Opinion |

IfNotNow Is So Noisy About the Occupation. Why Is It So Quiet About Israel's Right to Exist?

IfNotNow rightly calls for Jews to talk honestly about the occupation. So why won't they talk honestly about whether a Jewish state should even exist?

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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Image from ifnotnow Instagram account, April 10 2018
Image from ifnotnow Instagram account, April 10 2018Credit: ifnotnow Instagram
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

No one can deny that IfNotNow makes a lot of noise. What is less clear is whether it makes a lot of sense. But many of its members are serious people, and they deserve a serious response.

For those who do not know, IfNotNow is an anti-occupation group made up mostly of millennials. It has no position on whether or not there should be a Jewish state.

One of its major projects is its "You Never Told Me" campaign, which calls on Jewish educational organizations and institutions to include information about the occupation in their teachings about Israel.

This month it protested at a gala dinner celebrating Birthright, which provides free trips to Israel for young Jewish men and women. Last November, it rallied outside the Jewish Theological Seminary, demanding that the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah system begin talking about the occupation at their camps.

It’s also demonstrated outside the AIPAC conference, at U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman’s confirmation hearing, and tried to block last year’s 'Celebrate Israel' parade in New York.

The Reform movement too has IfNotNow sympathizers in its ranks, and as a former Reform leader who is both dovish on territorial issues and a critic of IfNotNow, I hear from them from time to time. Below is one of the questions that I received and my answer.

Question: You’ve been outspoken in the past with criticism of IfNotNow, a movement led by millennial Jews working to end the American Jewish community’s support for the occupation.

Since you wrote an op-ed in Haaretz in 2016 (IfNotNow Doesn't Deserve the Support of Left-leaning American Jews), IfNotNow has grown, and some of its members have shared stories of disappointment in the one-sided Israel education that they received as young people in the Reform movement.

What would you say to a millennial who feels betrayed by the education about Israel/Palestine they received? Do you believe Israel educators should make a concerted effort to teach Palestinian narratives about the Occupation?

Answer: Your question raises several critical issues.

First, if a young Reform Jew told me that he or she felt betrayed by the education about Israel/Palestine she had received, I would want to hear the specifics.

In my experience, there are wild disparities in how Israel is taught in Reform schools and camps. Some of our educational institutions do a very good job teaching about Israel, but others do not.

And that is particularly true when it comes to teaching about the realities of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank since 1967.

There are many reasons for this disparity. There is a natural tendency among Jews to emphasize the positive dimensions of Israel rather than her problems.

The occupation is a difficult subject and not easy to teach even by experienced teachers. And the fact is that many of our teachers and camp counselors are not experienced educators but enthusiastic volunteers, lacking the sophistication required for instruction about post-1967 Israel.

Another factor is that we have many more younger children than older children in our educational system, and elementary age children cannot readily comprehend what the occupation is about.

It must also be acknowledged that many parts of the Jewish community, including segments of the Reform community, have simply not come to grips with the occupation: They have not thought through its implications and see it as a problem best avoided, rather than honestly confronted.

Secondly, I would make it clear that I have no problem with anyone who is a critic of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. I am a lover of Israel and a Zionist, but also a frequent critic of the occupation. The Israeli political leaders whom I most admire are also critics of the occupation. Even if the occupation started because of Arab attacks on Israel (and it did), and even if most of the occupiers try to be humane in their approach to those whose lives they control, no occupation can remain benevolent.

That is why I desperately want the occupation to end. But while I am committed to a two-state solution that will enable Israel to remain both Jewish and democratic, I see little chance that such a solution will come about soon. Palestinian, Israeli, and American leaders are all failing to do what needs to be done.

This means that, for a while at least, the occupation will endure. And I know that as time passes, Israel’s occupation will continue to do what every occupation does: Corrupt the occupiers and oppress the occupied.

It is important, therefore, that Jewish educators find a way to discuss this situation, especially when dealing with children who are old enough to understand. Of course, it is also critically important that other things be taught about the Jewish state - that it is a cause for rejoicing and thanksgiving that has returned the Jewish people to history; that without Israel, we are a truncated, incomplete people; and that while criticizing Israel is always acceptable, distancing oneself from Israel is not.

Third, if asked about "Palestinian narratives," I would make it clear that I don’t believe in teaching "Palestinian narratives" about the occupation, just as I don’t believe in teaching "Israeli narratives" about the occupation. I believe in teaching objective facts about the history of the conflict. Only this should be taught in synagogue schools, in Israeli schools, in Palestinian schools, and in every other venue where the Middle Eastern conflict is discussed.

Zionists such as I do not fear teaching the objective truth. We know that Israeli leaders have made mistakes and in some cases grave moral errors. And we are not afraid to acknowledge the painful chapters in our history. But we also know that the Zionist story, objectively told, is mostly extraordinary, heroic, and inspiring.

And we know as well that, properly read, this history points us in the direction of true compromise: a just Israel, and a democratic Palestine.

And finally, this: If my questioner belonged to IfNotNow, I would make it clear that I have no problem with IfNotNow demanding honest education about Israel and Palestine. Honesty is the essential element of good education. But I do have a problem with IfNotNow’s refusal to take a position on whether a Jewish state should even exist.

By failing to recognize the importance of a Jewish state, IfNotNow is refusing to consider the well-being or even the living reality of Israel’s 6.5 million Jews. It is refusing to acknowledge the importance of national sovereignty to an embattled Jewish people, which, after 2000 years, is finally able to control its own destiny.

So yes, I would say, you are right to be unhappy if no one taught you about the occupation. But education that is good, moral, and Jewish must not only teach about the occupation, but also about what is to replace the occupation.

And that means not one people ruling another, but two states: A sovereign, independent State of Israel that will rally the Jewish people to her side and strengthen Jews everywhere. And a sovereign, independent State of Palestine that will live in peace alongside Israel, providing justice and security to a Palestinian people long relegated to victimhood by its own leaders and by the nations of the world.

That is the education we should aspire to provide to our students.

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie

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