Group backs Israel, blasts polices

WASHINGTON, May 1 — Calling itself a "pro-Israel, anti-occupation organization," a new national Jewish group held its first meeting last weekend in Northern Virginia. About 150 people came together to inaugurate Brit Tzedek V´Shalom A Covenant of Justice and Peace with a four-day conference that included Capitol Hill lobbying and speeches from Meretz Party co-founder Shulamit Aloni and B.Z. Goldberg, the director of the documentary Promises. "We are representing an unheard voice in the [American] Jewish community," said board member Marcia Freedman, a former member of the Knesset representing what is now the Meretz Party. "Brit Tzedek does not support the policies of the current Israeli government … and believes lots of Jews think this way." The group laid out what it calls its seven "founding principles," which include: "a complete end to the Israeli military occupation" of the "West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem with border adjustments agreeable to both parties" along with "the establishment of a viable Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 borders" with Jerusalem as the capital of both states; a "just resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem that takes into account the needs and aspirations of both peoples" and acknowledges "Israel´s share of responsibility for the plight of Palestinian refugees while respecting the special relationship between the State of Israel and the Jewish people"; "bringing home safely to Israel the settlers from all existing settlements" except those in areas that will be included in an "exchange of territories" in determining final borders; and "the termination of both state-initiated violence and terrorism for achieving political goals." Freedman, who splits her time between Berkeley, Calif., and Israel, said the group´s principles are not particularly controversial. She noted they were proposed by President Bill Clinton and accepted by the two sides during the Taba talks. Those talks, which took place a few months after the Camp David negotiations in late 2000 and early 2001, did not, however, lead to an agreement. Organizers said 400 Jews signed a petition to the U.S. State Department endorsing the principles and calling for a change in U.S. policy toward the Middle East. (A press conference scheduled to present the petition to the State Department was canceled late Monday because many conference attendees had already left Washington.) Brit Tzedek organizers say a significant segment of the Jewish community supports its stance. Board member Nicole Dannenberg Sorger cites a recent poll that found that about two-thirds of American Jews favor a "two-state solution" for Israel and the Palestinians. Brit Tzedek members stress that they love Israel, with many speaking of friends and family members who live there. Gil Kulick of the District, who attended the conference, said that was a crucial factor for him. "It has been too easy in the past to characterize the far left as anti-Israel," Kulick said. "What impressed me is I think people have learned lessons. … [Brit Tzedek] starts from a pro-Israel position … [but] is very troubled by the Sharon government." Brit Tzedek members interviewed often criticized Israeli actions, saying the Jewish state is mostly to blame for the current violence. "Sharon has created the conditions for suicide bombings," said Rafael Ezekiel of Boston. Noting there is "terror on both sides," Freedman said Israel has provoked violence by killing Hamas "political" leaders. She also argued that the anti-Semitic violence in Europe would probably not be occurring if Israel and the Palestinians had forged a peace agreement in 2000. Brit Tzedek member Deborah Hyams said that while she does not condone suicide bombings, she personally believes they "are in response to the occupation." Stressing that she does not speak for Brit Tzedek, the D.C. resident also believes that some of Israel´s actions, all the way back to 1948, could be called "ethnic cleansing." Brit Tzedek hopes both to lobby in Washington and to be a "grassroots" organization with chapters nationwide. On Monday, group members visited Capitol Hill offices to lobby for two congressional resolutions that call on both sides to stop the violence and argue against other resolutions that they believe are too "one-sided" in favor of Israel. A former Jewish community professional, Kulick said Brit Tzedek is "well-informed … politically realistic" and "much more rooted in an understanding of the Jewish community and the American political scene" than past Jewish left-wing groups like the New Jewish Agenda. Among the more prominent Jews listed on the group´s advisory committee are Rabbis Arthur Waskow and Mordechai Leibling, poet Adrienne Rich, feminist Gloria Steinem, professor Susannah Heschel and fiction writer Grace Paley. Although the American Israel Public Affairs Committee drew many more people to its annual conference a week earlier, Sorger and other Brit Tzedek members say that´s because their organization is brand new, while the pro-Israel lobby is long established and better funded. And they say that AIPAC and other mainstream Jewish organizations are not speaking for them. "A lot of people are afraid to speak up" said Hyams. She believes that there is "a lot of intimidation by the organized, established Jewish community." AIPAC spokesperson Rebecca Needler countered that the pro-Israel organization´s "alliance is with the Israeli people," which "democratically elects its government," and AIPAC supports Israel´s right to "decide what´s in her best interests." Needler also pointed out that Sharon and three Israeli prime ministers addressed the April conference and generally agreed on many issues, showing the "cohesiveness in Israel" at the present time. Although members of the local Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel are involved in Brit Tzedek and helped to organize the conference, the new group is not affiliated with JPPI. Freedman said the new group was formed out of the international organization JUNITY (Jews United for a Just Peace) in an attempt to have a "sharper focus." Brit Tzedek is limited only to Jews who "support Israel … who feel it in their kishkes," she said, while JUNITY includes Jews who "didn´t support Israel."

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