In some ways, last sunday's (june 8) Jewish Voices for Peace and Justice conference, the first major organizing meet for anti-occupation Jews, felt more like a much needed group hug than a political planning session. Frustrated by being cut adrift by the mainstream Jewish community and its increasingly right-wing reps in the Canadian Jewish Congress and B'nai Brith, conference attendees seemed blissful about finally being amongst friends.
The mood is caught perfectly by keynoter Terry Greenblatt, head of the Israeli feminist peace group Bat Shalom (Daughters of Peace), who passionately tells the gathering of about 200 at U of T's New College that "to fall out of step with one's tribe is a complex and difficult process."Greenblatt, who works with Palestinian women who risk their lives to attend peace meetings, is most appreciated here for her low-key solutions: talking to people, organizing meetings and boycotts of products made in Israeli settlements and being gently persuasive.
Last year she teamed up with a rep from the Palestinian Jerusalem Women's Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling to address the UN Security Council, hoping the body would make use of the "social intelligence" of female peace advocates on both sides of the divide.
The day the recent peace plan was announced, Greenblatt says, "butter-yellow posters (the same colour as the stars of David the Nazis forced Jews to wear) were put all along Jaffa Road [in Jerusalem] reading, 'Roadmap to Auschwitz.' I know (the hatred) is there because I know what the spit rolling down my cheek feels like."
But really, the theme of this gathering of grey-haired lefties and young activists who munch on a lunch of pita and salad and are unfailingly polite even when they disagree seems to be "Don't be confrontational - just keep focusing on winning over the rest of the tribe." Hence, workshops titles like Coming Out Of The Anti-Occupation Closet, I'm Against The Occupation But Afraid To Tell My Mother and Dealing With Resistance And Denial.
At the latter session, deftly chaired by social work theorist Ben Carniol, participants recount the trials and tribulations of working within their synagogues and agree that suicide bombings have terrified otherwise rational people. "Particularly the elderly in the community have lived through terrible things," offers one attendee. "It's important for us to say we will all be safer if we work for peace."
One participant wearing a kipa urges the use of ancient scripture in argumentation. As an example, he points out that Jewish law forbids cutting trees that bear fruit during wartime, a transgression regularly committed by Israeli Defence Forces.
The potential division in the Jewish peace movement between those urging a two-state solution and those advocating a democratic secular Israel doesn't generate much steam, although in private a few attendees express misgivings about "Zionist peace activists."
Political columnist Rick Salutin notes that even here people tend to preface their opposition to Israeli policies apologetically, afraid to be labelled "anti-Semitic" or "self-hating." It's a kind of self-consciousness, Salutin says, that turns an essentially political matter "into a question of psychic strife."
Workshop leader Aaron Maté, who spent years as a student politician in the embattled student union at Montreal's Concordia University, sits next to his father, a Holocaust survivor. Maté complains of the smear campaign directed against the student union by right-wing media, but also criticizes the union for being too confrontational at times and for blocking former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu from speaking at the university last fall.
"We ask, why does this confrontation happen only on campuses?" says U of T professor and lawyer Peter Rosenthal. "It's the only place Jews and Palestinians are together at all!"
At the final plenary, monthly meetings are announced and there are many calls to form an ongoing umbrella group. As one veteran lefty says, "We need an organization to which you can give grudging support 50 per cent of the time but (which) has visibility and legitimacy."
The conference wraps up with the Israeli folk song Shir L'Shalom (A Song For Peace), the song Yitzhak Rabin was singing just before he was assassinated in 1995. As one of the only Orthodox participants comments on the way out, "When you're young, you're an activist because you want to change the world. When you're old, you're an activist because you don't want the world to change you."