(Then When) If Not Now (Response To Professor Miriam Elman)

IfNotNow-camp-counselor-training

A dire threat to the Jewish community? If Not Now (INN) is a Jewish protest movement that has put its critical focus on opposition to “the occupation.” They have recently gotten a lot of critical blowback from inside the organized Jewish community. Most of the criticism is slanderous. “INN is anti-Zionist!” “INN is anti-Israel!” “INN is anti-Semitic!” Sadly the abusive discourse infecting the Jewish right in Israel is no stranger here in the Jewish community in the United States. Much more serious and worthy of critical scrutiny are two recent blogposts at the conservative Legal Insurrection by Miriam Elman, my colleague at Syracuse University.

By way of a little background, INN keeps its focus on the occupation (presumably the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Israeli policy in Gaza). To date, they have deliberately refused to commit one way or another to questions regarding either BDS, a one-state or two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the status of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, or the right of Palestinian refugees to return to ancestral lands inside sovereign Israel. In theory and from what I understand in practice, one can join INN and participate in its actions no matter where you fall on the left side of the Jewish political spectrum. The point has been to create as large an umbrella as possible from a place inside the Jewish community by focusing on a more or less narrow agenda.

Primary activities of INN have include protests at AIPAC and Jewish Federations. Most recently they have sought to pressure Camp Ramah (affiliated with the Conservative Movement in Judaism) to create Israel educational programming that takes into account, at age appropriate levels, the driving questions that define the State of Israel and the history, ideology, and practice of Zionism, including attention to Palestinian narratives and Palestinian lives. The primary motivation was to introduce into the culture of Camp Ramah more nuanced discussions about Israel based on muliple perspectives.

What was the radical agenda that INN began to have with the leadership at Camp Ramah, before its national director backtracked in the face of pressure from the Camp Ramah parent community? Partnering with young people from Habonim Dror, a classical Labor Zionist youth movement, here is what these ideas looked like as pursued in a training session of INN organized for interested Camp Ramah counsellors gearing up for this year’s summer season. The reporting that I cite below appeared in an article which you can read here https://www.jta.org/2018/05/31/news-opinion/jewish-camp-counselors-want-teach-kids-occupation in the mainstream Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

“At the IfNotNow training, participants began by talking about their camps and why they feel attached to them. Following seminars on the history of American Jewish camps and IfNotNow’s activism, participants discussed how to talk about difficult issues with children. After brainstorming ideas of how they would discuss the conflict with their campers, the participants saw a presentation by counselors from Habonim Dror, the liberal Zionist youth movement, about their curriculum on Israel and the Palestinians.

Adina Alpert, a lifelong camper at Ramah in Ojai, California, who co-organized the training, said the event was coming from a positive place: The counselors do not want to hurt their camps, even if they were unhappy with some of the Israel education they received there. Alpert fondly recalled a wealth of Israeli cultural programs at camp. But she also felt that lessons on Israeli history, the Israeli War of Independence and subsequent events did not present the Palestinian point of view.

[…]

But ahead of the conference, counselors were not exactly sure what their ideal Israeli-Palestinian program would look like. Some suggested having campers read Palestinian stories or poems, or see Palestinian artwork. Others suggested studying Palestinian texts or having a Shabbat program framed around the Palestinian experience. Another idea was to have campers read a number of opinions and perspectives regarding a recent event in the region, like the recent clashes on the Gaza border.

Alpert said “if campers hear the term ‘Palestinian’ in a non-derogatory way, that would be a success.”

Maya Seckler, an incoming gardening counselor at the Reform Eisner Camp in Massachusetts, wants to expose her campers to Palestinian life by placing signs next to each vegetable with its name in Hebrew, English and Arabic.

“I want to expose kids to Arabic and Palestinian culture,” she said. “That’s part of Israeli culture, that all three languages are going to be on every sign, and it’s not ignoring a whole group of people in Israeli history and Israeli culture. Both are valid and both are important.

Writing two posts at Legal Insurrection, Elman took up the charge against INN and against the very idea of incorporating INN ideas into Israel education at Camp Ramah. I am addressing Elman here, because usually her criticisms at Legal Insurrection against BDS and the anti-Zionist Left (including Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine) are carefully researched and thought-through. About these matters, I should also mention that I often find myself in agreement with my colleague. Alas, I do not believe Elman’s takedown of INN meets the bar that she has herself set. In my view, confusing the analysis of INN, and not just by her, is the deliberate attempt to conflate INN with the radical anti-Zionist left, even as Elman heself knows and admits that INN is not a radical, anti-Zionist movement. My colleague claims that there is little to no difference between the two, even while, in her own remarks, there is ample reason to suggest the precise opposite.

Here are the two pieces by Elman. The first one here  is a general tarring of INN. The second one here is a more informative account of the debacle at Camp Ramah with useful screenshots and links to articles relating to both sides of the story.

Betraying not a little ambivalence (that is what makes Elman’s post so interesting), these are the conclusions to the first piece:

“Anti-Israel activists liked the fact that INN was attacking JFNA, AIPAC, the ADL and other American Jewish organizations for supporting “Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.” But they weren’t so happy that INN leaders expressed a “subtle endorsement” of J Street or that they “refused to define” what the occupation specifically entailed.

That is, the anti-Israel movement wanted INN to not only oppose Israel’s post-1967 presence in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, it also expected INN activists to unequivocally support BDS and to “recognize that the Israeli State has brutally occupied Palestinian land since the moment it was established”.

Bottom line: It’s easy to confuse IfNotNow with other left-wing Zionist groups because it doesn’t officially endorse BDS, claims to be merely anti-occupation, and doesn’t overtly and consistently trade in classical antisemitic tropes and canards in the way that JVP does. But looks can be deceiving, and in the case of INN it’s important not to be fooled. Like JVP—whose activism and talking points it largely reproduces—INN legitimizes hostility toward Israel, emboldens its enemies, and ultimately has the potential to put fellow Jews at risk.

Note how the argument flips in the third paragraph. On the one hand, she observes that INN does not take the same positions as do anti-Zionist groups. In the article, she associates INN with J Street and “other left-wing Zionist groups.” She also admits here in the conclusions that INN is quite different from JVP, that they do not support BDS, or a one-state solution to the conflict. But then, in the final paragraph, for some reason that I am unable to fathom, my colleague considers this be a “deceiving look,” and that, in fact, INN poses a dire threat to Israel and to the Jewish community.

In the first article, all that Elman ends up proving is that INN engages in public acts of protests at mainstream Jewish venues like AIPAC and now Ramah, including acts of civil disobedience, and that these can be or are typically obnoxious and tone-deaf. This has been true particularly of late in respect to the Israel’s violent response to the organized chaos at the Gaza border during the March of Return protests. Reasonable people could agree that INN has at times expressed itself with an intemperance bordering on self-righteousness. Perhaps too, INN statements tend to exhibit what Elman and I would both agree is a naivete about Hamas, a refusal to consider Palestinian political agency, and ignorance about at least some of the complexity of the conflict.

About these things one can argue back and forth. But none of this justifies the nasty innuendo against INN’s association with the by now largely vilified leftist Israeli veterans’ group Breaking the Silence. As for INN, what Elman presents as damning evidence, namely links provided by her to blogposts from participants who joined an INN trip to Israel, are largely to the point and actually informative. The anti-Semitic anti-Zionist posters posted by Elman at the blog were occasioned by the use of the term “octopus” in one of these INN testimonials to describe the systemic institutional apparatus of Israel’s occupying authority in the West Bank. By including these images in her own blogpost, Elman means to underscore a point about the larger usage of this particular figure of speech. The effect, however, is to tar unfairly INN with a broad brush. In addition to this, I would only point to unbecoming insinuations that INN wants to “infiltrate” Ramah and other Jewish camps and “subvert” their Israel programming.

So here’s the rub from Elman’s second post at Legal Insurrection that reflects more specifically on the episode at Camp Ramah.

“Bottom line: IfNotNow is mostly comprised of young American Jews whose support for Israel, built-up at Jewish day schools and summer camps, has been (perhaps irreparably) undermined largely by the poisoned anti-Israel atmosphere that they’ve encountered years later on their universities and college campuses. The U.S. Conservative movement of Judaism’s camping arm has made the right decision to formally reject any partnership with this organization.”

Here again is contradiction. Even as Elman recognizes that INN members reflect an organic part of the Jewish community, she wants them scourged from the very same community that has utterly failed in teaching about Israel in a critical and self-sustaining way. About what can the institutional American Jewish community of which Camp Ramah is a part commend itself? For idealizing the State of Israel? For failing to address in a serious way the politics of the place? For raising a generation of uncomprehending Jewish youth totally incapable of withstanding critical, much less withering scrutiny about Israel met by Jewish students on college campuses?

Only proving the point made by INN are efforts such as Elman’s to write off INN as outsiders; and also the debacle with Camp Ramah, including Cohen’s attempt to assuage his parent and donor base. Ramah, the Conservative Movement, and the American Jewish community as a whole have failed to cultivate in the community a genuine understanding of Israel as a complex and politically fraught place. Liberal Jews then cry foul when the most rightwing governments, utterly dependent on settlers from the religious right and the ultra-orthodox, bite liberal Judaism on issues of Jewish pluralism in Israel. For this, INN is entirely not to blame.

While I myself am on the left somewhere to the right of INN, and while I may or may not “like” this or that INN statement, I have little doubt that what undermines Israel comes from within, not from without. Anti-Zionist is the occupation of Palestinian territories in the West Bank, the rise of rightwing governments, official encouragement of racism and political incitement in the public sphere, corruption and the withering of democratic norms in Israel. But in the end, Israel is a powerful nation-state, well established in the world and capable of sustaining criticism. Just a sideshow is the stilted pro-Israel propaganda and the panicked response to open debate and critical inquiry in the American Jewish community reflected in attacks against INN.

One last word in the interest of complete transparency. Many readers of this blog will know that I grew up in Habonim Dror, the Labor Zionist youth movement. My grandfather helped found it in the United States some one hundred years ago. That many of the people at INN grew up and are maybe still about Habonim Dror has very much to do with my basic sympathy for INN and my defensiveness about them as I see them attacked, in my view unfairly, in a Jewish community that has shut down critical discourse about matters of core importance. A critical weakness of the organized American Jewish community is its incapacity to trust the next generation of Jewish youth.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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