Birthright got what it wanted — American Jews who care about Israel.
Encouraging young American Jews to take an interest in the affairs of the Jewish state brought 17 of them on Tuesday to walk into the lobby of the Anti-Defamation League’s offices in New York City, prepare a seder on the marble floor, start dancing and singing Hebrew songs of resistance and solidarity and then calmly, still singing, feel a police officer cinch flex cuffs around their wrists and lead them back outside, take down their names — a permanent arrest record for criminal trespass — and take them to jail.
“They’ll say 17 of us were arrested today but it’s really 18. The 18th is Elijah!” Thomas Corcoran, 25, shouted to me as he sat in a police van on 40th street outside the office building housing the ADL headquarters.
Corcoran is a member of If Not Now, a growing group of young American Jews who feel the military occupation of Palestinian land by Israel is an injustice worth getting arrested over.
Moments before, Becky Havivi, 24, another IfNotNow member, told me she thought the seder had been a success.
“Our tradition tells us to ask questions, that’s what Passover is all about. It’s a tradition of liberation against oppression and that’s what my Judaism is,” Becky Havivi, 24, told me just before a member of the NYPD Strategic Response Group walked her into a waiting police van.
“Dayenu” (“That’s enough”) is one of the refrains of these protesters against the injustice and cruelty they see Israel perpetrate against Palestinians and Israelis alike.
“When Birthright Israel encouraged us to identify with IDF soldiers and hid the pain of the Occupation from us — We should have said enough,” they said together, dozens of IfNotNow members and supporters sitting and standing in the lobby as security guards guided office workers around the protesters.
From what I understand, through sources, Birthright Israel chaperons encourage Americans aged 19-26 to identify as much and however they wanted, more or less wherever they wanted, with these tanned, fit, charming IDF soldiers — there to protect you from the terrorists. The charm, it seems, has worn off.
“When we saw 18,000 Jews at the AIPAC conference applaud Trump, a racist demagogue, simply because he promised to support and defend Israel,” one spoke, before the response.
“We should have said enough.”
Some IfNotNow members are also ardent Bernie Sanders backers. They’ve campaigned for him alongside Palestinian and Muslim American fans of the Sanders, the only candidate who has made a forceful and believable critique of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and siege of Gaza. It is a position that has not helped him win Jewish voters, who have broken for Hillary or even a few for Trump himself, a man who can count actual, tow-headed crank-addled Nazis among his most loyal followers.
“When we saw propaganda and fear overtake the Jewish tradition of question and analysis — We should have said enough!” They repeated together.
Not to single out Birthright as the biggest problem with the relationship between the U.S. and Israel, but what they’re saying here really matters. It shows the problem with traditional models of propaganda and hasbara in this age where young people form an international web of cyborgs capable of transmitting and receiving snippets of conscious experience from around the world instantaneously. You know, the Internet. You’re using it right now.
It allows people to share and build communities like never before, and it makes Israel closer than ever to American Jews. Like billions of other people, they’re able to appreciate the conscious experience of Palestinians in a way their parents’ generation cannot control, or even really fathom. The notion in their words is clear. They feel their parents generation failed to stop Israel from committing the kinds of atrocities that draws shame and condemnation worldwide.
“The out-of-touch leadership of the American Jewish establishment tells us that our values are incompatible with our tradition. They tell us that our commitment to justice must not extend beyond our shores,” one member read.
“We understand how trauma has caused some in our community to interpret history to mean that the world is against us. But we interpret our past differently — as a lesson that our freedom cannot be achieved absent the freedom of our neighbors,” she concluded.
Birthright should be proud of these young American Jews, who have taken an interest in the future of Israelis and Palestinians. But Birthright should have known that they couldn’t quarantine information from everyone, even those who fell in love with Israel during their visit.
Those people can see the bodies of ripped apart Gazan children dead on a beach just as easily as they can see pictures they took at the shore of Dead Sea, smiling wide in faces covered in blue/black mud — literally in the same Facebook feed. Only a person who does not think critically could allow those two images, those two fragments of conscious thought and feeling, to sit side by side in their mind and not wonder if their happiness existed unjustly alongside the suffering of strangers. To wonder, in other words, “If I am only for myself, who am I?”