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The keynote address at the Breira conference on Feb. 20, 1977. (Bill Aron)

On March 10, 1973, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir packed a Brandeis University auditorium with almost a thousand people, some spoiling for a fight. The previous week, multiple brawls had broken out in cafeterias: New Lefties versus Jewish Defense Leaguers. Now, outside the auditorium, the ranks swelled to over 500, hawks and peaceniks competing chant for chant.

But for all the fervor and fist-fighting, Meir’s speech singled out one group in particular: a troupe of liberal, anti-settlement Hillel members known as Breira. These lads, the prime minister said, were “not nice boys.”

Rabbi Michael Paley, then a Brandeis senior and Breira member, remembers the smear. “We felt under attack,” he told me. “The line was: We didn’t have the right to criticize Israel because we weren’t living in Israel, or fighting for it.” In 1973, Meir’s least-favorite group was energized by the insult. They were opening chapters nationally, led by Reform and Conservative rabbis, and poised to offer a policy breira, or alternative, where many claimed there was none. According to Wellesley historian Jerold Auerbach, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman worked with the Brandeis Breira chapter in his junior and senior year.

But by 1977, four years later, Breira had been destroyed and, in many ways, disgraced.

This weekend, over 2,000 people will gather in Washington for the 2012 confab of another liberal, anti-settlement group, albeit a much larger and richer one: J Street. “We’ve turned the corner,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s founding director, told me. Unlike Breira, “we have survived the efforts to kill us.”

While Breira wasn’t quite J Street’s 40-year forefather, its rise and fall offer parallels and lessons for the Jewish left and its opponents. J Street’s structure and approach are generations from Breira’s post-Yom-Kippur-War platform: J Street wants to be accepted as mainstream and would rather work within the system through lobbying and political action committees than upend it. Nevertheless, Ben-Ami says, “we had the same vision, and in that sense, the same path.” He’s hoping the comparison works in J Street’s favor. “Four years is enough time to kill something. Four years is also enough time to prove that you’re here to stay.”

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Breira was founded in 1973 by Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, then the Jewish chaplain and Hillel director at Yale University. He enlisted a corps of intellectuals, academics, and rabbis based in New York and Washington. Propelled by anti-Vietnam-War ire, an active student body, and a monthly alternative journal called interChange published at Brandeis, the group’s lively, iconoclastic founder was well-poised to introduce a new flavor of leftism, even while most Israel conversation seemed inseparable from Israel’s razor’s-edge victory in the Yom Kippur War. By contrast, Wolf denounced the “chutzpah and pride of the Israelis” in the American Report. To young Jewish liberals, he was near irresistible.

At the time, the group’s policy positions were deeply out of step with mainstream Jewish opinions. Breira demanded that Israel hold talks with the PLO, immediately dismantle the then-new West Bank settlements, and pursue a loosely formulated two-state approach to resolve the conflict. As Hebrew Union Prof. Isa Aron, who served on Breira’s board for all four years, told me, “Almost everybody in Breira was part of a chavurah, and not part of the Jewish establishment.” The group had only three paid staff members, and they worked out of a sublet room in a chavurah-rented New York apartment. (As it happens, the group’s secretary was a young Faye Ginsburg, now one of America’s best-known anthropologists.)

Unlike J Street, Breira’s lobbying efforts were focused less on the American government than on Israel’s. Without Peace Now, whose founding was still five years away, the group stood close to alone, breaking sharply from the post-Yom-Kippur-War consensus: that is, hard-nosed and suspicious of concession. The group plotted a remarkably public, sometimes antagonistic course—especially for such a new organization. For example, they protested loudly in front of the United Nations and argued that the Jewish future lay in the Diaspora.

Breira found an ally in Leonard Fein, founding editor of Moment magazine, which hosted a symposium in 1975 titled “Should Israel Talk to the PLO?” At the time, the question was “unthinkable, scandalous, unheard of,” according to Fein. “It was an outrageous perspective … we thought Israel was being imperialistic in the West Bank,” Paley told me. In the wake of the Jewish state’s narrow 1973 victory over Egypt and Syria, “criticizing [it] was like criticizing your mother.”

The group’s leaders hoped to couch their criticism in loving terms: to oppose Israeli policy while supporting Israel’s right to exist, a now familiar refrain. It was a sensitive balancing act, but one well-suited to the community-minded rabbis and Hillel directors who led individual chapters. They hoped to strike a chord with the young, the idealistic, and the dissatisfied—much as J Street does today.

But avoiding stepping on toes was not Wolf’s strong suit. He was a born radical. “Arnie was a tough, tough critic of American Jewry,” Fein said about the late rabbi. “He was an irascible fellow.” Wolf himself was an early friend and supporter of Barack Obama—and, as it happens, the Chicago Seven: a connection that critics of both the president and Wolf are all too happy to revive. The rabbi and the future president met in the 1980s, when Wolf served as rabbi emeritus at KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation, a synagogue in the Obamas’ Hyde Park neighborhood. The pair talked at length about faith, civil rights, and the Middle East, and the president commemorated Wolf’s late-2008 death with a personal letter to his family. Earlier this week, Norman Podhoretz, the neoconservative writer, said that the pair shared a “hatred of the Jewish state.”

Almost 40 years ago, Breira was vulnerable to the same attacks. The press barrage began almost immediately. “I don’t think anyone foresaw how vicious the counterattack would be,” Fein told me. In July 1977, Commentary magazine claimed that Breira was fostering “an attitude of enmity toward Israel,” while Rael Jean Isaac of Americans for a Safe Israel wrote a devastating 30-page pamphlet and several columns that accused Breira of favoring a one-state solution: Palestine. “At Breira and New Jewish Agenda, there were many haters of Israel there,” Paley conceded. “I get that J Street has people that hate Israel in it, too. That’s a problem.”

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a leader in the Jewish Renewal movement and a Breira firebrand, proved a particular magnet for vitriol. Critics jumped to reprint his oft-quoted 1971 piece in Response magazine that asserted: “We, the whole Jewish people, have been commanded by our tradition to preach the destruction of America.” The group’s ties to the New Left—and the fact that many of its fringe members were ardent anti-Zionists—didn’t help.

The most damaging story appeared in the Jerusalem Post in November 1976. It was written by none other than Wolf Blitzer, future CNN anchor. The piece revealed that Breira members had met personally with two members of Arafat’s PLO—at the time, a near-apostasy. Breira fired back, accusing its critics of McCarthyite yellow journalism. “Not since the anti-Hasidic attacks in 18th-century Poland and Ukraine do I remember such a vicious time for Jew-against-Jew. It was a real schism,” Fein remembers. Like J Street, Breira took fire for its funding. Its “George Soros” was Samuel Rubin, whom critics lambasted for funding left-wing organizations like the “anti-imperialist” Institute for Policy Studies’ Transnational Institute, where Waskow was a fellow. On Feb. 20, 1977, members of the Jewish Defense League mobbed the entrance to Breira’s first and only national convention in Chevy Chase, Md., chanting “death to Breira” and “Jewish blood is on your hands.”

Traditional accounts of the organization’s 1977 dissolution point to sound and fury in the press. But according to the members and sympathizers with whom I spoke, mainstream Jewish organizations closed in on Breira in quieter, but more effective ways. “People were fearful of losing their jobs … I was under the impression that they left Breira because they thought they would be blackballed,” Isa Aron said. “Jobs were threatened. The financial supporters of B’nai Brith and Hillel came to the directors and said, ‘Stop this, we’ll fire you.’ And they had families and mortgages. … It was real stuff, it wasn’t just press acrimony,” Paley recalled. Wolf and Rabbi Everett Gendler, another Breira board member, were barred from the executive council of the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism. While the war of words spilled ink and damaged reputations, it was institutional stonewalling within the Jewish establishment that finally snuffed Breira out.

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In trying to forge a pro-peace, pro-Israel coalition, Breira faced a now familiar dilemma. As Paley put it: “Can you build an organization which is an alternative and not attract all the haters of Israel?” Breira was squeezed internally between its own anti-Israel fringe on the left, and its fearful Zionists on the right. “One side borders on disloyalty and the other side borders on irrationality,” said sociologist and author Steven M. Cohen. Cohen hosted Breira meetings in the living room of the Columbia Jewish House and now serves on J Street’s advisory board. Looking back, he wishes Breira had adopted more “palatable” positions. “It’s an ongoing struggle of all left-liberals. They always have a more radical wing that shows up.” Cohen called these radicals “an embarrassment”—and then went a step further. “Frankly,” he said, “they’re the enemy.”

But J Street is a different organization for a different time. “J Street is much, much, much more centrist, much more careful. … Its grassroots constituency is more left than its leadership, which plays things very close to the vest,” Fein said. And as William Novak, one of Breira’s most vocal writers, put it, “Breira was more of a dissenting organization. It seems to me that the J Street position is all around us.”

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