Israel, Justice

Grassroots Jewish Orgs Dealing Killing Blow to Dinosaurs

All respect due to the Jewish legacy institutions of yesteryear — but the new century is in, and Jews are voting with their, well, votes. The Jewish institutions of note are the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, the Jewish FundS for Justice, and the NCJWs (the one legacy organization which didn’t sell it’s soul to anti-Semitism fighting and Israel-cheering) are doing all the interesting Jewish organizing — which would include the important organizing as well.

Some of the most prominent are actually breakaway chapters of a group that was once the face of Jewish progressivism: the American Jewish Congress. Others were created because of the perception that there was little or no Jewish presence in local coalitions dealing with a wide range of close-to-home issues.
“In coalitions on civil rights, housing, immigration and many other issues, the national agencies were once big players,” said Kean University political science professor Gil Kahn. “Their involvement is dramatically less now; many national Jewish organizations are giving relatively short shrift to the domestic agenda. So Jews are opting to create local groups to be involved in the debate over substantive local issues.”

Opting? To create this slew of agencies, I think a whole set of generations — not just us 20s/30s young’uns — are actively turning away from the ever-existential qualms of those leaders focused myopically on the numbers of Jews rather than the quality of their existence, their impact, on this here earth. Says Jane Ramsey, executive director at the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA),

“There has always been a feeling in our community that we want to live in a just world, and that we have to help make that happen,” Ramsey said. “But over the years, we have seen a turning away from that vision by some leaders. As the community gets more involved in our own lives, and as other issues have taken our attention — such as the dangers to Israel — we don’t seem to have the energy or the time.”

Full article here.
But laudable as this article is, it completely ignores the subtle yet incredibly significant grassroots phenomenon of the 2000s which is not domestic at all: Brit Tzedek v’Shalom‘s founding in 2002. The new agencies are bigger in budget, certainly, with JCUA busting out at 1.2 million bucks a year and 20 staffers, while Brit Tzedek only recently upgraded to six full-time staff in Chicago, New York and Washington, DC. Since it’s founding conference of a whopping 200 people in 2002, to now 35,000 members and email petition supporters nationwide in just four years. Four years.
There have been attempts at progressive Israel lobbies before — which deserve a great many historical reviews on this here blog — but few so successful, so quickly as this. And now as large funders consider throwing in their cash to break up the right-wing lock on Israel advocacy, it is clear that the future only holds more growth for grassroots progressive lobbies — both domestic and Israel-related.
Thank God.

20 thoughts on “Grassroots Jewish Orgs Dealing Killing Blow to Dinosaurs

  1. I wonder how long before Jews dissatisfied with these new organizations break away and form their own union.

  2. “focused myopically on the numbers of Jews rather than the quality of their existence, their impact, on this here earth.”
    I think that one line sort of says it all.

  3. Kung Fu Jew, I don’t want to come down on a group of brave people who do good work, but….
    You use a figure of 35,000 ‘members and email petition supporters’ to make a statement about BTVS’s strength. A more accurate measure would be BTVS’ gains in the field it purports to be effective in: affecting US policy. By this measure, it fails more or less completely. But not just them; Americans for Peace Now, Israel Policy Forum and all the groups shadowing them to the left have not succeeded. Well, at least APN raised good money for PN….
    BTVS make a fateful decision to use the language of loving Israel and avoid making common cause with the left in order to make significant inroads in the Jewish community. I would argue, that this strategy has failed by it’s own measuring stick. You can count all the email alert responders and recipients of emails but…. how much money can it riase from it’s own members? If you look at the chapters, who is showing up at the monthly meeting? If you look for prominent rabbis joining and speaking out on behalf of BTVS – where are the big-wigs who supposedly agree with them, who were only waiting for a group of avowedly Israel loving peaceniks to emerge boldly, breaking once and for all with AIPAC and all the rest?
    It hasn’t happened. If you look at the founding board of 2002, more than half are no longer active with BTVS, and quite a few expressed grave reservations about it’s strategy as soon as the co-counseling folks took over. BTVS made a decision to go with ‘names’, usually low level rabbis and pre-existing donors to APN, and marginalize the grassroots activists who gave birth to it – the ones from JUNITY, an event/network that directly preceded BTVS.
    To use BTVS as the standard by which to measure the growth of a Jewish institutional alternative is just plain wrong…. a FAR FAR better example is following a group like AJWS with thier global consciousness and Darfur campaigning. I would venture to say that the bright spots cannot be found among large orgnaizations, which by thier nature kow tow to those able to write big check and swing around big names. Look instead to Heeb, Storahtelling, MOSAIC, TEVA, Hazon, and even Jewschool. These are small, niche-y, succint and vibrant. May they never become large enough to join the ranks of the dinasaurs.
    And if you still want to find a more or less Jewish peace group to follow – check out Rabbis for Human Rights – NA, which recently held a conference with hundreds of rabbis, including the head of the New York federation… with Human Rights Watch ED as a key note speaker. BTVS can only dream, and there are excellent reasons why they will never have such an audience.

  4. Jew Guavara,
    I think you’re spot on wrong. If you’ve read any of the press recently about the difficulty in passing the Palestinitian Anti-Terrorism Act, like this JTA peice on, you’ll see Brit Tzedek as held responsible for the bloody nose AIPAC took this summer in doing it’s own business:
    AIPAC strongly backed the bill, and it passed overwhelmingly in both houses. However, the three dovish groups surprised many members of Congress with the vehemence of their response; Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives said that calls opposing the legislation outpaced those in support by a 3-1 margin.
    Brit Tzedek’s annual conference and annual visit to DC bring over 200 people into Congressional offices. Over 300 rabbis signed BTVS’ call this summer to halt the Second Lebanon War — and 400 rabbis signed the letter calling for a restart to negotiations less than six months before that.
    As for JUNITY, that name is gone to the history books like Breira before it. Neither organization succeeded. It has indeed taken the progressive Israel lobby many iterations to understand it’s business — and whereas APN employs a former Clinton staffer (all but completely useless on a formerly Replublican-run Capitol Hill and certainly a Bush White House) and conducts no grassroots lobbying, Brit Tzedek is responsible for the above sea changes in the political dynamic in Washington.
    As a chapter-based organization, there are certainly more exemplary cities than others — sounds like your local chapter needs your volunteerism.

  5. Without major old Jew orgs these little orgs would not be able to survive. I am willing to bet that a majority of the commenters on all of these blogs work for one or two of the huge old Jew orgs.
    “Decter said the major national agencies like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee “mostly ignore us. But we do work closely with the Union for Reform Judaism and the National Council of Jewish Women.”
    So the Union for Reform Judaism – mostly the Religious Action Center – is named here but why only the NCJW make the post?

  6. Kung, your quote illustrates the problem with Jewish peace organizing. Even when we do successful lobbying, even with lots of rabbis signatures, we still can’t win.
    Given the forces arrayed on the Jewish right, the winning strategy involves strong cooperation between the Jewish and non Jewish peace groups. BTVS, like APN, refuses to work with organizations who share nearly identical visions in the Middle East.
    The quote above and the numbers you give don’t add up to an endorsement of BTVS’ success. The calls cited where not necessarily those generated by BTVS, given that many others were doing this same lobbying work.
    (don’t really mean to come off so negative. It’s not like BTVS is one of the bad guys… just saying that they are not emblematic of the new wave of Jewish groups changing the face of the community.)

  7. In response to Jew Guevera,
    I think that KFJ adequately outlined the recent successes of the pro-Israel left in Congress, which have garnered a slew of articles in the jewish press and are probably partially responsible for the recent interest of some big name donors.
    Re: your point about using the language of loving Israel, I couldn’t disagree more. In fact, Brit Tzedek’s (and APN, and IPF’s) success has occurred precisely because it recognized that the only way to succeed on this issue is to explain to Jews and politicians that a two-state solution is in the best interests of Israel and the US, which of course it is. As any good organizer knows, people are fundamentally moved by self-interest, and are unlikely to ever place universal values about what they perceive as necessary to their own survival.
    Had Brit Tzedek chosen to align themselves with the left and use anti-Israel language or define the need for a two-state solution based on only universal values of justice without including a call for enlightened self-interest, it would be exactly where all those left-wing groups are, nowhere. Left-wing groups of all kinds barage Congress with memos and fact sheets opposing so-called “pro-Israel” legislation, without making a dent. Three progressive pro-Israel groups suddenly join forces and the entire dynamic changes.

  8. Without major old Jew orgs these little orgs would not be able to survive. I am willing to bet that a majority of the commenters on all of these blogs work for one or two of the huge old Jew orgs.
    are you still on about that?
    you must work for federation, cuz you seem terrified of its demise.

  9. Backbeat, you haven’t made the case that the Jewish Zionist peace groups have had an impact, except in articles about the Jewish peace groups.
    Show me a few Congressfolks whose vote flipped. Show me a resolution introduced and shepharded by these folks. Show me a line item with funds for peace building.
    But don’t give me stats on emails sent. (that’s just bull.) don’t give me letters signed. and esp. don’t give me ‘three to one calls’ when most of those calls were probably generated by far larger networks than BTVS. (The Arab American Institute and the ADC come to mind.)
    BTVS generates a fair amount of press inside the Jewish community which it uses to raise funds from it’s supporters. But it is guilty of the same undemocratic internal methods of other large Jewish bureaucracies, just without the funding base or political power that usually goes with it.

  10. Jew Guavara,
    The fact that this info is biggest in the Jewish press hardly dimishes it’s importance — please READ a few of the articles, so I don’t have to recant a litany of successes. Seriously, do some homework before spouting.
    Along the same lines, please specify which “undemocratic internal processes” are in question. When the Second Lebanon War hit, every chapter in the nation held a membership meeting to inform the national office what we wanted to do. I held three of these meetings in New York myself.
    Lastly, BTVS is hardly rolling in riches. I’ve been to their offices in Chicago and New York — not what you’d call palaces of the rich and Jewish.
    I think you’re blowing smoke out of your backend and clearly have no idea what you’re talking about.

  11. Let’s be clear here, Brit Tzedek and the other pro-Israel left groups aren’t claiming victory like the battle is over. We are up against incredibly tough and well-financed forces. We are just saying that there have been small victories that deserve recognition and create some hope. And that the strategies by these groups is the reason we are seeing even small victories for the first time in a long time.
    and so we are all on the same page, heres a quick recap of the pro-Israel left’s recent successes:
    1. 108 Members of Congress sign letter to Sec. Rice praising her efforts for peace (Dec. 2005). You may think congressional letters are simply political, but most of AIPAC’s resolutions are exactly the same. 108, its not 435, but its way more than on anything similar since 2000.
    2. Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act is introduced after a Hamas victory in the PA. You would think this bill passes in a day (like most AIPAC bills). Takes 3.5 months to pass the House. The final Senate version that passes almost 10 months later has been so modified and slimmed down that it did nothing more than send a bad message. So yes the bill passed. But it didnt entirely cut funds to Palestinian moderates and humanitarian aid, like its sponsors wanted. That seems a pretty tangible change to me. Oh yeah, the final bill included $20 million for peace and coexistence programs — so there’s your line item.
    3. During the debate on the bill mentioned above, Brit Tzedek (along with APN, and IPF) are mentioned a half-dozen times from the House floor. 8 Members of Congress attend Brit Tzedek’s congressional reception in June.
    These numbers are still not huge, to be sure, but you asked for tangible difference, and there it is. You want more, join us.

  12. Backbeat, thanks for the details. Such evidence is indeed strong. Kung Fu, you are close to lashon hara… while my information is not as current as yours, this debate has given you a chance to clarify things and make good points about BTVS.
    However, your comments also make clear that you were not present in the formative period of BTVS when it was more or less taken over by the followers of co-counseling. You are not friends with a dozen ex members of the initial leadership. I’m fairly certain you did not co-found a single chapter. You don’t seem aware of the controversy surrounding the imposition of a union style paid Chairperson (instead of the typical non profit governing board versus paid staff model.) For these reasons, I think you should take some of your own advice…. about which orifice one is using.
    It is good to know that your experience is different. Not so good that you have no idea where the charge of un democratic practice might come from…..

  13. Jew Guavara, my apologies, it sounded like you just had a local spat and wanted to take it national.
    And not to take attention away from RHR-North America either, who are also finding a surprising level of support in synagogues and are doing amazingly good things, though their anti-torture agenda is largely domestic.
    (Is American torture policy domestic or foreign affairs?)

  14. What’s the difference between progressive israel politics and right wing israel politics? both want two states, right?

  15. Right wing Israeli politics identity their goal as one that serves their own needs. Progressive Israeli politics identify goals that might be shared by Palestinians.
    Example: lefties want negotiations while righties want unilateral moves. Righties want to demonize Palestinian tactics and politics, lefties want to show respect for Pals democratic choice, and look for common ground.
    As a progressive, I want a Palestinian state, but I also want Israel to become a democracy for all its citizens, not an ethnodemocracy primarily for Jews. Not for ‘them’ but for me.

  16. Wow. BTVS helped water down an anti terrorism bill. That’s an interesting track record of “accomplishment”…

  17. As someone who has been involved with BTvS from its earliest days to the present, I can assure folks that Jew Guevara’s comments about the organization are quite off-base. There has certainly been turnover on the Brit Tzedek board since the organization started 5 years ago. This is perfectly normal and expected. Most of those that have left have done so for personal reasons and time constraints. To my knowledge nobody who has left the board has ever expressed “grave reservations” about Brit Tzedek’s strategy of being a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization or any concern about the influence of co-sounselors. Many former board members remain involved at the local level.
    The idea that the organization is run by a group of “co-counselors” or there was some sort of co-counseling coup is quite laughable. There are several co-counselors who have been involved in Brit Tzedek (I am not one and have never had any connection to co-counseling), but Brit Tzedek has no connection to co-counseling movement and has never been run by principles that have anything to do with co-counseling. Nor has there ever been any attempt to “marginalize the grassroots activists.” Policy decisions are made by the board, in consultation with a small paid staff and with significant input from local chapters. Many members of the board are also either chapter chairs or members of local chapter steering committees.
    JewGuevara, if you have questions or concerns about Brit Tzedek, I’m glad to address them, but please don’t post rumor and conspiracy theories as fact. Brit Tzedek is attempting some very important and difficult work and needs the support of all progressive Jews who support a two-state solution.

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