The Ghost of Conferences Past

AP Photo

The left of the American Jewish world likes to complain about how hard it is to be pro-peace and pro-Israel. At the J Street conference this weekend, I ran into an older rabbi who reminded me that, well, it could be a whole lot worse.

He recalled a moment in 1977 that curdled the blood and froze the hearts of left-wing Zionists before there ever was a J Street. In 1977, a group of liberal American rabbis and others gathered in to convene the first conference of Breira. Breira means “choice” in Hebrew and was intended as a response to the oft-heard Israeli saying, “Ein breira,” “there’s no choice,” most often when it came to violent conflict with the Arabs.

The group was not radical; it didn’t ask for the right of return, call Zionism racism (as the Durban conference had two years earlier), or call for immediate Israeli military withdrawal from the West Bank (as did Israeli theologian and public intellectual Yeshayahu Leibowitz). Rather, its members (including luminaries like Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf) called, “as Jews deeply committed to the welfare of Israel,” for the end of the “Israeli government’s policy of settlement,” which threatened the “national rights of the Palestinian people.”

What did this their two-state idealism get them?

On February 20, 1977 a dozen youths of Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League stormed into the first Breira conference with fighting words: “Death to Breira!” and “Jewish blood is on your hands!” In response, Breira’s bleeding heart members sang, “Oseh shalom bimromav” (“He makes peace in His Heavens”). The police had to be called to protect the conference.

But it wasn’t just the extremist JDL who didn’t like Breira. Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, the president of the Reform rabbinate who had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed that groups like Breira “give aid and comfort… to those who would cut aid to Israel and leave it defenseless before murders and terrorists.”

Vitriolic public condemnation all sides quickly forced the movement to disband in 1977, four years after it was founded.

As J Street approaches its fourth anniversary, it’s worth remembering Breira, to see how far American Jewry has come. Where Breira functioned, at its height, with three full-time staff members and one office, J Street today boasts a staff of fifty staffers in nine cities around the country. According to Jeremy Ben-Ami, the J Street conference is the third largest national gathering of Jews in the United States in 2012. And it’s growing. A third of the attendees at the J Street conference were students. At AIPAC, it’s less than a sixth.

American Jews have long ostracized those outside the Israel-tent. In some ways, it’s easier to be pro-Israel and pro-peace in America today than it was to be Zionist a century ago. The story (perhaps apocryphal) is told that before the Zionist congress of 1897, Joseph Klausner, the famed Jewish historian, was asked whether there were any Zionists in America. He said yes, there are two: a mad man named Stephen Wise and a mad woman named Henrietta Szold. American Zionism went from being a fringe position before the War, to the firm consensus it remains today. So may it be with J Street!