AIPAC protests showed American-Jewish activism at a crossroads

Recent American Jewish protests marked an important step in interconnected, cross-border resistance to occupation and oppression. But in order to grow, the organizers must reach out to Palestinians — and to their elders.

By Samuel Molnar

Activist from IfNotNow march outside the Washington Convention Center to protest the annual AIPAC Policy Conference, Washington D.C., March 26, 2017. (Gili Getz)
Activist from IfNotNow march outside the Washington Convention Center to protest the annual AIPAC Policy Conference, Washington D.C., March 26, 2017. (Gili Getz)

On the last Sunday of March, 1,000 Jews, led by Jewish-American anti-occupation group IfNotNow, marched to the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to sing, chant, pray and blockade its doorways.

This moment represented an unmistakable opening in the battle to disassemble the machine of Israel’s occupation. It was a win. IfNotNow presented a united front of Zionists and non-Zionists which effectively drove the wedge of endless occupation into Jewish institutions, creating a vital shift in communal discourse. This win, albeit only in discourse, compels IfNotNow to grow in maturity and complexity to create material changes in how the occupation is funded, implemented, and sustained.

Looking forward, IfNotNow can only rise to meet the opening it has created if it undergoes vital growing pains. The violent rise of a fascist alt-right in the United States reared its ugly head at AIPAC in the form of brutal repression from the Jewish Defense League (JDL).

The JDL had been camped out in front of the convention center as sentinels since the previous night. As the IfNotNow marchers rounded the corner on Sunday morning, yellow and black Kahanist flags could be seen waving alongside American and Israeli flags, carried by masked counter-demonstrators wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with the words “Never Again.”

What began as verbal abuse quickly escalated into violence. Members of the JDL, many of whom had traveled from Canada, began pushing their way into the IfNotNow demonstration, using flagpoles against the demonstrators and shouting epithets.

Credit is due to IfNotNow for effectively training their people in non-violence and de-escalation. Immediately, soft blockades formed around the outside of the IfNotNow contingent, while trained de-escalators confronted the most violent members of the JDL.

And yet they still failed. Code Pink and smaller Palestinian organizations lingered in the back of the street, away from IfNotNow’s demonstration. Eventually the JDL went after them as well — this time targeting a 55-year-old Palestinian man named Kamal Nayfeh. Nayfeh was beaten by five members of the JDL before the police could stop the melee and take him to an ambulance.

The emergence of this violent rightwing tendency is a clarion call to grow quickly. As the moderate center loses credibility, both the left- and rightwing social movements become empowered. IfNotNow must grow past only fighting the complacency of the moderate center, to confront the violence of Kahanists and their sympathizers who are trying recruit the very same centrists. To do this, IfNotNow must become more intergenerational and more accountable to Palestinians. Without these growing pains, IfNotNow will be consigned to the litany of navel-gazing movements that shifted consciousness and nothing else.

The growing pains have already begun, and in one respect IfNotNow has done incredibly well: confronting the rise of Donald Trump. Recognizing that politics sees no border between the United States and Israel, IfNotNow broke down the barrier that has plagued the North American Jewish Left for at least a generation.

For too long, Jewish organizations trying to advance a progressive agenda in the U.S. have remained silent on the question of the occupation, and Jewish organizations seeking to end the occupation have not spent the time making connections between the political situation in the U.S. and that in Palestine.

IfNotNow won at the AIPAC resistance by tapping into an important wellspring of truth: AIPAC exploits Jewish anxieties about security to advance an agenda that benefits arms manufacturers and funnels resources for Jewish communal life to a military project.

Similarly, Trump exploits American anxieties about security to advance an agenda that guts the cultural and social state in favor of an expanded military budget. IfNotNow effectively articulated that AIPAC exploits Jewish security as a pawn in an endgame to fill the coffers of military and security contractors, and has set out better than any other Jewish organization that fighting the occupation and fighting Trumpism must be done with the same weapon.

And yet, if the tools for fighting Trumpism and the occupation are merging, so too are the tendencies of Trumpism with Zionism.

IfNotNow activists form a human chain outside the Washington Convention Center to protest the annual AIPAC Policy Conference, Washington D.C., March 26, 2017. (Gili Getz)
IfNotNow activists form a human chain outside the Washington Convention Center to protest the annual AIPAC Policy Conference, Washington D.C., March 26, 2017. (Gili Getz)

It is no coincidence that the most wounded person at the protest was an elderly Palestinian man. Elders and Palestinians are two groups that IfNotNow excludes. The political violence of organizations such as the JDL is something that has rarely been seen by this generation of social movements in the United States, and understanding how to expect and confront their violence is the reason IfNotNow needs to welcome elders and intergenerational movement-building into its program. Other predominantly youth-led Jewish movements have done this (Open Hillel’s civil rights tour, and Detroit Jews for Justice for example); it is time for IfNotNow to do the same.

Finally, and most critically, IfNotNow must build stronger formal and informal relationships with Palestinian political organizations. The strategy of using Jewish privilege to drive a wedge between Jewish institutions that fetishize Jewish youth has been transmuted into a situation in which true Palestinian solidarity within IfNotNow appears non-existent.

There were virtually no Palestinians present or in the leadership at the training or the demonstration. If there is strength in privilege and strength in numbers, IfNotNow must use those strengths to defend Palestinians, and not just by supporting abstract concepts such as ending the occupation. It needs to happen in the streets as well. Intergroup solidarity is a prerequisite to this defense.

In this respect, IfNotNow utterly failed at their AIPAC demonstration. While the JDL beat an elderly Palestinian, IfNotNow sang in Hebrew. There was another march to AIPAC led by Palestinian organizations. Why did IfNotNow choose not to coordinate with this contingent?

Indeed, it was clear to anyone in the crowd that there was a Jewish contingent of the demonstration, and then everyone else. There may be legitimate concerns regarding anti-Semitism within the ranks of the other factions, but the solution to the Left’s anti-Semitism is relationship-building and education.

The violence of the JDL at the AIPAC resistance is likely only a harbinger of things to come. As fascist tendencies in the United States become more pronounced, IfNotNow must react and move quickly to mature. The AIPAC action was a political opening that was built on the shoulders of BDS campaigns, J Street actions, Open Hillel, The New Jewish Agenda and many more. It is incumbent on IfNotNow to grow to meet this opening.

IfNotNow’s leaders must ask themselves if they are more concerned with salvaging the Jewish moral tradition from the darkness of occupation or if they wish to justly end the scourge of apartheid. If it is truly both, then IfNotNow’s leadership must power through its growing pains, build better intergenerational relationships, and be more accountable to Palestinians and their political organizations. An entire generation of Jewry is waiting with bated breath.

Samuel Molnar is a Detroit, MI–based organizer and writer.