What to make of the emergence of yet another group of Jewish activists protesting the policies of Israel while openly and pointedly identifying themselves as Jews?
The group If Not Now first formed back in 2014 but seems to have taken center stage earlier this week at a protest outside the AIPAC conference in Washington. The protest was attended by roughly a thousand people, and Yonah Lieberman, an If Not Now co-founder, described it as “the biggest ever Jewish-led protest of AIPAC.”
One of course might ponder: why is it so important that the protest be openly labeled as “Jewish-led”?
The group’s name is taken from a saying by Hillel, the Jewish religious leader who rose to prominence in the years prior to the birth of Christ, and who once posed three questions: “If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”
A visit to the group’s website reveals a rather Judeo-centric mindset:
Today, the Jewish community is faced with a choice. Will we choose a Judaism that supports freedom and dignity for all Israelis and Palestinians, or will we let the leadership of the establishment define our tradition as incompatible with our values?
Will we continue down the path of isolation and fear that’s destroying the lives of millions of Palestinians and alienating a generation of young Jews? Or, will we create a vibrant Judaism that emerges from the trauma of our past to bring our tradition to life in the present?
We have chosen. We are building a Jewish community that recognizes we cannot be free absent the freedom of Palestinians. No longer will our community be used by American politicians and the American public to justify the violation of Palestinian rights. Like those born wandering in the desert, we are rising from our people’s trauma in order to move us toward the ongoing promise of liberation.
It’s nice that we have a group of Jews who have reached the conclusion that “we cannot be free absent the freedom of Palestinians,” and the natural tendency is to applaud them. But the entire passage, and particularly the part about “the trauma of our past” suggests a very us-against-the-rest-of-the-world outlook that seems so deeply ingrained in Jewish thinking. Moreover, the part about the Jewish community being “used by American politicians and the American public” is a very peculiar way of looking at things. How exactly is the American public “using” the Jewish community when it is the American public that direly wants the “Jewish community” (as embodied by AIPAC and Jewish, pro-Israel PACS) to stop bribing our politicians to support Israel?
Of course holding protests for Palestine under the banner of an organization which loudly and openly trumpets itself as Jewish almost inevitably leads people to wonder: What exactly is the chief priority of the protestors? Is it to win freedom for the Palestinians? Or to redeem the Jewish public image? About a week before the AIPAC conference in Washington, If Not Now held a protest outside of the AIPAC office in Los Angeles. Seven people were arrested, including the young man in the photo below, whose chief concern seems to be proving to the world that such things as “moral Jews” do indeed exist. It’s a point worth making, but perhaps one should take care not to make it in too ostentatious a manner.
Not that the members of If Not Now would ever solicit my advice, but if they did, here is what I would say to them:
If you are going to protest in support of Palestine, do so as human beings, not as Jews. In other words, join the rest of the human race. Imagine how much more impact your protest would have had if, instead of proclaiming your membership in the Judaic tribe, you had announced your separation and divorce from it. Imagine if you had carried placards reading “We are no longer Jews.” Due to the corrupting influence of AIPAC and the crimes of Israel, the very word “Jew” has become toxic in modern discourse. I doubt that’s going to change significantly no matter how many “moral Jews” t-shirts you have printed up or how many protests you organize–and in proclaiming a bond and a tribal kinship with the same people committing crimes against humanity in Occupied Palestine you are creating a disconnect in most people’s minds–a disconnect that probably does more to damage your credibility than boost it. You say that “Jews won’t be free until Palestinians are,” but the way to win your freedom is by saying adieu and launching your exodus from this dictatorial tribe. By doing something of this nature at your protest in Washington–that is proclaiming your departure from Judaism–you certainly would have caused far more outrage inside the AIPAC conference (and if you truly had wanted to spark fury you could have converted to Christianity as well–that would really have gotten to them!) than with the protest you actually held. And while I can well imagine that such a course of action ultimately would not be an easy road for you, the end result is that you would win your freedom.
In addition to the above, I would also suggest that members of If Not Now ask themselves: who showed more courage in standing up to the corrupt Jewish leaders of their day–Hillel or Jesus?
In the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John we see Jesus, in a conversation with a Samaritan woman, making a rather remarkable statement: “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews,” he tells her. It’s a remarkable statement because it’s one of the few instances in the Gospel of John in which the term “the Jews” is used in a positive sense. But in my view, the key word in the passage is “from.” Salvation, Jesus is saying, is not “with” the Jews, it is “from” the Jews. In other words, an exodus, a separation, a divorce has taken place.
And indeed it did. The Gospel of John was written by a group of people who formerly were Jews but who had ceased to identify as such. They were kicked out of the synagogues (John 9:22, 12:42), and there may have been instances in which Jewish Christians were even murdered by their fellow Jews (John 16:2). It isn’t only Christian sources who give us this view of early Jewish hostility toward Christianity. It can also be found in Jewish sources.
After the events of 70 A.D., the center of Judaism shifted from Jerusalem to Jamnia, where the Eighteen Benedictions were reformulated to include a curse against the minim, or heretics. Then, sometime around 85 A.D., they were revised yet again to include what appears to be a direct reference to Christians: “Let the notzrim and the minim perish immediately.” This is the wording in the twelfth benediction, the word “notzrim” generally being viewed by scholars today as a direct reference to the Nazarenes, or Christians.
After telling the Samaritan woman that salvation is from the Jews, Jesus continues with yet another remarkable comment (as so many of his comments were):
But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.
Spirit and truth are important, especially in the world in which we now find ourselves. But such things don’t seem compatible with an inward-looking tribal ideology. And maybe this is what the Jewish Christians of the first century realized.
If the young Jews of If Not Now want to help lead the world into truth and light, my guess is they would stand a much better chance of doing so by stepping outside the tribal matrix and taking their place among the larger human family.