November 16, 2018

IfNotNow issues Chanukah ultimatum to Jewish Federations over Trump appointments

As soon as Zach Siegel lit two candles on the first night of Chanukah, the wind blew them out.

“It’s challenging out here today,” said Jonah Breslau, 24, an organizer with the progressive Jewish group IfNotNow. “But the miracle of Chanukah still stands.

“We have to work for the miracle!” Tali Stein, 29, shouted back from the semicircle of onlookers standing on the sidewalk, some holding signs.

A dozen young Jews gathered on Wilshire Boulevard outside The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles Dec. 24 to urge the organization to condemn controversial appointments by the incoming presidential administration, namely Steve Bannon, as chief strategist and senior counselor to President-elect Donald Trump, and David Friedman as U.S. ambassador to Israel.

“We’ve issued an ultimatum nationally that if the Jewish Federations of North America don’t release a statement condemning the appointment of Bannon that we’ll escalate our protest nationwide,” Breslau told the Journal.

Breslau said the group planned to light candles outside the Los Angeles Federation on each of the eight nights of Chanukah.

Immediate attempts to reach Federation officials for comment were unsuccessful.

Siegel, 24, produced hot chocolate to bolster the small crowd against the cold night.

Two college seniors from Wesleyan University hoisted a banner that read “FREEDOM & DIGNITY FOR ALL,” an IfNotNow slogan.

IfNotNow, a national network of progressive Jews, has taken an openly confrontational stance establishment Jewish groups. It emerged during Israel’s 2014 incursion into Gaza, when it read the Mourner’s Kaddish for Palestinian victims in front of major Jewish organizations nationwide.

This year, it turned its ire towards the incoming Donald Trump administration. On Dec. 4, it held a protest outside of Breitbart News headquarters, just a few blocks away from the Los Angeles Federation, to protest Bannon, who was previously the CEO of the conservative news website known for its provocative headlines and which Bannon once called a “platform for the alt-right.”

The group’s ascendance is seen as evidence of a split between older and younger Jews. In October, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, which is affiliated with the local Federation, refused to disburse $5,000 to IfNotNow in spite of a donor’s recommendation, citing the group’s “disruptive tactics.”

“You managed to find words for the press on our tactics, but as for Bannon, you still remained silent,” Stein said into a megaphone on Dec. 24, reading from a statement as Siegel struggled to keep the candles lit.

The Chanukah action brings the group into direct confrontation with the Federations, both locally and nationally.

“You claim to lead the community in accordance with Jewish values, but your silence is the opposite of leadership,” Stein read. “It is not neutrality, but complacency and fear.”

She repeated the ultimatum that the group released on its Facebook page on Dec. 15.

“You have eight nights to step up and speak out against Bannon, Friedman, and the bigotry of the Trump administration,” she said. “You have eight nights to show us: Which side are you on?”

Following the earlier Dec. 4 protest, Jay Sanderson, Federation CEO and president, wrote in a statement to the Journal, “For over 104 years, our Federation has worked tirelessly to support and sustain our Jewish community and to build a strong and vibrant Jewish community for future generations. We make an important statement every day through our essential work locally, nationally and globally.”

On Dec. 24, the protestors sang along to Chanukah songs on the empty pavement with the traffic on Wilshire as their audience. Occasionally, a car honked as it zoomed by. Across the street, the lights of a Christmas tree in the glassed-in lobby of an office tower glimmered in their reflection in the ground-floor windows of the Federation, abandoned on Christmas Eve.

“Hopefully, they’ll release a statement tomorrow and we can call it quits,” Breslau said as the protest wrapped up. “But somehow I feel like that’s not gonna happen.”

Siegel considered that possibility.

“That would be nice,” he admitted, his hands stuffed into his jacket pockets against the cold. He looked at the crowd, now beginning to disburse. “But I can’t imagine people I’d rather spend Chanukah with then the IfNotNow folks.”