If Not Now, When?: Jewish anti-occupation activism and accountability to Palestinians

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Shortly after Israel launched a brutal ground operation in Gaza last summer, a group of roughly a dozen American Jews began to organize in Brooklyn, seeking to protest Jewish communal organizations’ complicity in the violence. The group called itself “If Not Now” and rapidly gained support among left-leaning Jewish activists after hosting a series of public demonstrations outside the headquarters of the Conference of Presidents (the largest alliance of Jewish organizations in the United States) which culminated in the arrest of nine American Jewish activists for civil disobedience.

I happened to be among those who were arrested, and when the nine of us were released from jail the following day I hoped that the action – among a wave of other public demonstrations opposing the assault on Gaza – would spark a larger movement against Israel’s violence. Since then, the activism of If Not Now has marked what many of us believe to be a substantial and tragically overdue shift in public opinion on Israel. However, there are reasons to be deeply concerned that the movement is wasting a critical opportunity – and, in doing so, inadvertently maintaining Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.

After the official ceasefire from fighting in Gaza in August, the leaders of If Not Now announced that they would be transitioning “from a moment into a movement.” The organizers had collectively decided to take time to cultivate the movement’s growth and to develop a thoughtful strategy moving forward, preparing to eventually host a public action around Passover.

In preparation for the Passover action, organizers circulated a Commitment to Act, which is essentially a vaguely-worded petition to join If Not Now’s “meaningful, nonviolent, dignified public actions to make clear that we, members of the American Jewish community, are against endless occupation and committed to freedom and dignity for all Palestinians and Israelis.” A week later, If Not Now gathered more than 40 American Jewish activists outside of Jewish Federations of North America’s New York headquarters to hold an alternative Passover seder, where they proclaimed that “our liberation [as Jews] is not complete without the liberation of Palestinians.” Their “seder in the streets,” which included a haggadah supplement and the text of 18 short prayers, sought to protest the role that JFNA and other American Jewish organizations have played in supporting Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. At the end of the seder, the group brought a copy of the Commitment to Act to JFNA, once again entering the space of a Jewish communal organization to declare that “we refuse to sit comfortably as violence and occupation are waged in the name of our Jewish values.”

But even as If Not Now is re-emerging and continuing to empower many to speak out against Israel’s crimes, the movement’s statements – particularly their Commitment to Act – continue to be conspicuously vague about what those crimes actually are.

This is perhaps most evident in If Not Now’s repeated demand for “an end to endless occupation,” which refuses to define what the occupation specifically entails. Does their use of the term “occupation” recognize that the Israeli State has brutally occupied Palestinian land since the moment it was established? Does “occupation” recognize that Israel’s control over the West Bank and the ruthless blockade of Gaza? The question of defining If Not Now’s use of the term “occupation” was rightly raised by several activists during the group’s Action Planning Meeting in August – but the question was ultimately dismissed. The organizers seemed to conclude that this underlying question was irrelevant to the goal of ending the American Jewish establishment’s support for…well, “the occupation.”

What’s also disconcerting is If Not Now’s subtle endorsement of organizations which, despite officially stating otherwise, have perpetuated Israel’s oppression of Palestinians for years. While the movement’s organizers insist that If Not Now is not affiliated with any political organization, their Commitment to Act directly links to a J Street petition. This is certainly an equivocal move, not least because J Street has actively sought for years to be accepted by the same American Jewish establishment that If Not Now has attempted to target. Given J Street’s cowardly statements that failed to condemn Israel’s assault on Gaza, as well as how J Street has actively and categorically rejected BDS, they’re not an organization that If Not Now should tacitly align themselves with. By doing so, If Not Now only solidifies the concerns that some activists have expressed to me about their purpose.

Rob Bryan, an activist who participated in several of If Not Now’s public actions and organizing meetings in New York since last summer, is among those who question the movement’s effectiveness. “I always felt like the heart of If Not Now was in the right place,” Rob told me. “But I think that If Not Now runs the risk of duplicating the kind of segregation that they’re trying to end. Fighting for Palestinian liberation can involve the lessons and customs of Judaism, but it’s essential to define the occupation, embrace BDS, and forge alliances with non-Jews, especially with Palestinians, as well.”

These concerns – that certain characteristics could likely alienate non-Jews – are not just indicative of challenges that If Not Now inevitably faces in its tactics and presentation. Rather, when the movement claims to advocate for Palestinians’ civil rights, and yet fails to substantially demonstrate solidarity with Palestinian civil society, it indicates a serious problem of its purpose and goals.

Numerous progressive Jewish organizations that criticize Israeli policies already exist, some of whom, including Jewish Voice for Peace, celebrated If Not Now’s activism last summer. Recognizing the need to distinguish themselves among these pre-existing groups, If Not Now’s organizers have done so by emphasizing their clear strategy: to specifically target the American Jewish institutions which uphold “the occupation.” Stated plainly as the movement’s “theory of change,” their overall strategy is straightforward and essentially seems reasonable. In fact, it’s imperative that If Not Now continues to target the institutional power that enables Israel’s crimes, the power which has historically been held by Jewish communal organizations outside of Israel. However, the glaring problem remains that the movement has continued to tacitly support (by association) the very same organizations whose power it seeks to dismantle. Meanwhile, what’s perhaps even more problematic is that If Not Now’s organizers have managed to completely avoid publicly supporting strategic, nonviolent Palestinian resistance.

A simple chant, inspired by an aphorism of Hillel the Elder, has been echoed in every If Not Now public action since last summer: “If we are only for ourselves, then who are we?” My fear is that’s exactly what If Not Now will be: a movement that, regardless of pure intentions, only truly benefits ourselves. We are witnessing a moment in which American popular support for Israel finally appears to be wavering, where progressives are especially disillusioned by Likud’s victory in the Knesset – and are deeply disturbed by the Israeli political climate that enabled it to happen. It’s an unprecedented opportunity for American Jews to finally stand unequivocally with Palestinians in the face of the institutions which oppress them. But as long as If Not Now fails to clearly and unapologetically support the Palestinian cause, that opportunity will ultimately be wasted.

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Occupation forever! For the Jewish motherland! Antisemitism, Holocaust, etc. etc.!

The problems that exist on the left are very disconcerting. There is a lot of posturing, a lot of self-righteousness. It seems more and more that it comes down to sifting through and finding those on the left who are truly committed to justice and peace because it is the right thing to do, not simply to make themselves feel good.

I would suggest that Jewish Voice for Peace has made the most wholehearted commitment to the cause of justice for Palestinians and those who wish to live in a just and peaceful way with them: Jews who abjugate the policies of the current and past Israeli governments. JVP fully and completely supports BDS. JVP sees and acknowledges the very clear analogies among and between the oppressed of Palestine and of the United States (JVP has… Read more »