I was in my early 20s when, in the late 1990s, I happened to be in NYC for some of the founding activities of Jews Against the Occupation. I remember my relief, thinking “finally, a way to raise our voices as Jews critical of Israel.” I lived in Philadelphia but I thought of JAtO as a political home, proudly participating in local actions with a poster that read “Another Jews Against the Occupation.” It felt like we were inventing the wheel, painfully. My family was furious about my politics and on the other hand I was experiencing heartbreaking anti-Semitism on the Left including a local forum about the 2001 World Conference Against Racism which devolved around the topic of “Zionism = Racism” as did the international gathering. That forum was shattering for me, and I yearned for political mentorship to help me put the pieces back together. I found it in Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz’s book The Issue is Power: Women, Jews, Violence and Resistance. Just what I needed: accessible, feminist advice about confronting anti-Semitism on the Left, and advice about how white Jewish activists can responsibly participate in multiracial movements for justice. The Issue is Power referenced the work of New Jewish Agenda, and as I read a series of books by Jewish feminists one activist generation older than myself, I saw a pattern – they all mentioned New Jewish Agenda (NJA). So, what was this organization, and why hadn’t I heard of them before? By 2003, I was hired to work for Rabbi Arthur Waskow at The Shalom Center and I realized that Waskow had also been part of New Jewish Agenda, as had many of his friends and colleagues that I was meeting. I went looking for a book or a good long article about NJA and came up empty. I was surprised, and my curiosity deepened.
Ezra Berkley Nepon
I ended up at the Tamiment Archives at NYU’s Bobst Library, digging through archive boxes and meeting with former NJA leaders in Philadelphia and Silver Springs, MD for interviews. I compiled a record of NJA’s work across five national task force areas: Middle East Peace, Central American Solidarity, Worldwide Nuclear Disarmament, Economic & Social Justice, and Jewish Feminism. I started to understand that NJA had been a courageous response to the brutal Reagan era: critical of U.S. policy, Israeli policy, and the silencing of dissent among mainstream Jewish organizations. And, at the same time, NJA had been an in-gathering of the Jewish Left. A wide range of Jewish activist streams had converged in NJA — secular, religious, queer, hard-Left, feminist, Yippie, and many more. I learned that New Jewish Agenda built new leadership, strategy, and analysis that still infuse Jewish activism today.
In 2006, I turned my research into a website - www.newjewishagenda.net — including links to many of the source documents I wrote about. This Spring, I’m publishing the research as a book. Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue: A History of New Jewish Agenda expands on the website and contains additional analysis including two insightful afterword essays by Rachel Mattson and Daniel Lang/Levitsky. Middle Eastern human rights activist and scholar Hassan El-Menyawi has described the book as “imperative reading for anyone who wants to understand the history and current state of Jewish activism in the United States in an increasingly globalized world.”
I’m working with a small literary press, Thread Makes Blanket, to publish an initial run of 1,000 copies. The book features original cover art by Abigail Miller, and I’m thrilled to announce that we have created a Celebrate People’s History poster in collaboration with justseeds Artists’ Cooperative. Both the book and the poster are available for pre-order as part of a fundraising campaign to raise printing funds for this independent publication. I hope Mondoweiss readers will help me spread the word and share the crucial history of New Jewish Agenda and their illuminating work as “a Jewish Voice among Progressives and a Progressive Voice Among Jews.” More information: www.newjewishagenda.net. Pre-order by February 20th: www.indiegogo.com/