Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA)
July 29, 2002
"Feeling out of sync with mainstream,
left-wing Jews carve out Israel niche"
By Matthew E. Berger
WASHINGTON, July 29 (JTA) — Bruce Robbins is not sure how he became a
leader in a grass-roots movement of American Jews urging the United States
to pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians.
The Columbia University English professor was one of a handful of people who
received an e-mail in the spring from a man he hardly knew, a physics
professor at New York University with strong views on the Middle East.
Among Alan Sokal’s comments was a call for the U.S. government to make aid
to Israel conditional on Israel’s acceptance of a two-state solution that
includes a return to Israel’s pre-1967 borders and an evacuation of all
Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
One of the original 10 people to get that e-mail, Robbins signed on to the
The next thing he knew, he was seeking additional supporters for an open
letter from American Jews to the U.S. government, and working to place a
half-page ad in The New York Times.
Now, Robbins is appearing on television, offering what he considers an
“alternative” American Jewish view of Israel’s military operations against
Last week, a day after an Israeli airstrike killed Hamas’ military commander
and at least 14 civilians in the Gaza Strip, Robbins appeared on MSNBC’s
He appeared together with a PLO legal adviser and Israel’s consul general in
New York, Alon Pinkas, arguing that the attack was not in Israel’s interest.
“The Hamas is certainly going to retaliate after the attack,” Robbins said.
“And the Israelis are going to retaliate. And the retaliation will go back
Robbins’ group, made up mostly of academics, does not have a name or a
budget, but it is getting attention.
Since a second, full-page ad ran in the Times in July, more than 1,700
people have signed Robbins’ letter, and he is looking for more venues for
“The idea is to make it clear to people in the United States that Jewish
people are not a monolithic” bloc that always supports the Israeli
government, Robbins said.
“There are a lot of us out there who are constructively critical.”
A growing number of American Jews are seeking to voice opinions about the
path to Middle East peace that are at odds with those of the Israeli
government, the U.S. government and mainstream American Jewish groups.
With some Jews feeling left out and afraid to speak up, several grass-roots
organizations are forming to articulate left-wing opinions and create an
alternative to mainstream Jewish groups.
Since the Palestinian intifada against Israel began in September 2000, some
Jewish groups that had pushed hard for the Oslo peace process found it
increasingly difficult to speak up for peace with the Palestinians when
suicide bombers and other terrorists were targeting Israelis.
For their part, leaders of mainstreams organizations, even on the left, say
they are largely speaking with one voice these days because that view
represents the vast majority of American Jews during the intifada.
“There has been substantial unity because there has been substantial unity,”
said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American
Hebrew Congregations, which has not hesitated to criticize the Israeli
government in the past when it felt its policies were wrong .
“Our community remains supportive of” Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s
government, “although some may not be happy with that” he said of the Reform
That has left many left-wing Jews feeling they have no one to represent
their views to the White House or Congress.
Specifically, they want American Jews to criticize what they consider to be
heavy-handed actions the Israeli government has taken, such as incursions
into the West Bank, sieges of Palestinian Authority President Yasser
Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters and the alleged expansion of settlements in
the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“I don’t know when it happened, but I think the Sharon government crossed a
line with people,” Robbins said. “A lot of people said, ‘Not in my name.’ ”
In addition to ads, activists have taken to the streets, protesting outside
Israeli consulates and holding vigils for Palestinian victims.
Last week’s Israeli airstrike in Gaza was a prime example of the type of
move left-wingers want American Jewish groups to criticize.
“It’s part of the hypocrisy and double standards,” said Rabbi Michael
Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, who has started to meet with lawmakers.
“We yell and scream when our own people are being killed, but are deathly
silent when civilians are targeted on the other side.”
Israeli officials have said they approved the attack based on intelligence
information that no civilians were with the Hamas warlord, and that the
massive bomb employed would cause little collateral damage.
Organizers say the grass-roots movements aim to give American Jews who
are critical of Israeli actions and U.S. policy the feeling that they are
“We represent Jews who feel that it is not right for Israel to be occupying
another people,” said Josh Ruebner, founder of Jews for Peace in Palestine
“We represent Jews who feel Israel has a right to exist behind safe and
secure, internationally recognized borders, but does not have the right to
suppress its neighbors.”
Ruebner and others claim the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the
pro-Israel lobby, and other Jewish groups try to keep alternative Jewish
voices from being heard on Capitol Hill.
Even when more left-wing voices do get through, Ruebner contends,
lawmakers hesitate to act because of AIPAC’s influence and fear that they
will lose American Jewish political donations or be labeled anti-Semitic.
For its part, AIPAC says it, too, is a grass-roots organization and
represents the views of most American Jews.
AIPAC officials say the organization’s policy derives from an executive
committee made up of leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major
American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group of 54 Jewish organizations
from across the ideological spectrum.
“AIPAC has always had critics,” AIPAC spokeswoman Rebecca Needler said.
“There are some that say AIPAC is too left and some that say it is too
There are clear differences between the mainstream American Jewish groups
and the grass-roots movements, which tend to be on the far left.
On its report card for lawmakers, for example, Jews for Peace in Palestine
and Israel gives a negative rating to any lawmaker that supported a
congressional resolution — backed by most American Jewish groups —
expressing solidarity with Israel. Jews for Peace claims the bill blamed
ongoing violence entirely on the Palestinians.
Lerner, who has started a new grass-roots organization called Tikkun
Community, sent an e-mail to supporters earlier this month suggesting that
Jews send political contributions or help the campaign of Rep. Cynthia
McKinney (D-Ga.). Other Jewish groups have called McKinney virulently
anti-Israeli, if not outright anti-Semitic.
The grass-roots leaders say their movements are being taken seriously by
“There’s a big re-evaluation going on in Congress right now,” Ruebner said.
“They are saying we need a more balanced policy.”
More mainstream groups on the left, such as Americans for Peace Now and the
Israel Policy Forum, say they already have been expressing similar
sentiments on Capitol Hill, seeking an end to Israeli settlement
construction and demanding that Israel release frozen tax revenues to the
They note that their vision for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
is close to that of the grass-roots activists, including a two-state
solution that would leave the Palestinians in control of virtually all of
the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Indeed, one congressional staffer suggested the newer grass-roots
movements were wasting time and money by repeating the sentiments they
already hear from groups such as Peace Now and Israel Policy Forum.
“If they were bringing anything new to the table, they’d have value,” the
staffer said of the new movements.
“But they are spending a lot of money to say things we already know.”
In addition, he said, information is viewed a bit skeptically when it comes
from unfamiliar groups.
A White House official, too, said a New York Times ad might catch his
attention, but he is not sure whom the grass-roots movements are
The grass-roots movements acknowledge that they have minimal influence
now, but they hope their efforts may gain steam.
Indeed, Theodore Mann, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of
Major American Jewish Organizations and a founder of the Israel Policy
Forum, says some grass-roots movements historically have had an impact.
Some of the new organizations may thrive on their own, he said, but it’s
more likely that their existence could embolden people within the
established Jewish organizations to speak out — assuming the grass-roots
leaders really speak for large numbers.
For their part, the activists compare themselves to those who opened the
fight for women’s rights or against the Vietnam War.
“Our side is not going to become the prominent side next year,” Lerner said.
“There is no prospect of people coming to this in the short run.”