have the backing of the whole Jewish community… "

“The following year, we countered this tactic with what became known as the ‘Letter of 41’. The letter, signed by 41 prominent mainstream Jewish leaders was in response to Shamir’s assertion that the standing ovation he received after giving a speech was indicative of American Jewish support for his aggressive settlement policy.

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The sentence – which Leonard Fein came up with -- in the letter that most reverberated was, ‘Please don’t mistake our applause for agreement and politeness for political backing for all your positions.’

“Many of the signers were on the dais at the 1989 GA, sitting behind PM Shamir as he spoke. The fact that prominent Jewish leaders dared to differ with him was an affront to Shamir, and the news story story in many newspapers, including page 4 of the New York Times. The Jerusalem Post wrote: ‘U.S. community leaders now ready to oppose Israeli policies openly.’

“Shamir’s response, when asked about it during a TV interview was: ‘Leaders? But who are these leaders?’ So, the next year we hired, a prominent sociologist to poll every board member of the Council of Jewish Federations, and every local Jewish Federation president. We found widespread agreement with our positions, and released the poll the day before Shamir’s speech in order to make headlines the day he spoke.

“It worked. Afterwards, everywhere Shamir went he was confronted with the poll. It showed that, in fact, American Jews and American Jewish leaders were more dovish than the organizations that were purporting to speak for them… We helped break the myth of Jewish unanimity.

“When Yitzhak Rabin was elected, we realized we could help the Labor government by promoting the peace process. AIPAC initially dragged its feet in supporting Rabin’s peace policies, and Jewish organizations further to the right vocally opposed the Prime Minister’s stance, so we put out an ad: ‘Nobody knows more about security than Rabin Nobody’(paraphrasing a well-known Midas Muffler slogan!)

“My wife Reena Bernards and I realized the night the Oslo Accord was announced that both Arafat and Rabin would be in Washington, DC in a few days, but nothing was happening at night except invitation-only receptions at the embassies. The news broke on Thursday that the signing would happen Monday. We spent those four days frantically organizing what became an event celebrating the Oslo Agreement for seven hundred Jews and Arabs. We organized mainstream Jewish and Arab organizations to be official sponsors and kept ourselves, who did all the work, in the background.”   650 people showed up, mostly Jewish and Arab-American leaders who were in town for the signing, but also members of Congress and 73 journalists.

“In 1997 we merged with Israel Policy Forum (IPF) in order to form a combined group with legitimacy both in the Washington political arena as well as within the Jewish community and its leadership. Project Nishma became the Washington office of IPF…

Smerling left Israel Policy Forum in 2001. “It turned out to be a good time to leave. I had seen the dramatic breakthroughs of the 70s with Begin and Sadat, the diplomatic drought of the 80s during the Reagan/Shamir years, and then the remarkable Oslo breakthroughs of the 90s. It seemed to go in ten-year cycles. The combination of the Second Intifada and 9/11 was a deathblow to the peace process. I figured we were in for another ten-year – or longer -- diplomatic drought.”

While organizing, Smerling often found himself thinking, "You know at one level my mission is just to rescue a remnant of American Jewry from collusion with one of the greatest Jewish tragedies in our 5000 year history…It’s a tragedy that the first Jewish state in 2000 years has found itself in the position of occupying and suppressing another people and is embroiled in perpetual insecurity. So, the Middle East should be our priority. This is our issue. It has that thud …of authenticity, because it's about us as a people. We can of course work on something else, but on this issue we play a special role and have a loud voice.

Counsel for current activists:

“Don’t try to build your legitimacy by tearing down those two inches to your right as sell outs and two inches to your left as a radicals, because then you isolate yourself.”

“In the Jewish peace movement, there are many organizations along a spectrum. Don’t try to shoehorn everyone into one organization. Everyone needs to be able to find a home somewhere along that spectrum...The way you build a movement is by having that full spectrum so you can maximize participation, and maximize all the resources can be organized…”

“Recognize the distinction between declarative politics and strategic politics (Steve P. Cohen taught me this).   Declarative politics is where you seek to express yourself and say the whole truth. It’s cathartic and principled. Strategic politics is when you set a goal and you try to move gradually towards it, usually without a lot of declarations.”

“Activists are professional optimists. Even when the odds are 99% against you, when you’re working within that 1% of possibility, you don’t have time for the 99%. You’re immersed in stretching the 1% to 3% then 5% etc....“As former ambassador Sam Lewis once said about Neve Shalom, ‘When the room is very dark, even a small candle throws a lot of light…’”

Levinson Foundation advisor Sid Schwartz taught me this important lesson for organizers:   “You can be more effective by staying behind the scenes. If you don’ t need to take credit for what you do, you can accomplish five times as much.” Alinsky also used to say the organizer should never be up front, should stay in the background, or else he/she becomes the issue.   Put your lay leaders up front.

Another Sid Schwartz gem, “In politics, policy is made by the center. But the center never defines itself; it’s defined by the poles. So by widening the spectrum of legitimate opinion, you can, by definition, shift the ‘center.'”

“You’ve got to be an opportunist when you’re working in a small organization. There are moments when you can make a difference. You’ve got to have your army ready, your coffers full, and be poised so when that moment comes, you can make that difference.”

“Figure out what you’re good at and hire people to do what you’re not good at, because otherwise you’ll spend 80% of your time trying to be adequate at the 20% you’re worst at.”

“There’s something really wonderful about working on something you’re passionate about. It’s a joy. There's nothing like it and don't give up on that. You can make compromises later, but while you're young, go for the passion.”

Every generation of these organizations have only gotten stronger…. There's a progression. Some fade away, some merge, but the new ones come and are stronger than ever…So progress is not wasted, it’s cumulative.”   Similarly, diplomatic progress is not wasted. The peace process stops and starts, but when it restarts, it almost always picks up from where it last stopped.



Tom Smerling was born in 1949 and grew up at Temple Israel, a Reform synagogue in Minneapolis where there was a “generalized sympathy for Israel. Smerling received a B.A. from the University of Minnesota in 1981, studied International Affairs at thethe Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota with a focus on the Middle East, and many years later, earned an MS from the University of Maryland in Conservation Biology & Sustainable Development. Smerling began his Middle East peace activism with Et Shalom in 1979, and then became involved with Shalom Network. and New Jewish Agenda. He founded Project Nishma in 1989 to organize mainstream Jewish leaders. After Project Nishma merged with Israel Policy Forum in 1997, Smerling headed up Washington Office of the Israel Policy Forum through 2001.

Smerling joined with other Twin Cities young adults in founding Et Shalom (Time for Peace), a grassroots Israeli-Palestinian peace group. They toured speakers, wrote letter to the Jews press, got some of the rabbis to speak up and “created a stir.” Somehow they found the Shalom Network, which connected them were other grassroots Jewish peace groups that had sprung up organically across the country. Shalom Network published a newsletter, offered educational programming and organized speaking tours. Smerling became the group’s Midwest Coordinator, more than anything providing “communication among groups to let people know that they were not alone – that they [were] part of a movement.”

After receiving his M.A. in International Affairs, Smerling became a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) with Dr. Harold H. Saunders who helped draft the Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt in 1978 and helped negotiate the release of American hostages from the United States Embassy in Tehran in 1981. Smerling worked as a research assistant on his book and also assembled a small team of interns to study the question of Palestinian non-violence. (The Prospects for Palestinian Non-Violene, 1981, unpublished). He subsequently did some fundraising for fhe New Israel Fund, and was a Senior Consultant at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs – the international affairs wing of the Democratic Party where he edited a report on Israeli Democracy and worked on other projects.

In 1987, Smerling was invited to meet with a small group to look at creating a shared Washington office for small Jewish peace organizations, but after the first intifada broke out,, they decided that it would be more strategic to first try to widen their constituency to include more prominent, centrist Jewish leaders. To test the waters to see if it was possible, they created an experiment, which became Project Nishma.

Smerling successfully recruited a sponsoring committee of over 130 and a board that included board chair Ted Mann, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents and past president of the National Jewish Community Relations Councils Advisory Council (NJACRAC), Jacqueline Levine, former national president of the Council of Jewish Federations Women’s Division and the first woman to serve as the national chair of the American Jewish Congress’s governing council, Ed Sanders, a past president of AIPAC, Henry Rosovsky, a prominent Harvard University professor and former Dean of Faculty, , and Earl Rapp, former head of the Community Relations Council (CRC) in San Francisco, Esther Leah Ritz, the first female president of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, E. Robert Goodkind, then a vice president of the American Jewish Committee who went on to become national president.   Other philanthropists and Jewish community leaders on the sponsoring committee included Richard and Marcia Volpert, Sanford Solender, who was then the immediate past director of the New York Federation and the first president of the American Jewish Committee, prominent rabbi Harold Shapiro, and Esther Rosenblatt Landa, an influential Democrat and former president of the National Council of Jewish Women, and, Seymour Reich, former international president of B’nai B’rith and chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Smerling was a founder of in 2009 an online toolkit for climate communications, which he continues to operate and is currently composing the music for a theatrical piece about labor rights.

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