Mapping a Jewish Activist Future: A Review of Nepon’s Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue
“Maybe the idea if you don’t know your past you’re doomed to repeat it sounds so hollow to me because I have a hunch the past is full of possibility, full of events and ideas we might actually want to repeat.”
—Rachel Mattson (Afterword, Justice, Justice)
When I began working against the Occupation of Palestine, I placed one foot squarely in leftist Jewish organizing, and my other foot more gingerly in mainstream Jewish congregational community. My politicization around Israel/Palestine occurred simultaneously with a desire to strengthen my knowledge of Jewish prayers and ritual. As I became more deeply involved in anti-Occupation activism by helping found the Seattle chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, I joined a queer-friendly synagogue and faced the chasm that frequently opens between Jews working for the liberation of Palestine and institutional Jewish communities, including synagogues, which are often affiliated and funded by “Israeli advocacy” organizations.
A few of us anti-Occupation activists struggled for years to begin a serious conversation about Israel/Palestine in our synagogue community but were met with either downright hostility or incredible fear and avoidance. The war on Gaza in 2008 proved to be a tipping point for me; attending a Shabbat service during “Operation Cast Lead,” the rabbi asked us to pray for the state of Israel with no mention of Palestinian victims. This support for Israeli militarism not only saddened me, it intruded into my spiritual space and disrupted my connection to Jewish prayers. No longer willing to balance on the narrow bridge between my politics and my synagogue, I stopped regularly attending services. I no longer felt like there was space for me in our congregation.
Reading Ezra Berkeley Nepon’s compelling history of New Jewish Agenda (NJA), Justice Justice Shall You Pursue, I was excited to learn that this organization helped to bridge the divide between anti-Occupation activism and mainstream Jewish institutions by including (but not limiting) their efforts to Israel/Palestine. Understanding this history has helped to broaden my vision of Jewish Voice for Peace’s current struggle against the Israeli Occupation.
Nepon’s history describes NJA, a national leftist Jewish membership-driven organization that was active between 1980 and 1992 with 5,000 members in over forty-five local chapters. With task forces on topics ranging from Middle East Peace and nuclear disarmament to Jewish Feminism and gay rights, NJA took an intersectional approach to anti-oppression work. This attention to power and internal process was led by the Feminist Task Force, whose newsletter eventually evolved into Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and our Friends, which continued until 2011. NJA’s strong roots in feminism make me wonder how basing our activism more explicitly in feminist principles could change Jewish anti-Occupation work.
NJA rose up from the ashes of Breira: A Project of Concern in Diaspora-Israel Relations, an organization that attempted to offer a Jewish alternative to unbridled Israeli militarism (the word “breira” means “alternative” in Hebrew). Founded in 1973, Breira promoted a two-state solution until a right-wing smear campaign reputation ruined its reputation in 1977. Activists in Breira were particularly vulnerable because of their single-issue focus on Israel/Palestine and lack of grassroots backing. Learning from Breira’s history, NJA purposefully sought to be a grassroots multi-issue organization that was “a Jewish voice among progressives and a progressive voice among Jews” during the wildly conservative climate of the Reagan years.
The Middle East Task Force provided a home for Jews who were critical of the Israeli government. In fact, NJA was the only American Jewish organization that spoke out against the war in Lebanon from the start: on June 30th, 1982, NJA placed a full-page ad in the New York Times denouncing the invasion. Just as today many mainstream American Jewish institutions cast out Jews who speak out against Israel’s militarism, they also came down hard on NJA’s stance. In a widely publicized act, three rabbis in Massachusetts ex-communicated all NJA members by blowing a ram’s horn and snuffing out candles representing the members’ spiritual lives. However, NJA was able to successfully leverage the publicity to explain its political positions to a wider public.
Whereas today the Jewish Federation has contributed to the climate of repression and silencing of discussion around the Occupation within institutional Jewish communities, NJA’s Middle East Task Force managed to bring a settlement freeze petition to the 1983 General Assembly of the Council of the Jewish Federation. The Federation tabled, but did not defeat their petition. Getting their petition in front of the Federation was a major achievement because the Federation is one of several Jewish institutions that control how and where money is spent in Jewish philanthropy. Recently the Jewish Federation has issued guidelines claiming that they will not support any organization, program, or individual that supports Boycott Divestment and Sanctions. This censorship by mainstream Jewish institutions has led to many last-minute cancellations of events, such as Peter Beinart’s talk in the Bay area.
While NJA engaged with the Jewish Federation, its Middle East Task Force was unable to reach agreement about ending U.S. government aid to Israel. NJA condemned US aid to Central American governments who suppressed popular movements led by indigenous populations, but they were unable to take a similar stance against US aid to the Israeli government. This exceptionalism regarding Israel both allowed NJA to keep a foot in the door of mainstream Jewish institutions, such as the Federation, and also created internal discord around this contradiction in their own values, discord that contributed to the end of the organization.
Today, organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace can remain true to our values because we focus solely on the issue of a just peace in Israel/Palestine, but it is extremely difficult to maintain connections to mainstream Jewish institutions. Yet I frequently meet individuals working within Jewish institutions whose values align with ours, but who are afraid to speak out against the Occupation for fear of losing their jobs. NJA’s history has inspired me to ask a few questions: How can we create space for friction and dissent from within Jewish institutions, such as the Jewish Federation or Hillel? How can we create a national network of Jewish Leftist organizations that don’t all share the same mission? What might we gain from this alliance without losing our focus on a just peace in the Middle East? The questions, inspired by Nepon’s book, shine a light onto radical Jewish history that just might change the future of Jewish organizing for equality in Israel/Palestine.