Birthright Israel has sent 650,000 young Jews to Israel over the past two decades, and few have complained about their free trip to the Jewish state. But last summer, something strange started happening.
Members of IfNotNow, the Jewish organization that raises awareness about Palestinian suffering and American complicity in it, would go on the trips and then announce that they were leaving early because they hadn’t heard any Palestinian perspectives. After back-and-forths with the tour guide, they would walk out to meet with Palestinian activists, livestreaming along the way.
The walkouts accomplished their objective. They turned American Jewish attention to the plight of the Palestinians and also to IfNotNow itself. The campaign was so successful that on Tuesday, The New York Times published a front-page profile of it.
Yet the previous Friday, IfNotNow leaders had sent a private email to members apologizing for the way this signature, headline-catching operation was run. They admitted that they had steered the campaign unilaterally and weren’t reflective of their memberships’ diverse opinions — even though many members had opposing views on how it should go. Now, the Birthright initiative is now on hold, amid internal debates about both the direction of both the campaign and the organization.
Birthright did not respond to a request for comment.
IfNotNow was founded in 2014 by young activists upset with Jewish organizations’ support for Israel’s military actions in Gaza. Its website lists 16 chapters across North America, not including college campus outposts. IfNotNow organizer Emily Mayer said that the group has led more than 2,000 activists in its daylong training programs, and can draw on thousands more supporters for mobilization efforts. Unlike the older and more established Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow is not explicitly an anti-Zionist organization; it also doesn’t officially take a stance on whether an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal should have one or two states. Because IfNotNow isn’t officially against the mainstream Jewish consensus on Israel, and also because many members have more perceived “legitimacy” because they went to Jewish day schools and summer camps, American Jews have been forced to pay attention — especially to their highly visible protests.
“Had they not engaged in those publicity tactics, they wouldn’t have a front-page story in the Times,” said Dov Waxman, a professor at Northeastern University who studies American Jewish attitudes toward Israel. “So in a way, you might argue that now is the right time to move on.”
The 3,000-word message to its internal email list, which was obtained by the Forward, apologized for the “deep rooted problems” the Birthright effort exposed, and explained how it would improve going forward.
IfNotNow has “press[ed] pause” on the campaign and is in a “reevaluation phase” pending further consultation with local members, Mayer, who co-wrote the email, told the Forward on Tuesday, before the Times article was published. But Yonah Lieberman, another IfNotNow leader and email co-writer, told the Forward on Thursday that there were “still members that are putting pressure on Birthright” who would continue to do so in the coming weeks and months.
Young non-Orthodox American Jews are less emotionally attached to Israel and less supportive of Israeli government policies than their elders, according to polls. IfNotNow has been able to get support from those left-wing Jews of both Zionist and anti-Zionist persuasions because it doesn’t take an official stance on boycotts of Israel or the one- or two-state debate.
This has positives and negatives for the group, Waxman said. “It’s a strength in terms of its ability to be more inclusive….But in terms of actually having influence, not having a clear message, particularly on highly contentions issues, can undermine its ability to impact policy,” he said.
The Birthright trip campaign was just one of IfNotNow’s many eye-catching actions. They’ve also protested outside Jewish Federations and the AIPAC Policy Conference over their alleged acquiescence to Israel’s policies toward Palestinians, often getting members arrested.
But volunteers in its chapters throughout North America have grown increasingly frustrated with the national, paid leadership, with complaints that they were unaccountable, unreceptive to their views and suggestions, and took too long to make decisions. The Birthright campaign exemplified these issues.
After the publication of the Times article, IfNotNow and many of its chapters proudly promoted the article on social media.
But the email, which described itself as a form of “teshuva” (repentance), admitted that “serious fractures” were revealed when members of the “swarm” –- IfNotNow’s collective term for its membership; each local chapter is called a “hive” -– expressed disagreement with the direction of the Birthright campaign, particularly IfNotNow’s decision in April to call for a boycott.
While some supported the call, others felt that Birthright was salvageable given further engagement or protests; still others felt that IfNotNow should have ignored Birthright altogether and focused on creating its own Israel trip.
The email apologized for being “increasingly out of touch with local leadership” and pledged to decentralize decision-making and make other changes in organizational process and structure.
“This is a moment that we’re all learning from,” Mayer said.
Beyond just the Birthright campaign itself, the biggest complaints were that the professional staff weren’t being clear about their ultimate goals, weren’t taking the swarm’s input into account and had a vague and unaccountable decision-making process.
“There is no ‘Executive Director’ or explicit hierarchy and therefore no clarity around who is the final decision maker in challenging moments,” the email admitted. “This lack of clarity has posed a challenge both within the staff team and to the whole swarm. This murkiness has led to a lack of intentional decision-making around how we spend our time and posed a challenge to accountability.”
Shaul Kelner, a professor at Vanderbilt University who studies Jewish activism and wrote a book on Birthright, said IfNotNow had probably gotten everything it could out of the Birthright campaign. Continued walkouts may have had diminishing returns, and boycotts don’t easily fire up activists if they weren’t going to do the thing anyway.
IfNotNow’s internal debates, even fractious ones, are common in activist organizations, he said: “It’s classic politics, and it’s classic Jewish politics.”
The email made a series of pledges: committing to more decentralization and making decision-making more transparent; improving the swarm’s ability to have oversight of full-time staff; improving internal communication tools; and, in a big shift for an organization that prided itself on communal decision-making and being non-hierarchical, giving staff members job titles and a clear org chart.
The message revealed the inner workings of an organization trying to weigh factors that are often in conflict: institutional skepticism of power, versus having to empower people to make decisions; a commitment to hearing and amplifying diverse and sometimes-conflicting voices, versus taking an official stance through its campaigns.
Balancing these factors is a typical problem for left-wing activist movements, Kelner said. Indeed, other Millennial-driven left-wing groups, like the Democratic Socialists of America, have had similar growing pains.
But IfNotNow’s core principle of not taking an official stance on key controversial issues (which Mayer said won’t change) may make that balance even harder to achieve. A lack of clear guidelines for the swarm could lead to more incidents like what occurred last week in Washington, D.C., where leaders of the local IfNotNow hive played key roles in implementing the DC Dyke March’s policy against Jewish Pride flags, which led to widespread criticism and internal dissent.
More decentralization could lead to more controversies like this, where the national organization takes a hit over the actions of a local chapter. Mayer said that was a risk they were willing to take.
“In this movement, we’re committed to each other and to our goals, and in hard scenarios and situations like the Dyke March, we’re committed to being in conversation with each other and supporting each other through those hard conversations,” she said.