A year ago, I could not imagine myself traveling 440 miles by van from Boston to D.C. to take part in the Jewish Resistance at the AIPAC Policy Conference this weekend.
I was living in Jerusalem, spending a year in my homeland studying Torah and Talmud in a right-of-center political environment. Several of my teachers lived in the settlements and my fellow students labeled any opposition to Israel’s politics as anti-Semitism.
I was flirting with observance, weighing the costs and benefits of turning away from my secular upbringing and becoming part of an Orthodox community. I pretended that I fit in there, though deep down I knew I didn’t; I pretended that my contributions were valued there though it was quite clear they weren’t. My calls to bring more diverse voices and critiques of the Israeli political system into the learning environment were sometimes entertained but never enacted.
At the end of the term, I left more confident than ever that it was not the place for me, that it did not value my work or make me feel like I belonged there. I returned to the U.S. disillusioned with the mainstream Jewish community, feeling like there was nowhere for me to practice meaningful social justice work within any Jewish space.
It was in early November that my friend asked me to attend an IfNotNow training with her and I declined, for all the preconceived notions I had formed when I first heard of the movement last year. In college, I had seen the horrors of the occupation in the West Bank firsthand. I saw how the occupation impacted every aspect of Palestinians’ lives: from their access to water to their cell phone availability to the ability to travel to work or visit their families. This was not a system which allowed Palestinian residents dignity or freedom.
Still, I saw IfNotNow as a group of Jews who distanced themselves from Israel and Israeli-Americans like myself. I saw them as secular Jews who only knew of Jewish traditions from their oversimplified Hebrew School lessons. I saw them as unconcerned with fighting anti-Semitism.
A week later, November 8 came and through the fear and pain that followed, I thought that this could be a turning point. Instead of sleeping, I watched hours of videos of protests around the country and I wholeheartedly supported the activists participating. I thought, if this is how America becomes a country inhospitable to so many, let history show that we resisted.
Except I wasn’t resisting. I was glued to my computer screen, watching videos and “liking” posts. I watched as Trump hired Stephen Bannon, an anti-Semite and someone who gave a platform to neo-Nazis, as his chief strategist. I watched as swastikas were painted on Jewish properties and bomb threats were called in to the communities that had raised me. And I watched as organizations like AIPAC and the Jewish Federations of North America remained silent. I felt alone and terrified, even knowing that there were millions of others who felt the same way.
I continued to feel helpless and silent until December, when I begrudgingly registered for an IfNotNow training, only after my friend had convinced me give it a try. I was skeptical. I attended that training ready to poke holes in all of their arguments, ready to say I had given them a try and could now definitively claim this was not the place for me. When we sang the words of the union song “Which side are you on?” I still didn’t think I was on theirs.
At the end of the training, we split up into teams to discuss our role in the movement. Because “no team” was not an option, I decided to confer with the Affiliated and Observant Jews Team, hoping that my Torah skills could be used for good and thinking that I was more ready to commit myself to a small text study rather than a big protest. I discussed my thoughts and when I left the training that evening, thought I would leave it at that.
I was somewhat surprised when the Team asked me to join their meeting the following week. And I was even more surprised when they listened to my thoughts, despite the fact that I was completely new to the movement. I was still surprised when I was asked to serve as a marshal for Boston’s Inauguration Action, which prompted me to actually attend my first protest since the election.
IfNotNow kept listening to me, whether it was when I facilitated that text study or when I shared my story at Ed Markey’s office in an action urging him to vote “no” on confirming David Friedman. They listened to me as I organized against anti-Semitic violence. They gave me the strength to show up for others: to attend the Women’s March and the Rally Against Islamophobia in Boston and to fight for the protection of undocumented immigrants and Muslim-Americans.
Through IfNotNow, I was able to reimagine a Jewish community built out of love and justice rather than exclusion and power. I am confident that when thousands of us protest AIPAC this weekend, American Jews will listen.
Standing together, we will resist AIPAC’s actions that seek to make the occupation a permanent reality. We will resist AIPAC’s funding of the Islamophobic leaders who authored the Muslim ban. We will resist Mike Pence, the conference keynote speaker, and all of the bigotry that his administration perpetuates. Together we will reclaim, resist, and reimagine in the streets what it looks like to build a Jewish community that calls for the end to endless occupation, and freedom and dignity for all Palestinians and Israelis.
Ayelet Reiter is an activist, Jewish communal leader and scholar based in Boston, MA. She is an organizer with IfNotNow.
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