The recent AIPAC annual conference brought with it the largest ever Jewish presence in protest. A group of more than a thousand young Jewish protesters were led by IfNotNow, an anti-occupation group that garnered attention last year when one of its members, Simone Zimmerman, was fired by the Sanders presidential campaign. Since then, IfNotNow has remained active in the Israel-Palestine scene, gathering more support from young Jews with each action. The latest protest at AIPAC was the culmination of its efforts.
A great deal of the attention IfNotNow has been gaining has to do with two interrelated issues: its ability to mobilize Jewish youth against the occupation; and its approach to the usual questions pertaining to Israel-Palestine. The formulation with which IfNotNow addresses those two concerns is straightforward. It is against the American Jewish establishment’s support of the occupation. All other matters that relate to Israel-Palestine (the Palestinian right of return, for example) are explicitly beyond its consideration, and garner neither praise nor condemnation on its part.
This extremely flexible arrangement is the source of IfNotNow’s large membership. It allocates space for both liberal Zionists who find their place in J Street, non-Zionists who are best represented by Jewish Voice for Peace, and anyone else in-between. Unlike other groups, participation in IfNotNow does not depend on whether one sees the occupation as a perversion of an otherwise ideal Israel, or as another iteration of Israel’s colonial nature. Disliking the occupation is all that matters. This is how IfNotNow made possible the largest ever Jewish presence against AIPAC.
Nevertheless, IfNotNow’s versatility lends itself only to matters of ideology. While it advocates for an end of the Israeli occupation from which Palestinians mainly suffer, Palestinian involvement is minor, and formal relationship and coordination between IfNotNow and Palestinian groups is virtually non-existent. This doesn’t preclude that IfNotNow members may individually engage with Palestinians. But IfNotNow itself, as a whole, has not made a substantial effort on that front.
The reasons behind this are understandable. The American Jewish establishment has so far tended to treat its support for the occupation as an item for internal discussion within the community. It is far easier for IfNotNow’s members to approach other Jews on those grounds than it would be to talk to them as one part of a conglomerate of Palestinian rights advocates who, mostly, are outsiders to the community.
So far this has proven true. IfNotNow’s relatively large size denies the American Jewish establishment the chance to dismiss it as a fringe group of the Jewish community, as it does with Jewish Voice for Peace. And the fact that it is made up only of members of the Jewish community makes it difficult for the same establishment to ignore IfNotNow’s demands as outside pressure. IfNotNow’s target audience has no option but to acknowledge their presence as a result.
However, it is precisely the lack of association with Palestinians that makes me and many other Palestinian organizers in North America feel uneasy about IfNotNow. It is simply disingenuous to push for the well-being of Palestinians without formally including them in some way.
IfNotNow’s leaders are involved enough for them to be aware of this issue. It is easy to see why they would want to continue adopting their current approach given how cautious their target audience is with external pressure. But IfNotNow must soon realize that challenging the American Jewish establishment’s apprehensive attitude towards Palestinians is, in fact, part of its overall objective of challenging their support for the occupation. Not doing so will risk alienating the very people for whom IfNotNow advocates, and undermining its effect in the long run. As I write this, and to its credit, IfNotNow seems to be recognizing this hurdle.
But there are other concerns. IfNotNow’s flexibility on matters other than the occupation invokes similar caution. It dices up the elements of Palestinian liberation as most Palestinians tend to identify them: an end to the occupation; an implementation of the right of return; and equality between Israelis and Palestinians. Most advocates of Palestinian rights have so far taken these goals as one package. IfNotNow treats these them as separate conversations to be had later. In doing so, it grants validity to the idea that they are more minor, a view with which most Palestinians would not agree.
Still, it cannot be denied that, as things stand, IfNotNow carries an overwhelmingly positive affect on the conversation surrounding Palestinian rights within the Jewish community, and that it is doing so because of its narrow focus. Yet, for IfNotNow to remain true to its ideal of Palestinian liberation, and to continue salvaging the greatest value from its effort, it has to constantly adapt to the changing level of support the American Jewish establishment harbors for Israel’s occupation. As this support hopefully wanes and the occupation becomes less and less of a taboo subject, IfNotNow must be ready to raise other issues pertaining to Palestinian rights into the conversation.
The first step in that process is to not guide members away from discussing other elements of Palestinian liberation amongst themselves, but to encourage them to do so and to create the space for those questions. The hope is that the individuals within IfNotNow – be they Liberal Zionists, anti-Zionists, or anything else in between – would be able to reach some sort of consensus on those elements and how to approach them. For these discussions to break new ground, they will have to happen with some degree of meaningful Palestinian input.
IfNotNow is a very effective group. It has managed to ignite a stagnant conversation within the American Jewish community. For myself and many other Palestinians, their work is a cause for refreshing optimism. But it would be wrong to assume that they are without blemish. To succeed, and to succeed well, IfNotNow should begin talking to Palestinians, not in a way that takes away from their potency as an anti-occupation group working within the Jewish community, but in a manner that guides it.