IfNotNow, when are you going to listen?
Guest columnistIfNotNow members should have listened, instead of yelling

IfNotNow, when are you going to listen?

At a recent event, members of IfNotNow shut not only their own ears but also everyone else's around them as they attempted to disrupt the program with their views on Israel.

IfNotNow protesters at a separate event. (Photo courtesy of Facebook)
IfNotNow protesters at a separate event. (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

I am not the type of Jew who has been exposed to the topic of Israel my whole life. My parents never spoke to me about the Jewish state growing up and I had virtually no connection to the land or interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In August 2017, I had my first exposure to the region when I went on Birthright. Although it was one of the best weeks of my life, it did not inspire me to become more involved in learning about Israel, but simply resulted in a temporary feeling of being more Jewish.

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to visit Israel again, this time on a student trip organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and Hillel JUC with a political and conflict-based focus. As a student at Carnegie Mellon University studying international relations and politics, this seemed like an ideal opportunity.

This trip, along with a class entitled Arab-Israeli Conflict Since 1948, exposed me to perspectives of Israelis and Palestinians and inspired me to conduct my own research about the conflict. To this day, I still do not know where my ideologies lie on the topic, but I plan to continue to pursue an answer.

I am 19 and heading into my sophomore year of college. I understand that I am young and don’t have all of the answers. I am and have always been an open-minded person and have hard time maintaining hardline opinions. My thoughts and viewpoints are often changing based on new information or experiences. I like to lead a life that is open to new ideas and perspectives, because I don’t subscribe to the mindset of being so set in my beliefs that I cannot listen to what others have to say. With that being said, many of my principles are left-leaning and progressive.

Last week, I was the photographer for a Federation event where Almog Elijis, the consul for media affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in New York, spoke to 140 members of the local Jewish community. Before the event started, I was outside with a friend when we noticed that members of IfNotNow, a Jewish progressive advocacy group, were across the street. My friend was familiar with the group and was concerned that they would disrupt the event. I didn’t want to make any assumptions or judgements about them, and I thought my friend was overreacting.

At first glance, IfNotNow is a group that appears to be something I would be interested in learning more about. Comprised of primarily young, trendy Jews who are left-leaning, progressive and appear to have similar social values to myself, they initially appealed to me.

Almog Elijis speaking at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh June 19. (Photo by Mollie Serbin)
The evening began with a short message explaining the code of conduct for the event, derech eretz kadmah l’Torah, translated as “proper conduct precedes the Torah” — essentially calling for respectful speaking and listening. When Almog began to speak, I had already forgotten about the threat of a disruption, and when the first member of IfNotNow got up to interrupt the program, I automatically assumed the worst: Some sort of terror attack was going to happen like I have seen too often on the news recently.

In my mind, we were in a Jewish space with an Israeli official and I thought we would be a target for violence. Thankfully, there was no violence, but to my surprise this person standing up was a Jew whose sole purpose was to interrupt the event for his own cause. The noise associated with this interruption — a mix of Elijis continuing her speech and the man yelling his rhetoric — along with the overall confusion was alarming. The majority of those in the audience were senior citizens, many of whom had hearing impairments.

This member of IfNotNow was a cause of anxiety for many elderly people present, and he caused so much commotion that I couldn’t even catch the purpose of his cause. This first interrupter was followed by several others throughout the evening.

Since my knowledge and views are still being formed, I am a perfect example of IfNotNow’s target audience. However, the way the group’s members acted and presented themselves completely turned me off. I would have been willing to listen to their side of the argument, but instead of having an open dialogue or any sort of two-sided conversation, they decided to shut not only their own ears but also everyone else’s around them to yell what they perceived to be true about Israel and Palestine.

I don’t know IfNotNow’s exact intent in the interruption; I can only assume that they wanted exposure and for the more moderate people to join them. They got their exposure, considering I had not known about them previously, but they did not convince me of anything, and saying their name now leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

The Jewish community is small enough as it is. Why create a divide in a people who need to band together as much as possible to thrive in modern society? Why not ask questions and stick around to hear the answers when you have an opportunity to speak to a real life Israeli diplomat, a direct connection to the government and decision makers?

The time you spent organizing and acting out this demonstration could have been used in a more effective way to support the lives of the Palestinians you feel so strongly about. Using a platform to support the wellbeing of those who aren’t present to speak for themselves is a noble cause, but the way in which you do so — i.e., shutting down and drowning out people who can actually bring about change — doesn’t enable change to occur.

Maybe next time, use your voices and your ears to have a conversation and actually get your ideas out there. Because to be honest, I didn’t hear a word you said. PJC

Mollie Serbin is a student at Carnegie Mellon University and an intern for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council.

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