IfNotNow’s Trump-chan­nel­ing man­i­festo

The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - OBSERVATIONS - DANIEL GORDIS

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.

Have IfNotNow lead­ers ever asked them­selves why even the few pro­gres­sive Is­raelis who have heard of them do not take them se­ri­ously?

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.

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.


A WOMAN brings flow­ers to an im­promptu me­mo­rial at the Tree of Life Syn­a­gogue fol­low­ing the pre­vi­ous day’s shoot­ing at the syn­a­gogue in Pitts­burgh, on Oc­to­ber 28.

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