Breira: Pro and Con
To the Editor:
As someone who respects COMMENTARY, I was flabbergasted by the attacks made on me by Joseph Shattan [“Why Breira?,” April]. Didn’t anyone think of checking out statements about me before threatening my career and my future life?
It is no secret that when I was young I was a leftist and anti-Zionist. But for some time, I have been much closer to many of the positions expressed by COMMENTARY. I’m sure that many of you know what it’s like to believe in the totalitarian Left, to be misused and disillusioned, to go through difficult internal struggles, and finally to emerge from this dark period. Many of our finest intellectuals and journalists have had similar experiences.
Mr. Shattan only gets a few minor details wrong, such as:
- Far from being a “prominent member of Breira,” I have never been a member of Breira nor have I ever participated in any of that group’s activities. My only connection was to write about four articles for [the Breira newsletter] interChange which represented my personal views. They solicited the articles, which are certainly pro-Israel ones. I was told that regular contributors would be listed as associate editors. After the third issue, I asked that my name be removed. I never played any editorial role on that newsletter and I wrote with the understanding that I did not necessarily agree with Breira or anything else in interChange. Mr. Shattan must have seen issues of the magazine after number three.
- Since the beginning of 1974, I have actively worked for a number of pro-Israel causes. I have spoken for the American Zionist Youth Foundation, the Jewish Student Network, Hillel, and other groups. I have written in the Jerusalem Post, Middle East Review, Zionist Comments, Jewish Frontier, and the ORT Reporter, among other publications. I am a member of the governing board and a frequent contributor to the Jewish Student Press Service. I have served as president of my campus Jewish Student Association and I have written a study for the Synagogue Council of America on Israel and the Third World.
- Over the last year I have written dozens of letters to people spreading or inquiring about the attacks made on me—in some cases months before Rael Jean Isaac’s pamphlet, Breira: Counsel for Judaism, came out. I have written to every newspaper carrying these false and misleading statements. Mr. Shattan mentions the Jewish Week, but not my letter in that paper. At least one publication cited by Mrs. Isaac retracted similar statements made about me six months before her pamphlet came out. Again, a half-year before Mrs. Isaac went to press, I contacted one of her main associates (who apparently supplied the material on me) by telephone and by letter, supplying data on myself and offering to meet with her. She never replied. To my knowledge, neither Mrs. Isaac nor Mr. Shattan ever tried to interview me.
While Mr. Shattan mentions the leftist Guardian newspaper, he does not mention that, in June 1975, that newspaper wrote that soon after resigning from it (in 1973): “Rubin showed his true colors. In a ‘self-critical’ article . . . he repudiated his earlier ‘support’ for the Palestinian struggle and embraced a Zionist position in defense of Israel. . . . He has already begun heaping lies and slander on . . . the Palestinian resistance.”
In light of all this, for Mr. Shattan to say that I have never renounced my past and to imply that I am an anti-Zionist is either a deliberate lie or the product of ignorance not befitting a COMMENTARY article.
Given all this, I am both saddened and outraged by the spread of material aimed at ruining me.
To the Editor:
What is most unfortunate about Joseph Shattan’s “Why Breira?” is its substitution of an attack on Breira for necessary and substantive questioning about the nature and limits of dissent within the Jewish community. Such questioning ought to be explored in COMMENTARY, and if necessary Breira will have to take its lumps on the issues. What Breira doesn’t have to take is the gross distortion of its history, activities, and political positions as presented by Mr. Shattan. What the American Jewish community doesn’t have to take is COMMENTARY’s utter disregard for any decent standard of Jewish scholarship.
Mr. Shattan’s account relies almost exclusively on Rael Jean Isaac’s pamphlet, Breira: Counsel for Judaism. The fact that Mrs. Isaac and her publisher, Americans for a Safe Israel, are open advocates of the ultra-“hawkish” Gush Emunim movement does not seem to have raised any questions in Mr. Shattan’s mind, or in the minds of COMMENTARY’s editors, about the objectivity of her analysis of a decidedly “dovish” Breira. Given acceptance of the booklet as “free of any overt bias” and “scrupulous in its use of documentation,” it was apparently not even necessary to check her research against available primary source material.
Thank goodness some people have checked, including two staff members of the American Jewish Committee who set much of the record straight in an internal background memorandum on Breira, dated April 18, 1977, and ‘prepared for the AJC’s Foreign Affairs Steering Committee. One can only hope that the document will be made public. In the meantime, Committee members might request a copy and judge for themselves how well Mrs. Isaac’s “documentation” stands up under a dispassionate eye. Suffice it to say that one would have hoped that COMMENTARY itself would have afforded its readers such an opportunity in line with its mandate “to enlighten and clarify public opinion.”
As for Mr. Shattan’s selective and inaccurate representation of my personal “history,” I simply refuse to respond to it. For anyone to have to tout his Jewish credentials and prove his loyalty, especially after having spent most of his student and adult life working for, and involved with, the Jewish community, is demeaning to all concerned. Nor can current pettiness, gossip-mongering, and guilt-by-association attacks which have become standard operating procedure throughout the Jewish community be written off merely as “overreaction” to Breira. Without a moral center in Jewish life, discipline can be maintained only by intimidation. Little wonder all too many of my generation find reason to avoid Jewish communal affairs altogether.
Where Mr. Shattan tries to raise serious issues, he falls short of the mark. His argument that Breira works to divide the Jewish community, pressure Israel, and advance the interests of the PLO, is tied to “evidence” such as my testimony before Senator McGovern’s Subcommittee on Near Eastern Affairs, in which I allegedly “called upon Israel to negotiate directly with the PLO.”
On its face that position is hardly pro-PLO, since it has been advocated publicly by leading Israeli “hawks” such as Moshe Dayan, Arik Sharon, and Yehoshafat Harkabi. On the other hand, it also doesn’t happen to be what I said. What I said was that moderates on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict exist, that their views are not widely shared in the Middle East, but that such views do offer an indication of how the negotiating process might be stimulated if they were to be taken seriously by both sides. The statement Mr. Shattan attributes to me is actually part of such a moderate proposal issued jointly by an Israeli and a Palestinian: Dr. Matti Peled, chairman of the department of Arab Studies of Tel Aviv University and former chief of logistics of the Israeli Defense Forces; and Dr. Elias Tuma, professor of economics at the University of California. What they proposed, and what I read into the record of the Committee, was a “four-step sequence of actions and reactions” which Israel and the PLO were called upon to implement before the reconvening of the Geneva conference. The point Mr. Shattan refers to, i.e., the expression of Israeli willingness to negotiate with the PLO, was the last point in the sequence and contingent upon PLO renunciation of war and a PLO “declaration recognizing the right of the Israeli people to live in their own state peacefully and securely.”
This position resembles very closely the proposal known as the Yariv/Shemtov formula, named after its chief advocates: former Israeli Minister of Information, Aharon Yariv; and Israeli Health Minister, Victor Shemtov. The formula proposes Israeli negotiation with the PLO, if the PLO will renounce terror and recognize Israel’s right to exist. According to the Jerusalem Post (December 28, 1975), Israel’s UN ambassador, Chaim Herzog, eagerly confirmed that it was he who first publicly advocated the formula. In describing its import, Herzog refers to an article by Shafiq al Hut, a top PLO official in Beirut: “Al Hut wrote that Yariv’s proposal . . . came as a thunderbolt to the PLO and caused deep rifts within their ranks. The removal of the proposal by Prime Minister Rabin, al Hut added, came as a blessing from heaven.”
What Herzog saw in this PLO reaction was confirmation of the strategy implicit in the Yariv/Shemtov plan and explicit in my testimony before the Senate Subcommittee: “Those of us who are willing to speak out . . . in recognition of legitimate Arab national rights alongside Israel, do so as a challenge to the Arab world, and to the Palestinians in particular, to respond in kind, and voice without ambiguity their recognition of legitimate Jewish national rights in Israel.” The strategy is an attempt to place the onus of responsibility on the Arab world rather than the “blessing from heaven.”
Such a position on its merits is hardly likely to provide ammunition to those who seek a weakening of fundamental support for Israel. However, by distorting the position and denying Jewish “doves” a place within the consensus of support for Israel’s basic rights and essential security needs, Mr. Shattan provides precisely that interpretation of “dissent” within the Jewish community most likely to hearten Israel’s enemies.
Executive Director, Breira
New York City
To the Editor:
It would be bootless to respond to Joseph Shattan’s ill-tempered attack on Breira by way of organizations that it has had nothing to do with, viz. MERIP [Middle East Research and Information Project] and CONAME [Committee on New Alternatives in the Middle East], especially since the latter was an organization clearly committed to Israel’s safe continuance. But many of Mr. Shattan’s facts are simply wrong: I have personally had a record of many years insisting on the right of the Jewish Defense League to be heard, including a long-standing conflict with the Anti-Defamation League which has been turning in their names to the FBI. A representative of the JDL was invited to appear before our Breira conference this year. We do not practice our enemies’ refusal to give fair hearing to many different views, as Michael Wyschogrod, Wolfe Kelman, and Charles Liebman, all featured conference speakers, attest. Our publication, interChange, unlike COMMENTARY, is open to the widest variety of Jewish and non-Jewish opinion.
Mr. Shattan is wrong about Mark Bruzonsky, who is no supporter of ours, and about Barry Rubin, who is no supporter of the PLO. He is wrong about [Rabbi Joachim Prinz's reference to] “Arthur,” whose last name is Samuelson and not Waskow. He is wrong about Rabbi Prinz’s dignified dissent from our policy, and about Sharon Rose, who never came anywhere near Breira. He is ignorant about most of the persons and all of the policies which mark our group’s attempt to unite Israel and the Diaspora in a search for peace and justice in both places. He thinks Rael Jean Isaac’s pamphlet is unbiased research because he never troubled to hear Balfour Brickner’s or William Novak’s refutation of it.
The other shoe has finally dropped and COMMENTARY is at last enlisted in the anti-Breira crusade. Neither surprised nor enlightened, we go on with our work.
[Rabbi] Arnold Jacob Wolf
New York City
To the Editor:
The present quality of the American Jewish press and periodicals can best be estimated from the following fact: in the firestorm of vituperation against Breira and against me personally that has exploded over the’ last four months, only one single writer or reporter has called me to ask my own version of the facts about my life and my own comments on the charges made by Rael Isaac. That was a young woman writer for Kol Yavneh, the magazine of an Orthodox student group which gives total support to Gush Emunim. When I told her that only she had bothered to call me, there was a long silence and then she said, “I don’t see how I could have written an honest story without talking to you and at least hearing your views.”
Amen v’amen. Someone taught her a decent understanding of Jewish values and Jewish tradition, as well as a decent respect for honest journalism. But how sad that not a single “professional” reporter thought of that, nor the “scholar” Rael Isaac, nor the “recent Ph.D.” who did COMMENTARY’s own attack.
Since he did not call in advance to check on the facts, I will list some of the most egregious falsehoods about me that appear in his article, in the order of the misstatements. But I should add that to my knowledge there are many misstatements about other people and about many institutions.
- I have never held seminars for members of Congress on the Palestinian question or any Middle East question, under Breira’s auspices or anyone else’s.
- I do not “claim to be a Zionist,” but to be searching my way toward a Jewish world view that would incorporate parts of both Zionism and Diaspora Jewish nationalism—the best of both Ahad Ha’am and Simon Dubnow—while rejecting the absolutism of those classical Zionists who argued that only in Eretz Yisrael could the Jewish people be free, and those classical Bundists who argued that the project of a Jewish state was a disaster for the Jewish people. Such an ideology should be rooted in the reality of an Am Olam, a “World Eternal People,” that both controls one nation-state and lives as a minority in various quite different kinds of Diasporas. At the Breira conference I spoke on “Jewish Politics” in such a light, but of course your article covers no such substantive events.
- I did not “share a post-office box” with MERIP. One person who had been a member of an organization I was part of, Jews for Urban Justice, in 1971, as part of a major transition in her life, joined MERIP. She used JUJ’s post-office box number in placing an ad for MERIP, without JUJ’s permission or knowledge. When we discovered the fact, JUJ rebuked her and she left JUJ. The only relation I have had with MERIP was writing an angry letter to it denouncing its use of gentle and supportive words in regard to Palestinian terrorism against Israel. That letter was published in MERIP Reports, and I am sure was available to Mrs. Isaac and your writer.
- Rabbi Prinz’s June 1975 letter to Bob Loeb referred to another “Arthur,” not me—and indeed at the time I was “nowhere even listed as a key figure in Breira” precisely because I did not have such a role. This is one of the clearest examples of how your writer’s bias was so extreme and his reckless disregard of the facts so total and his dependence on the vituperative Jewish press so great that he simply stated a flat falsehood.
- My Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, December 16, 1976, explicitly did not “state as fact that the PLO leadership was ready to accept the legitimacy of Israel.” My article quoted the two PLO doves whom we met as asserting this. The article ended by saying that an Israeli statement of readiness to exchange “a peace treaty with guarantees of Israeli security for an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza” would “force the PLO as a whole to choose” whether to accept peace. Obviously if I believe the PLO must be forced to choose, I cannot believe it has already chosen.
- Contrary to the statement in your article, Breira’s supporters—including our chairperson, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, Bob Loeb, and myself—have publicly and explicitly urged that the Jewish Defense League be given a fair hearing. Indeed, both Wolf and I publicly attacked the Anti-Defamation League for working hand-in-glove with the FBI in its surveillance of the JDL (see the Media, Pennsylvania, FBI files); I have publicly appeared with and debated against a JDL leader before a Jewish audience; Loeb circulated Meir Kahane’s pamphlet on democracy in Jewish life to Breira people as an important analysis; and Wolf arranged for a JDL leader to address the Breira conference even after the JDL had tried physically to disrupt the conference. At the same time, to call JDL “Breira’s counterpart on the Right,” although Breira has never counseled, supported, or participated in violence or attempted to disrupt any other organization’s meetings, and although JDL does not support Breira’s right to be heard as Breira has supported JDL’s—is a travesty on the word “counterpart.”
- Your writer, interestingly enough, leaves three dots in his quotation from my Nation article precisely where there appeared these words: “This Israeli government is not behaving toward the Palestinian people with anything like the ferocity that the U.S. government used on Vietnam—but the internal damage the Israeli government is doing to Israel itself is even worse than the damage the U.S. government did to America” (emphasis in the original). The sentence comes out of my own deep love for Israel—strengthened by my stay there in 1975 and under-girded by my worry over the terrible strain the endless war is putting on Israel. It expresses, in short, that ahavat Yisrael that your writer says he is looking for in Breira. There are many other such sentences in that article. Why did he leave them out—and why did he deliberately excise this one from the quotation he chose to use?
Any one of these false statements might be ascribed to carelessness, but all of them put together feels like more than that. It feels like a furious maneuver to turn attention away from the real and agonizing issues of how to protect Israel and revitalize American Jewish life, toward made-up gossip about mail boxes and unconnected organizations.
But why is such an effort being made now? I offer a hypothesis: that precisely because COMMENTARY and the Jewish Week and the American Zionist have run out of creative ideas for protecting and revitalizing Israel and Jewry, they rage at Breira, which is taking new approaches toward those questions. That since Breira’s ideas are making sense to more and more Jews, since Breira adopted a serious and realistic platform at its national conference, there is less and less hay to be made in arguing against those ideas in a principled way. That therefore it is necessary to make false statements about the ideas and the people—and indeed to avoid at all costs actually publishing the Breira platform.
For some Jewish newspapers and magazines it is more important to protect their own institutional self-interests than to encourage an intelligent discussion about how to protect and revitalize Israel and the Jewish people. When much of the Jewish press becomes so intellectually corrupt, the only reasonable responses are to reach Jews by publishing in the general journals that Jews read—and to create a new and truthful and life-giving Jewish press, like Breira’s interChange.
So be it. If this were not a matter of life and death for the Jewish people, it would be easy for us to avoid the vituperative attacks by turning to other questions. But those old-line groups that have come to a dead end in their ideas endanger not only themselves but all Jews. So precisely because we love the Jewish people, we cannot turn away from this debate.
Arthur I. Waskow
To the Editor:
It is a tragic indication of exactly how far COMMENTARY has moved away from what, regardless of its increasing drift to the Right, was a position of intellectual and moral integrity that the vicious attack on the Jews who make up Breira by Rael Jean Isaac should be referred to in your April issue as “a well-documented pamphlet.” This lie—for that is what it is, plain and simple—is then used as a basis to distill and further refine the pamphlet for an audience which might be tempted to believe that anything published in COMMENTARY must be, at least, basically accurate.
To mention just a few facts—as against Joseph Shattan’s wicked distortions—Bob Loeb and John Ruskay left CONAME to found Breira because they couldn’t get a hearing for their Jewish position in the older organization; Arthur Waskow has recently been pushed out of IPS [Institute for Policy Studies] for being “too hung up on Torah,” the MERIP crowd is known to despise Art for his “Zionist views,” and no MERIP person has membership in Breira. Furthermore, Joachim Prinz, in his letter to Bob Loeb, quoted on p. 63, was referring to Arthur Samuelson (a young Hashomer-type Zionist editing interChange), and not Waskow. Finally, not only does Breira believe in giving all Jews a fair hearing, but even after the physical assault on our members by misguided JDL youth at the Breira conference—an attack which came as these “un-Jewish” Breiraniks were chanting after-meal prayers—the chair ruled that JDL’s Bonnie Pechter could address the conference for ten minutes.
But since so many others will surely be writing you about Shattan’s carelessly cribbed “facts,” let me address myself to just one point here. Shattan claims that “it soon became evident . . . that the one subject that held Breira’s interest was the fate of the Palestinians. . .” And he concludes with the slanderous claim that the kind of peace that Shattan says Waskow takes credit for bringing about in Vietnam is what Breira wants for Israel, “. . . the peace of obliteration, the peace of the grave. . . .” (And how convenient far the Isaac-Shattan ilk that Waskow’s disdain for middle-class and middle-aged standards of dress and style makes him a perfect stereotype for those who wish to present Breira as led by a band of dangerous hippie radicals.)
I am an officer of Breira. Would Shattan like to challenge my Jewish credentials? They include a lifelong commitment to Zionism and Jewish survival, expressed as a youngster in Habonim, and as a mature woman in every article or essay I have ever written (and there are a few); active, dues-paying membership in a respectable, if Reconstructionist, synagogue; and last, but obviously not least, two children and two grandchildren in Israel. Needless to say, the Jewish commitment, knowledge, and achievement of my fellow Breira board members more than match my own. It is not, therefore, our concern for the Palestinians, but with the Jewish state, that motivates our efforts to help create a climate for peace in the Middle East. As Jews devoted to the highest ethical principles of Judaism we are naturally disturbed by anything within the Jewish state which not only falls far short of the dreams of the Zionist founders, but actually corrupts our people more every day. Thus, we do care, as feeling human beings, for what the Israeli occupation has meant to the people of the West Bank and Gaza, whose national aspirations have been fired by our own example, but, as Jews, our main concern is with what exploiting cheap Arab labor does to the foundations of the state that was built to bring Jews back to the land; with what is happening to our young Jewish soldiers as the situation exacerbates in the territories, and as they are forced to become more brutal, more hardened, more removed from the gentle and compassionate people we have always been.
We want a peace that will enable Israel to deal with its dangerous social gap, with a sick economy which includes growing corruption at the top and increasing disaffection in the middle and at the bottom, as well as with the problem of how to integrate Israeli Arabs realistically so that they will want to remain Israelis. It is not for love of the Arabs—although, unlike COMMENTARY’s favorite writers, we do not see them, least of all the Palestinians who at least have some reason to resent us, as being in quite the same category as the architects of Auschwitz—but for love of the Jewish people and Eretz Yisrael that we are building—and will continue to build—a Diaspora movement that addresses itself to these and related questions.
I invite your readers to read the platform statements drafted at the Breira conference in February to judge for themselves what is at work in the smear campaign which COMMENTARY has now, despicably, joined.
Inge Lederer Gibel
New York City
To the Editor:
Joseph Shattan’s article adds little light to the increasingly acrimonious debate over the legitimacy of Breira. It is a wholehearted endorsement of Rael Jean Isaac’s pamphlet, Breira: Counsel for Judaism, which Mr. Shattan summarizes, paraphrases, and quotes, but never questions or analyzes. This pamphlet deserves to be exposed for what it is—a cleverly written, superficially convincing, political propaganda piece and hatchet job—rather than to be reproduced uncritically in the pages of COMMENTARY. . . .
But Mr. Shattan’s article is most pernicious in its misrepresentation of Breira’s position. It is simply not the case that Breira places the full burden of guilt on Israel while attributing to Arab leaders a burning desire for peace. There is little naiveté, and certainly no “unconscious racism,” in the view of the Arabs maintained by Breira. Its position is based on the assumption that the forces at work in the Arab world are not essentially different from those operating in Israel or in any other political configuration: that among Arab leaders and within the PLO, as in Israel, there is a spectrum of attitudes, including more moderate and more extreme positions; that the Israeli policy most promising for peace would be to strengthen the stance of the Arab moderates at the expense of the extremists; that this can be done by showing that the Arabs, and especially the Palestinians, have something concrete to gain by moderation; that, specifically, a formal Israeli statement of ultimate willingness to recognize some form of Palestinian political entity on land from which Israel would withdraw as part of a final peace treaty, and to negotiate immediately with any delegated representatives of the Palestinian people who would recognize the legitimacy of Israel and renounce the use of violence against it, would exert great pressure on the PLO to make the desired changes in its Covenant. This is a serious position, which deserves to be debated on its merits, not dismissed, as it is by Mrs. Isaac and Mr. Shattan, as a rationalization for the desire “to distance oneself as a Jew from Israel’s fate.”
One final point, about self-righteousness. In virtually the only substantive argument raised in her entire pamphlet, Mrs. Isaac asks how Breira can be so sure that a Palestinian state will aid in the cause of peace, rather than become an irredentist base against Israel. While there are good arguments for the Breira position, the final answer, of course, is that no one can be absolutely sure. On the other hand, how can Mrs. Isaac and her backers be so sure that Breira is wrong? Apparently, it never even occurs to those who espouse the position of the Israeli Right that their policy—no recognition of the Palestinian people, no negotiations under any circumstances with the PLO, not one inch of the land to be returned —might be strengthening the hands of the Arab extremists and destroying any possibility of peace, thus consigning Israel to round after round of ever bloodier war. Absolute certainty about the future lies beyond any of us. This is a good reason why Jews committed to Israel’s flourishing survival should not dissipate their energies in tearing down one another. It is also a good reason why COMMENTARY should not have lent its prestige to such a malicious attack.
[Rabbi] Marc Saperstein
To the Editor:
Much of Joseph Shattan’s “Why Breira?” seems based on Rael Jean Isaac’s Breira: Counsel for Judaism, a pamphlet Mr. Shattan claims is “scrupulous in its respect for evidence.” Indeed, Mr. Shattan apparently accepts the allegations of the Isaac pamphlet in toto; he does not dispute a single “fact” thereof. I am convinced that, having read Mrs. Isaac’s pamphlet, Mr. Shattan made no serious attempt to verify its allegations. I know for a fact that he made no effort to contact the Breira office in New York, Arthur Waskow and Barry Rubin in Washington, or many other figures discussed in his piece. Space and time limitations only allow me to deal with three of the more pernicious aspects of Mr. Shattan’s article.
1. The maligning of Barry Rubin. Taking his cue from Mrs. Isaac, Mr. Shattan correctly states that Mr. Rubin, presently a graduate student in Middle East Studies at Georgetown, was a member of the anti-Zionist MERIP and in 1972 contributed to the Journal of Palestine Studies. Mrs. Isaac takes her account of Mr. Rubin’s activities up to 1974 and then—curiously and not coincidentally—drops all further mention of him. Small wonder: in 1974, Mr. Rubin repudiated his earlier anti-Israel views and began writing articles on Israel and the Middle East, many of them favorable to an Israeli point of view. . . .
Mr. Shattan compounds Mrs. Isaac’s half-truths by noting:
After August 1974, Rubin’s name no longer appeared in MERIP Reports, but in September 1975, when the first issue of the Breira newsletter interChange came out, Barry Rubin was listed as an associate editor for international affairs. interChange identified him as a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University but neglected to cite either his association with MERIP or with the violently anti-Israel Maoist Guardian.
Why interChange should list associations which Mr. Rubin had long ago repudiated Mr. Shattan never bothers to explain.
What is so disturbing is not only that Mr. Shattan omits important facts about Mr. Rubin, but that he made not the slightest attempt to inform himself of these facts. . . . Instead, he simply repeated Mrs. Isaac’s reprehensible half-truths to perpetuate her character assassination. Mr. Rubin has publicly done his teshuvah; it is time for Mrs. Isaac and Mr. Shattan to do theirs.
2. No less shameless are Mr. Shattan’s distortions by quoting out of context. Quoting from a resolution “adopted at the [Breira] national conference,” he claims it affirms that “‘certain Arab countries and Palestinian leaders are willing to recognize Israel’s right to exist.’” Mr. Shattan cites this as part of his “evidence” that “what Breira has primarily managed to do is lend a seal of Jewish approval to the idea that the party at ‘fault’ in the Middle East is . . . the 3 million Israelis. . . .”
Having chaired the commission which drafted the resolution to which Mr. Shattan refers, I am quite familiar with its content. It might be helpful for COMMENTARY readers to read the full paragraph from which Mr. Shattan takes his quotation—I will leave it to them to determine whether he has quoted fairly and accurately and whether it bears out his contention that Breira’s approach is one-sided:
We take note of indications that certain Arab countries and Palestinian leaders are willing to recognize Israel’s right to exist. We call upon these, as well as other Arab spokesmen, to publicly acknowledge and confirm these indications and, further, to clarify that they recognize Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign Jewish state within secure boundaries. Such a recognition is essential to successful peace negotiations. In the case of the Palestine Liberation Organization, this would mean an amendment to the Palestine National Covenant removing those clauses which call for the dismantling of the state of Israel and the renunciation of the use of violence and terror against civilian populations.
3. Finally, there is Mr. Shattan’s repeated manipulation of facts which are often non-germane and taken out of context, as well as his omission of important facts which do not conform to his and Mrs. Isaac’s thesis that Breira is “New Leftist” or at least universalist in orientation. For example, Mr. Shattan notes that Samuel Rubin is one of the Institute for Policy Studies’ “financial ‘angels’,” but neglects to tell us that Mr. Rubin is also a major financial backer of Breira and—far more importantly—that he has given literally hundreds of thousands of dollars to the UJA and is a former president of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation.
Mr. Shattan informs us that Robert Loeb and John Ruskay, respectively Breira’s executive director and secretary, were members of CONAME. He writes, “Presumably, they felt, like Barry Rubin, that a specifically Jewish organization campaigning on behalf of ‘Palestinian needs’ would be more effective than a non-Jewish one.” Well, one wishes Mr. Shattan wouldn’t “presume” so much. The facts are that both Loeb and Ruskay left CONAME because of its increasingly anti-Israel orientation.
Mr. Shattan also discusses a plethora of individuals—Sharon Rose, William Kunstler, Howard Zinn, Irene Gendzier, among others—who have never been involved with Breira in any way. On the other hand, he neglects to mention that Breira’s fourteen-member executive committee includes a staff member of the American Jewish Committee, a leader of the federation of a Midwestern city, a professor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the former chairman of the Philadelphia Zionist Federation. In addition, the reader of his article would hardly know that interChange, Breira’s monthly periodical which is read by many non-Breira members, has featured articles on Jewish education, Soviet Jewry, tzedakah collectives, and the decline and neglect of poor Jewish neighborhoods, as well as articles on Israel and the Middle East.
The Breira point of view is certainly open to vigorous discussion and criticism. Unfortunately, Mr. Shattan has disqualified himself from such serious discussion, first, because he chooses to engage, to a large extent, in ad hominem arguments, and second, because he is evidently not familiar with the organization of which he presumes to write. . . .
David M. Szonyi
New York City
To the Editor:
Joseph Shattan repeats Rael Jean Isaac’s charge that the unspoken desire to “distance oneself as a Jew from Israel’s fate” is what motivates most of Breira’s members to affiliate with the organization. This contention is unfair and irresponsible, and it ignores the highly compelling reason which has led many committed Zionists to embrace Breira: namely, it is the only major Jewish organization in America which advocates that in exchange for peace Israel should be prepared to return to its 1967 borders, with minor rectifications to be agreed on by the parties to the dispute.
Such a position should hardly be considered revolutionary. The American government has advocated this view since the early 70′s, and not a single American or West European diplomat or politician—including Israel’s most devoted friends—has suggested that the final borders should deviate significantly from those of 1967. Yet, despite these realities, Israel insistently repeats its refusal to return to the earlier lines. As a result, Arab propagandists have been able to focus public attention on the issue of Israeli “expansionism” rather than on the question of Arab refusal to recognize Israel—which, as Mr. Shattan correctly states, is the crux of the problem in the Middle East.
It is entirely possible, of course, that a statement by Israel on its willingness to return to its previous borders in exchange for peace would not elicit a meaningful response. For the first time in years, however, the Arabs would be on the defensive. They would be obligated to specify what they mean when they speak of “peace” and to define the concessions which they are prepared to make. Such a development would have great value, even if the concessions were grossly inadequate and the Arab “peace” a fraud; at the very least, Arab proposals would be on the table for all to see. Israel can only benefit by initiating a process which will focus on the nature and scope of the peace which is to be established, rather than remaining tied to the issue of whether or not captured territories are to be returned. If it takes the first course, Israel can expect substantial American support and sympathy; if it takes the second, it will get little or none.
Mr. Shattan is justified, I believe, in suggesting that Arthur Waskow and other Breira leaders have been overly optimistic in their evaluation of Arab intentions. Waskow perceives a degree of moderation which other Breira members, such as myself, do not find evident. Nevertheless, Breira’s political positions have been basically sound. It recognized long ago that those Jewish organizations in America which encourage Israel to be stubborn on the matter of territories are doing a disservice to the Jewish state.
Eric H. Yoffie
Durham, North Carolina
To the Editor:
I am not in a position to comment on the factual reconstruction of the founders, origins, and history of Breira. It is clear to me, having compared Rael Jean Isaac’s pamphlet on which Joseph Shattan’s article is principally based, with William Novak’s lengthy, calm, and no less reasoned history of Breira (which appeared in the March-April issue of genesis 2 . . .) that the facts which both Mrs. Isaac and Mr. Shattan report are accurate, but invariably partial and therefore tendentious. Undoubtedly some of my colleagues have previous associations and connections which others will find unsavory, but in all of Mr. Shattan’s article there is so little direct quotation from the operative policy and position statements of Breira, one is obliged to conclude that Breira is nothing but a Potemkin village, or worse, a front for a couple of personalities a number of people find threatening and irritating. It is obviously more efficient rhetoric recite the earlier ideological incarnations of Robert Loeb and Arthur Waskow than it is to credit the evolving and changing consensus within Breira. Tar brushes have no subtlety. I wouldn’t call such rhetoric Mc-Carthyite, only transparent.
Breira is a young organization, and like all understaffed, underfinanced movements, frequently inefficient, sometimes inept. Letterheads are not reprinted within the hour of someone dropping from the board; decisions are frequently made under pressure to respond without coming under the scrutiny of deliberative and patient consideration. Lapses such as these are regrettable and will diminish as time passes and Breira’s staff is less frantically overworked. Breira is, however, a democratic organization; its staff personnel and executive leadership can be changed at the behest of its board. Breira, in other words, does not operate as the pawn of Robert Loeb, Arthur Waskow, or any other conspiracy of gray eminences.
I have been at many organizational meetings of Breira, first as a member of its editorial advisory committee which assists in the publication of its newsletter, interChange, and presently as a member of the board, to which I was elected by the membership. In neither function have I observed the wirepulling which Mr. Shattan leads us to believe those Jewish mafiosi, Loeb and Waskow, conduct. If anything, Breira meetings are diffuse, passionate, by no means “single-issued” conclaves; moreover, at none of them have I heard a defense of the PLO, Palestinian terrorism, the dismantling of Israel, all of which Mr. Shattan would imply that I (and others naive like myself) am gulled into accommodating. Perhaps, once, several years ago, when Breira was smaller, more ideological, some of its spokesmen were still uncritically entangled with Third World politics, but I haven’t found such in evidence during the nearly two years of my involvement with Breira.
What attracted me to Breira (and what holds my affection and interest) is that Breira strikes me as the only American Jewish organization which can encompass otherwise conflicting constituencies (constituencies which other major organizations would be compelled to winnow into homogeneity). At Breira meetings there are Jews observant and unreligious, Zionist and non-Zionist (like myself), Jewishly well-educated and Jewishly beginners, all of whom are concerned with much more than the resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict, or rather (put more accurately) are concerned for the pacific resolution of that conflict within the context of a significant and revitalized Jewish community in the American Diaspora.
As long as Breira serves the vision of that expanded constituency, its ahavat Yisrael will continue—despite Alan Mintz—to encompass not alone the Jews of Israel, but the Jews of America as well, their future and security, as well as my own.
Arthur A. Cohen
New York City
To the Editor:
As a long-standing reader of COMMENTARY and an active member of Breira, I want to offer a comment or two on Joseph Shattan’s article. On the surface, it would seem to fit in snugly with COMMENTARY’s consistent and well-articulated world view; certainly nobody who reads the magazine would expect it to publish an article favorable to Breira. But editorial policies are not one-dimensional, and Mr. Shattan’s article is a severe break with the magazine’s long-standing precedent. To the best of my knowledge, COMMENTARY has always been careful to uphold the highest standards of responsibility and accuracy, even when discussing phenomena it doesn’t much like.
Mr. Shattan’s article is unprecedented because a good deal of what he has to say about Breira is simply not true. He repeats some of the more widely circulated distortions and misrepresentations about Breira, and then goes on to add a few of his own. How is one to take seriously an article which invents its own facts, and which relies upon the judgments and the research of some of the most unreliable and irresponsible sources in Jewish life?
Does it really have to be said that Breira does not support the PLO any more than COMMENTARY does, but that it does hold a different view as to the best way to reach a settlement? Or that Breira has no connection to MERIP or any other anti-Israel organization? Or that no reasonable person could conclude that Rael Jean Isaac’s pamphlet is “free of any overt bias”? If Mr. Shattan had wanted to draw serious connections, he might have looked to the World Zionist Organization, which would have trouble denying a place to Breira should it ask to join.
Mr. Shattan excuses the Jewish Week for its wild excesses on the grounds that it cares deeply for Jewish survival. But who will protect Breira—which cares just as deeply—from the wild excesses of Mr. Shattan’s irresponsible charges?
To the Editor:
Though Joseph Shattan makes some good points, he comes very close to saying that Breira should be dismantled! I hope he doesn’t imply that. I also hope that he will do another article, only this time dealing with (wrestling with?) the Breira platform as passed at the February convention. Too much energy is being wasted on whether Breira has a right to exist; not enough energy is being spent on what Breira stands for politically, both vis-à-vis the Middle East and the Jewish community in the Galut. We here in Boston Breira, if I may speak for the others, are not spending a great deal of time defending ourselves. We are moving into the educational and political arena, and you will have to follow us there. Breira’s position falls within the left-wing side of Mapam, and is therefore a legitimate position and a legitimate alternative. . . .
Jack Nusan Porter
To the Editor:
As someone who knows and admires John Ruskay, I was shocked to see him attacked as one of the wicked elders of anti-Zion in Joseph Shattan’s article on Breira. According to the article, Ruskay “has worked on a full-time basis for Breira from the beginning . . . to advance the interests of the Palestine Liberation Organization.” Actually, for the past two years Ruskay has worked full time as the director of a Hebrew school, where he has been involved in such suspicious activities as teaching children to dance the hora and sing Israeli songs. I know. I’ve seen him there.
We Jews are always congratulating ourselves on our independence of thought. “Two Jews, three opinions!” we say proudly, as if it were really true. Actually, Jews in America expend a good deal of energy suppressing independent thought, as the campaign to destroy Breira demonstrates.
That campaign seems effective. Breira will probably disappear soon. What won’t disappear, though, is the question Breira might have answered: if military power won’t bring peace to Israel, what will?
New York City
To the Editor:
Joseph Shattan speculates on the motives of “liberal Jewish academics and intellectuals” who have supported or been connected with Breira. He suggests a variety of possibilities: “Liberal guilt, a desire to be on the side of ‘liberation’ and ‘progress,’ a weariness at having to uphold Israel’s cause when that cause has gone out of odor, . . . even an unconscious and paradoxical wish to be, for once, on the side their own government may be leaning toward. . . .” This listing shows a blind refusal to read and credit what such people have to say for themselves. There is an obvious reason that I spelled out in a speech that I published in interChange, Breira’s publication, which was that some of us believe that there will never be peace in the Middle East, and Israel may be destroyed, unless it expresses clearly and unequivocally its willingness to give up the territories conquered in 1967, in return for peace. That may not bring peace either, but insistence on holding on to substantial parts of the territories certainly never will bring peace. I assume others who find Breira’s position attractive believe the same. The purpose of this letter is not to argue this position—I have in interChange—but to caution Mr. Shattan against easy ascription of unworthy motives to those with whose politics he disagrees. It is not necessary to “speculate endlessly about [their] motives.” Read what they say.
To the Editor:
Breira, whose recent conference occasioned Joseph Shattan’s article, is an episode of considerable diagnostic significance for the understanding of the contemporary American Jewish situation. But its current prominence is a characteristic media event. It is a pity that Mr. Shattan’s rigorous and astringent analysis, applied to so doughy a substance, will probably prolong the half-life of Breira by one further irrelevant polemic.
The Breira convention was followed by a string of reported resignations by prominent rabbis and writers and academics said to have been members earlier. But a rejoinder to attacks on Breira, published by William Novak in genesis 2, tells us that many of those mentioned—Nathan Glazer, Rabbi Joachim Prinz—were not ever really members at all: at most they were on a so-called “advisory committee.”
It happens that I have personal knowledge how this could come about and how little it means. The masthead of interChange has two names of close friends and colleagues of mine. In one case, the agreement to “advise” was accompanied by an explicit statement that the scholar in question totally opposed characteristic Breira positions like that on the PLO. In the other case, no express permission was ever asked, or given, for the inclusion of the name in question on the interChange masthead. Only the fear that they might be caught up in abetting a “witch-hunt,” I am told, keeps these names from being withdrawn from the alleged foundation of the Breira structure. Just who is intimidating whom becomes a very subtle issue, sometimes.
Now it is true of course that the availability of relatively large numbers of vaguely sympathetic persons permits a tight-knit, determined minority, with clear-cut aims, to control significant power; and this is the point Mr. Shattan, using data published by Rael Jean Isaac, is making. But how tight-knit is the minority in question, and above all how clear are its goals? There is no question that there are some very determined people involved, but determined about what?
This too is a matter on which I happen to have some slight, but illuminating, information. Some time after a meeting in Washington where I met Arthur Waskow and his group for the first (and only) time, I got a call from one of their leaders. It seems that having recently decided that they were Bundists, they felt the need to learn something about the Bund, and they hoped I could provide a bibliography. However, as Henry J. Tobias’s study had not yet appeared, and they were unable to cope with material in Yiddish, I was unable to be of help. Now, it is not necessarily fatal to the strategic clarity of a cohesive group to approach ideological issues in a spirit of chutzpa and am-aratzut [ignorance]. But when we have other evidence that a group does not know what it wants, such cavalier attitudes toward ideology lead us to suspect that they have no clear or coherent strategy at all, but only some common prejudices.
Waskow at the time I met him—at a meeting arranged by the B’nai B’rith—boasted of being an unindicted co-conspirator unjustly left out of the dock in the trial of the Chicago Seven for the events at the 1968 Democratic convention. There was the clear impression that, vigorously embroiled as he was in Jewish issues, the connection was both accidental and reluctant. Ambivalence, in one mix or another and in varying proportional intensities, is the common element in the Jewish involvement in Breira: the radical student Zionists, the Hillel rabbis and the Sh’ma coterie, and the veteran mavericks long dedicated to upholding alienation in dispersion as a way of life especially designated for the Jews. What they have in common is a shared detachment and disenchantment vis-à-vis the so-called Jewish establishment.
None of this is uniquely true of Breira, or even uncommon throughout the range of American Jewish groups. The rise of Israel has raised implicit issues toward which Diaspora Jews almost universally, not to speak of the special case of American Jewry, are bound to adopt ambivalent positions. The very existence of Israel, arising in the wake of the Holocaust, is a pledge of survival vital to all alike—and yet also an implicit critique of the Diaspora and a standing reproach to those who prefer to remain there. A commitment to aliyah, together with an insistence on the centrality of the Diaspora, like that adopted by Breira, aptly describes the attitude common to most American Zionists and the rest of the American Jewish establishment. Breira was not needed to promulgate this position, and will not survive on this ideology alone.
What does single the conglomerate out is its shared detachment, for various reasons, from the existing establishment committed to the support of Israel. Such detachment, far from being unusual, is typical of every succeeding American Jewish immigration, generation, and new proliferation of occupational, residential, social, and cultural variants. Some then peel off or hang loose at the margins, while others are coopted individually or earn their legitimate entry into the establishment by fiercely attacking the old guard. All these, united but opposed, tendencies are represented in Breira. Under the circumstances, it is hardly a suitable instrument for a revolutionary elite to capture in order to undermine the functioning consensus of American Jewry.
To the Editor:
Joseph Shattan’s critical analysis of Breira is welcome to those of us who have grown concerned by the direction the organization has taken. Its questionable origins, however, are not as important as the actions sanctioned by the rank-and-file membership, the well-meaning majority.
The insensitivity of Breira is inherent in its very name. Had Breira sought only to offer “a ‘choice’ for shared responsibility between Israel and the Diaspora” in the reconstitution of a vital Jewish life on this continent, the organization’s home ground, the notion of a working “alternative” would have been welcome indeed. But in its single-minded preoccupation with the Palestinian question, which dominates local meetings, and not just the national office’s pronouncements, Breira declares itself a challenge to the Israeli motto, ein breira—“we have no choice.” Ein breira was not a casual slogan, however; it reflected the grim resolve of an embattled enclave that felt it had no option but to fight, and to sacrifice the individual as the price for collective survival. It is one thing for Israelis themselves to question the notion of ein breira. Bound by the same reality and subject to the same risks, they win the right to interpret the experience for themselves. But for a group of untried American Jews, with nothing more at stake than a liberal conscience, to declare blithely, you have a choice, is chutzpa of the most unsavory kind.
It should be borne in mind that Israeli foreign policy is the policy of a democratically elected government, representing what the majority of Israelis believe to be in their best interest. Since this belief is backed by their willingness to die, or to serve great stretches of army service, in its defense, it ought to be treated by their unthreatened American Jewish friends with respect, if not awe. Members of Breira have been accusing the “rightist establishment” of various indelicacies. Surely there has been nothing quite so indelicate in American Jewish life of recent years as this widespread assumption on the part of our new political philanthropists that “we know better than you what is in your best interest.”
But if Breira has been insensitive, it has lately also grown dangerous. Like the Russian maskilim (“enlighteners”) of the 19th century, who went to the Czar with a list of reforms to be foisted on their less enlightened Jewish brethren—because they knew what was in the Jewish interest even if the Jewish majority did not—so Breira now approaches the American government to convince Americans that they must bring pressure to bear on an Israel that does not know what is in its best interest. And like the maskilim, members of Breira are convinced of their intellectual and moral superiority in taking this treacherous step. But we know, as the enlighteners ought to have known, that the Czar worked in his interest, not in the interest of the Jews, and used whatever Jewish support he could get neatly to camouflage his ends. The decision of a Jewish group to appeal to the powers-that-be against the perceived self-interest of Israel (and the Jewish body politic) now, when as Mr. Shattan rightly says, “the political fortunes of the state of Israel have reached perhaps an all-time low,” is dangerous, to use the mildest available term.
American Jews, acting as Jews, can only protect Israel’s right to self-determination. When they begin to subvert that right, the constituted community has not only the right but the duty to expose their actions and to condemn them. In so doing it is not being “Mc-Carthyite” or even vengeful, just minimally responsible.
Ruth R. Wisse
To the Editor:
The American Jewish community stands in debt to COMMENTARY and Joseph Shattan for a lucid, thoughtful presentation on a timely subject—the attack-from-within carefully mounted by Breira against one of Israel’s vital lifelines, the united American Jewish community. . . .
I take issue with Mr. Shattan, however, with respect to the platform adopted at Breira’s recent convention, which, in his words, “reflects a moderating tendency.” “Tendency” may be too strong a word—“gloss” may be more apt. True, the platform draws back from one or two of the more extreme statements by Breira spokesmen, such as those suggesting that the Israelis deal with the PLO without preconditions. There are preconditions in the Breira platform now, but it still promotes the PLO.
At the Breira convention there were two “commissions” (“The Essential Elements for an Arab-Israeli Peace” and “U.S. Policy in the Middle East”) whose contributions to the Breira platform have a familiar ring, and whose resolutions carry forward several long-standing Breira positions in terms which do not fit well with the word “moderate.” Most importantly, these resolutions propose a “Palestinian” state on territories to be vacated by Israel. This position is in direct opposition to that of the Israeli government, whose unequivocal opposition to a “Palestinian” West Bank state was reiterated, emphatically, by no less a spokesman than Shlomo Avineri, Director General of the Israeli Foreign Office, at the recent Policy Conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). . . .
The resolutions also reiterate . . . the . . . Breira position of urging the Israelis to deal with the PLO. And again, in continuity with Breira’s past positions, the resolutions call for “the immediate cessation of Jewish settlement of the occupied territories.” Similarly, on Jerusalem, Breira keeps the continuity, and, as before, seems to envisage a change in the present status of Jewish control: “While Jerusalem will continue to serve as the capital of Israel, the Arab part of the city could become, after the establishment of peace, the capital of a Palestinian Arab state.” On borders, the resolutions call for Israeli “willingness to negotiate on the basis of June 4, 1967 borders with such rectifications of those borders without which Israel’s security would be clearly and substantially affected.” Is this an example of “moderation”? Why does Breira back off so far from the simple and clear phrase, “defensible borders”? Moderation, indeed!
Throughout, the Breira platform repeatedly and deliberately highlights the phony concept of “Palestinian” nationalism—a concept recently explained by a PLO leader as a “new tool” in the continuing battle against Israel. Zoheir Muhsin of the PLO is quoted in the Dutch newspaper Trouw on March 31, 1977: “Only for political reasons do we carefully stress our Palestinian identity, for it is in the national interest of the Arabs to encourage the Palestinian existence against Zionism. Yes, the existence of a separate Palestinian identity serves only tactical purposes. The founding of a Palestinian state is a new tool in the continuing battle against Israel.” . . .
It has been pointed out . . . that some notable commentators have characterized the Breira program as being acceptable to Zionist groups. “Moderate” or not, it is unacceptable in Zi