Lessons Learned in Organizing American Jews

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Lessons Learned in Organizing American Jews

EDITOR'S NOTE: On the weekend of May 4-6, a group of some 200 activists met in Chicago and formed JUnity, a loose network of individuals and organizations who wish to bring peace to the Middle East. Cherie Brown was asked to share some of the key lessons she had learned in her thirty-four years of work in the Jewish community as an activist. Here is the substance of her talk.

In the course of my work, I can trace year to year what I have learned about being a progressive Jewish activist that continues to be helpful to activists today. I invite you to follow me through this history to the proposed practices with which I will conclude.

Creating a New Analysis for Progressive Jews

1968. I was attending the Peace and Freedom Party convention when that party passed the first "Zionism is Racism" resolution. Several of us walked out of the convention to form a Jewish radical movement in the United States. We concluded that the only way to fight the anti-Semitism of the left and the militaristic policies of Israel was to build Jewish progressive organizations, ones that could challenge the right-wing policies of mainstream Jewry while at the same time reflecting a strong, proud Jewish identity.

What did I learn from this break with the Peace and Freedom Party? That we needed a new analysis that had never been put forward previously. We could not let the Jewish community speak for us, nor could we let the left speak for us. We needed a new language and a separate identity as progressive Jews.

Appealing to the Jewish Community through a Common Culture

1969. A small group of us in the Jewish radical community in Los Angeles spent twenty-four hours with Sol Alinsky, the grandparent of community organizing in the United States. As a result of that session, we decided to picket the Jewish Federation. Dressed up as waiters, we interrupted a $500-a-plate dinner and stood before the leaders of our community, singing "Zog Nit Kamel," the Jewish partisan song from the Warsaw ghetto uprising. A number of Jewish leaders at that meeting sobbed as we sang. In that one night we raised $500,000 from the Jewish community to organize progressive Jewish activities.

What did I learn from this radical activism? That we had to sound like Jews. We did not have to be quiet or non-invasive. We did not even have to refrain from picketing or using revolutionary tactics to win over the Jewish community. But we had to reach their hearts through a commonly shared Jewish language.

Stopping Attacks within the Jewish Community

1979. I attended yet another Washington, D.C. meeting. This time, with the Jewish Defense League pounding down the door and trying to break into the meeting, we launched Breira, a new national peace and justice Middle East organization. "Breira," in Hebrew, means "choice." For the first time, many Hillel rabbis from across the country joined in the effort and committed themselves to challenge the policies of the Israeli government. In response, there was an institutionalized campaign in the Jewish press to discredit these rabbis. A number of them lost their jobs. At one point, I got so badly attacked that I was sick for six months, ending up in the hospital.

What did I learn from my work with Breira? That when we Jews are terrified, we can attack our own people quite viciously. I learned that we had to make a solemn pledge to one another: anytime a Jewish activist is attacked, we will leap over any mountain to come to their defense. When an attack is taking place, it is not the time to quibble over whether or not we support that Jewish activist's politics or tactics (or even if we like that person). If one progressive Jewish activist is being attacked, we are all being attacked.

Overcoming Isolation to Become Effective

1981. The New Jewish Agenda, founded in this year, was one of the best progressive Jewish organizations that we ever launched. …