on Brit Tzedek Conference
As I get older, I notice more and more how fortunate I am
in the work
I have chosen to do. Travelling with the Middle East Peace Quilt
(which has been touring North America since 1999), speaking to
diverse and sometimes challenging audiences, honing my skills at both
listening and debating, and being exposed to new ideas and wonderful
people has enriched my life. In February of this year I was delighted
to be a workshop presenter at the third national conference of Brit
Tzedek v'Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, held in
New York City.
Through lucky timing I was in New York for the showing of the Gates,
the saffron banners constructed by the artist Christo, running along
all the pathways of Central Park. I also managed to catch an exhibit
at the Museum of the City of New York, called "Radicals in the
Bronx," about housing projects built by unions in the 1920's. It
exciting to be in New York, and heartening to be at the conference,
with nearly 700 Middle East Peace Activists from the U.S., Canada,
Israel and Europe. There was an atmosphere of optimism, which I
hadn't seen since the early days of the Oslo Accord.
Brit Tzedek is an American national Jewish Peace organization founded
two and a half years ago. It was started by a group of Jews who,
according to former Knesset member and Brit Tzedek President Marcia
Freedman, "saw a need to feel empowered to speak out against the
policies of the Israeli government that we do not agree with, and at
the same time to do that from a place of great and deep and genuine
love for the State of Israel and the Israeli people, and as Jews."
Brit Tzedek has seven basic principles:
1. Evacuation of the settlements in the occupied territories.
2. Termination of terrorism and state-initiated violence against
all individuals, especially civilians.
3. A complete end to the military occupation of the territories
occupied since 1967 in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.
4. Establishment of a viable Palestinian state.
5. Establishment and recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of
6. A just resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem that
takes into account the needs and aspirations of both peoples.
7. Recognition that as Jewish Americans, they have a special
responsibility to urge their government to pursue policies consistent
with the requirements of a just peace for Israel and Palestinian
Brit Tzedek's goal is to create a mainstream American Jewish
that opposes the occupation, and if the conference was anything to go
by, they are well on their way. They now have 31 chapters and a
membership of almost 25,000, and according to Freedman, in every
American city where a chapter has been formed, Brit Tzedek is well
connected with the local mainstream Jewish organizations.
Speakers at the New York conference, which was entitled "From Gaza
Negotiations: The role of American Jews," included Colette Avital,
Knesset member and former Israeli Consul-General in New York; Jeremy
Ben-Ami, former policy director for Howard Dean and Deputy Domestic
Policy Advisor to Bill Clinton; J.J. Goldberg, the editor of the
Forward; Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, an architect of the Geneva Accord,
former Knesset member, and Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense
Forces; and Amjad Atallah, an advisor to Yasser Abed Rabbo and the
Palestinian Peace Coalition. As well there were forty-five
fascinating workshops such as: "Palestinian National Elections-A
Report from the Ground;" "Anti-Semitism and the Israeli- Palestinian
Conflict;" "Mizrachi Jews and the Peace Process;" and "Theatre
tool in Israeli-Palestinian Peace work." Especially interesting was
workshop on the role of the Israeli Women's Movement in laying the
foundations for the peace process.
The conference, which ran from Saturday evening to Monday afternoon
at Temple Israel in Manhattan, started on a positive note. Among the
speakers there was a cautious but unmistakable optimism, a perception
that the recent successful Palestinian elections and the planned
withdrawal from Gaza offered a window for a meaningful negotiated
settlement. Speaker after speaker stressed the importance of taking
advantage of this window of opportunity for peace. As Colette Avital
put it, "If we fail, it is difficult to see who will dare to do it
again, who will dare to withdraw from the territories and when that
J.J. Goldberg, editor of the Forward in its current English-language
version, offered a controversial but possibly pragmatic perspective,
which is that at this moment Sharon is our best hope for peace. He
suggested that despite Sharon's history, and with all the real
reasons we have to be skeptical of his motives, right now he's the
best we've got, and the Jewish left needs to support him. "At a time
like this," Goldberg said, "a progressive voice of encouragement
needed, and it needs to sound like encouragement."
He was not alone in his point of view. Jeremy Ben-Ami urged Jewish
Americans to work with their members of Congress to support the
withdrawal from Gaza and then to follow up with more pressure to
continue negotiations toward a fair and just two-state solution. He
encouraged his listeners to challenge the notion that politicians
mistakenly hold, that Jews vote as a unit and the Jewish vote depends
solely on a party's policy towards Israel. And he urged us to "turn
up the heat on the mainstream Jewish organizations in your
community," adding that if there was ever a time for Diaspora Jews
be supporting an Israeli Prime Minister, the time is now.
Perhaps the most substantial part of the conference was the
presentation by the two keynote speakers, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and
Lipkin-Shahak is a decorated war hero with a 26-year career, and a
former Knesset member and Chief of Staff for the Israel Defense
Forces. He was a senior member of Barak's peace team, and
participated in the negotiations at Camp David, Sharm El-Sheik and
Taba. He is one of the architects of the Geneva Accord, the
non-binding non-governmental agreement drawn up by an unofficial
group of Israeli and Palestinian political, military and grassroots
leaders in 2003.
Like earlier speakers, Lipkin-Shahak spoke about how the current
circumstances are a window for peace negotiations. "There is a new
Palestinian leader who most of the Israelis believe is not talking in
dual language as we were used to, and that he's serious in his wish
to end the conflict. And therefore I believe there is a new
opportunity we should not miss." He went on to predict that "if
Palestinian Authority can control terrorism, then the Israeli people
will force any Israeli government to reach an agreement with the
The other keynote speaker, Palestinian Amjed Atallah, is the director
of the Strategic Assessments Initiative, an organization which
provides legal and policy assistance to parties involved in the peace
negotiations. He is currently an advisor to the Palestinian Peace
Coalition and consultant to the Israeli Defence Forces on how to use
peacekeepers to prepare for third-party involvement in Gaza
disengagement in a manner that ensures Israeli security and
Palestinian exercise of freedom.
He began his talk by emphasizing how much Palestinians appreciated
the work of organizations like Brit Tzedek. He described what he
called the official Palestinian position on what Palestinians believe
Sharon's plan to be, and what the Palestinian response is expected to
be. Palestinians see the actions of Sharon and the Israeli right wing
as being based on the assumption that peace with Palestinians is not
possible, that Israel must divest itself of a certain number of
Palestinians currently living under Israeli control, and that
Israelis can manipulate certain concepts like statehood for
Palestinians in a way to reduce international pressure on Israel
without actually changing things in the Palestinian territories.
Sharon's plan, he told us, is based on these assumptions, and
international acquiescence to it would lead to a situation involving
the creation of an interim Palestinian state that a democratically
elected Palestinian government would not be able to accept. The
Palestinians fear that accepting interim statehood would lead to the
end of international pressure to drive the peace process forward.
Atallah encouraged supporters not to give up on the two-state
solution in favour of the "one-and-a-half state solution" which
interim statehood would represent.
Atallah also spoke of the Palestinian Peace Coalition, who are
attempting to turn the principles that led them to sign the Geneva
Accord into political platforms for the Palestinian parliamentary
elections. They are creating a list of Palestinians running for
office who specifically endorse the three tenets of the peace
coalition: non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation, the
promotion of a democratic Palestinian state, and a negotiated
I left the conference re-energized and full of new ideas. It is
challenging to maintain continued optimism in light of the events in
Israel/Palestine since February, such as the ongoing construction of
new settlements in the West Bank. Nevertheless, it was definitely
inspiring to be with so many Jews committed to putting their best
resources into solving the tangle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Brit Tzedek is very much an American organization. Part of their
mandate is to lobby the American government on issues such as their
President's Economic Support Funds for the Palestinians, and to
support an orderly withdrawal of the army and evacuation of the
settlements in Gaza, and ultimately to bring both sides to the table
for a negotiated two-state solution.
Activists who are envisioning a single secular state may have
problems with Brit Tzedek's political position, but no one could
question their pragmatism.
The majority of Jewish Canadians are decent individuals who are
caught in a position of feeling that if they speak out against the
occupation they will in some way be betraying Israel or opening the
door to anti-Semitism. A political position that does not create this
dilemma offers the opportunity to create a mainstream Jewish voice
that is able to speak out against the occupation and the mistreatment
of Palestinian people. I think Canadian Jews could well benefit from
an organization that offers such an option.