NEW YORK – A controversial new organization calling itself If Not Now is rapidly gaining attention, members and steam. But critics say that its mostly millennial members aren’t accomplishing anything substantive with its current approach. The group’s profile recently climbed when its founder, Simone Zimmerman, was very publicly fired by United States presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who had recently hired her as his Jewish outreach coordinator.
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If Not Now wants mainstream American Jewish organizations to publicly oppose Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, with the expectation that the change will move Israel’s leaders to end it. To push them forward, INN holds what are essentially sit-ins in the lobbies of buildings housing Jewish groups. Just before Passover, it held “liberation Seders” at the entrances of Jewish organizations in Washington, Boston, New York, Chicago and San Francisco.
Leaders of some of those Jewish organizations have invited INN members to meet for discussions, but they are refusing.
As a result, those who they are trying to reach say that INN’s efforts are little but divisive spectacle, rather than a constructive effort to move forward. INN also overestimates the influence that American Jewish leaders have over the Israeli government on any issue, let alone Israeli-Palestinian peace, they say.
But the new organization is proceeding with training new members in its techniques and conducting more demonstrations.
Two days before Passover about 100 INN members entered the Manhattan building housing the Anti-Defamation League. Seventeen refused to leave when police told them to and were arrested for trespassing and disorderly conduct, though quickly released. Another 100 INN members held a mock Seder in front of Hillel International’s office in Washington. And more did so in front of Boston’s Jewish Federation, moving later to the Boston AIPAC office, chaining themselves outside. When six chained themselves inside the lobby, they were arrested.
In Berkeley, INN members set up inside the local Jewish federation office. After police forced them out, street to continue chanting for Palestinian liberation.
While protesters were still in the ADL’s building lobby and tweeting to the organization, the ADL tweeted back, “there’s more that we agree on than disagree on. Let’s talk about it. When are you free?”
Protest leaders immediately shot down the idea. INN leader Ethan Miller, 24, penned a JewSchool article titled “Meetings won’t end our community’s support for the occupation.” He wrote, “The idea that a sit-down meeting between ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt and any number of IfNotNow leaders would somehow assuage our core grievances with the leadership of the American Jewish establishment minimizes the severity of our dissent and is frankly absurd.”
Elizabeth Horne, 25, another INN leader, told Haaretz, “Institutions should be making public statements about what’s happening. We’re tired of no progress. It’s been years and years of quiet meetings and people being let down. This moment calls for something much bigger than that. We’re in a crisis and unless these institutions are willing to make a bold statement we’re not interested in doing things behind closed doors ... It’s really important that the entire Jewish community is pushed on a larger level.”
The ADL’s Greenblatt told Haaretz that INN’s “categorical dismissal” of the invitation to meet “shows us the group is not interested in constructive engagement, but prefers theatrical stunts and ultimatums. It’s disappointing to think that these young leaders prefer spectacle to engaging. I don’t think that moves us forward.”
President Barack Obama said recently that Black Lives Matter protesters “can’t just keep yelling,” and and would be better served by working with political leaders to address problems like racial profiling.
Similarly, said Greenblatt, “It’s nice to get attention but it’s better to get things done. Protests are nice but proposals are better. Slogans are easy but strategies are hard. If you really want to move the needle you’ve got to make things happen. That means understanding the issue in its complexity and acknowledging that complexity.”
The Boston Jewish Community Relations Council is housed in the same building as the city’s Jewish federation. INN members protested outside on April 19. The JCRC’s executive director, Jeremy Burton, also publicly invited INN members to have an open meeting to discuss their objectives. His invitation was ignored, though when INN held a similar protest during the Gaza conflict in 2014, they demanded a meeting with the federation leadership and got it.
“I don’t see how just showing up outside buildings or a couple of people getting arrested without having a real conversation about the vision with the people they say are the target of that work will achieve anything,” Burton told Haaretz. “It’s not clear to me what their overall goal is in terms of the Jewish community here.”
Hillel International’s spokesman said the organization had no comment on INN.
Some of those targeted by INN and willing to engage with its members say it is ironic that they share INN’s desire for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that many of them are in their 40s, not terribly different in age from INN members, who are in their 20s and 30s.
“We want the same thing, an end to the occupation and a two-state solution,” Burton, 48, told Haaretz. “If I’m wrong about that then it requires conversation to understand what they’re talking about. If I’m right then I don’t understand INN’s overall strategy and vision.”
Greenblatt, 45, noted that the ADL works specifically on issues of civility and dialogue, and that pushing for a two-state solution is not part of its agenda, though the organization is on record as supporting it. “Change starts with engagement. It starts with dialogue. Within the Jewish community we ought to be able to do that in a civil way,” he said.
INN is wrong in tweets and Facebook posts when blaming the ADL for having its members arrested, said Greenblatt. The ADL is one of many tenants in a 40-story midtown Manhattan office building. “They trespassed in the lobby of our building and obstructed all the tenants,” he said. If they want to find out who called in the police, “they should ask building management.”
Roughly 300 people have participated if INN’s two-day training workshops around the country, Miller told Haaretz, and it expects that hundreds more will be involved with the group after its next round of trainings, being held in six cities from Philadelphia to Los Angeles between early May and early June.
The decentralized group has no hierarchy, calling each of its organizers leaders. Another leader is Zimmerman, who was quickly fired after being hired by the Sanders campaign, when earlier tweets cursing Netanyahu were made public. She has since kept a low public profile and did not respond to emails sent by a reporter. She was vacationing in Mexico, another INN member said, and her mobile mailbox was full. The San Francisco Bay area’s INN chapter wrote on its Facebook page that Zimmerman was ousted after “a witch hunt.”
The group takes its name from Hillel the Elder’s famous saying “If I am not for myself, who is for me ... and if not now, when?”
It began in 2014 during the Gaza conflict as a small, ad hoc group of mostly young Jews who came together outside of mainstream Jewish organizations to demonstrate against Israel’s use of force in the conflict initiated by Hamas. Then it went silent for nearly two years. But it awakened in February when the group unveiled a website and began organizing in cities around the country and running its two-day training workshops.
INN is overestimating the influence American Jewish leaders have with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, say some who are the targets of its demonstrations. They can’t even get Netanyahu to stand behind commitments he made to provide an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. And several top leaders held secret meetings with Netanyahu before he came to the U.S. in March 2015 to inveigh Congress not to back the then-imminent Iran nuclear deal. Leaders of the organized Jewish community at the highest level, including from AIPAC, appealed to him not to proceed with his planned speech to Congress, saying that it would divide the American Jewish community and the U.S.’s long-standing bipartisan support of Israel. But they got nowhere, and he proceeded to make the speech as planned.
In some cities members and leaders of Jewish Voice for Peace, which actively supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, are also deeply involved with INN. Supporting BDS, about which INN takes no position, is going too far for even progressive mainstream American Jewish leaders.
INN is “helping to make visible what JVP has known to be true for many years; that a generational gap is growing as many young Jews are disillusioned with the Israel they were taught to admire when they are faced with the reality of its abusive policies toward Palestinians,” JVP spokeswoman Naomi Dann told Haaretz.
INN’s view of responsibility for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also regarded by many as unbalanced.
“We have never supported a view of the conflict that sees only Israelis as responsible for it,” said the ADL’s Greenblatt. “I find that part [of INN’s message] vexing, particularly at a time when delegitimization campaigns are being waged against Israel based on the idea that only Israel is at fault.”
Taking such a position “only drives us further apart,” Greenblatt said.
A meeting between senior Jewish organizational leaders and J Street U activists took place just days before INN’s protests and presents a relevant contrast, noted Burton.
There was “real conversation about their priorities, how to make change, how to be allies. J Street U is serious about engaging with, understanding and moving Jewish communal institutions in a meaningful way. That comes through discourse,” said Burton.
In contrast, he said, If Not Now “seems unstrategic.”