J Street’s Forerunner
The dovish organization, meeting this weekend in D.C., isn’t the first to propose an “alternative” pro-Israel stance. Breira did it 40 years ago.
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.
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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