I spent last Shabbat with students from Harvard Hillel and was reminded, again, how important a generational movement IfNotNow is becoming. I don’t think most older American Jews grasp it yet. This is our Black Lives Matter.
IfNotNow is the Jewish wing of a youth-powered activist awakening that the United States has not seen since the 1960s. And just as the 1960s produced the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Students for a Democratic Society, the Chicano Movement, the American Indian Movement, second-wave feminism and the Stonewall Uprising, this new awakening is rippling across multiple communities. In addition to Black Lives Matter and IfNotNow, it has already produced Occupy Wall Street, the undocumented “dreamers” who conducted a sit-in at the Obama campaign’s offices in Denver in 2012, and the young American Indians who led the protests at Standing Rock.
And we’re probably still near the beginning.
One way of understanding IfNotNow is by comparing it with J Street. The latter organization was born in 2007 as a part of a movement by liberal activists frustrated that Democratic Party leaders had not more fervently opposed President George W. Bush. Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s president and founder, had served as the policy director for Howard Dean, who almost won the 2004 Democratic nomination by blasting his opponents for having supported the Iraq War. J Street gained support from “netroots” blogs like Daily Kos, which wanted to liberate the party from hawkish, pro-corporate “New Democrats.” J Street wanted to liberate the party from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its assumption that being “pro-Israel” meant supporting Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza.
At the time, critics depicted Dean, Daily Kos and J Street as radical. But they believed in working through the two-party system. And when Barack Obama — who had opposed the Iraq War and was untainted by the party’s Clinton-era centrism — defeated Hillary Clinton and then John McCain, their strategy seemed to be bearing fruit.
The millennial activism that has spawned IfNotNow is very different. It stems not from the hopes that Obama inspired, but from disillusionment with what he failed to achieve. Occupy was a response to Obama’s failure to fundamentally reform Wall Street. The “dreamer” protests were a response to his record-level deportations of undocumented immigrants. Black Lives Matter was a response to his failure to curb police violence. And IfNotNow is a response to his failure to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
J Street believed, and still believes, that by electing the right candidates it can help an American president midwife a two-state solution. IfNotNow, having seen Obama fail to do so, focuses not on electing candidates and lobbying Congress but on directly confronting the American Jewish institutions that support Israeli policy.
By bypassing Washington, D.C., politics, IfNotNow can ignore red lines that J Street must respect. J Street opposes the boycott, sanctions and divestment movement. IfNotNow does not. J Street treads cautiously when Israel goes to war in Gaza. ItNotNow stands in front of American Jewish offices and says Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, for the dead.
Ignoring these red lines limits IfNotNow’s influence in Washington. But it allows it to partner more easily with activists outside the Jewish community. J Street, by opposing BDS, is trying to forge ties to the American Jewish establishment. IfNotNow, by refusing to oppose BDS, is forging ties to the Palestinian, African-American and other progressive militants who overwhelmingly support it.
Because J Street believes in Jewish statehood, its mission is to keep the two-state solution alive. Because IfNotNow is agnostic on Jewish statehood, it can keep campaigning to end the occupation even if the two-state solution dies. In some ways, the relationship between IfNotNow and J Street parallels the relationship between Black Lives Matter and the NAACP today, or between SNCC and Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1960s.
Younger, more militant groups can weaken older, less militant ones by accusing them of moral timidity. Or they can strengthen them by frightening the powers that be into working with the forces of moderate change.
Lyndon Johnson knew that if he destroyed King, he’d get the likes of Stokely Carmichael and Huey Newton. If Benjamin Netanyahu and the leaders of the American Jewish establishment kill the two-state solution, they’ll kill J Street and empower IfNotNow and BDS.
I hope that doesn’t happen, but I fear it will.
I don’t agree with IfNotNow on everything. Still, the movement’s work fills me with admiration and hope. It is breathing life into American Judaism’s dry bones. When the movement blows shofars at David Friedman’s confirmation hearings, or sings “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” (“The World Is Built With Kindness”while being arrested at the AIPAC conference, IfNotNow is reviving the spirit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who believed that “prayer must be subversive, an affront to our complacency.”
And if American Jewish leaders don’t like seeing kids who look like — and in some cases actually are — their own children protesting outside their conferences, they have only themselves to blame. It is the organized American Jewish community’s moral complacency that has helped create IfNotNow. And it is that complacency that will make it a more and more formidable force in the years to come.
Peter Beinart is a Forward senior columnist and contributing editor. Tune into “Fault Lines,” his podcast with Daniel Gordis, here or on iTunes.
Peter Beinart is a Senior Columnist at The Forward and Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York. He is also a Contributor to The Atlantic and a CNN Political Commentator.