The Jewish Defense League attacked peaceful protestors outside of the American Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Annual Conference on March 26, 2017, wounding a Palestinian professor and a member the anti-occupation group IfNotNow. Renowned educator and former Breira activist Peter Geffen reflects on his own experience with the extremist Jewish organization in 1977, and how the community landscape has changed in the interim.

When the Jewish Defense League Assaulted Breira 

by Peter Geffen

The apparent resurgence of the Jewish Defense League (JDL) harkens back to a critical and transitional moment in the history of the American Jewish community.  While "basking" in the sunlight of power revealed in the 1967 Six Day War, many young American Jews (like myself) were increasingly troubled by the military power being used by our own country in Vietnam. And as we became more involved in opposition to the War in Vietnam we could not help but be growingly aware of the implications of the rising Palestinian national movement and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. With Dr. King's assassination in 1968, an increasing unsteadiness was felt within our personal and collective foundations. The times were turbulent, emotionally and morally challenging, and exhilaratingly exciting all at the same time. Young people felt that they (we) had real power to effect change.

But the JDL had another spin. Their focus was on an anti-Semitism that we did not experience or recognize. We knew, of course, about the Holocaust and the devastation and horror wreaked upon our people. But the lesson we drew was to be outspoken in the defense of all minorities; of all the weak and persecuted of the human community.  We were universalistic. The JDL was highly nationalistic and violent. They saw themselves as a Jewish militia created to make certain that a Holocaust would "never again" happen to the Jewish people. Our universalism became their enemy.

A fight breaks out with the JDL outside the Breira Conference in February 1977. Photo credit Bill Aron.

In February, 1977, Breira held its first National Conference in Chevy Chase, Maryland advocating things that today are acceptable but were then radical departures from the accepted status quo.  (Ironically, as acceptable as our ideas are today, they are probably further from realization than they were in 1977!) But the JDL decided that we were no better than the anti-Semites they saw around every corner. They came to Maryland to physically attack our membership and to destroy our organization's event. And attack they did.  My wife Susie Kessler and I were there with our then 6 month old baby (today Rabbi Jonah Geffen) in a backpack. The brutal assault was terrifying. In the United States of America, it appeared to be impossible to hold views that were counter to an invisible Jewish establishment. JDL did not invent the assault on Breira, they simply followed the verbal lead of the official Jewish leadership of those days. The JDL of today does the same.

Protesters outside the Breira Conference. Photo credit Bill Aron.

The claim of disloyalty, of self-hatred, of "being a modern day Kapo" (as used by our now US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman when speaking of J Street) are the terms of degradation. The effect of the use of these terms is the developing fascism, racism, ultra-nationalism, and Holocaust manipulation that increasingly characterize our growing sentiments within the contemporary Jewish community.  We, the people of the Passover Seder, the people of the memory of slavery, the people of the Prophets of Social Justice for all are slowly, but surely, becoming a distorted image of ourselves.

The reemergence of the JDL should serve as a challenge to us all. Preserving our higher values is the fundamental mandate of our Torah. Seeing those of us who work towards a fair and just peace in the Middle East as disloyal does a grand disservice to the very Zionism that created the Jewish State. Using violent language and action as a means of silencing or eliminating opposition runs counter to the ideals that have withstood the test of time. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught:

"The greatness of the prophets was in their ability to voice dissent and disagreements not only with the beliefs of their pagan neighbors, but also with the cherished values and habits of their own people."

Peter Geffen is the founder and Executive Director of Kivunim, an international gap year education program for young Jews. He is also founder of The Abraham Joshua Heschel School in NYC, former Director of the Israel Experience Program for the CRB Foundation and one of the most respected Israel education specialists in the world. He has been a social activist since serving as a civil rights worker for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965-66 and has been deeply involved in Arab-Jewish co-existence work since the early 1960's. Geffen was a founding member of Breira: A Project of Diaspora-Relations in 1973 and served on the board of directors. He also served as Executive Director of The Center for Jewish History from 2003-05. He has designed and conducted international travel programs for teenagers and adults since 1969 including the Kivunim summer teachers' programs that have served over 1500 participants since 1999. Geffen was the recipient of the Covenant Award in 2012, the highest recognition given to a Jewish educator. Read a summary of Peter Geffen's interview for the American Jewish Peace Archive here


The mission of the American Jewish Peace Archive is to document through oral history the accounts of Jews in the United States who have worked in support of Israeli-Palestinian peace and reconciliation since 1967, and in so doing, to facilitate dialogue and inquiry between the generations, to provide primary source material for scholars, and to provide guidance and inspire hope for the future.