IfNotNow: The Unexpected Activists Fighting for Palestine

02.12.2019 Arts & Culture
Leila Lajevardi
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The relationship between Palestine and Israel has been an issue of contention since the Israeli state’s conception. What began as two communities coexisting harmoniously evolved into something much more complicated when the British issued the mandate known as the Balfour Declaration which conceived the early state of Israel, slowly beginning the process that resulted in the mass evacuation and exile of Palestinians from their homes.

Like all histories, the Israel-Palestine conflict and the resulting occupation is complex and interwoven, and shifts depending on who you are speaking to. The conflict has and continues to draw a line dividing people and communities within Israel and globally.

Every time violence erupts in Gaza (most recently in May of 2018 following the US Embassy’s move to Jerusalem) the media jumps to cover the story. What follows is often a sterile recount that removes the humanity and dignity of the Palestinian people and deflects Israeli military responsibility. A New York Times article published after the deaths of the Palestinian protesters said, simply, that these people “had died” instead of saying what had actually happened… that they were killed by Israeli troops or forces. In yet another article, a Times reporter wrote that Palestinians were playing a “logic-defying game of chicken.”

These situations most often simmer down, and just as quickly as they happened, the media coverage is over. It’s a stalemate, the human rights abuses continue, and the unrest perseveres. The global community forgets.

While this happens over and over again, one organization continues to fight for the restoration of the rights of Palestinians. This organization, IfNotNow, is a movement conceived by young American Jews that works to end their community’s support for the occupation in Palestine into a call for freedom and dignity for all. Started in the summer of 2014, during the last major Israeli bombardment of Gaza, the group originated in New York and spread organically across the country, boasting 15 chapters across the US and two chapters in Canada.

Founding member, Ethan Miller described how IfNotNow was conceived: “Young American Jews saw the violence and our community’s subsequent lack of concern. We began to protest based on the idea that we should be mourning the loss of life. The protest consisted of the Mourner’s Kaddish, which is a ritual of mourning those we have lost while calling out Jewish institutions to join us. Needless to say, it sparked a lot of energy for people.”

Indeed, IfNotNow has caught the attention of the young Jewish community and has fostered a group that welcomes those who previously felt disconnected or like outsiders.

LA chapter member, Mimi Tohill, who moved to LA from New York, reflects, “LA is the first place where I found a Jewish community that I connected with; one that gave space for me as a young progressive, being queer, and questioning a lot of Jewish gender roles. When I came to LA I found a home where I could engage with this conversation, where I could be spiritual, Jewish, and against human rights violations.”

Her friend, Shay Roman, feels similarly, as though the group has become the Jewish community that was missing from her youth. “[Growing up] I refused to celebrate holidays and couldn’t get behind them because of the conflict in Israel and Palestine. Right when I moved from New York to LA, IfNotNow held Passover. I saw photos of an amazing sedar performance and thought, ‘Now, I would go to that sedar.’ Really soon after I moved here, there was the first IfNotNow training which I joined.”

IfNotNow encourages members to look at the Israel-Palestine narrative that has been taboo and repressed in their community and face it straight on.

The movement finds the momentum to organize even when there is little public interest or media coverage. Roman explains, “We have trainings for members regardless of momentum. We are constantly going through cycles of preparation, escalation, and absorption. We are preparing for a moment, and then when it happens, we’re escalating it and lifting it up and jumping into it and then absorbing all of the resources and people that we can.”

“We’re in this really challenging situation where we are not on the ground,” Tohill adds. “This violence is not against us on a day-to-day basis. This is why it is so easy for American Jews to opt out of the conversation. We have the privilege of identifying moments that we think the American public should see and pay attention to. It’s on us. We have the privilege of breathing.”

When the US Embassy moved to Jerusalem it was at the same time when tens of thousands of Palestinians were taking part in peaceful protests and dozens were being killed by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). This was a pivotal moment for the team. “We knew we had to start doing something and speaking up,” remembers Tohill.

The two young activists recognize that their distance and training following activations can be used to their advantage. These moments of rest and self care give them the strength to continue the resistance.

“We know this is a long game,” says Roman. “We feel confidently that we will be the generation to end the occupation, but we know it’s not going to be tomorrow. When you see high schoolers standing up for gender politics and gun control it would be crazy for us not to be hopeful about the tides changing.”

Tohill agrees, “There are people for whom hope is a critical daily element of their lives, and that is something we could each learn from. With the [recent US presidential] election, I found myself falling into a dark place but also coming out of it by asking myself, ‘How do we prepare for a radical shift? How can we imagine what that might look like? What type of people would we want to be and what types of communities would we want to be a part of in a radically shifted world?’”

What it comes down to is restoring essential human rights for all those involved. Instead of focusing on trivial questions or solving all the complexities of the intricate conflict, IfNotNow simply focuses on working towards justice with what they know. The organization does not take a stance on issues of contention in their community (such as a one state or two state solution and boycott, divestment, and sanctions) but instead makes freedom and dignity for all people the focal point of their mission.

While this means focusing on the plight of Palestinians, it also means working on healing the scars of past generations. This intergenerational healing can only occur if everyone in the community is brought into the conversation. “By doing this work together, we are acknowledging all of the trauma that many members of the Jewish community hold and that arise constantly in our fears around Israelis and Palestinians,” Tohill states. “This healing work is not just for ourselves, and not just for a political shift, but for future generations and a new world that we can’t even imagine yet.”

In just the few years since their launch, IfNotNow has taken major steps to address the traumas and fears that are so deeply embedded in their community, demonstrated by protests and actions on varying scales. These fears (like persecution, displacement, and mass genocide) stem from the 19th and early 20th century and still affect the way young Jews are treated today.

On a recent trip the organization took to Israel-Palestine, they organized a protest action for Jerusalem Day that the police had to get involved in — one where some of the IfNotNow participants were even injured by soldiers. This surprised the group as they were protesting peacefully, but even so, Roman realizes the privilege they have as American Jews. “You can only imagine what that violence looks like or feels like to Palestinians who have no rights and no respect,” she says boldly.

There was no national media reportage on the violence the IfNotNow members experienced. In fact, their movement continues to remain uncovered by press whether that be through the violence they experience or the large crowds and support their rallies bring both locally and abroad.

One of the first actions IfNotNow held was a march in LA against Steve Bannon — someone who has been very vocal about his anti semitic views. With just a few days of organization, over 500 people attended the event… but the media coverage was limited to only a few outlets.

“I think that’s where we are fighting an institutional power,” says Tohill. “People want to keep the status quo. But it’s so important to change the narrative. Change the narrative by just having a narrative at all.”

Roman and Tohill encourage American Jews to get involved by stepping into that narrative, and stepping away from the “I’m too confused to look at this” mindset.

We must get to a place where we stop operating out of fear. We need to take action if we want to see a shift that reflects the value we have for human life. This does not mean you have to be a martyr or arrested for a cause, but rather it’s the little actions and protests that each one of us can do to ensure freedom and dignity for all that will make the biggest difference in the end. Our humanity depends on it.   

Everyone wants to stand on the right side of history… but will you?

Leila Lajevardi is the community manager at The Fullest as well as a graduate student at The London School of Economics. She received her bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. DM her on Instagram at @leilalajevardi if you want to chat running, politics, or nordic-noir.

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