[pullquote align=right] There was not a single session discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that night.
[/pullquote]When you think of observing Shavuot, what likely comes to mind is noshing on cheesecake and all-night study sessions, not young American Jews demanding that their own community take a moral stand against Israel’s continued military occupation of the Palestinian territories captured in the 1967 War. Unlike Passover, American Jews have not traditionally viewed Shavuot as fraught with political meaning, despite the fact that it commemorates the Jewish people receiving the Torah, our sacred moral and legal text.
This year, Shavuot (a holiday that comes 49 days after the second day of Passover) fell 49 years to the day after the end of the 1967 Six-Day War and the beginning of the Israeli occupation. Accordingly, a group of IfNotNow leaders came to the East Bay JCC all-night Shavuot celebration to infuse this ancient pilgrimage holiday with new meaning: that we must write the next chapter of Torah by standing for freedom and dignity for all Israelis and Palestinians. During a break in the formal event’s schedule, our group of ten assembled in the middle of the courtyard to sing “Olam Chesed Yibaneh (We Will Build This World With Love)” and address the community about what it means to celebrate Shavuot at the start of the 49th year of occupation. We were heartened as some formed a circle around us and cheered — supporting our choice to not remain silent in the face of injustice. We then invited people to join us in a heartfelt and respectful discussion in which people shared their personal connections to this issue.
[pullquote align=left] To paraphrase civil rights icon and Shoah survivor Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, we wanted to pray with our feet.
[/pullquote]Though there were many great organizations and inspiring sessions on the JCC schedule that night, there was not a single one discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We know there are many, many American Jews who do not support the occupation, just as there are many Israelis who feel that way. Our actions serve to give voice to these sentiments. Some people may critique our Shavuot action by asking why we would “disrupt” an event and cause a potential division during a day that is all about the unification of our people. We stand by our choice to hold the event because our intention was to have a conversation within our Jewish community even though dialogue on this issue is not always comfortable.
IfNotNow began amidst the Gaza War in the summer of 2014 when a group of young New York Jews conducted a Kaddish ceremony outside of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Their goal was to express their commitment to their Jewish identities and to find a platform to express their opposition to the continued occupation. To paraphrase civil rights icon and Shoah survivor Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, we wanted to pray with our feet.
Since then, IfNotNow has become a national movement looking to harness the power of young Jews to move our community into actively opposing the occupation. Leading up to Passover, we staged Liberation Seders across the country, including one in Berkeley, proclaiming that there could be no liberation — the message of Passover — with continued occupation.
[pullquote align=right] What will happen if Jewish Americans continue to either remain silent or actively support the occupation? What will happen to Judaism, to our moral and cultural heritage?
[/pullquote]Our movement has been accused by some of being “anti-Israel” and “self-hating”. These accusations have no merit. We believe that like every state, Israel should be judged against its adherence to international law and upholding the values of equal freedom and dignity for all the people under its control. Yet many in our community make excuses for Israeli government policies and military practices that they would never accept in America. The American Jewish community can no longer both remain silent in the face of the occupation abroad and claim to adhere to the demands of universal human dignity at home in good faith. We know that occupation and respect for human dignity are incompatible. In IfNotNow, we try to be consistent in our moral reasoning: we are not against Israel, we are against the occupation and the American Jewish institutions which remain silent and or supportive of it; we are not “self-hating,” we are proudly and publicly committed to being Jewish and to the Jewish community.
We believe that our community must offer a way to live out the moral power of our tradition and to be our full diverse, Jewish selves. And so on Shavuot, we came to the East Bay JCC to use Jewish ritual to present a choice to our community: to speak out against the continued occupation, or be complicit in it.
We fear that some in our community will repudiate us for challenging it to recognize its responsibility to oppose the system of separation and violence by which Israel deprives occupied Palestinians of basic rights. But we fear more what will happen if Jewish Americans continue to either remain silent or actively support the occupation. What will happen to Judaism, to our moral and cultural heritage?
[pullquote align=left] We need a Judaism that is as ethical as it is vibrant.
[/pullquote]Our goal is simple: to ensure that the American Jewish community lives up to its highest values by taking action against the illegal occupation that has gone on for almost fifty years. We are asking you to join us in writing the next chapter of Jewish history by acting to stand up against the occupation.
We need bold action that dramatically shifts Jewish communal norms. We need a Judaism that is as ethical as it is vibrant.