From pro-AIPAC to protester

I used to taunt the protesters who stood outside AIPAC’s conference. This year, I was a protester, and the AIPAC attendees taunted me.

IFNOTNOW PROTESTERS outside the 2017 AIPAC policy conference in Washington, DC (photo credit: RON KAMPEAS)
IFNOTNOW PROTESTERS outside the 2017 AIPAC policy conference in Washington, DC
(photo credit: RON KAMPEAS)
I grew up in a Jewish home. I loved Shabbat, enthusiastically participated in youth programs like BBYO and summer camp, and had my bar mitzva in Israel. As I got older, I became more observant, started keeping Shabbat, and began my uncritical, unconditional love affair with Israel. I hung an Israeli flag on my bedroom wall, organized a car wash to support the IDF and bought into Alan Dershowitz’s Case for Israel.
In 2008, at age 18, I eagerly attended AIPAC’s Policy Conference. It was amazing.
Obama, Clinton and McCain were all there. There were senators, ambassadors and celebrities. The sessions and speeches left me with a few key messages: Palestinians are bad. Iran is very bad. Israeli soldiers are good. And Jewish support for Israel – unquestioning – is the most important and meaningful manifestation of Judaism.
I loved AIPAC. I lobbied my senators.
I went to David Project trainings. I felt empowered and encouraged by the praise I received; rabbis thanked me and told me they were proud. They reminded me that supporting Israel is the most Jewish thing one could do.
When I was a freshman at the University of Maryland, I eagerly attended a meeting of the Zionist Organization of America chapter. A conversation billed as being about supporting Israel quickly became a strategy session on how to purchase and supply Israeli settlers with weaponry.
I felt a desire to take my kippa off to distance myself from this violent form of Judaism. This was the first crack in my pro-Israel armor.
The second crack happened in 2012. Four years after my first trip to AIPAC, I read reports of the IDF air-strikes killing thousands of Palestinian civilians during Operation Pillar of Defense.
The Jewish community at my college decided to hold a prayer vigil, a rare moment when the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform communities came together. I asked the organizers of the vigil – friends of mine – if they would also create a space to pray for peace for Palestinian civilians. I was told, “No, we don’t do that.”
“When did praying for peace stop being a Jewish value?” I wondered. I stood with a small group outside of Hillel’s sanctuary holding signs saying “Pray for peace for everybody.” In response? People who sat next to me in minyan called me Hitler.
People I studied Torah with called me a Nazi. People I ate Shabbat meals with called me a self-hating, despicable Jew.
For me, this was a Red Sea moment. I was sure of my core beliefs: peace, dignity and freedom. These were taught to me as Jewish values. And yet it seemed that the Jewish community, which I loved dearly, had abandoned them. Was the Jewish community’s fixation with Israel so rooted in militarism and so driven by a refusal to examine our collective trauma that these values could be swept aside at a prayer vigil? I could no longer reconcile a religion that preaches justice with unquestioning support of a state that forces people to wait hours at military checkpoints. I could no longer wrap my head around a religion of peace that murders thousands of innocent people, then blames them for their own death. I began my journey of unlearning years of pro-occupation talking points and anti-Palestinian indoctrination, and my struggle to maintain my Jewish observance while working for Palestinian liberation.
I still believe in the power of prayer. Just as I believed that prayer could bring peace as a college student, I believe that prayer can give us the courage to shake off the yoke of the 50 years of illegal, immoral and unjust occupation. But prayer in the traditional sense is no longer enough.
Last year, hundreds of IfNotNow members prayed with our feet as we stood outside of AIPAC while candidate Donald Trump spoke. Again, our own people, sometimes our own families, called us self-hating Jews, kapos, Nazis.
Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies are two sides of the same coin. Their anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-peace policies are both rooted in injustice and oppression.
Trump’s campaign rhetoric of fear, persecution and fascism is the same rhetoric that Netanyahu uses with success.
Trump’s hope for a wall and a ban on Muslims should sound familiar to those who know Netanyahu’s Israel. These hateful policies have created a Jewish community in which “I Stand with Israel” signs are hung unquestioningly, but “Black Lives Matter” signs are too political. These are not the Jewish values with which I was raised.
So this year, with pride and prayer, I joined other young Jews as we chained ourselves to the convention center doors, putting our bodies on the line to say that AIPAC does not represent us, our Jewish values, or our worldview. While blocking the entrance to the conference center, we grounded ourselves by singing “Ozi v’zimrat yah,” “The Lord is my strength and song.” This is a Judaism of which I am proud.
This protest was spiritual moment for me – and for thousands of others. Judaism teaches us that individual prayer is important, and also that communal prayer is an obligation. Alone, we have a voice; together, our voice is amplified. I’m honored to be in this minyan, community and movement with thousands of brave, young, proud Jews standing up to oppose the occupation. It is my prayer that together, we build a Jewish community that rejects border walls in all forms, proudly asserts that Black Lives Matter, and works on behalf of freedom and dignity for all people.
I believe that we will win, and that we will build this world with love.