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Jewish American peace activists interrupt High Holidays with protest

#IfNotNow activists demonstrate in front of a Jewish Federations of North America office. (YouTube / Fromuth Productions)

#IfNotNow activists demonstrate in front of a Jewish Federations of North America office. (YouTube / Fromuth Productions)

This week, demonstrators in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., brought the High Holidays to the Jewish Federations of North America — one of the largest Jewish organizations supporting Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestine. These series of actions were part of another wave of activity by the group If Not Now, When?, as it seeks to build a new narrative around American Jewish identity in relation to the occupation.

Pele Irgangladen, an organizer of the #IfNotNow action in Philadelphia on Tuesday, explained the moment out of which the group emerged: “A lot of Jews — a lot of young Jews — don’t see how Israel can continue to do the things that it’s doing in the name of the Jewish people. For it to continue with … bombings, with occupations, with blockades — none of those things are Jewish.”

Tashlich, meaning “cast” in Hebrew, is a centuries-old Jewish ceremony traditionally performed on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, which marks a new year on the Hebrew calendar, and Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. Participants throw a small parcel — typically bread — into a body of water as a means of casting away and symbolically repenting for the sins of the past year.

#IfNotNow sprung up this summer during the most recent war in Gaza. Taking their name from Rabbi Hillel’s three questions, the group held similar religiously themed actions — including civil disobedience — outside of prominent Jewish institutions in New York that quickly spread elsewhere. Like those actions, this week’s #TashlichInterrupted demonstrations injected a distinctly political character and tone of mourning into Jewish tradition — participants wore black, instead of the ceremonial white, to symbolize the impurity of the Jewish soul.

Protesters cast dirt for their own sins of silence and complicity with the occupation. They then called on Jewish Federations of North America to end its own active support of the occupation as a leading representative of American Jews. As Irgangladen put it, “This year has been a particularly bloody year at the hands of Jewish weapons, and we need to think about that.”

Created by former J Street staffers and Occupy organizers, the group creates a broad platform for Jews of all backgrounds, ideologies and relationships to Israel to come together and speak out publicly against the occupation. Sarah Giskin, a participant in Tuesday’s action and student at Temple University, said, “For a long time I felt like I was alone as an anti-Zionist Jew in my community … It makes you feel like you can’t really be Jewish anymore. I didn’t know there were other people who felt the same way as me.”

After a period of intense growth over the summer, organizers will figure out how to absorb the season’s momentum into the coming year; the war that sparked #IfNotNow into existence may be over, but the occupation continues. Next, the group will host a series of Shabbat dinners in cities across the country as a means of building Jewish community amongst members and charting paths forward.