A Jewish nonprofit group with the stated goal of ending the Israeli “occupation” of the Palestinians has set down stakes in Pittsburgh.
IfNotNow, a national organization started by a group of millennials who were former leaders in J Street U, has chapters in several other cities, including New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Boston and Los Angeles.
As a national group, INN has participated in various protests, including a protest at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, D.C., last March. In Pittsburgh, the group concluded its first local membership training this past Shabbat, June 16-17.
The organizers of INN are “a diverse set of people within the Jewish community in Pittsburgh,” said INN member Ben Case, 33, a New Jersey native who is working on his doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh, in an email. “We have joined a national grassroots movement of Jews who recognize that the status quo of endless occupation that denies Palestinians political, economic and civil rights is a daily nightmare for the people who are subject to it and a moral disaster for the people who allow it to go on, and who decided to take action.”
The group does not take a formal position on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, Zionism or the issue of Israeli statehood. Although it aims to persuade the American Jewish public to support an end to the “occupation,” it does not purport to suggest how that could occur.
“It is not up to us as U.S. Jews to come up with what the exact parameters of the end of the occupation look like, and there are a lot of groups that do great work envisioning a viable and just political solution,” said Case. “Our group is focused on the unsustainable, violent disaster of the status quo and moving our community to a position that unequivocally does not tolerate occupation for our people or any other.”
IfNotNow takes its name from “If not now, when?” the end of a statement by Hillel, a first-century rabbi.
“Founded in the summer of 2014 to organize young Jews opposed to Israel’s war in Gaza, INN has since evolved into an activist community steeped both in left-wing protest and Jewish tradition,” the JTA reported. “What sets INN apart from other groups is its focus on disruptive protest. While some Jewish groups have long preferred quiet dialogue with the powerful over vocal demonstrations, INN believes that sitting and reasoning with American Jewish leaders won’t get them anywhere.”
In, 2016, INN activists were arrested after staging a sit-in in the lobby of the Anti-Defamation League’s national headquarters to protest the “Jewish establishment’s support of the occupation of Palestine.”
In response, the ADL’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, issued a statement noting that although the ADL had offered to have a dialogue with members of INN, they refused.
“Under my leadership, we at ADL believe in a big tent in which we engage in conversation, and yes, debate across different viewpoints to grapple with difficult issues involving the Jewish community, Jewish values and the Jewish state,” Greenblatt wrote. “It is unfortunate that INN seems to be more interested in spectacles and ultimatums than in discussion and dialogue grappling with the difficult issues involved in achieving peace. Nevertheless, our doors are open, and our invitation to speak with INN still stands.”
The group also grabbed headlines last year when its founder, Simone Zimmerman, was fired by United States presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who had recently hired her as his Jewish outreach coordinator.
Members of INN “believe the Jewish community is at a crossroads,” said Case. “We can continue to choose a path of endless occupation and violent isolation, or we can choose the path of dignity and freedom for all people — Muslims as well as Jews, Palestinians as well as Israelis. IfNotNow is an invitation to the American Jewish community — our families, synagogues, friends — to choose this path.”
The movement, he said, is “nonviolent” and “speaks to our community through moral imperative and conscious action.”
American Jews who are not comfortable with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, he continued, often find themselves faced with two choices: either staying within the Jewish community and keeping their opinions quiet or leaving the community.
“A lot of us have made both of these choices at one point or another, and we’re tired of it,” Case said. “We’re tired of having our Jewishness tied to tacit support for a profound injustice. So, we’re building an alternative, and we’re finding out that there are a lot of folks like us.”
While INN sometimes partners with Jewish Voice for Peace, another group with a local chapter that opposes the “occupation” — but also supports the BDS movement — its focus differs, said Case.
“We are focused on uniting Jews across the anti-occupation movement to come together to shift the mainstream of the Jewish community,” he said. “Thus, as a movement, we do not take a unified stance on BDS, Zionism or the question of a one- or two-state solution.”
While many of its founding members came from J Street U, the student organizing arm of J Street, INN has no formal affiliation with that organization, according to Nancy Bernstein, co-chair of J Street Pittsburgh.
“The scope of J Street’s work is fundamentally different from IfNotNow’s,” Bernstein wrote in an email. “J Street’s focus is on fixing the broken politics surrounding the conversation on Israel; this entails working primarily from within the political system, through lobbying, political campaigns and community education and mobilization.”
Bernstein said that she welcomes INN’s presence in Pittsburgh.
“We share INN’s opposition to the occupation, because we believe that it is eroding the prospects for Israel’s secure, Jewish and democratic future,” Bernstein said. “We also share their deep frustration and concern that many American Jewish communal organizations fail to publicly acknowledge and address (through statements or in programming or in advocacy) the damage that the occupation inflicts on both Palestinian and Israeli society and the urgent need to promote its end.”
Bernstein bemoaned the “marginalization of voices calling for strong Jewish leadership to promote an end to the conflict,” and opined that mainstream Jewish institutions have shown “themselves to be profoundly out of step with the majority of the American Jews they claim to represent; it’s not just the young adults of INN.”
While INN and J Street “engage in different tactics and disagree on some fundamental issues,” Bernstein continued, “we believe that INN provides a legitimate and important voice in the movement to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Josh Sayles, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council, said the CRC had been focusing its resources of late on lobbying representatives in Washington, D.C., to protect Medicaid, organizing the community to march in the LGBT pride parade earlier this month and training individuals on combating the BDS movement, rather than the arrival of INN in Pittsburgh.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.