. . . And it’s going to get worse thanks to us, their peers and families.
|Rather than showcasing human suffering, #IfNotNow’s spokespeople like Noah Wagner engage in insufferable hoaxes.|
I was drawn to write this by a NOW THIS video shared by Pakistani pro-Israel activist Naveed Anjum. In the clip, a young peach fuzz faced person from #IfNotNow explained the rationale behind their protest at Birthright. This is a reflection on why this is happening, and how I would answer it.
As a youngster I surfed the still new internet during the Netscape years, playing computer tennis online at the library and reading all sorts of intriguing pieces of content while sitting at the library across the street from my late mom’s condo. It was through hours of reading there, both online and offline, that I came to be part of the Jewish left of the early 2000s. I still believed in a Jewish state, but I was sure that given the deaths and suffering of so many Palestinians that there was a clear oppressor vs. oppressed dynamic going on. Around that time, I was beginning to wake up to the bankrupt two-party system in the USA as well, and had I been of voting age I would have cast a ballot for Ralph Nader, in part due to the stunning protest of Rage Against the Machine at the 2000 Democratic National Convention.
However, upon graduating high school and having no obvious career goals I did end up taking a Birthright trip (not my first visit to Israel), moving to Israel and serving in the army there. Along the way I discovered that while there’s a very dystopian reality going on, there was no oppresser vs. oppressed fault line; rather people on both sides had chosen poor leadership. The Israelis had selected governments that were prepared to concede essential strategic assets in the name of good PR whereas the Palestinians had beholden themselves to warlords. Litigating that conflict is not the intention here, so let’s set aside which side the reader takes in this divide. This episode calls into question how opinions are formed and whether experience trumps theory.
Living under and serving the Israeli civil and military systems while stationed in the West Bank changed my perception of politics; progressive compassion could not offer a solution. Palestinian society is governed by iron-clad tradition, and modernizing elements within it are often shunned due to the perception that it is a polluting heresy or bid’ah as it is known in Islam. On the other hand in Israel there is a contentious tug-of-war between a strong progressive secular sector and religious communities and institutions. The sad truth is that neither of the two societies has a government or civil society that champions both faith and personal liberty. It was at this time that I began to question whether the themes of communalism and popular struggle, endemic to both Israeli and Palestinian society, had run its course. I had to experience this in order to form that opinion; it wasn’t something that could be acquired by surfing the web or opening a book.
Fast forward to this summer and the latest “statement” by fresh faced kids of #IfNotNow like the star of the video, Noah Wagner, who sported a haircut reminiscent of Jon Cryer from Pretty in Pink. Wagner smugly pans the Birthright Israel program even while the video illustrates his disingenuous take on it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against criticism of Israel, and as a freedom of speech advocate I even oppose hate speech laws, but Wagner’s own statements show that his intentions belie his story.
Who told you there would be multiple perspectives?
On his own blog post from July in digboston, Wagner claimed “When I signed up to go on Birthright this summer — a 10-day fully funded program for Jews to tour Israel — I hoped to learn more about Israel/Palestine from multiple perspectives.” But the reality is that in his video he admitted to attending protests led by #IfNotNow during the spring against Israel’s response to the Right of Return. He claims that when signing up for Birthright he believed the program would offer “multiple perspectives” on the conflict and that he was disappointed that it ended up being mostly right-wing propaganda promoted by casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson.
But Wagner had said that he was a member of an organization that had already concluded prior to his trip that Birthright was lying about the occupation. How do we know? Well, in April he wrote a post in The Forward discussing his arrest for participating in a protest at the Israeli consulate in Boston, all of it under the auspices of #IfNotNow. This summer that group launched #NotJustAFreeTrip, a confrontational activism campaign to force Birthright trip goers to face the reality of the occupation, or at least as #IfNotNow sees it. The campaign included direct demonstrations at airports confronting departing Birthright participants.
That’s their right, just as it is mine to disagree with them – but it also showcases the dishonesty of Wagner and the three colleagues that accompanied him on a protest during their Birthright trip. They were not expecting “multiple perspectives”, because Birthright does not claim to offer it, and they were fully aware of that because they were activists in an opposing group. There are a variety of trip organizers depending on social and religious niche, but each one has its own perspective. Birthright’s most basic mission statement is the following: “To ensure the vibrant future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities, and connection with Israel”. So rather than expose hidden information, #IfNotNow had set up a false hypothesis that could easily be rejected. It does not end there. Below are the most transparently false statements of Wagner’s short video.
- 0:56 “Jewish values. . . social justice”. Anchovies meet ship anchor. Two topics that have virtually nothing to do with one another except some very superficial platitudes about “Tikkun Olam”. If the entire Jewish tradition could be summarized in one small phrase it wouldn’t be “Tikkun Olam” but rather “Hey, wait a minute, I paid service charge AND I put down a tip?” Sorry, we might as well laugh at ourselves if we can’t laugh at the news. But in all seriousness, the cliched deployment of social justice as a “Jewish value” has blinded generations of Jews in the West to the fact that Judaism is a religion that includes many legal and moral imperatives that run contrary to modern social justice tropes. Open almost any page of the Torah or other book of scripture and one can find a rich variety of gory violence inflicted by or against the ancient Israelites. But I’m sure your mom picked out a nice bow tie for your confirmation.
- 1:42 “Fifty-one year long occupation. . .” When Wagner used those words while describing the Gaza carnage, he deliberately misstated the intention of the Great March of Return, a false statement that could only be made out of either ignorance or deception. As its title suggests the March is about the Right of Return of pre-1948 residents and their families to Israel, not ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Even Al Jazeera admits this. So are we the ones ignoring the voices of Palestinians, or is #IfNotNow putting words in their mouths?
- 2:02 “A formal policy of not allowing Palestinians to speak to their tours.” In this part of the segment, Wagner tries to paint his participation in Birthright as an act of innocent soul searching, but to believe that would require assuming that he had not read his trip itinerary or consulted the information of both Birthright and #IfNotNow on the trips. Are we really to believe that an activist for an anti-Birthright organization innocently attempted to tag along and give a fair shake to one of its tours during an organized campaign against it by his own group? He then proceeds to the “big scoop”. . .
- 2:25 “This is not a coincidence”. Wagner makes this dramatic statement having given the big reveal that Birthright is funded by Adelson and the State of Israel. What a fantastic bit of investigative journalism: Discussing actions and statements that have always been publicly known and even advertised under the pretense that this is some sort of great exposé. Uh huh. . . next you’ll tell us it’s dangerous to go outside without sunscreen.
- 2:41 “From day one it was clear to me that the other people on my trip wanted to know more about the occupation and hear directly from Palestinians”. This is once again predicated on the notion that Wagner was undertaking the trip with an open mind. However, when his group walked off of a trip on July 15, they were the second such #IfNotNow cadre to do so. The trip organizers made no effort to stop them either, and a fellow #IfNotNow activist Eilon Glickman admitted that they had been inspired by the previous group. If there was such an abiding desire on the part of non-activists to hear “other perspectives”, how come the only people that went off to seek them were members of the original kernel of activists?
- 3:05. The spontaneously perfect family gathering. Upon ditching the tour, Wagner would have us believe that there was a family of Arab residents of East Jerusalem that miraculously was willing to host them for a lively discussion on injustice and oppression. This event could not have happened serendipitously, just as a finger from heaven does not press play for the audio track when Ashlee Simpson or Milli Vanilli are performing live. This is just further indication that it was a planned stunt, and that these eight individuals did not briefly turn into open-minded tourists, but were in their activist role the whole time.
The clip in its entirety does not feature any actual audio or statement from the people that Wagner was criticizing, nor from the Palestinians he was visiting. Is he now claiming to speak on behalf of them, and if so does this not constitute engagement in the notorious crime of “whitesplaining”? After all, the behaviour that Wagner and his cohort engaged in during this trip mirror exactly the same activities of white volunteers in Africa in this AJ+ video condemning “white saviour complex”. Coincidentally, AJ+ (a digital offshoot of Al Jazeera) featured #IfNotNow in this April video. How can they be for and against white saviour complex at the same time?
We created this
Unfortunately, as a product of a similar culture as the #IfNotNow noble souls, I do not expect an improvement. These are the same types of people that have ruined journalism and pop culture by manufacturing controversies. The young men and women coming out of the Jewish homes in the West are not only alienated from the values of open debate and free thought, but equally so to the spirituality and tradition of their forefathers. Should we then be surprised that several of them took league with an activist group and in bad faith took advantage of a free program, politically slanted as it was, to stage an act of political theater under the guise of a walkout?
This new generation are not “self-hating Jews”, they are simply lovers of a Jewish identity that is the product of a delusional cultural sphere. They are faithful to the gospel of suffering, and worship at the altar of struggle for an imaginary identity. They cannot learn to appreciate their full heritage from before the tragedy of the Holocaust, because they have no other compass within the Jewish faith to guide them. Simultaneously, they seek to destroy the accomplishments of the British enlightenment that created the values of personal freedom while at the same time having an equal disdain for the actual teachings of the Torah beyond Tikkun Olam. This latest iteration of the species that milks a free trip in order to engage in political play acting is not the first and won’t be the last, and unfortunately we only have ourselves to blame for the raising of these posh protesters.