Opinion |

IfNotNow Doesn’t Deserve the Support of Left-leaning American Jews

IfNotNow and its co-founder Simone Zimmerman challenge U.S. Jews to end the occupation. But they won't answer this basic question: Do you support a Jewish and democratic state in Israel, alongside a Palestinian state? And if not, why not?

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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Members of IfNotNow march through the streets of Washington, D.C., April 19, 2016.
Members of IfNotNow march through the streets of Washington, D.C., April 19, 2016.Credit: Gili Getz
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

IfNotNow is not a pro-Israel organization. It does not deserve the support of left-leaning American Jews.  It flunks the most basic test of what Jews on the left and the center should require of organizations that profess to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

It is safe to say that, until recently, the great majority of American Jews had never heard of IfNotNow, which has existed for only two years. But after its co-founder, Simone Zimmerman, was hired and then fired as Jewish outreach coordinator for the Bernie Sanders campaign, a flurry of articles has appeared expressing various measures of sympathy both for Zimmerman and for the work of IfNotNow. 

Zimmerman may have admirable qualities. I do not know her. But the organization that she helped to create deserves no sympathy. It takes no position on whether or not Jews should have a state in the Land of Israel. It takes no position on Zionism, which asserts the right of Jews to a homeland that is both Jewish and democratic. It takes no position on BDS, the movement that attempts to do away with Israel through a policy of economic boycott, divestment, and sanctions.  

No person or organization can claim to be a friend of Israel and remain silent on matters so fundamental to Israel’s character and very existence. Note to members of IfNotNow: If you are not committed to a Jewish and democratic Israel and to a two-state solution that makes such an Israel possible, that is your business. But absent such a commitment, you have forfeited your right to expect support and serious consideration from the organized Jewish community. And you have certainly forfeited the right to lecture American Jewish groups on what they should be saying about Israel.    

The principles of IfNotNow declare that “we seek to end American Jewish support for the occupation.” Fine. I want to end the occupation too. But the issue of what comes after the occupation is not incidental. It is the heart of the matter. After all, Hamas and Hezbollah also want to end the occupation, proposing to replace it with a Muslim-majority state in all of Israel. And some Jews on Israel’s far left take a similar view, believing that Jews and Palestinians can live in a single state, with the Jewish minority dependent on the goodwill and good intentions of their Palestinian neighbors.

Yet the great majority of Israelis recognize that such an arrangement is a formula for chaos and constant war, and they remain committed to a two-state approach. So too does the government of the United States. So too does the European Union. So too do most American Jews. So too does the United Nations. Getting there will be immensely difficult, of course, both because of Palestinian resistance and Israeli equivocation. But there is no other way. 

Any organization that refuses to say in what direction the political situation in Israel/Palestine should be headed has no right to be taken seriously.  Any organization that cannot decide if it is for Zionism or against Zionism is guilty of moral cowardice. Any organization that cannot choose between two-state advocates and BDS advocates has lost its way.

Many of the articles written about IfNotNow and Simone Zimmerman expressed concern that opposition to the group by established Jewish organizations would alienate Jewish millenials. But such an approach is oddly patronizing; we are not dealing with children here. Jewish young people are a diverse bunch, of course, and it is hard to know how many of them identify with IfNotNow. Still, while the Jewish community should be concerned with millenials and their relationship to Judaism and Israel, it should treat them like the adults that they are — and this means engaging them, taking on their arguments, and telling them when we think they are wrong. 

Bizarrely, some Jewish professionals seem to be unaware of what the organization stands for. In a statement following IfNotNow sit-ins in the building in which ADL is located in New York, ADL’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt stated that IfNotNow and ADL share the same goal of a two-state solution. But they don’t. As noted, IfNotNow takes no position on two states, and never has.

IfNotNow is right about some things, of course. It is surely right that the occupation is pernicious and everything possible must be done to bring it to an end. It is right in suggesting that many American Jewish organizations have been too reluctant to criticize Israel for settlement activity and that these organizations should be far bolder than they have been in addressing such matters. It is right in calling for direct action, including demonstrations and sit-ins, to further its goals. But none of this means very much if we don’t know what those goals are — and we don’t. And it is not helpful to say “end the occupation” if that is all you are going to say, without adding what should come next.

In an article in Haaretz on February 29, IfNotNow co-founder Simone Zimmerman, who got all of this hullabaloo started, wrote the following: “We millenials have one simple question for our community’s leaders: Do you support equal rights for all people and if so, what are you going to do about it?”

Fair enough. And my question for you is: Does IfNotNow support a Jewish and democratic state in Israel, alongside a Palestinian state? And if it doesn’t, why not?

Millenials and members of IfNotNow are entitled to an answer to Zimmerman’s question. But community leaders and activists are entitled to an answer to mine.

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