Outside the New York office of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) on April 4, the anti-occupation network If Not Now called out the Jewish “liberal” establishment’s resounding silence regarding the murder of seventeen Palestinian young men by Israeli snipers less than a week ago.
Roughly seventy five members of If Not Now and a smattering of non-members and supporters marched across Lexington Avenue to 633 Third Ave, the location of URJ’s office.
The killings occurred just as Passover was beginning last Friday. Gabriel Briel Lehrman, an If Not Now New York spokesperson explained what he saw as an explicit connection with Passover.
While “the protest in Gaza was happening and when the protesters were being killed, I was preparing for my own Passover Seder,” Briel Lehrman told Mondoweiss. It resonated because Israel was shooting live ammunition at a population under its bondage, “while I was happening to celebrate this time of becoming liberated and celebrating this time for freedom.”
The simultaneous occurrences — a celebration of liberation while violently quelling that of another people’s — reeked of hypocrisy, made all the greater to Jewish critics of Israel. The people of Gaza have been bound and blockaded by the Jewish state for eleven years and made refugees before that.
When counter-protesters with the Jewish Defense League tried shaming the activists by yelling “six million” repeatedly, a reference to the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust, If Not Now member Emily Mayer rebuked.
“We don’t need to be reminded of the legacy of our people,” Mayer said to cheers. “The legacy of our people is right here with us. The legacy of our people is on the side of justice, on the side of standing up for justice and all other people.”
Emma Saltzberg, an organizer with If Not Now, shared her recent experience in the occupied West Bank as part of a group delegation in tandem with Youth Against Settlements and All That’s Left: Anti-Occupation Collective, both active on the ground in Palestine.
Guided by Israeli dissident ex-IDF group Breaking the Silence, Saltzberg’s delegation witnessed Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank and one of the starkest examples of Israeli brutality.
Shuhada Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, was closed down by Israel in 1994 after Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli settler from Brooklyn, massacred 29 people and injured another 125 during prayers in Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque.
The once lively street is today “sterilized,” Saltzberg explained, as Palestinians are strictly prohibited from walking on it. Instead, they must climb through windows or go circuitous back ways simply to leave their homes.
“The only people we saw on the street on that day were other Breaking the Silence groups,” Saltzberg said. “And Israeli Settlers.”
At this point, Saltzberg’s voice became lost in shouts from the roughly ten members of the Jewish Defense League.
Apart from the usual claims of “lies”, “anti-semites” and Holocaust references, Wednesday’s action was interesting in that the JDL added some new tunes its repertoire. When they interrupted Saltzberg, it was with the chant “Not another nickel, not another dime. No more money for Gaza’s crimes.” This probably sounds familiar to those in the anti-occupation and Palestinian solidarity movement. In fact, the JDL had appropriated a common anti-occupation chant, but replaced “Israel” with “Gaza”.
It wasn’t long before Saltzberg turned up the megaphone and the counter-protesters were once again a distant nuisance.
Saltzberg described a moving incident that occurred while in Hebron. When the call to prayer, or Adhan as is its proper Arabic name, began at a city mosque one evening, it was immediately apparent this was the only audible sound.
“It shouldn’t have been that loud. We should have heard so many other sounds. We should have heard merchants and people people gossiping and talking and living their lives,” she lamented. “But we couldn’t, because Hebron is occupied.”
Last Friday, Israel committed what many have called a massacre during what were explicitly peaceful protests in Gaza commemorating the forty-second annual Land Day and asserting the Palestinian right of return. Israel used indiscriminate force on demonstrators, injuring more than 1,400 in addition to the seventeen killed, making it the single deadliest day in Gaza since Israel’s 2014 siege on the 140 square mile strip.
After the smoke cleared, the next disappointment and spark to action came when few Jewish institutions offered slight sadness over the loss of life, never mind a condemnation. “Progressive” Jewish institutions like the New Israel Fund, Open Hillel and of course, the Union for Reform Judaism, remain silent today.
J Street issued a middle of the road condemnation not just of Israel; instead, spread the blame around between Israel, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority ad Egypt.
“It was painful for this group that I care about deeply, for the most part, to not speak out against what I thought was a really reprehensible act,” said Briel Lehrman, who considers the larger Jewish community his family.
Although If Not Now does not take a stance on the right of return, “which I know is what the protesters were protesting for,” Lehrman added that “what we really care about is that these protesters have the right to speak their truth.”
Rivka S. Mitnik-Kostanyan, a member of If Not Now, recited the 10 Plagues of Occupation — an adaptation of the plagues in the Passover story.
The plagues, Mitnik-Kostanyan read aloud, consist of “settlements and land dispossession; restriction of movement and checkpoints; curfews; imprisonment; systems of segregation; extrajudicial killings, surveillance; desecration of religions; massacres and inter-communal violence; and the killing of those standing up to oppression.”
While the group collectively recited the Mourner’s Kaddish for the seventeen slain Palestinians and recited each of their names, the JDL once again showed its base character.
In unison, JDL members yelled “seventeen more, seventeen more” repeatedly.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who signed into law an anti-BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) executive order almost two years ago, has an office in the same building as the URJ, but If Not Now’s criticism remained with the URJ. If Not Now does not endorse BDS.