In the summer of 2014, Israel and Gaza were locked in the brutal conflict called Operation Protective Edge. The fighting was bitter, the casualties horrifically high on both sides. Most Israelis that I knew were horrified by the number of casualties in Gaza (though the numbers of dead noncombatant civilians proved much smaller than many thought), but were also keenly aware that Operation Protective Edge was, in many ways, nothing more than the latest battle of the War of Independence.
Almost all of Israel’s wars have been about Israel’s right to be; battles with Hamas, which remains sworn on Israel’s destruction even as it quietly negotiates a cease-fire, are no different. Israelis that summer were pained but determined, exhausted but resilient. Those are the difficult balances that life in our region mandates.
Across the ocean, even as the conflict was raging, a group of young, mostly postcollege American Jews founded an organization called IfNotNow. As they told their own story on their website (the language of the website has since changed, but I’ve kept screen shots), they created their organization “during the violence of Operation Protective Edge in 2014” and “had three demands: stop the war on Gaza, end the occupation, and freedom and dignity for all.”
On the surface, it sounded like fairly standard fare from American Jewish progressives, but upon closer examination, it wasn’t. The fact that there was also a Hamas-led war on Israel was nowhere mentioned on their site. Perhaps even more important than that not-so-minor omission, though, was their noting: “We do not take a unified stance... on Zionism or the question of statehood.” Not only were these young American Jews unwilling to acknowledge that Israelis, too, were dying, and that Hamas was engaged in a war on Israel, they were even unwilling to state that they at least endorsed the idea of a Jewish state.
Anyone who was tempted to think of IfNotNow as nothing but a minor annoyance has since had cause to reconsider. Masters of high-profile disruptive tactics, like chaining themselves to the doors of the 2017 AIPAC policy conference or meeting Birthright participants about to fly to Israel at the airport, trying to disabuse them of the idea that Birthright will show them the “real” Israel, they have gotten more traction than many observers might have expected. Not long ago, they were the subject of a major article in New York magazine, a bit of a coup for a group of young people who know what they’re against but have no clue what they actually support.
In the past several weeks, IfNotNow released (on its website) a 35-page manifesto of sorts, titled “Five Ways the American Jewish Establishment Supports the Occupation.” Though the lengthy document assails Israel’s violation of Palestinian rights and the American Jewish establishment’s ostensible support of those violations, this report, like INN’s original website, is no less noteworthy for what it does not mention as for what it does say. The report contains pages upon pages that itemize the injustice of the occupation and the five major ways that the American Jewish establishment funds and supports it. Nowhere, though, not in any one place, does the report detail decades of Palestinian violence against Israel, Gazans’ decision in 2006 to elect Hamas after Israel departed the strip in 2005, the thousands of rockets Hamas has fired – and continues to fire – at Israeli towns, the fact that playgrounds in Israel around Gaza are constructed with bomb shelters under seesaws and slides. In other words, nothing about the Israeli reality that Hamas has created.
How should Israel end the occupation, if Hamas insists that it wants to destroy Israel? On that small matter, IfNotNow does not seem to have an opinion. Even the New York magazine article noted that when asked what they actually suggest, they “deliberately refus[e] to answer some of the most pressing questions about political tactics... proudly avoiding any actual policy proposals for a resolution of the world’s most intractable conflict.”
Read the IfNotNow report, and you can only conclude (unless you’ve actually read a newspaper here or there) that the occupation is entirely Israel’s fault. Israel started it for no good reason, apparently, and the only reason it hasn’t ended is that Israel does not want it to and American Jewish organizations support it. In short, the fault lies with the Jews.
IN THAT worldview, IfNotNow is in good company. (It seems, of course, to have forgotten the “If I am not for myself, who am I?” part of Hillel’s quote.) Not long ago, readers may recall, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas actually blamed the Jews for the Holocaust. Yes, you read that correctly. It was our fault. “From the 11th century until the Holocaust that took place in Germany, those Jews – who moved to Western and Eastern Europe – were subjected to a massacre every 10 to 15 years,” he said. “But why did this happen? They say ‘it is because we are Jews.’” Abbas went on to claim that the Holocaust was not the result of antisemitism but, rather, of the Jews’ “social behavior, [charging] interest, and financial matters.” Yes, ironic though it may be, there was the Muslim PA president invoking centuries-old Christian theology to blame the Jews for their own suffering.
It was subtler, but US President Donald Trump did exactly the same thing after the horrifying display of violent Jew-hatred (once the province of Europe, but now shared by America) in Pittsburgh this past weekend.
“If they had protection inside, the results would have been far better,” Trump said. “If they had some kind of protection within the temple, it could have been a much better situation. They didn’t.” The Jews died because the Jews didn’t defend themselves. The Jews died because of the Jews.
There is no secret as to why Abbas said what he did – beginning with his doctoral dissertation, he has a lifelong record of Holocaust denial. It’s also not that hard to intuit why Trump said what he did. Mellifluous subtlety is not precisely his strong suit, and, of course, this is also the president who pretended he did not know who David Duke is, who put Steven Bannon in a central position in his administration, and after Charlottesville said that there were good people on both sides. No surprises here.
But why would IfNotNow consciously adopt a narrative that exonerates the Palestinians, attributing no responsibility for any of the conflict to them? Surely these young women and men, many of them graduates of America’s finest universities, know better, do they not? Would one-sidedness of this sort have earned them a passing grade at any of the schools they attended? I know more than a few of them, and I believe that they believe that they are well-intentioned. But telling a narrative about the occupation that omits the question of how it started or the fact that Palestinians are still sworn on Israel’s destruction is to spin a narrative which can only utterly delegitimize Israel. There’s no other possible outcome. Why would they do that?
I do not yet believe that we fully know the answer to that question. Some of it may lie in the fact that Judaism in America is primarily not about being a nation but about being a religion. And it is nations, not religions, that have states. States live in the messiness of history, while religion is the province of clear prophetic calls for justice – critically important, but only one side of the complex picture of Israeli life. When you are a religion but not a nation, you do not need a state. You, in fact, do not want a state. For most of these young people, Judaism is first and foremost a religion, a moral platform, not a national one; Jewish statehood, in that worldview, makes no sense.
Then there is intersectionality – the package of causes that progressives are expected to adopt – or they are out. When you are an American Jewish progressive and wish to be “at one” with other American progressives, for whom Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ and unquestioning allegiance to the Palestinian cause and its narrative are all nonnegotiable, you can only prove your worth by displaying your animosity to the state that has revived your people.
With that in mind, we can understand why IfNotNow would try to get Birthright students to abandon the program. To IfNotNow, the only thing about Israel worth discussing is the conflict; Birthright wants young people to the see the miracle of the revitalization of the Jewish people in its ancestral homeland. IfNotNow refuses to endorse the idea of Jewish statehood, but Birthright affords participants an opportunity to see firsthand what statehood has allowed the Jewish people to accomplish. IfNotNow, by refusing to even mention the Arab or Palestinian drive to destroy Israel, consciously misrepresents history, while Birthright’s immersing participants in Jewish history stems from its awareness that only through the lens of history can one appreciate why Zionists decided long ago that the Jews need a state. It cannot be an accident that the word “Zionism” does not appear once in the INN 35-page report.
Have INN leaders ever asked themselves why even the few progressive Israelis who have heard of them do not take them seriously? The reason for that is obvious. Most progressive Israelis are Zionists. Most progressive Israelis have daughters and sons who serve in the military. Most Israelis would also like to end the conflict, but have no idea how to do that. IfNotNow, therefore, implies that it is smarter than progressive Israelis, more moral than Israelis, who if they were only as “woke” as INN would be devoting their lives to ending the occupation. When Israelis hear that hubris emanating from INN, they simply turn around and walk away.
No Jewish group that refuses to endorse the principle of Jewish sovereignty is going to get the attention of many Israelis (or for now, American Jews, either – though where that is headed, no one can know). A Jewish group that places all the blame on the Jews reminds Israelis of Abbas and Trump – who in recent days have outrageously blamed the Jews for the deaths of Jews.
It will not come soon enough, but the day, still, will come when Abbas and Trump have exited the international stage. IfNotNow will disappear, too, because in failing to express any sympathy for Israelis or their predicament, its members have made themselves not merely marginal to the Jewish story but hostile to their own people. Sooner or later, IfNotNow will revert to what it once was: a famous phrase uttered by Hillel the Elder, who – unlike those who have borrowed his idiom – devoted his soul and his entire being to the flourishing and the future of the people he loved. The writer is the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalem College. His book
Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn received the National Jewish Book Award as the 2016 Book of the Year. He is now writing a book on the relationship between American Jews and Israel.
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