'Activists are professional optimists': Tom Smerling reflects on lessons from Israel-Palestine peace organizing

Tom Smerling
Tom Smerling
The reflections offered by Tom Smerling on his peace activism opened my eyes to a uniquely fresh perspective. I share some snippets from our conversation on October 1, 2013. This is the second of a two-part post on Tom from the American Jewish Peace Archive: An Oral History of Israeli-Palestinian Peace Activists. Read Part 1 here.
On Being a Jewish Peace Activist
“There’s so much emotion around this issue, because so many Jews feel like Israel’s safety is about their personal survival. As Leonard Fein used to say, “Every Jew lives with a suitcase half packed.” Israel is connected directly with the Holocaust and centuries of Jewish oppression, so it really hits people in the gut.”
Diplomatic Droughts and Breakthroughs
“I watched 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 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 thought it was going to be at least another ten-year drought.”
“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. This issue should be our priority, because it’s about our people. There’s a lot of tikkun olum to be done in the world on worthy causes, but this one has the wallop of authenticity, and we need to play a special role.”
On what peace activists might find useful today
“There’s something wonderful about working on something you’re passionate about. There’s a great quote from Kate Wolf “Find something you really care about and live a life that shows it.”
“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.”
(R to L) Chairman Yasser Arafat, his advisor Nabil Abourdeneh, and Thomas Smerling meeting at the Palestinian Authority offices in Gaza.
(R to L) Chairman Yasser Arafat, his advisor Nabil Abourdeneh, and Tom Smerling meeting at the Palestinian Authority offices in Gaza.
Building a movement

“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.”

Everyone deserves a home in the movement
“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.”
Declarative and strategic politics
“Recognize the distinction between declarative politics and strategic politics. 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 towards it, usually without a lot of declarations.”
“Activists are professional optimists. When you’re working within that 1% of possibility, you don’t have time for the 99%. You’re immersed in enlarging the 1%.”
Taking Credit
“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.”
Opportunityroots chp 6022
“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.”
Encapsulate your message
“There’s a great little book about this called ‘Made to Stick‘ about creating a memorable sound bite.”
Getting Help
“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.”
Other posts from the American Jewish Peace Archive:

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