March 29, 2017
IfNotNow protesters outside the 2017 AIPAC policy conference in Washington, D.C. Photo by Ron Kampeas

It’s amazing to me that the Jewish community is making all the same mistakes with IfNotNow that it made 30 years ago with Peace Now.

Castigation, isolation, repudiation, denigration — all the same tropes and techniques, from leaders who should know better.

The no-longer-young mainstream critics of IfNotNow should know by now that their attacks, like those of the establishment on Peace Now, will produce only more youthful opposition and could very well incite violence.  It all happened before. It’s all happening again.

Last week, the campaign against IfNotNow reached a fever pitch when the group held a sit-in, first at the Los Angeles offices of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), then at the AIPAC’s national conference in Washington, D.C.

IfNotNow is a group organized in 2014 by American-Jewish 20-somethings to oppose Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its policies toward Gaza. 

Here’s how IfNotNow describes its origin story on its website: “[Y]oung Jews angered by the overwhelmingly hawkish response of American Jewish institutions came together under the banner of IfNotNow to demonstrate their resistance through the beauty of Jewish ritual. Moved to act by moral anguish and inspired by Hillel’s three questions, they organized Mourner’s Kaddish actions in nearly a dozen cities across the country and lamented the loss of both Israeli and Palestinian life. They had three demands: Stop the War on Gaza, End the Occupation, and Freedom and Dignity for All.”

What this description should tell us is that IfNotNow, like Peace Now, is very much a movement from within the Jewish community.  It is not outsiders trying to tear down Israel; it is our kids trying to save us.

Simone Zimmerman, one of the movement’s founders, made this clear in an interview with Jewish Journal reporter Eitan Arom. 

“They attack us so much because they know that we are not a minority and that we are a growing voice in the community,” said Zimmerman, who is 26. “If they didn’t see us as a growing threat, they wouldn’t feel the need to attack us. I think they know that as the occupation hits its 50th anniversary, as the Israeli government moves more and more to the right, American Jews are moving left, a lot of us, and we’re not willing to check our values at the door to maintain this pro-Israel consensus. True safety and liberation for Jews in the U.S. and in Israel actually depends not on supporting the occupation but fighting for freedom for all people.”

Thirty years ago, Peace Now entered the American-Jewish scene with a similar point of view. One difference, not incidental, is that Peace Now was founded by reserve Israeli military officers who foresaw, based on bitter experience, what moral, security, political and demographic disasters awaited Israel if it didn’t work to make a two-state solution more likely. IfNotNow is mostly American voices saying the same, but has the logic really changed?

Perhaps because Peace Now began as an Israeli movement, it didn’t feel comfortable in publicly confronting the American-Jewish establishment. IfNotNow members are energized, not intimidated, by throwing all they’ve learned in day schools, Jewish camps and Birthright trips into the faces of the folks who paid for it all.

Those folks are reacting by supporting a law in Israel that would ban activists from entering the country and by calling them names. Last week, in a Jerusalem Post op-ed, Rabbi Daniel Gordis actually singled out Zimmerman as an “enemy of the state.”  His logic was that because Zimmerman sees the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as a “legitimate, non-violent tactic” she must be a traitor.

It doesn’t matter to Gordis that Zimmerman herself, like IfNotNow, doesn’t subscribe to the BDS movement. She merely refuses to share Gordis’ exact view of it. And so — she’s out.

Sound familiar?  In the days of Peace Now, the red line was not BDS, but PLO. The establishment delegitimized Peace Now members because they dared advocate negotiating with the Palestinians. That was the establishment’s red line — talking to a terrorist who killed Jewish children and wheeled Jewish invalids into the sea. Now, mainstream Jewish leaders display photos of their visit with Yasser Arafat’s protégé, while calling anyone who refuses to condemn the boycott of Dead Sea body lotion a traitor.

Haven’t we learned that harsh language can paint a target on the backs of these protesters? It was just that rhetoric that resulted in the murder of Peace Now activist Emil Grunzweig at a Jerusalem rally in 1983. In court, the man who tossed a grenade at Grunzweig argued that right-wing activists had convinced him Peace Now followers were “traitors.” 

It’s a sign of how the occupation has twisted our communal soul that our mainstream leaders are using words once consigned to the violent extreme.

I wasn’t at the AIPAC conference, where some in the crowd jeered at the IfNotNow protesters. But I remember vividly being jeered at decades ago at Peace Now rallies. I can tell you that being spat on doesn’t make you any less wedded to your convictions.   

I’m that strange Jew who believes we are a stronger community — and Israel is stronger — because IfNotNow, Peace Now, AIPAC and organizations on the right, such as the Zionist Organization of America, thrive. The truth doesn’t reside with any single one of them, and even those ideas we once thought of as fixed shift and evolve. What if instead of constantly looking for ways to march people out, we worked just as hard on bringing them in?

ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism
and @RobEshman.

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