Challenging the Jewish Establishment on Israel/Palestine

IfNotNow was founded in the summer of 2014, during the war in Gaza. The movement’s founders were all Jewish millennials, some with roots in the institutional Jewish world, having grown up going to Jewish day school or summer camps, and others had little to no connection to the organized Jewish community. The founders of this movement were motivated by a commitment to justice in the Middle East (for Israelis and Palestinians), rooted in their Jewishness, as evidenced by the movement’s name – an allusion to Hillel’s three questions in Pirkei Avot. The first IfNotNow gathering consisted of young Jews dressed in black, singing songs in Hebrew, reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, and reciting the names of all who had been killed, both Israelis and Palestinians. They stood outside of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and called on the American Jewish community to condemn the war in Gaza and support and end to the Occupation. 

These young Jews felt heartbroken and outraged by the rising death toll in Gaza, confused and ashamed about how to relate to violence enacted by Israel, and deeply alienated from mainstream Jewish organizations, that all stood unequivocally with Israel, without nuance.  

Mainstream Jewish institutions are dominated by a political stance that is “pro-Israel-at any-cost,” an ethos that can be understood by Schwarz’s articulation of the concerns and motives of “tribal Jews.” As described in the opening of Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Community, tribal Jews are concerned with “threats to Jewish survival, both from enemies of Israel and the Jewish people and from the rampant assimilation within the Jewish community. …Tribal Jews have a strong affinity for the State of Israel because it is the most public manifestation and validation of the Jewish people’s existence and survival.” Schwarz notes that this mentality is widespread among an older generation of Jews, many of whom lead and shape mainstream Jewish institutions. Therefore, this unwavering commitment to the State of Israel has come to dominate the mainstream Jewish community, and has become the status quo. 

Within this framework, IfNotNow’s founding can be understood as a refusal to let our generation’s relationship to Israel (and Palestine) be defined by a mainstream Jewish community, composed primarily of tribal Jews. Since the summer of its founding, the movement has found its footing and defined its goals. IfNotNow not only represents a rejection of the Israel-right-or-wrong politics that have defined our community for so long, but seeks to lead the way in transforming the American Jewish community’s relationship to the Occupation in Israel/Palestine.  

In the opening of Jewish Megatrends, Schwarz contrasts tribal Jews with “covenantal Jews” who “feel an affinity to Judaism … because of the ethics and values that Judaism has brought into the world.” Without having taken a poll, I’d venture to guess that the vast majority of IfNotNow’s membership would see themselves in this description. While Schwarz acknowledges the central role that a commitment to justice plays for millennial Jews as a cornerstone of their Jewish identity, applying this commitment to justice with respect to Israel is underexplored in this essay. 

Schwarz writes, “Because next-generation Jews more closely identify as covenantal Jews than as tribal Jews, the only way to reach them is to make sure that the Judaism they experience as youth reflects Judaism’s millennial commitment to tzedek, justice.”  At this moment in history, there is no shortage of experiences, fellowships and entire organizations that exist at the intersection of justice and Judaism, addressing issues related to the environment (Hazon), hunger (Mazon), and more. An entire sector now exists under the umbrella of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable. And yet, the vast majority those organizations, such as Avodah or Bend the Arc, remain deafeningly silent when it comes to Israel. And so, despite a vibrant sector of Jewish organizations that cater to the commitment to justice that defines this generation’s relationship to being Jewish, when it comes to Israel, there is often silence, erasure and/or cognitive dissonance. The values that undergird this whole sector, defining a “Jewish” relationship to social issues in our midst, somehow get suspended when applied to Israel, Palestine, and the Occupation. 

Thus, IfNotNow is the logical outgrowth of a generation that is guided by a commitment to justice and rejects the notion that this commitment can somehow gloss over what is happening in Israel/Palestine. Schwarz writes, “the future vibrancy of the Jewish community depends on leaders of the Jewish community reaching out to this constituency [covenantal Jews] and finding ways to reach them, even as it will challenge many long-standing assumptions of what the Jewish community should look like.” We agree. And reaching our generation means applying a commitment to justice across the board. IfNotNow believes that the future vibrancy of the Jewish community depends on addressing the daily nightmare of the Occupation for those who live under it and the moral catastrophe that it represents for those who administer it. 

A quick note on Birthright Israel

In discussing the shifting relationship to Israel between an older generation of primarily “tribal Jews” and a younger generation of “covenantal Jews,” Schwarz cites a study that describes a diminishing emotional attachment to Israel as a threat to Jewish continuity and links this shift to growing rates of intermarriage. This chapter asserts that the most significant intervention in altering the trajectory of that trend is Birthright Israel, and lauds the 10-day free trip for its “ability to significantly impact the attitudes and behaviors of next-generation Jews on matters related to Jewish identity and ties to the State of Israel.” The fact that the impact of Birthright Israel is articulated as a net good without examining the costs is problematic.

While Birthright’s reach is impressive, as are its lasting impact on trip participants in their Jewish identity formation, the sanitized, simplistic and jingoistic portrait of Israel that is presented to trip participants comes at a cost. In many ways, Birthright can be understood as a well-funded effort of “tribal Jews” to indoctrinate the next generation into their belief system through a transformative free program that links Jewish identity unequivocally to the State of Israel. This puts many of the younger generation in a bind; they are essentially being asked to check their values of universalism, justice and human dignity at the door, as they tour a Disneyland-version of Israel with Birthright. Those who ask questions or offer critique are silenced or kicked off the trip. 

The lines of what is acceptable or unacceptable have been drawn by an older generation that requires blind support of Israel, right-or-wrong. For so many millennial Jews, this experience of silencing dissent around a sanitized portrayal of Israel, exemplified by Birthright Israel, leads many to feel that there is no place for them within the organized Jewish community. IfNotNow sees the organized perpetuation of a simplistic and tribalistic relationship to Israel and a rigidity around what kind of critique is permissible as a greater threat to Jewish continuity than intermarriage.

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Becky Havivi is a community organizer, facilitator, strategist and resource mobilizer within the progressive Jewish sphere. She currently works full-time supporting IfNotNow, with a particular focus on cultivating the infrastructure and resources needed to support a mass movement (i.e. fundraising, finance/operations, staff support, and more!)

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