YOU DON'T NEED A WEATHERMAN TO KNOW WHICH WAY THE WIND IS BLOWING - A report on the JUNITY (Jewish Unity for a Just Peace) Conference May 4 - 6, Chicago
By Ellen Cantarow
I'm an internationalist. "All-(name your ethnicity: Jews-only, Christians-only, etc.)" organizations, clubs, political movements, have never been for me. In my work as a writer and activist on Palestine and Israel I'd never participated in an all-Jewish organization until recently, when I joined a Boston "Women in Black" group. (I avoided New Jewish Agenda in the 80s, for instance, and worked instead with Boston's "Lebanon Emergency Committee.") So when a cyberspace buddy e-mailed me in February or March about "Jewish Unity for a Just Peace," a conference to take place in Chicago May 4 - 6, I said no and forgot about it. Meanwhile, I signed an on-line petition, NOT IN MY NAME! It expressed shame and outrage that Israel could perpetrate its crimes against the Palestinian people in the name of all Jews. This spoke to me: wasn't the depth of my passion about Israel's crimes against Palestine rooted in the fact that my family was ('culturally,' anyway) Jewish? Didn't I refer to that background whenever I spoke and wrote about my experiences as a journalist in Israel and the West Bank?
In February, around the time I signed NOT IN MY NAME, I was also in active e-mail article-exchange and correspondence with a West Coast friend. "Ellen," he wrote, "if you aren't already a member, you should sign up for A Jewish Voice For Peace, the single most useful source of information I've found. They will send you important articles daily from Ha'aretz, etc." The articles turned out to be by people I respect -- Amira Hass, for instance, and Tanya Reinhart, surely no Jewish-exclusivists. It was because of an article by Reinhart shortly after the start of the Al Aksa Intifada that I'd joined a list serve - al-awda-media - on which, ever since, I'd been firing off letters to the media and to Congress. Reinhart had warned that Israel's war on the Palestinians, following the start of the second Intifada, was the beginning of a second Nakba - 1948 all over again.
Several weeks before the conference I had e-mails from other cyberspace colleagues who were mulling things over. One, a Chicago on-line friend, said she'd be in town that weekend; she'd love to meet me in person. My West Coast buddy, who hadn't thought he'd be able to attend the conference, finally found he could. Israel Shamir, a brilliant Israeli Russian-Jewish writer whom I'd hosted at a small gathering at my house during the Boston leg of his US speaking tour, said he might go. A cyberspace friend from Wisconsin wrote, "I'll go if you're going." She and I decided to room together at the conference, I called Cheap Tickets and booked my flight. Mainly I went for these friendships. There was also a spark of hope that what I mentally dubbed "Something Useful" - who knew what? - could come of the conference. Also, the slogan NOT IN MY NAME, was originally Steven Feuerstein's brainchild. Feuerstein was JUNITY's main organizer. Maybe, I rationalized -- on a "try-anything-that-works" principle -- a US Jewish organization of principle that could cry out and organize in the spirit of "Not in my name!" would be a good thing.
I arrived early Friday afternoon at a north-side Chicago building that looked like a no-frills YMCA. Lots of long tables in a large, drab hall. Photographs of house demolitions in Palestine taped to the walls. Against one wall near the literature tables hung a large poster inked with magic marker: I AM JEWISH AND I WANT ISRAEL TO STOP KILLING PALESTINIANS. Actually, I'm not sure of the exact quote: I didn't copy it, not having intended to be a reporter. But its wording was much like that - strong and full of passion. This, it turned out, was a poster that Steven Feuerstein, JUNITY's man-at-the-helm, had carried around on a sidewalk months earlier in his outrage against Israel's policies.
There were a lot of very young people scrabbling to get conference brochures together for Friday's 5 pm registration. Did I want to volunteer? I had gotten no sleep the night before; I declined the invitation. Instead, I had soup in a north side Guatemalan restaurant with Larry, a middle-aged man I'd never met before. A religious Jew, Larry was active in his "Reconstructionist" congregation. He had had a role in "Seeds of Peace." In the words of a column he'd published on this venture in a New Jersey newspaper, "Seeds of Peace is camp in Maine that brings together Palestinian, Israeli, Jordanian and Egyptian teen-agers, who learn to understand each other and then return home as young leaders and messengers for peace." Larry had made a recent trip to Israel/Palestine where he visited the family of Asel Asleh, a 17-year-old Palestinian from the Galilee whom the Israeli army had shot and killed at the start of the second Intifada. Another New Jersey paper had interviewed Larry about the trip; he brought copies of this article, too. Handing both to me across our soup plates, he said he'd also engineered a dialogue at his synagogue between a PLO rep and an Israeli embassy rep. His synagogue, I replied, was doing a lot better than Yale University; it had just hosted a talk by Eliakim Haezni, leading intellect of the ultra-right-wing settler movement, Gush Emunim ('Bloc of the Faithful'), the religious-extremist movement that since 1967 has spearheaded Israel's colonizing in the West Bank and Gaza.
Larry seemed the conference rule, not the exception. Of the 180 people who attended, many were dedicated activists. They were from all over the US and from several other countries including Brazil. I met Allen, for instance, a long-time Wisconsin activist who'd been working in progressive causes for decades. Allen said he was returning home to do civil disobedience with his group (not all-Jewish) at a plant that manufactures arms destined for Israel. Another veteran, a woman named Judith, told me about the "Jewish Peacekeepers" project she's launching to complement "Christian Peacekeepers." (This requires people to commit a few weeks to months living in Palestinian villages, hopefully inhibiting the Israeli war machine by their presence.) Among the younger people with whom I spoke was a student working in New York Hillels to raise consciousness about Israeli injustice. Levels of knowledge and understanding in this crowd were uneven. At the high end were people who had been reading, writing, and teaching about Israel and Palestine for years. At the low end was the woman who stalled a Saturday afternoon small-group discussion -- "strategies to end the occupation" -- by insisting on a response to her distress that "people who were born in the settlements and have lived there all their lives will be thrown out if the settlements are evacuated."
A letter of welcome heading our conference packets read, "If we enter Junity with the objective of convincing others of the rightness or righteousness of our particular viewpoint, we will most likely fail . . . [Let us] join together this weekend ready to set aside differences . . . . " From the start, JUNITY was an umbrella coalition with a lowest-common-denominator mission. "Threatening ideas" were discouraged. The very name, Jewish Unity for a Just Peace, breathed terrified caution. Anyone believing in Jewish-only organizing for the vague term, "just peace" could agree with that. Shimon Peres could. So could Sharon. So could THE NEW YORK TIMES. At one point I suggested to Steven Feuerstein that I draft a proposal to call the organization emerging from the conference NOT IN OUR NAME. "Too alienating," he cautioned.
Jeff Halper, an American-born Israeli Jewish activist who works to block housing demolition in the occupied territories, kicked off the conference Saturday morning with the first keynote speech. Halper was both articulate and passionate. He sounded an alarum that could have guided the conference throughout: "There hasn't been a situation like this since 1948 . . . there's a wall-to-wall coalition [with] one agenda, to break the Palestinians . . .. We have to adopt a human rights discourse [based on international law] . . . Relying on human rights gets us around all the tribal stuff [to] make Israel accountable." Alone of all the conference's speakers Halper said, "Not in My Name is the perfect title for this conference . . . They [the Israeli government and the US Israel lobbies] are co-opting everyone in order to pursue their right-wing agenda."
Given the state of siege, the massive shelling, the horrible human rights emergency escalating in the West Bank and Gaza since September, you'd have thought the planners would frame an updated NOT IN OUR NAME press release to condemn Israel's crimes. Keeping the focus on international law and human rights abuse would have got the gathering, as Halper said, "around all the tribal stuff." A simple cry -- STOP THE SIEGE! STOP THE BOMBING - should have been the first order of business. It never happened.
Instead, passion-draining proprieties were clapped on the weekend's discussions. Our booklets were dense with rules governing both small groups and plenaries. ("1. Facilitator reads . . . document . . . sets expectations, and makes sure everyone understands how this session will work. 2. Discussion groups present proposals . . . 3 minutes per group. 3. Findings are ranked and consolidated. Based on the sum of rankings from each group, moderators present overall strategies . . . . "etc.) Following Saturday afternoon's small-group discussion of "strategies to end the occupation," frustrated with the planners' nervous intent to Move Things Along At All Costs, I raised my hand: "I'm not sure how to articulate this," I said, "but regardless of any political differences, what has fueled everyone to come here is our shame, rage and passion against what Israel is doing to the Palestinian people. There is an enormous human rights emergency we should be addressing . . . " Applause; then others erupted with similar complaints. The plenary, however, was soon brought to heel and business continued as usual.
The business of plenary votes was governed by a "super-majority" rule: affirmation by 75% of the body was decreed necessary for passing any resolution. Not surprisingly, any resolution referring to the international law guaranteeing the right of all war refugees to return home - in the case of Israel's 1948 war, the right of the refugees to return to their homes in the former Palestine - was doomed. (Four "affinity groups" got a token nod in an 8 a.m. to 8:50 a.m. slot Sunday morning when most people were sleeping in after a late Saturday night. "Right of Return" took its place beside "Women," "Jews of Color," and "Left Zionists.")
At the end of the day, people of long experience and great commitment who wanted to come out of this thing not having wasted hundreds of dollars and much time were to be seen drafting last-minute resolutions late Saturday night and early Sunday morning. They arrived bleary-eyed from Kinko's Copy Sunday morning, documents in hand. One group passed theirs around for signatures at a Saturday-night 'allies' dinner (Jews and a few Arab-Americans) and Sunday morning. This resolution, which contained a right-of-return clause, didn't pass. Another, simply headed, WHY WE NEED TO SET UP A NATIONAL MEMBERSHIP ORGANIZATION, also failed. In a moment of Saturday afternoon folly I'd rushed out to Kinko's, where I drafted and copied a painfully careful resolution that "Not in Our Name" be the name of any organization emerging from the conference; or that "Not in Our Name" be a subtitle under whatever name got chosen. Or that the slogan be included near the top of a statement of principles directly following the organization's name. I suppose I wanted to see just how scared this gathering was running. But I finally left my resolution languishing undistributed on a side table, and took a taxi to the airport before Sunday's closing plenary. In the words of Bob Dylan's song, I didn't need a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing.
An exclusively Jewish organization that gives principled opposition to Israel's crimes - is it a good idea? Not for me. For others, maybe. Can this particular Jewish group act with the outrage and passion needed when the war criminal Sharon and his cronies are trying to finalize 1948? Not bloody likely.