Not everyone taking part in the war on Israel shoots rockets, tries to stab random Jews on Israeli streets, or even openly promotes anti-Semitic propaganda. Some do it in the name of Judaism and Jewish values and what they claim are high moral purposes. By that I don’t refer to the Neturei Karta, a tiny sect of ultra-Orthodox Jews who have always lurked on the margin of Jewish life, showing up at demonstrations as token supporters of Palestinian terror groups and doing so in the name of a perverted vision of Orthodoxy rejected even by those on the most extreme end of the religious spectrum.
Rather, I write of a relatively new group of liberal millenials that have taken to organizing sit-ins at the headquarters of American Jewish organizations in cities throughout the country before Passover. Calling themselves “If Not Now,” they say their purpose is ending “the occupation” and their demands are simple: that all American Jewish groups disavow the government of Israel. Though it is small and has little influence, it is nevertheless significant because its activities are indicative of the way demographic changes are causing American Jews to abandon Israel just at the moment when the siege of the Jewish state is once again heating up. Rather than ignore it or foolishly seek dialogue with it, American Jews should regard If Not Now as the thin edge of the wedge of a new Jewish front in the war against Israel.
To those who follow the American Jewish debate on Israel the basic demand for the end of the occupation sounds fairly familiar. But If Not Now is not to be confused with J Street or Americans for Peace Now, groups that also believe that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank and think the Netanyahu government is not doing enough to make peace with the Palestinians or that it should be pressured into further territorial withdrawals by the Untied States. The growth of If Not Now represents an insidious shift in Jewish opinion that makes even those groups — whose views are at odds with the overwhelming consensus of Israeli opinion and serve to enable and encourage anti-Israel activism — look tame. Peace Now and J Street may advocate views that are rejected by most Israelis as well as by the mainstream organized Jewish world and constitute a damaging irritant, but they are still explicitly Zionist and, at least in principle, are supposedly opposed to the BDS — boycott, divest, sanction — movement that seeks to wage economic warfare on Israel. That is not the case with If Not Now. It proclaims neutrality about Zionism. It is equally non-committal about BDS.
But the tactics of the group make clear the meaning of such supposed neutrality. The entire point of If Not Now’s activism seems aimed at undermining the entire structure of American Jewry. Their demands are simple: all those who will not renounce support of Israel are subjected to sit-ins and demonstrations aimed at hampering their ability to carry on their work. This means their principle targets are groups that are themselves explicitly neutral about Israeli politics while being generally supportive of Israel as well as those whose activities are mainly focused on promoting Jewish life in the United States. Such targets include Jewish federations or groups monitoring anti-Semitism, such as the Anti-Defamation League.
According to an article by Haaretz’s Debra Nussbaum Cohen, when faced by sit-ins by highly organized demonstrators who sometimes chain themselves in place in order to maximize the disruption, leaders of Jewish groups have been flummoxed. Their natural reaction to such activity is to call for dialogue and to seek common ground. But If Not Now seeks no common ground with other Jews and refuses offers of meetings. They demand surrender to their call for breaking ties with Israel and will not so much as sit down with liberal Jews who are laboring under the delusion that their activities are merely over-enthusiastic demonstrations of their own concerns about the conflict in the Middle East.
One such person is Jeremy Burton, the executive director of Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council, a group that is not exactly a stronghold of right-wing opinion or sympathy for Netanyahu.
“We want the same thing, an end to the occupation and a two-state solution,” Burton, told Haaretz. “If I’m wrong about that then it requires conversation to understand what they’re talking about. If I’m right then I don’t understand INN’s overall strategy and vision.” …
“I don’t see how just showing up outside buildings or a couple of people getting arrested without having a real conversation about the vision with the people they say are the target of that work will achieve anything,” Burton told Haaretz. “It’s not clear to me what their overall goal is in terms of the Jewish community here.” …
Unfortunately, it’s obvious what their goal is. The goal of a campaign of disruption that explicitly disavows support for Zionism while failing to oppose boycotts against Israel isn’t a two-state solution or anything else that leads to peace.
If Not Now poses as a defender of traditional Jewish ethics by taking its name from the famous saying from the Ethics of the Fathers by Rabbi Hillel the Elder: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, when?” It also says it opposes violence against “our community” though it is deliberately unclear about whether that sense of community extends to Israelis.
But the point of this group’s efforts isn’t about peace or even making the lives of Palestinians easier. It’s about lending the weight of liberal millenials to a campaign that will isolate the Jewish state while ignoring the realities of the Middle East conflict, the intentions of the Palestinians, and even the desire of Israelis and American Jews for peace. It’s about severing the ties of Jewish peoplehood and speciously doing so in the name of an allegedly prophetic vision that doesn’t seem to include rights for Jews or a Jewish state.
The self-righteous tone of If Not Now is reminiscent of J Street’s jeremiads against Netanyahu and their unfortunate cheerleading for Obama administration pressure on Israel. But the difference here is that, like the more explicitly anti-Zionist Jewish Voices for Peace (whose members reportedly are also involved in this new group), If Not Now no longer thinks it worthwhile to add to its platform a fig leaf of support for the idea that Jews have rights to a nation or self-defense. As such it must be considered the logical next step for left-wing activists whose animus for Netanyahu and the majority of the Israeli people who keep re-electing him isn’t merely a matter of support for U.S. pressure but has morphed into efforts to intimidate Jews into abandoning Israel to its fate. That one of the leaders of this group is Simone Zimmerman, the anti-Zionist activist who was fired from the Bernie Sanders campaign for her insults of Prime Minister Netanyahu is significant.
Let’s put aside the notion that this campaign has much to do with peace or ethics.
Nor is this about seeking to suppress criticism of Israel. Israelis debate these issues every day, but groups like If Not Now are doing something very different than just debating what Israel should do: they seek to delegitimize and isolate the Jewish state.
The obstacle to peace isn’t Israel’s presence in the West Bank or settlements. It’s the continued refusal of Palestinians to accept peace on any terms short of Israel’s destruction. Most Israelis would gladly divest themselves of the West Bank just as they did in 2005 when every soldier, settler, and settlement was pulled out of Gaza. But instead of becoming an incubator for peace, the strip became a bastion of terror. The independent Palestine in all but name that exists there now is a Hamas fiefdom used for launching thousands of rockets at Israeli cities and building terror tunnels whose purpose is to kidnap and murder Jews.
Three times Israel offered the Palestinian Authority peace and an independent state that would have included almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem. Three times the answer was no. In the last few years, even the Netanyahu government agreed to a two state solution and offered a West Bank withdrawal. Again the answer was no. And just as Yasir Arafat replied to the first such peace offer in 2000 with a terrorist war of attrition known as the Second Intifada, again today Palestinians have sunk U.S.-sponsored peace talks and launched a new “stabbing intifada” leading to the spilling of more blood and deaths rooted in religious incitement and blood-libel canards.
Why do they say no? They do so because not even the supposed moderates of the PA, like its leader Mahmoud Abbas, can bring themselves to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Even to Abbas, all of Israel, including the land inside the pre-1967 borders has been “occupied” since 1948. Which brings us to If Not Now’s obsession with ending the “occupation.”
It is significant that it doesn’t say what “occupation” it opposes. Is it just the West Bank? Jerusalem? Or do they agree with Abbas and Hamas that those older “settlements” like Tel Aviv must also be liberated from Zionist rule? The ambiguity on that point, like their neutrality about economic warfare waged against Israel, is telling.
Such stands are consistent with the decline in a sense of Jewish peoplehood that was reflected in the 2013 Pew Survey of Jewish Americans. For too many people of Jewish origin, their liberal sensibilities and sympathy for the Palestinians are more important than any sense of obligation to stand in solidarity with Jews who are under attack.
Israelis — including the liberal opposition to Netanyahu in the Knesset — understand that there is currently no partner for peace and that replicating the Gaza experiment in the larger and more strategic West Bank would be suicide. But instead of urging Palestinians to make peace, these critics of Israel are only intent on ignoring the will of the Israeli people to survive and crushing the desire of the majority of American Jews to stand in solidarity with them.
Instead of trying to coddle these activists, the leaders of mainstream liberal groups such as the ADL should be condemning these demonstrations whose main point seems to be to put a Jewish face on anti-Zionist activism. Though it avoids the transparent anti-Semitism that is easily seen among most BDS activists, If Not Now’s activities are no less insidious. Those who call upon Israel to endanger itself while ignoring or tacitly justifying terror campaigns are not really neutral or seeking to promote peace. Those who seek to rupture ties between Israel and U.S. Jews in the name of a spurious notion of morality detached from reality are not promoting Jewish values. At best, they are useful idiots serving the cause of hate. At worst, they are an anti-Zionist fifth column assisting the war on the Jewish state that deserves to be vigorously opposed by all those who care about Israel and Jewish rights, whether on the right or the left.
JONATHAN S. TOBIN IS SENIOR ONLINE EDITOR OF COMMENTARY MAGAZINE AND CHIEF POLITICAL BLOGGER AT WWW.COMMENTARYMAGAZINE.COM