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Can the Young Activists of IfNotNow Change the Conversation About Israel?

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It was just before noon in Tel Aviv when the five women revealed their plan.

Like 50,000 other young Jews every year, they had reached the end of a ten-day free tour of Israel through the Birthright Israel program. The trip had been an awkward one. Though they hadn’t directly announced themselves as such, all five were affiliated with IfNotNow, a burgeoning activist collective for American Jews from Generations Y and Z who oppose Israeli policy toward the Palestinian Arabs of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. And they’d had some uncomfortable questions.

Throughout the previous week and a half, they had made known their dissatisfaction with the status quo in the Holy Land and drew ire from their elders and their fellow youths in the process. They asked a guest speaker pointed queries about alleged Israeli human-rights abuses. They held a sign reading “END THE OCCUPATION” — referring to the Israeli presence in the Palestinian territories — while riding camels in the Negev desert. After visiting Israel’s primary Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, one of them recited an original poem that drew parallels between Nazi genocide and the plight of the Palestinians (“This is bullshit,” one participant recalls the Israeli tour guide saying in response). But all of that was just a prelude to the final act.

About halfway through the trip, the quintet — Danielle Raskin, Bethany Zaiman, Katie Fenster, Sophie Lasoff, and a woman who declined to disclose her name — had decided they were going to stage a walkout. Other members of IfNotNow had previously told them how to contact a well-known (and, in some pro-Israel circles, infamous) Israeli organization called Breaking the Silence, founded by repentant former soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), which provides tours of hot spots in the West Bank. The women had reached out surreptitiously and made arrangements to meet up with the organization on the last day of the tour, but before they left, they wanted to make sure everyone else on their trip knew what the five of them were doing and why.

As the Middle Eastern sun blazed into their bus, Fenster held up her phone and started a Facebook livestream. “Hey, y’all! I’m just gonna take a minute of your time,” Zaiman told the assemblage in the sing-song of a customer-service rep after negotiating control of the PA system away from their guide, a middle-aged Israeli man named Golan. Following a preamble about her love of the Jewish community and the parts of the trip she had appreciated, Zaiman cut to the chase: “I just wanna let you know that there’s a group of us on this trip who’ve been asking questions and trying to engage, and we have not been able to do that. And as a result, the five of us will be leaving. As we get off the bus, we’ll” — that is, the quintet, not the rest of the group — “be going on a trip with Breaking the Silence to learn about the occupation from the perspective of Palestinians and IDF soldiers.”

#Birthright wouldn’t show us the occupation so we are going to see it for ourselves.

Thus began a half-hour war of words. Golan attempted to shut Zaiman down and vented his days-long frustration. “You were trying to impose your opinions on the entire bus for the entire trip, and this is not acceptable,” he said. “You wanna go to Breaking the Silence? Break the silence yourself. You don’t have to make a statement out of it.” As people exited the bus, Golan made it known how much he disagreed with the women’s sympathies for the Palestinians: “This is my country. I’m a Jew and this is my country and I’m not leaving anywhere. No Palestinian is going to … is gonna shun me away from here!” His voice elevated into a shout. “You don’t have an open mind! You have a clear agenda against Israel!”

As the women quietly defended themselves and assured Golan this was nothing personal, other trip members took up his position. “Their opinions don’t affect us,” one told Golan in front of the protesters. “We believe everything you say. And if they wanted to come to Israel for free, then they have to listen to what you’re saying. If they don’t like it, then they can go on their own.” A muscular young man turned to the women in fury and said, “Just go to Palestine! Just go! ’Cause guess what’s gonna happen? You’re gonna get killed and you’re gonna get raped.” The five women ultimately signed waivers to leave the trip early and got into Breaking the Silence’s van, but not before another tripmate got in a potent verbal punch. “You say it’s all about the community,” he said, “and you’re disrupting the community.”

For IfNotNow, that’s not exactly an insult. Disrupting the Jewish community is arguably the whole point. Formed during the 2014 conflict between Israeli and Palestinian forces in Gaza, the group has experienced a stunning rise in prominence in the past year and a half. Their public demonstrations have drawn thousands of participants across the U.S., but they’ve recently moved into a new phase, one in which they emphasize pointed online campaigns that accuse the Jewish institutions their members emerged from — religious organizations, summer camps, youth groups, Birthright — of lying to them and supporting injustices against Palestinians. In response, critics from the right and (perhaps more notably) the center-left have become increasingly aggressive in their attacks on IfNotNow, inadvertently raising the group’s profile and making it a candidate for the new face of the American Jewish left.

Their criticisms are as potent as their goal is nebulous. “THE OCCUPATION IS A DAILY NIGHTMARE FOR THOSE WHO LIVE UNDER IT AND A MORAL DISASTER FOR THOSE WHO SUPPORT AND ADMINISTER IT,” screams bold text at the top of their homepage. “IFNOTNOW IS WORKING TO TRANSFORM THE AMERICAN JEWISH COMMUNITY’S SUPPORT FOR OCCUPATION INTO A CALL FOR FREEDOM AND DIGNITY FOR ALL.” They pursue that hard-to-quantify aim with a heady brew of Jewish ritual, theatrical messaging, and post–Occupy Wall Street activism theory. But at their core is a commitment to a kind of moral simplicity. In their eyes, there is a binary: Either you oppose Israeli policy in the Palestinian territories or you are complicit in it. Everything else, from your other political allegiances to your proposals for a post-occupation status quo, is secondary. They simply ask, Which side are you on?

To be sure, there are an increasing number of American Jews, especially young ones, who have chosen their side. In just four years of existence, they’ve gone from a few dozen disgruntled activists in a borrowed apartment to a group that has trained an estimated 1,675 people, drawn countless more sympathizers and casual supporters, and become a formidable opponent to the right and center-left. In fact, especially in the wake of the Birthright walkout, IfNotNow has become perhaps the most-talked-about activist group in Jewish American politics.

They have prominent allies. Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the left-leaning Israel-lobbying group J Street, tells me he finds IfNotNow “really exciting”; Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Palestinian solidarity movement Jewish Voice for Peace, sees IfNotNow’s goals and her organization’s as “very complementary”; and the prominent Israel critic Peter Beinart says IfNotNow is able to “say things and take moral stances that other people are too inhibited to take.” Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s general delegation to the U.S. has said, “Hope is the young American Jews like the brave souls in IfNotNow.” But the group’s critics are numerous, as well. Conservatives loathe them (a recent op-ed in the Jerusalem Post accused them of being “anti-Jewish”), and even liberal Jewish publications like The Forward and Haaretz run opinion headlines like “IfNotNow Doesn’t Deserve the Support of Left-leaning American Jews” or “I Teach At Birthright. IfNotNow Is Wrong.

In short, there’s a growing consensus that IfNotNow is a force to be reckoned with. What makes them fascinating is the strategy that’s gotten them where they are — and that might eventually become their greatest handicap. They’ve sought to become a big tent for youthful discontent by deliberately refusing to answer some of the........

© Daily Intelligencer