Anti-Israeli occupation group struggles to reconcile movement building and allyship

    IfNotNow promises to be a central player in the American anti-occupation campaign, but can it do so without Palestinian allyship?
    Liberation Sedar protestor outside the office of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on April 19, 2016. (Normal / Leonardo March)
    A Liberation Seder protester outside the office of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Boston on April 19, 2016. (Normal/Leonardo March)

    The security guard didn’t look angry, but instead bemused. A hundred or so young Jews — replete with skinny jeans and matching white t-shirts — circled his desk, hand-in-hand, singing. They’d come to the glass-enclosed lobby of a high rise in midtown Manhattan to protest one of its tenants: the Anti-Defamation League, a pro-Israel Jewish organization.

    They’d also come to celebrate the holiday of Passover, drawing a parallel between the Jewish exodus from Egypt and the liberation of Palestinians in the occupied territories. An air of unabashed jubilance, on account of the festivity, seemed to cause the guard some discomfort. Mere demonstrators, he may have encountered before. These Jewish 20-somethings, however, began to dance.

    Soon enough the cops arrived, arrests were made, and the crowd dispersed.

    The event — equal parts direct action and religious ritual — was one in a series of “Liberation Seders” held on April 20 by IfNotNow, an organization of young Jews who oppose the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The protests occurred in five cities, each one at the office of a conservative Jewish institution — like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, or the Jewish Federation — that IfNotNow deems responsible for preserving American Jewish support of an unjust status quo.

    IfNotNow’s strategy is simple: force American Jewish institutions to oppose Israel’s occupation by turning public opinion against them. It has organized trainings and direct actions that build membership and spread the word. By emphasizing the reform, and thereby redemption, of the American Jewish community, the group has attracted first-time activists struggling to reconcile progressive politics with the support for Israel common among their parents and grandparents. The organization has drawn criticism, however, for its lack of partnerships with Palestinian advocates and its unwillingness to support the boycott, divestment, and sanctions, or BDS, movement that is being mobilized by such advocates.

    The varied responses to IfNotNow stem from the contradictory demands of allyship and movement building. If the group serves as a gateway for radicalizing young Jews, it will prove a boon for America’s pro-Palestine left. But by insulating itself and sustaining moderate positions, the organization risks misalignment between its priorities and those of the Palestinians themselves.

    A broad-based, multifaceted campaign is vital for bringing the Israeli occupation to an end. So too, however, is a unified movement that foregrounds the Palestinian struggle. IfNotNow exemplifies the difficult choice between the two.

    A moment of crisis

    “IfNotNow emerged out of a moment of crisis,” said Naomi Dann, an activist who participated in the group’s initial protests in New York City during the summer of 2014 when violence erupted between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

    Dann is a spokeswoman for a different anti-occupation organization called Jewish Voice for Peace but consults regularly with members of IfNotNow. “A lot of people were distraught at the horrible things that were going on in Gaza at the time and were alienated by the way that the Jewish community rallied around Israel’s disproportionate use of force,” Dann explained. That disproportionate force resulted in the death of at least 1,500 Palestinian civilians and just six Israelis, according to estimates from the United Nations and Human Rights Watch.

    As Dann notes, the largest organizations of American Jews, like AIPAC and Hillel International, backed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s military campaign. Even the left-leaning lobbying group J Street released a statement that spared Netanyahu criticism. On the other end of the spectrum, far-left groups like Jewish Voice for Peace held solidarity demonstrations with Palestinian-American organizations denouncing Israel’s violence as yet another, if particularly egregious, example of the country’s imperial overreach.

    Falling between these poles, IfNotNow offered an outlet for young Jews who wanted to target both the Israeli government and its American Jewish backers with a critical but hopeful message: Jews can do better. “[IfNotNow members] are people who care about organized Jewish community enough to want to challenge it,” said Peter Beinart, a journalist and professor at City University of New York. The protests quickly spread to neighboring cities, including Washington D.C. “It naturally decentralized,” said Sarah Brammer-Shlay, a founding member of IfNotNow’s Washington, D.C. affiliate. “We saw what was going on [in New York] and we wanted to replicate it.”

    Brammer-Shlay was born in Minneapolis but her parents met in Israel, where she has spent an extended period. “Supporting Israel was a big part of what it meant to be Jewish,” she recalled of her youth. It wasn’t until college that she befriended a Palestinian-American classmate who first exposed her to an alternative narrative of the conflict. She remembers how the classmate’s irreconcilable perspective made her feel “at odds with [her] Jewish identity,” causing her to seek an end not only to the Israeli occupation but to the Jewish community’s support for it. Many IfNotNow members share Brammer-Shlay’s upbringing in uniformly pro-Israel communities and her subsequent disillusionment. “My story is not unique,” she admitted.

    The group’s name embodies its commitment to criticizing Jewish institutions on the religion’s own terms. It originates from the last of three questions posed by Rabbi Hillel in a millennia-old collection of Judaism’s ethical teachings: “If I am not for myself, who is? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

    Despite the urgency indicated by its name, IfNotNow soon realized it could not sustain the initial burst of outrage inspired by the Gaza war. It needed organizational structure, funding and a membership base. The group held planning meetings and raised enough money — through online crowdfunding and other donations — to hire three full-time staff members. Over the ensuing months, it held a series of weekend-long trainings, which reached approximately 300 people in cities from San Francisco to Boston. Adopting an organizational model akin to that of Occupy Wall Street, the group is non-hierarchical and decentralized.

    This year’s Liberation Seders marked IfNotNow’s return from hibernation. With over 500 protesters risking arrests, the demonstrations garnered coverage in American Jewish outlets like the The Forward and Israeli ones like Haaretz. The institution targeted by the New York City protest, the American Defamation League, even tweeted an offer to meet with representatives of IfNotNow. The group declined in an article penned by one of its members, Ethan Miller, who cited “a chasm that cannot be bridged by a few meetings and press photo-ops.” The snub brought condescension from the right but applause from IfNotNow members and like-minded groups.

    “We are extremely excited about how the Liberation Seders went,” said Brammer-Shlay. “We’re going to move forward with the momentum we’ve built from that.”

    A daunting and narrow task

    The group’s excitement appears well founded. In just two years, it has developed a network of self-sustaining chapters in several cities across the country. More chapters are on the way, as well, with one forming in Philadelphia and another in Los Angeles. Each chapter meets every five or six weeks for what the group calls “hive meetings,” which are “devoted to community-building, group reflection and action-planning,” according to an outreach email.

    “[IfNotNow] is forming a new Jewish communal space, and that’s an incredible achievement,” says Julia Carmel, who participated in the group’s initial protests in 2014.

    Survey data suggests that that new community has room to grow. A 2013 Pew poll found that 70 percent of Jews age 18-29 believed that Israelis and Palestinians could coexist peacefully, while just 26 percent thought the Israeli government was making a sincere effort to do so. A full 50 percent, meanwhile, believed that Israeli settlement building was hurting Israel’s security, while just 11 percent thought it was helping. Since 2013, the anti-occupation fervor among young Jews has likely become even more pronounced after the 2014 Gaza war and the ascendance of Jewish presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who has sharply criticized Israel.

    “[IfNotNow] has a certain kind of generational self-expression,” described Beinart. But that expression has its limits. The same Pew poll found that just 18 percent of young Jews felt the Palestinian leadership was making sincere efforts to achieve peace.

    That residual wariness about Palestinian attitudes toward the conflict may explain IfNotNow’s reluctance to participate in solidarity actions with Palestinian and Palestinian-American groups.

    “There are [Jewish] groups, like Jewish Voice for Peace, that do better movement building with people coming at the issue from the Palestinian, anti-Islamophobia side of things,” said Clare Maxwell, a spokeswoman with the Palestine Advocacy Project. Dann, the spokeswoman with Jewish Voice for Peace, echoed the sentiment, saying IfNotNow “could do a better job of having relationships with and being accountable to the voices of Palestinians on the ground in Gaza or the West Bank, but also Palestinian activists leading the fight internationally and here in the United States.”

    Dann cites Jewish Voice for Peace’s support for BDS as an example of its “following the lead of Palestinian activists and responding to their very concrete call for solidarity.” IfNotNow has not taken a position on BDS, which Dann considers an effort by the group “to bring in people who aren’t ready to make that commitment.”

    Rob Bryan, a participant in IfNotNow’s early protests and planning meetings, says he spoke up about the group’s lack of partnerships with and involvement from Palestinians. “It didn’t seem to get much traction,” he recounted. He soon discovered that one of the group’s primary objectives was to “give American Jews from somewhat religious or conservative backgrounds the courage to … come out to their parents about how they felt about Israel and the occupation.”

    In this sense, IfNotNow serves as a support network helping young Jews broach Israel-Palestine with family and friends who may consider their anti-occupation advocacy nothing short of betrayal. “The representatives of this [establishment] community are the people we love the most, our grandparents, our ancestors,” said Carmel, the former IfNotNow member. She considers the generational conflict within the American Jewish community a “secondary trauma” that follows from the primary trauma of the occupation.

    This secondary trauma can be overwhelming for some, but Carmel said that, “in order to overcome that victimhood or secondary oppression, we need to ally with the people who are primarily being oppressed,” referring, of course, to the Palestinians.

    For its part, IfNotNow lauds Jewish Voice for Peace and other Jewish organizations that do Palestinian solidarity work. “There are a lot of groups that are doing it, explicitly, really well,” said Brammer-Shlay. “What we’re trying to do is change the American Jewish community.”

    “Their goal is to be a popular movement,” observed Dann. “To pick positions that are within reach.”

    The perspective aligns with IfNotNow’s recognition of what Brammer-Shlay described as “movement ecology” in which “different groups that are doing anti-occupation work are taking different approaches to doing it.” She acknowledged, for instance, that American Jewish institutions are “not the only thing that upholds the occupation.”

    “This is an issue that’s going to take a multiplicity of different strategies, approaches, and people to create the kind of change that’s necessary,” affirmed Dann. “IfNotNow’s strategy is to target the Jewish American public and end the Jewish American community’s support for the occupation. That’s a big daunting task and it’s also a fairly narrow task.”

    In a political landscape where specious peace talks seem to begin, end, and resurface every few months, IfNotNow has a refreshingly concrete aspiration. But it’s also an objective, some critics argue, that mimics the pro-Israel right’s tendency to privilege Jewish voices in the Israel-Palestine debate. “Israel does not now, and indeed never did, speak for all Jews,” Palestinian scholar-activist Nada Elia wrote for Mondoweiss. “It is time we put an end to that myth by putting an end to the celebration of Jewish voices denouncing Zionism as ‘exceptional,’ or ‘heroic.’ They belong with all other such voices, and must magnify, rather than occupy, the Palestinian narrative.”

    Elia articulates the notion of allyship, in which those who aren’t directly affected by a particular form of oppression play a supporting role for those who are. When I brought up the significance of allyship to Bryan, he said it seemed “like almost too obvious a point to mention but maybe it needs reinforcing.”

    Bridging the divide

    For IfNotNow the dueling needs of allyship and movement building seem, at bottom, irreconcilable. Former members of the group, like Carmel and Bryan, said they respect the group’s leadership but simply disagree with its tactics. They prefer groups, such as Jewish Voice for Peace, that align with Palestinians. Other young Jews, like Brammer-Shlay, are grateful for a political space that allows them to shift away from the pro-Israel views of their parents and friends, while not disavowing the community ties altogether. If it continues to energize young Jews, IfNotNow will expand and therefore strengthen the anti-occupation movement in the United States.

    For some advocates, such ends may not justify the means. Activists like Elia suggest that the value of allyship is so sacrosanct that the benefits of movement building do not outweigh the sidelining of Palestinian voices. This isn’t a frustration shared by Jewish Voice for Peace.

    “There is a lot of opportunity to build a movement together,” said Dann, speaking of potential partnerships between Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow. Allying with Jewish groups that themselves ally with Palestinians may bring IfNotNow further left. Brammer-Shlay said the coming months at IfNotNow will bring trainings for new members and planning meetings to decide next steps.

    Whether it chooses to pivot toward allyship or double down on movement building, IfNotNow promises to be a central player in the American anti-occupation campaign for years to come.

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