Global, Israel, Politics

If Not Now: A Personal Political Reflection

This is a guest post by Becky Havivi, a Brooklyn-based community-builder and activist. This is not written on behalf of or in the name of If Not Now.
On the Friday night before Tisha B’Av, traditionally the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, 300 American Jews joined together in Washington Square Park to mourn the deaths of over 1500 Palestinians and Israelis in the most recent armed conflict in the region. This was the fourth public event over a period of two weeks organized by If Not Now, a new movement that emerged in response to the latest crisis in Israel/Palestine, the sense of urgency growing as violence escalated, and the sense of disconnection from what mainstream Jewish institutions were expressing.
In this charged moment overflowing with noise, If Not Now has managed to effectively strike the right chord, as evidenced by the large numbers of young Jews that have turned out to actions and events over the last few weeks, in New York City and in cities across the country. If Not Now has successfully given voice and media attention to liberal young American Jews, a constituency who, for the most part, feels alienated by the conversations happening in broader Jewish institutional arenas.
Though I helped plan the program for If Not Now’s Shabbat service and rally, my own involvement in the group was not a no-brainer. As an engaged and connected American Jew I have struggled to find my footing and stake a claim within the broader Israel/Palestine discourse that has felt authentic to the rest of my progressive lefty values. The articles I see posted on my Facebook newsfeed and the arguments that I hear repeatedly spouted on both sides make me want to flee. And for a pretty long time I have done just that.
Until my professional path forced me to directly confront my relationship with Israel, I hadn’t really reexamined my relationship to Israel since my late teenage years. Though I was deeply connected to Jewish community, culture, and ritual, when conversation turned to Israel, I tuned out. And I didn’t really feel that tuning out was problematic. As my politics moved further and further to the left, I knew that I could no longer stand by the simplistic and jingoistic Zionism I’d been raised on. Yet, I felt mildly threatened and definitely disconnected from the common rhetoric in many progressive circles demonizing Israel. It was easier to just stay out of it altogether.
However, because my Jewish identity is so central to nearly every facet of my life, at some point, a critical investigation of my relationship to Israel became unavoidable. While it might be easier to see my connection to Judaism and Israel as separate – one a religion, a way of life, a set of values, and more; and the other a nation-state many miles away, of which I am not a citizen and do not reside – I don’t believe that that option is available to me. As a Jew, I feel implicated in the actions of the Israeli government, not in small part because the Israeli prime minister has explicitly asked for Israel to be recognized as a Jewish state and declared that the state acts on behalf of Jews worldwide. As such, whether I like it or not, I have inherited a responsibility to reconcile the Jewish value of pursuing justice and the state of Israel’s current actions, which fall short of that ideal.
Here’s where If Not Now, comes back in. If Not Now does not have an extensive set of policies or even guidelines about where they stand on various issues– that’s not their goal. And it’s also part of what has made their strong mobilization of supporters possible. The closest you’ll find to an expression of their stance and position is their open “Letter to the Conference of Presidents”. These few sentences taken directly from that letter are at the core of what I have personally found to be so compelling about this movement.
“Our own history of oppression has taught us that our freedom cannot be achieved absent the freedom of our neighbors. As we were dehumanized by the oppression we faced, we are now dehumanized by the oppression we are inflicting. The military campaign of recent weeks offers a brutal reminder that Jewish liberation cannot and will not be complete so long as Palestinians are not also free.”
The notion that dehumanization cuts both ways, and as such strips away the basic humanness of both the oppressed and the oppressor is more nuanced than much of the rhetoric I hear on all sides. By noting this broader truth about oppression and honoring the specific history of Jewish oppression, the unique voice that If Not Now brings to the conversation is lifted out of the polarized us-them; oppressed-oppressor dichotomy that I have found to be frustrating in its lack of sophistication. It’s not an either-or, where you must chose either to stand with Israel or to point fingers and boycott Israel. As a progressive American Jew, neither of these options account for the complexity that I feel and the multiple identities that I hold. I am compelled by a movement that has room to acknowledge both the traumatic history of Jewish oppression, and also holds that our liberation as a Jewish people is incomplete, so long as Israel continues to curtail Palestinians’ freedom. This is the ideal of justice that my Judaism calls us toward.
On that Friday night, nearly two weeks ago, it felt powerful and moving to express that complexity publicly with other Jews, dressed in black to express our sorrow. Grounded in rituals that emerge from within our tradition – Shabbat to gather as a community and reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish to mark so many deaths – we showed up in our robust identities, as Jews against the occupation to say, Enough.
For a more comprehensive account of If Not Now’s place within the current conversation in the American Jewish community, see this recently published article.

3 thoughts on “If Not Now: A Personal Political Reflection

  1. The reciting of the Mourner’s Kaddish and recitation of names is beautiful, fitting, and humanizing. Thank you.
    While we may feel a connection to Israel, however, we are not Israelis. Bibi certainly does not speak for me, nor does he speak for my Israeli relatives (the few of them who have not yet moved to New York, that is).I agree that it is a worthy goal to end participation in Jewish organizations that pander to Israeli hawks as a matter of principle. But, if so, why bother sending letters?
    We are a “we” only insofar as we have things in common – some things, but not all things. I do not the need to tell people “not in my name”, etc. because I resent the idea that anyone has the default belief that Bibi, or David Harris, or whomever speaks for me just because I am Jewish (and of Israeli descent).
    The only way to work here is to speak with our feet. The Conf. of Presidents won’t be moved by that silly letter. And frankly, who cares? They’ve made themselves irrelevant. There’s no point trying to be in opposition to them either, which just creates the perception of schism based on the false supposition that there’s a “we” at all when it comes to politics. There isn’t. It’s all a fantasy, common to many Jews and anti-semites.
    At any rate, my freedom – as a Jew – is not bound up in Israel and Palestine. I care a lot. But if Israelis decide to go the way of Bennett, Shaked, Danon et al and take the maximalist apartheid plunge, it won’t be our fault – it won’t be the fault of Jews, writ large. (It may be partially the fault of large Jewish organizations. That’s a problem for their members.) I care of course, and am willing to demonstrate opposition to the pointless and immoral invasion. But I have no interest in a catharsis of Jewish identity and politics.
    Please decide either (i) non-participation in Jewish organizations that pander to hawks, or (ii) reform of organizations that pander to hawks. I realise ‘The Conference of Presidents are Bibi’s Stooges – Join an Unaffiliated Shul’ is less powerful than ‘Not in My Name’. But it has the benefit of not pushing a ridiculous narrative of a unified Jewish politics from which we have to opt out.

  2. Dear “If not now” I would like to thank you on behalf of humanity for your efforts to help the Palestinian people reach their dreams of freedom and the creation of their own state. I am originally from Honduras Central America but have lived in the US for the last 35 years. My grandfather was Palestinian and my grandmother Honduran. When living in Honduras until I was 19 years old, I was not aware of the Palestininan situation. While in collage I took a class that brought this issue up to my face. I decided to read as much as I could to informed myself of what the history behind the conflict was. I do not support Hamas or any form of terrorism. I believe Israel has the right to exist along side a Palestinian state. I think is time for the world and Isreal to realize that Palestinians are there to stay as much as the Jewish people. It is time to realize that bombing them will only create more extrimest. We need to spread the word that creating a free Palestine is the only way for this conflict to end. Palestinians need to be prepared for what will come if there is ever a Biable Palestinian state. There is going to be a lot of retaliation from the extrimest from Isreal (yes there are many) and we need to present the option of an international force to be place for keeping the peace. Again, thanks for your work and I am a full supported of a two state solution. Ivan Kattan

  3. The Israeli occupation of Gaza had a direct and measurable impact on the degree of anti-Semitism currently being acted out in Europe, Canada, and other locations. The release of comments by certain members of Likud who used inappropriate and inadvisable language to express their views on the future of Gaza residents was also a sad by-product. It is the duty of Israeli citizens to make sure that their political representation allows for a future which serves the greater good of all parties involved. It is the duty of Jews across the globe to understand that their own values as Jews are not measured by the actions of Likud.

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