In Boston, Jewish Peace Group Finds Cause for Hope and Criticism

Thousands of miles from the Middle East, the promise of Israeli-Palestinian peace seemed close at a recent conference in Boston sponsored by the Chicago-based Brit Tzedek V’Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace.

The gathering attracted hundreds from around the country, including a few counter-demonstrators from a group called the New England Committee to Defend Palestine.

The conference also followed on the heels of news of the “Geneva accord,” an Israeli-Palestinian set of understandings negotiated by out-of-office Israeli opposition politicians and figures close to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

The accord calls for a Palestinian state in virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, would divide Jerusalem and give control of the Temple Mount to the Palestinians, and is ambiguous on the Palestinian demand for refugees’ “right of return” to Israel.

“Two weeks ago, I presumed I was going to deliver a depressing talk,” said Naomi Chazan, a professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and former legislator known for her dovish views.

Speaking on a Friday night against a backdrop with the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace’s slogan, “Bring the settlers home,” Chazan, a former deputy speaker of the Knesset, said, “Israel was on a path of destruction. I could not see any light — until the announcement of the Geneva initiative.”

The proposed accord has been harshly denounced by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and by his predecessor, Ehud Barak, who called it “delusional.”

At the Boston conference, the former leader of Israel’s Labor Party, Amram Mitzna, who was trounced by Sharon in the last elections in Israel for prime minister, said, “There is no way to win this conflict militarily.”

“I’m sure that the Geneva Agreement will be at the end of the day the agreement that will be signed. The only question is how much time it will take and how many people will lose their life in the process,” said Mitzna, who was at the conference as part of a U.S. speaking tour.

The views of U.S. Jews are critical to the peace process, the conference’s speakers said.

Their remarks were well received by a crowd of several hundred. The conference included political figures from the Israeli left as well as political, religious and academic figures from around the United States.

One local participant, Bob Baseman, a nurse practitioner, said he came to the conference after seeing an advertisement for it in the newspaper.

“I have finally found people of a kindred spirit,” Baseman said. “I’ve never been on the leading edge of anything, and I’m surprised the ideas of the Geneva initiative are not more in the mainstream. They seem to make so much sense. I am not a leftist, not an activist. I feel my conscience relieved that I can speak out against the settlements as a barrier to peace.”

The group that organized the conference recently petitioned the Bush administration to deduct the cost of Israel’s security barrier from U.S. aid to Israel. The Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace says it “shares the deep concern” Jews feel for Israeli security, but says the fence, which is meant as a barrier to protect Israel’s cities from terrorist infiltration, will “confiscate” 2.9 percent of Palestinian land in the West Bank.

There were several poignant moments during the weekend conference.

About 600 people stood for a Havdalah service at the beginning of the Saturday evening session while Mitzna called for a moment of silence to join with the tens of thousands of Israelis who, earlier in the day, had assembled at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to remember Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated eight years ago.

At another moment in the conference, a man identifying himself as a Palestinian living in the Boston area approached the microphone. He said had been confronted by a Palestinian protester as he entered the hotel that day.

“How can you forget what Amram Mitzna did during the first intifada?” the Palestinian acquaintance shouted at him, referring to Mitzna’s tough stance on Palestinian violence as an army general during the first intifada, which lasted from 1987 to 1993.

“I didn’t forget,” the man at the microphone said, addressing Mitzna. “But it’s time for healing. I believe in you and what you’re doing.”

Before Mitzna’s Saturday-night address, about 20 demonstrators from the New England Committee to Defend Palestine protested across the street from the entrance to the hotel where the conference was being held. They protested a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as “apartheid” and expressed support for suicide bombings.

Another group of counter-demonstrators from the Free Republic Grassroots Committee stood across the street, shouting back at the Palestinian group.

Police stood between the two groups to keep the peace.

Aaron Margolis, a member of the committee, said he came after learning that the Palestinian group would be protesting. Margolis, who accused the Palestinian group of having no interest in peaceful coexistence with Israel, said he did not know anything about the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace conference.

Some conference participants said they were pleased to see a U.S. Jewish group in open dissent of Israel’s government line — as well as the policies of many U.S. Jewish groups.

“There is room for more than one voice,” said the president of the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, Marcia Freedman. “We cannot maintain the occupation and the existence of a Jewish democratic state.”

Freedman, a Knesset member in the mid-1970s, also was a founder of the Israeli feminist movement in the 1970s.

Mitzna, in his keynote address Saturday night, said that the scope of the Geneva accord turns on its head the notion that, “there is no one to negotiate with and nothing to negotiate about.” He charged that that had become the mantra of Israel’s current government.

The Sunday morning sessions, which drew a far smaller crowd than the conference’s previous days, featured Arab voices and a presidential candidates’ forum.

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said that while dialogue between U.S. Jews and Palestinians is relatively commonplace, the two sides often fail to address each other’s real fears.

“You were the cowboys and we were the Indians,” he told the mostly Jewish audience.

Zogby also called the Palestinian “cult of suicide” frightening and troubling.

Representatives of three Democratic presidential candidates also spoke on behalf of their candidates.

Alan Solomont, adviser to Sen. John Kerry and chairman of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, affirmed Kerry’s position supporting a two-state solution.

Solomont also said the Bush administration was late in its efforts to try to help resolve the Middle East conflict and that President Bush was “essentially walking away” from the Middle East. “Inaction is no act of friendship,” he said.

Steve Grossman, the national co-chair of the Howard Dean campaign and a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, described Dean as a “risk-taker for change to serve the cause of peace in the Middle East.”

Representing the campaign of Dennis Kucinich, Charles Lenchner, who also is a board member of the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, said Kucinich supports the Geneva accord and the removal of Israeli settlements.

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