Wendy Kalman
There are many ways to see and understand

Why my answer to IfNotNow is Not Now

Some of the Democratic candidates for 2020 presidential election. Photo courtesy of Reuters

IfNotNow, a Jewish group of activists, has its eyes on targets outside of the Jewish world. Whereas once their primary focus was to disrupt Birthright tours and confront Jewish sleepaway camps (which they still are doing), they’ve now changed from  a 501(c)3  non-profit to a 501(c)4, which allows them to participate in political campaigns, and hired six people to put 2020 Democratic candidates on the spot, sowing divisiveness in a party that desperately needs to unite.

The group opposes Israel’s occupation and wants to publicly call out what it sees as America’s support of the occupation. In becoming a political entity, the group wants to position itself on the opposite spectrum of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, painting AIPAC as a supporter of the current situation. IfNotNow’s tactics are to publicly disrupt and to create soundbites.

I not only have to question its premises but to also point out the major problems with its tactics and express my fears about its fallout.

False premise No. 1: America supports the occupation. While I have seen Israel become unfortunately complacent and comfortable with the status quo, I cannot find anyone anywhere who wants Israel to permanently oversee territories or who wants Palestinians to permanently live in limbo. What America does support is for the two sides to arrive at a peace plan. President after president has had this on his agenda. Given how impossible it has been to date to have the sides arrive at an agreement, let alone to talk with each other, shouldn’t instead activist groups be promoting how the United States could support both Israelis and Palestinians by replacing antagonistic actions with ones that build good will? Please do read my blog What we should be saying in place of end the occupation; suffice it to say I can only imagine how much more helpful it would be to the Palestinians if IfNotNow’s premise were instead to be that America isn’t promoting good relationships between the two sides.

False premise No. 2: AIPAC supports the occupation. AIPAC, as I’ve written before, is not only bipartisan, but its raison d’etrestrengthening, protecting and promoting the U.S.-Israel relationship,” means that its focus is on the relationship between the two countries, no matter which political party is determining policy in either country. The fact that Likud has been at Israel’s helm for well over a decade is because that is how Israel’s electorate has voted; if the country swings left, AIPAC will support America’s relationship with it as well, as it has when Labor headed coalitions. To take it one step further, not only is AIPAC itself is made up of many supporters who see things differently from each other, but it has publicly disagreed with Israeli politics too.

Their tactics too are problematic, because they make short shrift of a topic that deserves our full attention.

In an in-depth piece in Ha’aretz, IfNotNow Is So Noisy About the Occupation. Why Is It So Quiet About Israel’s Right to Exist?, Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie frames his rounded piece on questions he is often asked. He touches on the areas that IfNotNow is concerned about, like how Israel is taught in religious schools and Jewish camps. As he points out, it is a difficult topic to teach and should be handled so that the objective truths drive the lesson.

The truth, as I’ve pointed out before, is that peace is not a zero sum game. Both sides see the past differently, they have different desires for moving forward (self-determination on one side, safety on the other), and the only way to get them to move forward is for each to try and see from the other’s perspective while also acknowledging its own side’s roadblocks. In trying to force politicians to only answer about Israel’s responsibility for the occupation, the group neglects to address how it proposes the occupation be ended. Don’t the Palestinians deserve unified leadership that will work together to give Israel what it needs – security? Without that, whom would Israel speak with? IfNotNow doesn’t address this. Does IfNotNow (naively) expect Israel to unilaterally withdraw? I find that hard to comprehend. The status quo can only be changed via bilateral agreement; no slogans or sound bites directed only at one side can ever achieve that.

I also must note that in putting all its efforts on ending the occupation without devoting any thought to what happens afterwards, IfNotNow misses an opportunity to create the kind of dialogues that are necessary in order to actually move things forward.

This takes us to their latest plan of action, challenging all 2020 Democrats. With cameras in tow, they’ve so far confronted Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar (no clip, just a meme), with more to come. Bernie Sanders (who once had Simone Zimmerman, IfNotNow co-founder, on his staff) and Elizabeth Warren (who has now hired Max Berger, IfNotNow’s co-founder, onto hers (caveat, piece is written from the right), have jumped on board. But the others offer answers that reflect complexity more than soundbites, though I have seen tweets and articles selectively choosing verbiage and then framing responses from different angles.

This is even more egregious since IfNotNow will not state that they support a two-state solution. Among the principles they espouse on their website, are that they “seek to end American Jewish support for the occupation” (by ambushing non-Jewish politicians?) and “do not take a unified stance on BDS, Zionism or the question of statehood,” all of which are intertwined with Israel’s right to exist. It is impossible to discuss occupation without discussing what replaces it. You cannot reach one goal without defining the other.

Why do I fear what IfNotNow is doing? In its pursuit of soundbites, the group risks dividing the Democratic party at a time where it needs to come together. Democratic Majority for Israel recognized what IfNotNow is doing and sent a memo to all Democratic candidates to alert them; it was shared in an article by the Huffington Post.

Honestly, can anyone find fault in its suggestion as to how one could respond to IfNotNow? “I strongly support a two-state solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict. That solution must give Israelis security and Palestinians a state, but it must also be negotiated directly by the parties, not imposed by outsiders.” Instead, IfNotNow name calls Democratic Majority for Israel as “AIPAC for Democrats” and pats itself on the back.

Their tactics have no substance because they do not drive forward any process that could lead to a resolution. But they are loud and full of themselves. Unprepared politicians will say what they say on the spot and then either be stuck with the fallout or have to retrench when they’ve learned or thought about it more, and in the meantime, the division between candidates and within the party itself will grow.

Last week I blogged about how the Democratic party is hurting, emphasizing less the Middle East and more the bigger picture. This week, in light of Trump’s blatant xenophobic statements towards “The Squad” (and in which he brought up Israel to weaponize his tweet), Nancy Pelosi rightfully defended them and has even introduced a resolution condemning the president for it.

This temporary circling of the wagons does not resolve the bigger issues that exist in the party and which IfNotNow will exacerbate. Candidates ought to work together to create coherent goals and a uniform party platform in order to beat Donald Trump in 2020. After that, they can articulate why each one thinks he or she is best fit to make it happen, e.g., his or her record, and his or her plans to reach those goals. Candidates need to keep in mind that Trump supporters will flock to the polls, disgruntled Republicans will need to be persuaded and specific blocs, like black women (among the five delineated by political analysis site Five Thirty Eight) and progressive Zionists, are worth courting and holding on to.

As I’ve written twice before (Between a rock and a hard place and Progressive, Zionist and trying to make it work), Democratic Zionists are finding it difficult to find a political home. We should not be among those who are alienated, no matter how many cameras IfNotNow sticks in candidates’ faces. The party needs to have a serious discussion on how they envision a just future for both Israelis and Palestinians, and that requires more than a simple statement regarding the occupation.

If its purpose is to solely disrupt without providing any answers, then this is not the time for IfNotNow.

About the Author
Wendy Kalman, MPA, MA, serves as Director of Education and Advocacy Resources for Hadassah The Women's Zionist Organization of America, Inc. Previous roles include senior academic researcher for an Israel education nonprofit, knowledge manager at a large multinational as well as roles in marketing and publishing in the US and in Israel. She has presented papers at political science and communications conferences and has participated as a scholar-in-residence at an academic workshop on antisemitism. Wendy lived in Israel for over a decade and is a dual citizen, fluent in Hebrew.
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