Rather than sit uncomfortably within the tired anti- or pro-Israel paradigm, we are building a reality in which American Jews who disagree with the occupation can take comfort in their Jewish identity.
By Shira Yudkin Tiffany
Rows of police demarcated the sides outside the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington D.C. Two human chains of protestors in matching t-shirts bound themselves together to the doorways to the Washington Convention Center. Beyond them were barricades and a sea of mostly young, largely unaffiliated Jews, cheering on the action in Hebrew.
These were not your average AIPAC protesters.
While the Jewish community has been puzzling over the antidote for the growing disinterest in Israel among American Jews, these protesters have found their own medicine. A thousand Jews from across the country came together on Sunday for a protest organized by the Jewish-American anti-occupation group, IfNotNow, against AIPAC’s continual support for Israel’s policies of military rule over millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories.
At first glance, there were two sides — the world inside AIPAC, and that outside of it.
At second glance, behind IfNotNow stood protesters from CodePink, Neturei Karta, and ANSWER. A cluster of beefy men wielding giant Israeli, American, and Kahanist Jewish Defense League flags sulked in the back in counter-protest, becoming particularly agitated at the sight of a Palestinian flag unfurled the length of a building. Once standing in front of the giant Palestinian flag with a cluster of Israeli flags proved futile, the JDL and their friends began beating two protestors with their flag poles.
The scene outside AIPAC conventions has historically been the same. Flag wars. Anger. But this year, the songs American Jews learned at Jewish summer camps — the ones that instilled values of social justice in an entire generation — became the soundscape for IfNotNow’s protest.
The loudest chants were Hebrew songs remixed with social justice standards. “Esh tamid tukad al hamizbeach” (“The eternal fire on the alter will never go out”) was alternated with “Which side are you on, my people?” a tune that originated with the United Mine Workers and was later adopted by the greater American Labor movement.
Some of the Israeli flag bearers chanted back at IfNotNow, “Which side are you on?” This sounded like a series of accusations. Are you on team Israel? Are you a Jew who falls in line? Are you a self-hating Jew?
IfNotNow is doing to AIPAC in the street what J Street did to them on Capitol Hill when it was founded: offering a new space that brings in people who are Jewish, yet don’t see their values expressed within the halls of AIPAC. By drawing a line between AIPAC and the Jewish Resistance, IfNotNow have asserted that their resistance is Jewish. They are reclaiming a community hijacked by mainstream acquiescence to the occupation.
IfNotNow may be polarizing the Jewish community to choose AIPAC or the Jewish Resistance – but they are also presenting a third-way for protest: they are neither nationalist nor violent. They are constructing something new.
Rather than sit uncomfortably within the tired anti- or pro-Israel paradigm, IfNotNow is building a reality in which American Jews who disagree with Israeli policies can take comfort in their Jewish identity. They’re creating a reality where they can stand up for themselves and for others. As the occupation continues, IfNotNow will reclaim and re-imagine Judaism, and as they do so, they will also reinvent the game of protest.
Shira Yudkin Tiffany is a member of IfNotNow in Boston. She grew up in Wilmington, Delaware where she graduated from Albert Einstein Academy Jewish Day School and Gratz Hebrew High. She is a member of the Boston Worker’s Circle and Moishe Kavod House in Boston.