A Question for If Not Now

To the protestors of If Not Now – Last week, we were in Washington, DC for the AIPAC conference.  I was inside as I have been every year for nearly a decade, while you were outside protesting.  To be honest, I didn’t hear or see much of your protest while it was happening as I arrived at the convention before the protest began and left late in the evening after it had ended.  However, I have read a bit in the last week from those like you who were protesting and from fellow delegates like me who were in the convention hall.

After reading some of your stories, I first want to say profoundly, “I’m sorry.”  While we might not share the same views (though we might agree more than is readily apparent), it is clear to me that because of your views and opinions, you have been treated at many occasions by the institutional Jewish community in ways that should never have happened and should never have been tolerated.  Our community has denied you appropriate forums to express your point of view and has at times actively shut your voices down.  You have been called names that are inexcusable such as “Nazi”, “Self-hating,” “Kappos,” and the like.  Our community should and must do better than that.

We need at the very least as is often said find a way to include your voices and to disagree without being disagreeable.

That brings me to the subject of your protest at AIPAC.  Some of my colleagues have expressed a bit of a bewilderment as to what you are actually protesting and what you would like to see changed.  (See Rabbi David Seth-Kirshner’s blog post for example.). I’d like to sharpen the question a bit.  It is clear that you oppose Israel’s occupation lands that in conquered in 1967 (I phrase this as such as many in the Palestinian solidarity movement consider the occupation to refer to the entire state and I think being clear is important).  I should note that I agree with you on that point to a large extent.  I believe strongly in the liberal democratic principle expressed by John Locke and enshrined in the US Declaration of Independence that governments derive their just powers from consent of the governed and in the case of the Palestinians, the Israeli government clearly doesn’t have it.  I therefore support a Palestinian state on that principle.  Where we might disagree is what is the best means for achieving that goal – of ending occupation and seeing a free, democratic and independent Palestine living side by side with a free, democratic Jewish State.

And so here is my question:

Is your goal to have voices such as yours that oppose occupation included in the Jewish institutional conversation?  Or is it your goal that every Jewish or pro-Israel organization must take a hard stance against occupation even as some of their constituents might support it and that this issue must be elevated to the forefront of every discussion such that no other work on behalf of Israel is possible as long as occupation continues?

The answer to this question is key to understanding the role of AIPAC and whether you have a place in institutional Jewish life.  You chose to hold your protest outside AIPAC, which many of you have blamed for being complicit, giving cover to or even supporting the occupation.  Beyond pointing out that AIPAC has for two decades supported a two state solution, it seems from your protest that you are misunderstanding AIPAC’s mission.

Contrary to common perception, AIPAC’s mission is not to lobby for the State of Israel.  Israel has a Ministry of Foreign Affairs and an Embassy to speak for its interests.  AIPAC’s mission is to lobby a “Strong US-Israel Relationship.”  That might be a nuanced distinction, but an important one that is perhaps not explained often enough.  It’s a distinction that also gets to the very heart of what you are protesting.  So, perhaps indulge me and allow me to take a stab at it.

Imagine any other human relationship for a moment.  There are times that one of the parties might do something that is harmful or offends the other party.  One needs to consider whether that act was so egregious that it merits ending or lessening the relationship.  Consider a couple that is dating.  If one of the partners were to cheat on the other, the aggrieved partner might very well consider that act such a betrayal that is worth breaking up.  Others might be forgiving.  The act might also be far more benign but nevertheless hurtful – not worth breaking up over, but more short tempered people might choose to be done.  Now imagine, friends of the couple who want them to stay together urging the aggrieved party not to break up.  Those friends are not defending the wrong behavior and certainly not condoning it.  They are saying that the relationship is more important and more beneficial and worth maintaining.

AIPAC is the same way.  AIPAC is not advocating for specific Israeli interests (with few exceptions).  AIPAC is American citizens telling their government why they believe the US benefits from a strong relationship with Israel and want to see concrete actions that maintain and even strengthen that relationship.  That is not blanket support for everything that every Israeli government does.  It is saying that in their view, Israel has done nothing that warrants weakening or severing the “Strong US-Israel” relationship.

That becomes the real question for you the protestors of If Not Now – yes, you oppose the occupation.  However, do you believe that the sin of occupation is so egregious that it is not in your country’s interest to have a strong (or at least not as strong as previously) relationship with Israel?  Do you believe that occupation means the US should treat Israel worse than it treats many other states?

If the answer to these questions is “No,” then there should certainly be place for you in the room.  You should be able to come and say “I believe occupation is wrong.  Israeli settlement policy is wrong.  But nevertheless, I believe that a relationship with Israel is beneficial and the right thing for the United States and hence I am willing to even work with people who I fundamentally disagree with on that very important issue of Israeli occupation in order to work to strengthen that relationship.”  If you can say something like that, then we in the organized/institutional Jewish and pro-Israel community need to work a lot harder to make sure that you feel welcome and safe in our spaces.  This does not preclude you in any way from working and advocating in other venues (even Jewish ones) to see the end of occupation.

If, however, your answer to those questions are, “Yes” and you believe that the US-Israel relationship should not be so strong, then I think we all need to admit that you are working for a goal that is at odds with a central pillar of the American Jewish communal agenda.  It would be a difference that isn’t bridgeable and we would really need to be having a very different conversation.

Additionally, if it is a space in the room and having your voices heard while still working for a strong US-Israel relationship, there might be an element of understanding what you are getting.  While, we need to do more to include you, it would mean you being included and coming into a space where a majority of the 18,000 attendees, who spent precious dollars and time away from work and home to be there, don’t share your views.  They will express their disagreement.  They will applaud speakers that you don’t like.  Are you prepared for that?

Lastly, there is another crucial element about AIPAC’s mission that probably presents a hurdle for you to get over.  It is essential in AIPAC’s view that support for Israel remain bipartisan.  To accomplish that, it is crucial that respect be shown to representatives and officials of both parties.  Last year, that bipartisanship was severely tested when then candidate Donald Trump spoke highly offensively and inappropriately about President Obama.  Regrettably, that came with much applause.  AIPAC’s lay and professional leadership stood up the next day to say that the comments and the reception were out of bounds and did damage to AIPAC’s goal of bipartisanship.  Unfortunately, I have seen highly caustic and inflammatory rhetoric from If Not Now directed toward the current Administration.  While you may believe it is warranted, that rhetoric has no place in a bipartisan venue and it does damage to our mutual respect and mission.  You might feel (as some of my friends do) that bipartisanship and unity should not be a goal at this time.  If that’s the case, you are the ones choosing to be apart from the larger community.

And so I conclude with this promise – if you want room for your views in our institutions and conversations, I will do my part to make sure we do better by you. But is that what you really want?

About the Author
Rabbi Jason Herman serves as the Mara D’Atra, spiritual leader, of Congregation Beth Israel - West Side Jewish Center and as the Executive Director of the International Rabbinic Fellowship.
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