By William Fisher
With the death of Yasser Arafat, and renewed discussion by President Bush and British Prime Minister Blair of re-starting an Arab-Israeli peace process, Palestinians may be wondering who their allies will be. And they may find one in a most unlikely place: among American Jews.
The reason is that, contrary to widely held beliefs, many American Jews oppose the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Arial Sharon and favor a negotiated two-state solution to the Palestinian – Israeli dispute. And there is growing evidence that this moderate constituency is gaining in its ability to influence US policy in the Middle East.
Yet there is much evidence that groups representing alternative views are growing in both numbers and in influence. For example, ever since the 1993 Oslo Accord proved that negotiations were possible, surveys have consistently found that 50 to 60 percent of American Jews favor ending the occupation and dismantling settlements in return for peace.
While most of the world – and especially the Arab world – believes that Jews are Jews are Jews, that they are totally homogenous, and that all their views on all Israeli-related issues are the same, the facts do not support this conclusion. In Israel, Left-leaning and Right-leaning political parties and media have been locked in fierce debate for many years. The same deeply felt differences are mirrored in the United States.
What is true in the US is that dissenters from American ‘conventional wisdom’ on Israel do not get anything like the financial support, press coverage or attention from office-seeking politicians afforded to more powerful and well-connected groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
As Esther Kaplan wrote in the Nation magazine: “AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents (of Major Jewish Organizations), along with their powerful fellow travelers, Christian Zionists, have forged a bipartisan consensus in Washington that Middle East policy must privilege the ‘special relationship’ between the United States and Israel. In practice, this solid consensus means putting Israeli security before peace; supporting even such extreme Israeli measures as the separation wall and assassinations; and delegitimizing the Palestinian leadership.”
But this approach is being seriously challenged by a number of ‘alternative’ Jewish groups. Who are they and what are their views?
One of them is the Chicago-based Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, (the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace), co-founded in 2002 by Marcia Freedman, a former Knesset member. Brit Tzedek is a national grassroots membership organization representing 16,000 members with chapters in twenty-seven cities. It supports a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based roughly on the 1967 borders, sharing Jerusalem, and evacuation of settlements. It asserts that security for Israel can only be achieved through the establishment of an economically and politically viable Palestinian state, an end to Israel's occupation of land acquired during the 1967 war, and to Palestinian terrorism.
Another group is the Berkeley-based Tikkun Community. It calls on the Palestinian people to acknowledge the right of Jews to maintain their own homeland in the pre-1967 borders of the state of Israel, with Jewish control over the Jewish section of Jerusalem and the Western Wall. It calls on the Palestinian people to stop acts of terror against Israel and opposes Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights.
The Oakland-based Jewish Voice for Peace, was founded in 1996, when, “despite three years of participating in a ‘peace process’ under the Oslo accords, Palestinians and Israelis seemed increasingly unlikely to achieve the peace they claimed to seek.” JVP members were especially concerned that the Israeli government was continuing to build settlements in the Occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. It organized more than 100 people to protest at the Israeli consulate in San Francisco, becoming one of the first US Jewish groups to criticize Israeli treatment of Palestinians.
Jews Against the Occupation, an organization in the New York City area, rejects the notion that it is "necessary" to subjugate Palestinians for the sake of keeping Jews safe; claims that that security can only come from mutual respect, and that the occupation of Palestine is only worsening the position of Jews in the Middle East and around the world; opposes the demolition of Palestinian houses and crops in the Occupied Territories; calls for an end to U.S. government aid to Israel; and opposes the Israeli Government’s “attack the Palestinian economy.”
Meretz USA, an affiliate of Israel's left-wing Meretz Party, calls itself “a progressive Zionist organization that educates Americans about issues of civil rights and peace in Israel.” It sees “no alternative to renewing the search for peace between Israel and the Palestinian people, establishing and sustaining a cease-fire, and taking basic measures conducive to the renewal of meaningful negotiations leading to the creation of a sovereign, demilitarized Palestinian state.” The organization has consistently opposed building Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.
These are but a few of America’s so-called ‘alternative’ organizations. Some of the newer groups are cooperating with older outfits like Americans for Peace Now (APN), which pushes for active White House and State Department engagement in the peace process, especially Administration efforts to broker a new interim understanding between Israelis and Palestinians, facilitate final status arrangements that reconcile Israeli security with Palestinian statehood, and encourage negotiations between Israel, Syria, and Lebanon.
What are these groups doing to make their views heard?
There is a long menu of initiatives. For example, in March, one of the older peace groups, Rabbis for Human Rights of North America, sent an open letter to Prime Minister Sharon protesting Israel's house-demolition policy. It was signed by 400 rabbis, including leaders of some of the largest congregations in the country. In April, Brit Tzedek organized 10,000 US Jews to sign another open letter calling on Israel and the US to fund the relocation of Jewish settlers from the occupied territories to Israel.
Though these groups lack support from most of the larger Jewish donors and Jewish foundations, their numbers are growing. APN has some 25,000 supporters; Brit Tzedek, 17,000. Members believe there is substantial room for growth, approaching AIPAC’s 65,000 membership.
While there is significant diversity of opinion even among ‘alternative’ groups, all of them support a negotiated settlement and a two-state solution, and could be potentially valuable Palestinian allies if a re-started peace process becomes a reality.