Opinion |

American Jews Have Enabled Israel's Occupation. Now We Must End It

The U.S. Jewish community's support for the occupation has been critical for its brutal longevity. But it has also led to American Jews' moral erosion

Yonah Lieberman
Yonah Lieberman
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An Israeli soldier searches a Palestinian following a protest in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails, in the West Bank city of Hebron May 19, 2017.
An Israeli soldier searches a Palestinian following a protest in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails, in the West Bank city of Hebron May 19, 2017. Credit: MUSSA QAWASMA/REUTERS
Yonah Lieberman
Yonah Lieberman

The past month, I and other members of IfNotNow participated in two powerful demonstrations against the Israeli occupation, timed with its 50th anniversary. Both of these actions - the construction of Sumud Freedom Camp in the South Hebron Hills and the disruption of Jerusalem Day’s "March of the Flags" - took place on occupied Palestinian land and included the leadership of American Jews from inception to execution.

In his recent op-ed, “Why American Jewish activists must help, not headline, anti-occupation efforts", Mikhael Manekin criticizes Diaspora Jews for what he perceives as an "insensitivity to local political concerns" in their protests, and argues that Diaspora Jews don’t believe that political reform is possible in Israel, which is what’s led to Diaspora Jews-led protests.

But he poses broader strategic questions worth engaging with: what should the relationship be between a grassroots movement challenging the Jewish community in the U.S. and the movement of Israelis and Palestinians working to bring the occupation to an end? What is the place of American Jews in the global anti-occupation effort?

As IfNotNow leaders, we believe it is primarily our responsibility to shift the American Jewish community, but we must also support Israeli and Palestinian movement building on the ground.

Manekin makes a key strategic mistake: He imagines that a clear line can be drawn between the politics of the American Jewish community and the occupation’s human rights violations in Palestine and the indifference to them in Israel. No such line exists, and in order to build a broad movement to end the occupation - a goal Manekin and IfNotNow share - we must recognize the ways in which the politics of our respective communities are inextricably tied together, and join hands to defeat the forces which currently maintain this unjust system of military rule.

When it comes to Manekin’s characterization of the actions, let’s make the record clear: the Sumud Freedom Camp was co-led by Israelis, Palestinians, and Diaspora Jews; IfNotNow was proud that of the 130 Diaspora Jews that helped establish the encampment, nearly 50 of them were our members. Days later, our members joined with Israeli Jews of Free Jerusalem and other Diaspora Jews of All That’s Left to prevent the violent sterilization of the Muslim Quarter by Israeli Police on Jerusalem Day. While each organization occupies a different corner of the anti-occupation movement, we developed these actions in deep partnership with one another.

No one in IfNotNow is under the impression that the occupation will end without massive political change within Israel or that such change will be led by anyone other than Palestinian and Israeli activists. But the Israeli government is not the only reason the occupation exists today, even as it may be the most significant factor.

Protesters at the Flag March on Jerusalem Day, May 24, 2017. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The occupation has existed for 50 years because it is propped up by a number of "pillars" that lend political, economic, and social support to a brutal system of military rule. These pillars include the American government, Christian Evangelicals, the companies and individuals that profit off the occupation -- and, of course, the American Jewish community.

IfNotNow is a movement to shift the American Jewish community away from supporting the occupation. We believe that our community plays a crucial role both in the politics on the ground and in the American arena. Any American effort to try and end the occupation without support of the American Jewish community is likely to fail. Not because American Jews are the sole or primary American supporters of the occupation, but because we are uniquely positioned to affect change.

Manekin suggests that we confine our work to the U.S. Of course, the vast majority of our work as IfNotNow will be in challenging the American Jewish establishment at home. That’s why thousands of us protested AIPAC’s annual conference in March, and why this month IfNotNow members have disrupted Israel Day parades all over the country to demand a different kind of politics in our community, one that does not celebrate 50 years of occupation.

But we know those who have dominated politics in the American Jewish community do not confine their work to the American scene. Pro-occupation activists do not rest after they have won influence over their alma-maters’ Hillels.

At a time in which American Jews give millions to settlers, legitimize Prime Minister Netanyahu’s leadership, and otherwise empower the Israeli right, it makes little sense to tell American anti-occupation activists that their work should remain within the boundaries of their own country.

When American Jews are on the board of Elad, the major settlement organization in East Jerusalem, asking that American anti-occupation activists stay out of Jerusalem is to ask us to abdicate our responsibility and cede the battle to those who perpetuate injustice, violence, and oppression.

Palestinian protesting Flag March in Jerusalem, May 24, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

This is why we took the action we did on Jerusalem Day. We felt compelled to confront the hatred and violence on full display during the March of the Flags, in which thousands of American Jews participate. And we wanted to show our community what our support for occupation enables: young settlers shoving nonviolent protestors and the way violence of Israeli security forces is used against Palestinians to protect the interest of extreme right-wing, religious Jews.

During the demonstration, I was dragged in a headlock by Israeli Border Police moments after they broke the arm of rabbinical student and friend, Sarah Brammer-Shlay. The violence we faced was terrifying, but just a taste of the daily nightmare that is the occupation for millions of Palestinians. Yet the reality of the conversation in our community makes the violence we faced more tangible - i.e. "That could have been my daughter!" -- than the daily violence the occupation visits upon the Palestinians who suffer under it.

Manekin writes "[Diaspora Jews] should remember that Israel/Palestine is not their home, that they do not pay taxes, vote and elect representatives, and they will not suffer the consequences of their actions."

This is true. But it ignores the ways that decades of supporting a military occupation has eroded the basic moral fabric of the American Jewish community. It ignores the toll that decades of cognitive dissonance has on the future of our community. It is clear that there is no greater moral issue facing the American Jewish community than the way our communal institutions have supported occupation for 50 years.

We are proud to have joined Israelis and Palestinians in protest against Israel’s occupation. We plan to continue building the Jewish anti-occupation movement in the United States and continue to join with Israelis and Palestinians in greater numbers as the occupation enters its second half-century. We invite Manekin to be our partner in that struggle, and ask him to stand with us, as we look forward to standing with him, in this movement we are building, together.

Yonah Lieberman is a Brooklyn-based organizer and founding member of IfNotNow. He is originally from Washington, DC and has also organized around racial, immigrant, and housing justice. Follow him on Twitter: @YonahLieberman

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