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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.

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    COMMENTS

    1. JeffB

      @Samual

      Don’t think I could disagree with this article more. INN engages from inside the Jewish community with the Jewish community. They are an internal protest group, they seek reform. BDS claims to seek external pressure to coerce Israel into changing its policies, they are an external group.

      INN: We, us, our… what we did
      JVP: Them, their… what Zionist did

      That’s a totally different mindset than the other protest groups. That’s a mindset that Palestinians can’t participate in, they aren’t the ones supporting the occupation. I don’t know what “more accountable to Palestinians” means. But for INN Palestinians are the object on which Jews act immorally they aren’t the subject.

      What makes INN a legitimate protest organization to people like me is that they don’t go outside the tribe. Donald Trump is being rightfully criticized for engaging with Russian intelligence in a way that would be perfectly legitimate were it a conservative PAC and not a foreign government. INN should hold the line, Jews who are observant and active in the community in non-Palestine related causes.

      Finally on intergenerational, no they don’t want your advice and they don’t want your baggage. And good for them. 50 year old activists bring a tone and a history that 20 year old activists don’t. They are the age of the children or grandchildren of the Jewish establishment and as such can get a type of emotionally sympathetic hearing that you can’t get. JVP exists for old Jews who hate Israel, are firmly embedded in the left and not the Jewish community and want solidarity. INN is an alternative to JVP not an extension of it.

      Reply to Comment
    2. R5

      Silver lining is that, at least compared to Jewish traitors of the past, this generation’s batch has done the LEAST harm. If those who betray fellow Jews are becoming less and less influential every generation, then we are making progress.

      Reply to Comment
      • JeffB

        @R5

        INN aren’t traitors they are very loyal to the Jewish people. They aren’t JVP. What Samuel is complaining about is what makes them special. There are somewhat to the left of JStreetU, more religious and less directly tied to the Democratic party (JStreet is a lobby). No they are not part of the left’s pro-Palestinian anti-Zionist movement. And while they wouldn’t classify themselves this way, they are part of the Jewish left’s pro-humane Zionist movement. I think of them as like the Union of Progressive Zionists, except they don’t like those sorts of labels which in their opinion trap the argument in the cliches they are trying to break out from.

        Reply to Comment
        • R5

          @JeffB: None of these little groups are capable of hurting Israel. This was my main point. Secondly, I question INN’s loyalty. Everyone frames the occupation as a Netanyahu/Likud policy which can be neatly separated from caring about Israeli Jews. But this reflects a deep ignorance about Israeli politics. NO ZIONIST PARTY, including Labor and MERETZ demands an immediately and unilateral withdrawal from the territories. They want negotiations and international guarantees before withdrawal. INN’s perspective is just GTFO now. They’re out of step with basically all Israeli Jews. It is not INN v. Bibi, its INN v. all Israeli Jews. Don’t see any loyalty or solidarity with Israeli Jews.

          Reply to Comment
          • JeffB

            @R5

            That’s a fair point regarding Netanyahu and Likud. I think one of the main differences for American leftist Jews is that labor was making a serious effort to end the occupation while Netanyahu isn’t. Also I should mention that INN doesn’t if we want to get specific focus on Israeli Jews at all. They are interested in changing the position of America’s Jewish institutions which support the occupation. They are after groups like Hillel, AIPAC…

            What they actually want to happen on the ground is impossible to figure out. Remember they are young. Like most of the left, including the BDSers, they seem to lack any understand of how governments are able to govern territory and populations. They all believe in magic. I’d love to have a Simone Zimmerman or another rep go on a serious interview show and get grilled on specifics. My point is naive, ignorant and not well thought through positions are very different from traitorous. We shouldn’t group INN in with JVP.

            Reply to Comment
          • R5

            @JeffB: These are adults, even if they’re students. Whether they have the political savvy to understand it or not, they’re being used by BDS allies (JVP, +972) to (1) equate Israel with Trump, (2) promote the false view that American Jews are divided on Israel and (3) ULTIMATELY, commit the liberal wing of the Democratic party to an anti-Zionist platform. While the INN/JVP distinctions you’re citing may be legitimate in theory, they has no significance in practice. Just look at what +972 is writing these days. If you see JVP et al citing INN action to make an argument, it means that INN is being tokenized and ultimately helping the fanatics who want Linda Sarsour to write the Democrats’ platform on Israel. George Bush had good intentions too. Doesn’t matter in the real world. They should be protesting the fact that AEPi members are being called baby killers etc. and that BDS anti-Semites feel strong enough to openly harass and assault Jewish students all over the country at this point. If you think AIPAC is a bigger problem than that, you don’t have your head on straight. So really I don’t have sympathy for INN. If anything they’re doing a special kind of damage than BDS-sympathetic students generally cannot because they are more religious and have stronger Jewish backgrounds, like you said. This makes them more effective tokens.

            Reply to Comment
          • JeffB

            @R5

            I guess we do disagree. INN are of course legally adults. I don’t treat my 25 year old employees the same way as my 30 year old employees. I’ve had 20 year old interns and the 25 year olds are way more mature than them. . Heck these kids are a year older than my daughter. She can read complicated books on military science and can also pout about nothing and burst into tears like a 12 year old. I’m not willing to hold them to the same standards I would hold an adult too.

            In terms of equating Israel with Trump, that’s fair. They are doing that. That’s the typical PEP charge leveled against Israel supporters, “if you wouldn’t support it here then why support it there”. Youth attacks their elders for hypocrisy. It takes time to see the grey and understand how situational things are. Try and remember your politics back then.

            As for promoting the false view that Jews are divided on Israel… I don’t think INNers promote that view at all. An anti-Israeli politician is going to see kids: most of whom have Israeli relatives, many of whom speak fluent or semi-fluent Hebrew, many of whom have spent a year or more in Israel, having a protest loaded with Jewish songs and singing often in Hebrew… He’s going to think of them very much like 1st-2nd generation immigrants. That’s an opposition that’s going to be like walking on egg shells to try and work with. It would scare the heck out of that politician. It certainly isn’t going to make the politician feel confident they can rush in and score easy points without hitting the 100 cultural trip wires they can’t see.

            INN is not anti-Zionist even in name. Some of them don’t like the label Zionist. But they care deeply about Israel. They take personal responsibility for Israeli acts as a reflection on themselves and their identity and see the Jewish community as a whole people. So they are certainly Zionist in their actions and actual beliefs.

            As for INN helping JVP, IMHO I think they are likely to have the opposite effect. INN proves that you can oppose Israel’s policies engaging in activism/ demonstrations without all the anti-Jewish / anti-Israeli hate that characterizes JVP/SJP. They IMHO are going to be delegitimizing to those groups the same way a political group able to make inroads is delegitimizing to a terrorist group. What is going to be JVP’s excuse for all the hatred if INN’s style of demonstration proves more effective? And of course INNers show up the JVPers as so often not really being Jews. JVPers didn’t go to Jewish day schools. Obviously you are right this also makes them much better tokens. You can effective consider JVPers to be in niddui / herem. You can’t do that with INNers.

            As for me personally with AIPAC. If it weren’t for their policy of essentially pushing for war with Iran I’d be a donating member of AIPAC. I’m sort of stuck 1/2 way between J-Street and AIPAC not totally comfortable with either. There is a huge difference between seeing INN as a legitimate group and agreeing with their policies.

            — BDS anti-Semites feel strong enough to openly harass and assault Jewish students all over the country at this point.

            I agree. It is bad. That’s why I was at the UN conference per the other thread.

            Reply to Comment
          • R5

            @JeffB: Thank you for your thoughtful response. I am considerably younger than you’re probably guessing, and I know well more than a few ppl involved in the most extreme anti-Israel activism. Based on my experience of the law few years, things have become too polarized for INN to bring positive change. For young people in the arts and culture, if you want to talk about Israel, either you’re BDS or you’re a piece of shit. Plenty of folks are still pro-Israel, but they’re quiet about it. It is not cool to be any kind of Zionist anymore. That doesn’t really matter, because the fanatics are not going into careers that will enable them to influence policy even a little bit, if they have real careers at all. BDS isn’t a threat to Israel as an American phenomenon. But to re-build the center for my generation, American Jews need to close ranks and people like INN just need to cut the shit. We can’t afford it. The American Jewish tendency to split every hair and question every argument until there are 5 organizations doing basically the same thing has to stop. The failure of liberal American Jews to AGREE is the real problem. BDS fanatics have successfully destroyed the center because fanatics build cults, and cults stay on message. It is time for the center to get over their special views on every little thing, and just consolidate into SOMETHING.

            Reply to Comment
          • JeffB

            @R5

            Didn’t realize you were young. Sorry those comments about people being kids until about 30 probably came off as a bit offensive. Didn’t mean to be. Well at least you know how your elders feel behind your back 🙂 Most of us pretty much draw the line at marriage then birth of your first child.

            Anyway, its going to be hard for Jews to agree with Israel not having a plan. Netanyahu mostly stalls. I think the Bennett plan ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BeHT9TlrARc ) makes a lot of sense. I think Israelis are likely to move in this direction. If this becomes Israeli policy then there will be an Israeli direction, ZU&Meretz will have their adjustments and then American Jewish liberals will have a single policy to respond to (either pro or con). Right now every American Jew has their own opinions because everything is stalled and neither ZU nor Likud has an explicit plan.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            This rather abstruse conversation about American Jews avoids the main issues.
            “But for INN Palestinians are the object on which Jews act immorally they aren’t the subject.”

            My goodness, you sound like we are talking about animal rights. This says something about how Israeli Jews, even many on the leftish side of things, view the solution and how to arrive at the solution. About their unexamined assumptions, their assumptive world.

            “traitors”

            This is defining dissidents as traitors. The Soviets defined Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov as traitors. In the end we don’t see Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov as traitors. But as patriots. I am sure that the IfNotNow members do not aim to be and do not see themselves as traitors at all but as the opposite. And sincerely think they make a compelling case that it is the Israeli Right that is headed, eyes wide shut, headlong towards disaster. In the end it comes down to a matter of perspective. Which is why the language of “traitors” is inflammatory and inappropriate.

            “the false view that American Jews are divided on Israel”

            I don’t see how one substantiates this claim. The days of “let’s all get behind Aipac” are over. So over.

            “equate Israel with Trump”

            INN and +972 do not of course do this, rather they intelligently highlight the links of tactics and agenda between the Trump administration and that of Netanyahu and his government.

            “INN’s perspective is just GTFO now”

            No, their perspective is to end American Jewish support for the occupation so as to speed the day when Israel moves to intelligently and safely end the occupation within the framework of a minimally fair agreement. “Loyalty and solidarity” with Israeli Jews is not simply unconditional when the difference of opinion is over an issue of gross human rights violations and an issue of suicidality–your premise is as usual that American Jews of INN are coldly abandoning Israel to some existential threat but these Jews of INN don’t see it that way. They think the de facto apartheid state is suicidal. They don’t see a Palestinian state as the existential threat you want to paint it as. They just aren’t buying that load of goods. And so they don’t feel any more disloyal than relatives who do an intervention on a violent drug addicted family member.

            Reply to Comment
          • R5

            @Ben: Fuck off. I didn’t read this comment and never read your comments. You’re a scumbag apologist for anti-Semites and I stopped reading your horseshit months ago.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            ​I take it this is another episode of “the Israeli lingua franca” described by Gideon Levy:
            “The policeman disgusts you? That’s exactly what the occupation looks like. It is as violent, ugly, brutal and loutish as the policeman; this is exactly how Israel has abused millions of people every hour, every day, for 50 years.
            It’s not just that the video reflects routine in the occupied territories: At any given moment, there are Israeli soldiers and policemen who strike Palestinians, kick, head butt, bark or swear at them, like in the video. What’s worse is that the footage reflects a far broader reality than the occupation.
            Every Israeli has seen countless similar images in this “land of quarrels”: on the road; at the supermarket; in the hospital; on the soccer field or the parking lot … in almost every line, this is the language, the Israeli lingua franca: bullying. Why pick on the policeman? He’s typical of his homeland. He did what everyone else did, almost. He’s also the son of us all. He’s a uniformed thug – so what?…
            read more: http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.779438

            Do not trouble yourself, R5. If you can’t handle the heat get out of the kitchen. I don’t write for you personally. These are arguments about real things that matter. If it unnerves you no one least of all me will be bothered if you skip my comments.

            Reply to Comment
    3. Firentis

      Is this some sort of reverse psychology? Everything that you find wrong with their approach makes me dislike them less. The other groups that you mention are effectively stooges working at the behest of the pro-Palestinian organizations. They are meant to follow directions and unconditionally support whatever the pro-Palestinian organizations push for. If the Palestinian organizations organize an event where the main speaker is a terrorist convicted of murdering two Israeli students they are supposed to show up and declare that they support such people. If the Palestinians insist that they support terrorism then these groups are expected to insist that they have no right to disagree. This is what “accountable to Palestinians” means.

      Also, what you suggest is counterproductive. If the same group had shown up at AIPAC with Palestinian flags chanting “from the river to the sea” then they would have been dismissed as just another pro-Palestinian group dedicated to the destruction of Israel. And rather than the several articles by the mainstream Jewish left embracing them they would have been scorned by all except their anti-Israel puppet masters.

      Reply to Comment