Amid the Gaza war this summer a group of young American Jews formed a new group, ‘If Not Now, When?’, which aims to challenge the American Jewish establishment’s unquestioning support for the occupation. +972 sits down with one of its founding members to find out who the group is and what they hope to accomplish.
By Tom Pessah
For decades, American Jewry has been dominated by its own “one percent” – a small group of donors and unelected executives who lead organizations like the Jewish Federations of North America, AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League and Hillel International.
Recent surveys have shown that American Jews are much more willing to criticize Israeli policies than the leadership of the organizations that claim to represent them. A quarter of Jews aged 18 to 29 believe that the U.S. is too supportive of Israel, according to a Pew survey, but their opposition has been muted.
However, since this past summer young Jews throughout the U.S. have been holding vigils outside the offices of major Jewish establishment organizations, protesting their complicity with war and occupation.
I recently spoke with Yonah Lieberman, an young organizer with “If Not Now, When,” a new movement of young American Jews opposing the occupation and the American Jewish establishment’s complicity and support of it.
Tell me a bit about your background?
I’m 22 years old from in Washington, DC. I went to the University of Michigan and after graduating, was part of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps in Brooklyn. Now I am a community organizer working with low-income tenants to create more affordable housing in New York City.
How did If Not Now, When begin?
It began two weeks into this summer’s violence. People were wallowing in self-pity, reading news articles, unable to function. I couldn’t get any work done at my job because I was so distracted by what was going on in Israel and in Gaza.
The folks involved knew each other from Jewish progressive organizations in New York City and were frustrated no one was doing anything about the war. They sent out a mass email asking for a meeting. I got a call from Daniel May, who had been the director of J Street U (the university organizing branch of J Street) and a mentor for me. “You have to be at this meeting,” he told me.
Our first action was that Thursday, and the next one the next Monday, when people got arrested. We organized a Shabbat protest service, and 300 people showed up. Then there was a Tisha B’Av demonstration, grounded in the framework of the [religious] service. It was in a public atmosphere but without picket signs or shouting. In late August – another big demonstration. Then the tashlich action a few weeks ago.
We’ve been meeting weekly since.
We did not know what we were doing, we didn’t intend to create a national movement to change the Jewish community, and yet – that’s what we’re doing.
Tell me more about the members?
There are three types. Some have been working on the issue for years. Second, there are people like me, who had moved on but got back into it over the summer. And then there are the most interesting ones: people who are Jewish and progressive but never thought they’d be taking action against the occupation. It is those people who are leading the movement.
We’re not J Street, and we’re not a front for Jewish Voice for Peace (JPV). We’re just a group of people who came together.
I was active in J Street U; I think it helped shift the conversation. But they got it wrong this time around. They supported the war with sentiments like: “we support Israel’s right for self-defense.”
It’s a time of year when people look inward and criticize themselves. So we asked people to answer the question: “how am I complicit in the occupation?”
The statement is a compilation of the responses we got.
How did the movement spread out of New York City?
A lot of American Jews were frustrated about the war and 47 years of occupation and they want to do something about it. We told people there would be a conference call, gave out the number, and we’ve had several calls with 30-40 participants each.
We now have “If Not Now” activists coast to coast, in Washington DC, Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco, Minneapolis, New Hampshire, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Seattle.
Folks are coming together and saying, “we’re no longer accepting the complicity of the American Jewish leadership that only asks, ‘what do you want Israel to do?’” They are asking: “Why were you [the American Jewish leadership] so silent for the nine months of the peace process,” which failed. That American Jewish leadership is refusing to take a nuanced view of how the war came about, saying only, “we support Israel and its right to defend itself.”
It’s a culmination of several factors but this summer was the last straw.
Since I became aware of Israel-Palestine politics in 2005, there’s been some kind of war or conflict every few years: the Second Lebanon War, the Flotilla, the attacks on Gaza in 2008-09, 2012, and now this.
People who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s no longer give Israel the benefit of the doubt about why so many civilians are killed. There’s frustration about the total intransigence of the Israeli government, outrage about building more and more settlements and the constant warmongering about Iran and Hamas.
This was the most egregious war, with the highest percent of civilians and children who were killed. We were just sitting and watching the numbers of dead civilians increase.
There’s a sense of urgency we haven’t felt for a long time. We realized that if we don’t act now, we’ll have another war in two years, if not sooner. The occupation could enter its 50th year, its 100th year.
Tell me more about your goals?
A lot of the Jewish leadership says, “war is sad, but it’s inevitable because they hate us.” But it’s outrageous to say war is inevitable when serious diplomacy has never been tried, when there is no serious desire to take bold action.
The reason why Israel feels it can do whatever it wants to do in the name of self defense is that the people who lead the major Jewish American organizations (AIPAC, the ADL, the Federations) have given them the green light. People of my generation reject this green light. We’re saying, “hold on, we need to do something about this.”
As American Jews, we need to figure out what leverage we have. We believe that the American Jewish community is a lynchpin of the occupation because it legitimizes the right-wing groups that want to perpetuate it.
If we get the major organizations to say, “we think the occupation is wrong, it’s bad for Israel, we need to end it,” then people in Israel will no longer have the green light to move into Palestinian homes, like they just did in Silwan. If we stop giving them money this will stop happening. The people building the settlements will have no one in America to give them support. If we can get [ADL director] Abraham Foxman to say that, things will shift.
How are you positioned in relation to groups like J Street, or JVP?
JVP are Jews in solidarity with Palestinians. They’re a hugely important group. But we’re not a solidarity group. We’re also not trying to speak on behalf of Palestinians.
There are a lot of groups out there, and we don’t condemn other types of activists, but we’re unique in that we’re targeting the major Jewish organizations.
We don’t talk about BDS, the one-state solution, the two-state solution – we’re just trying to end the American Jewish leadership’s complicity in the occupation. We bring people from the far left who talk about “one person, one vote” together with people who are Zionists and think Israel should exist.
We come together because we all believe in ending the occupation.
What about Open Hillel?
We support them. We need more open spaces where people can come together and have real conversations.
What responses have you gotten from the Jewish establishment?
A lot of silence.
They have hundreds of young Jews at their doorstep, and there’s so much debate right now about how to get young Jews engaged. After we got arrested, [executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations] Malcolm Hoenlein said we’re doing this because it’s “in.”
In reality, we’re doing it because of the values that were instilled in us by the Jewish community.
What are your plans now?
The challenge is how to maintain the same sense of urgency as we had during the war. We need to build a movement.
We’re organizing Shabbat dinners all across the country where people can get together and share stories. We hope that will keep up the momentum.