Prospects for peace seem especially bleak in Israel these days. Since taking office in March, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ordered the assassinations of Palestinian leaders, expanded Jewish settlements in the West Bank, demolished dozens of Palestinian homes and bombed Lebanon.

Israel's electorate opted for Sharon's tainted leadership in a reaction to the disappointing tenure of Ehud Barak, who seemingly offered Palestinians the world--through the Oslo Peace accords--only to have it thrown back into his face with a new Intifada.

This erroneous notion that Israel's gestures of peace were unrequited by the Palestinians provoked a backlash in Israel that carried Sharon into office. But it was Sharon himself who sparked the explosion in the occupied territories with a provocative visit to a Jerusalem shrine. His visit came near the anniversary of the 1982 massacre of thousands of Palestinians in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla, an outrage for which he bore "personal responsibility," according to an official Israeli inquiry.

Sharon has been performing as advertised, ratcheting up the violence of the Israeli Defense Forces in the occupied territories and rejecting calls for a freeze in Jewish settlement construction made by a U.S.-led commission. Chaired by former Sen. George Mitchell, the commission was predictably equivocal in its report, calling on both sides to stop the fighting. But it did bring focus on the issue of settlements, making Sharon's defiance of these modest demands seem even more appalling.

But could this be the silver lining in the storm clouds ominously amassing over the Middle East? "Sometimes when things get so bad and it seems they couldn't get any worse, that's when people begin to take notice and take action to make things better," explains Cindy Levitt, one of the organizers of a recent conference called "Jewish Unity for a Just Peace."

The conference, held in Chicago in early May, brought together progressive Jewish activists urging an end to the Israeli occupation. The conference attracted nearly 200 people from across the globe, exceeding expectations and prompting a sense of optimism that the time may be ripe for a real debate about Israel among American Jews. "Now is the time for us to break the lock that a few, well-funded, narrowly focused, pro-Israel advocacy groups have maintained over Jewish public opinion on matters concerning Israel and the cause of peace," read a portion of the group's announcement.

Even as the activity of Israeli peace groups has declined in the wake of the Sharon landslide, the energy of U.S.-based groups is seemingly on the rise. "It's gratifying to see more willingness among American Jews, especially younger Jews, to criticize Israel's routine abuse of Palestinian civil rights," says Jeff Halper, professor of anthropology at Israel's Ben-Gurion University and coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

Although many of the conference organizers are longtime Jewish dissidents, the prime movers are new to politics. Levitt got involved in the struggle last fall as part of a Chicago-based group called Not In My Name, which was formed following the eruption of the new Intifada last September.

Stephen Feuerstein founded Not In My Name after watching the deployment of Israeli helicopter gunships against rock-throwing Palestinians living under occupation. "I could no longer be quiet in the face of such obvious injustice," he says. "I have decided to be as visible as possible about Israel's brutal and deadly policies." Feuerstein notes that many Jews are opposed to Israeli policies, but so few are willing to take a public stand because they've been intimidated by powerful Jewish organizations and a misguided sense of Jewish solidarity. "I think it's very important for Jews to see other Jews express opposition to the treatment of Palestinians," he says.

Perhaps if Jews themselves begin telling the story of Israel's unjust occupation, more Americans and their elected officials will start to listen.


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