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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.

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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.”


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.


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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esthermiriam says:

Interesting and timely. J Street 3rd annual conference begins this Saturday night in Washington. Even though pre-registration is closed, one can still
show up at the Convention Center Saturday night, Sunday, or Monday for just one day.

watch the conference live, see current history being made, or join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook.

For a Breira publication from 1975 that brings the opinions of left-wing Israelis see my post here:

Gerald Serotta says:

While the overall thrust of this piece has some merit there are many egregious errors of fact and interpretation, including that the late Rabbi Arnold Wolf of blessed memory was not the founder of Breira. It originated in the Summer of 1973 as a “Call to Discussion on Israel-Diaspora Relations” basically organized by John Ruskay (now CEO of UJA Federation of NY) and a few friends out of concern that the lack of discussion of the merits of continuing the occupation(a policy opposed by Ben Gurion and Levi Eshkol before they died)was endangering Israel’s survival. Following upon this effort and after the Yom Kippur Way, ten young graduate and Rabbinical students and one Rabbi (David Saperstein)formed Breira.

Rabbi Wolf was elected chair of the governing board of Breira well over a year later by a vote of 17-2. He himself was one of the two negative votes.

Breira had the support of important Rabbis and intellectuals and always attempted to work within the Jewish community not outside on the barricades. In no way did it advocate diaspora life over Israel although that was the line of attack line from within the Israeli government, any more than J Street.

It was partly undone because outspoken and courageous liberals like Al Vorspan and heroic progressive Zionists like Leibel Fein were not yet convinced of the dangers of the occupation to Israel’s survival while the Labor party was in power, and strongly criticized Breira in print. In fact the conviction expressed now by a majority of Israelis and American Jews that a two state solution is the only way to preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state was implied by Breira’s position in support of Palestinian self-determination in the West Bank and Gaza, but is more radical than Breira’s platform. For raising this concept prematurely Breira was destroyed.

A more accurate treatment of Breira’s history in print is a chapter in a book entitled Torn at the Roots: Crisis of Jewish Liberalism by Michael Staub.

I have still–and proudly–my Breira “Peace Shalom SalaaM” button from 1980 or so. My second son was a toddler and in Berkeley I would hold him and visit new Jewish-identified groups working for peace; and my new novel, The Rescuer’s Path, a Jewish-Arab love story, attempts, too, to remind people how similarly human our peoples are. Thank you for reminding us of this antiwar, pro-justice history.

Jeremy Kalmanofsky says:

Assuming Gerry Serotta’s posted chronology is correct, and Breira was formed after the YK war — as the rest of the article assumes — then the first paragraph must be mistaken: Golda could not have critized Breira in March of 73.

Phil N says:

It is not suprising that J Street is financed by former Nazi stooge George Soros. He is no doubt trying to finish the job his former masters started.

Larry says:

No matter how you slice it J Street is doing more harm to Israel then Hamas is. This is the most misguided group of Israel bashers that has come along in quite a while.

Harold says:

“In July 1977 … 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.”

Americans for a Safe Israel and Rael Jean Isaac are still alive and strong and still very relevant to understanding the abomination that is J Street today.

And before there was a Breira there were small groups of Zionists around the country calling for Israel to encourage the development of a Palestinian state on lands acquired in the ’67 war. I know. I was among them picketing in front of the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles (then on Highland Ave) in 1967.

You can see the lapel button produced by Breira here:

David Guberman says:

Supplementing Rabbi Serotta’s recollections, I was a member of the Boston Breira executive committee. We were, for the most part, Zionist doves–what Yehoshafat Harkabi called “doves with talons.” Indeed, we were disinvited from participating in a conference at M.I.T. organized by the American Friends Service Committee because some of the Arab or Palestinian participants refused to sit alongside Zionists. Also, the so-called organized Boston Jewish community of the time treated us respectfully.

Klein alludes to some of the ugly things about Breira but he’s much too gentle with the Breira crowd.
BTW, he missed several of the important articles that took part in the dispute over Breira, pieces in Midstream and the American Zionist. He especially missed the important series of articles in the Jewish Week of NYC.

Binyamin in O says:

The core problem for liberal (or left) Zionism: can a “Jewish state” ever be a “democratic state?”

Could America be a “Christian state, homeland for the Christians”, and still be a democracy?

Of course, much is determined by what content you give to those slogans, but my gut tells me the answer to both questions, is “No.”

Aliza Becker says:

Thank you for acknowledging the important role of Breira in paving the way for J Street. I think it’s also important to acknowledge the hard work of New Jewish Agenda, American Friends of Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and others in paving the way.

I also appreciate the recognition, albeit inaccurately described, of the important leadership taken by Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, my childhood rabbi. When I recruited Rabbi Wolf to help Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, he expressed doubts about whether we could sustain our work over the long haul and was very proud when we flourished. Sadly, he still clearly suffered from the brutality of the attacks he had sustained decades earlier while at Breira.

I have heard both from Rabbi Wolf’s wife and son that Wolf’s relationship with President Obama has been frequently mischaracterized especially when it comes to Middle East issues, but I will leave them to correct the record.

RussellG - South Africa says:

JStreet centrist? Only when I’m on drugs. I know hundreds of informed people – people who have been involved with International Jewish politics and Israeli politics for years. A number of these are Leftist peace loving individuals with Liberal views. We always have well thought out and respectful debates, even though they understand that when it comes to Israel, I’m on a different page. Every discussion ends the same way. I ask: “Do you believe the Palestinians want to make peace with Israel? Always the same answer – NO! Settlements, borders, territory, are all red herrings. It has nothing to do with land it has everything to do with RELIGION. As for JStreet – I would bet most have never visited Israel. None are religious or practicing Jews. Most have honest and honourable intentions – but they are not informed or misinformed. JStreet is todays phenomena and probably won’t be around too long. Their platform and ideas are dangerous to Israel and they just don’t see it! Would they be happier if Israel and religious Jews disappeared? Why do they believe they need to be critical of Israel and apologetic of its existence? Perhaps it’s their way of trying to gain personal acceptance by a Gentile world. Israel drives me nuts because the leadership does not understand that the media war is more lethal than traditional weapons. Israel lost the media war years ago. The major coup was the Mohammed Al Dura fabrication and now every Jew’s support for the dishonest left wing media is set up as an example of – even Jews condemn Israel. Israel will survive and outlast the JStreets of this world – only trouble is that we spend too much time trying to convince those who should know better but who don’t want to because it doesn’t suit their agenda.

John O says:

Breira was started before the Yom kippur War, which began on Oct 6, 1973.
It was a reation to Israeli arrogance after the Six Day War. At that israelis believed that Sinai, all of the West Bank and the golan would remain with Israel forever.

If Golda Meir had listened top Breira, maybe three thousand Israelis would not have died.


“If Golda Meir had listened top Breira, maybe three thousand Israelis would not have died.” NO, the Jews would have been pushed into the sea and the streets would have run ankle-deep in Jewish blood. This is not my observation is the observation of the secretary of the Arab League.

When I read the comments of Gerald Serotta ,Paula Friedman,Aliza Becker I would like to take them inside Hezbollah, Fatah, Hamas, the Muslim brotherhood, etc. I’ve been inside for many years. They hate you and all Jews and want to see you destroyed. Not just dead but painfully dead. Again, that is not my view but the view of close associates who’ve truly believe in the aims of their organizations.

To typical Israelis, theirs is a country of 6 million Jews faced with the ardent, sometimes fanatic, hostility of 350 million neighboring Arabs (to say nothing of another billion or so non-Arab Muslims) and the contested loyalty of one million of its own Arab citizens. Lebanon is in the hands of Hezbollah; Gaza in the hands of Hamas; Turkey and Egypt—until recently, its only significant Muslim allies—are gradually moving into the column of adversaries. In the past decade, it has had to fend off a steady drizzle of suicide bombers and Kassam and Katyusha rockets over the course of three separate wars. The Arab Spring has become an Islamist winter. Iran has now enriched more than 5,000 kilograms of uranium. Israel will soon have to roll the dice with a military strike or otherwise allow a regime that pledges its destruction the means to carry out that pledge almost instantaneously.( Bret Stephens )

It was 1st alerted to Jay Street by an intimate of Sheikh Nasrallah who gleefully predicted that the Jews would crumble, with American Jews such as Jay Street leading the way.

Unfortunately, from what I see here too many American Jews have not learned from their despicable past behavior. Tom Friedman as a college undergraduate was part of this ilk.

Yaakov Hillel says:

J Street has proven it self to be a wolf in sheeps clothing. It has established a more of the sheep clothing in Israel through the e-mail system to buy its legitamacy in Israel. It does not show any of its leftist side, but may eventually try to brainwash Israelis to turn leftist. The country is at the moment turning more to the right and if J Street wants to keep its legitamacy will also join the band wagon. In a recent Polls Israelis were asked how many believe that there is a God 80% answered yes. the face of the country is changing, maybe you have to reorganize your policies.


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Breira’s Only Conference

Photographs by Bill Aron
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