A screenshot of the IfNotNow video showing a protest. by the Forward

Let’s tell the whole truth when talking about the antisemitism envoy

Courtesy of IfNotNow

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My first close encounter with IfNotNow, a movement of young people devoted to ending the Israeli occupation, came not too long after I arrived back in the United States from four years as Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times. My friend Sally Gottesman, who chairs Encounter — the group that brings American Jews to meet Palestinians in the occupied West Bank —had invited one of IfNotNow’s co-founders to speak at her birthday party.

I don’t remember the details of what the young woman said about what everyone in the region calls “the situation,” but I was moved by the group’s origin story: it was created by  young, engaged Jewish leaders who had grown up going to day schools, and felt betrayed by an educational system and broader Jewish establishment that did not tell the whole truth about Israel’s complicated history and present-day politics.

I, too, see this as a profound failing with pernicious repercussions I had witnessed throughout my time covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: a refusal to grapple with complexity had cleaved our community and left people hopelessly talking past each other.

So I was disappointed, if not entirely surprised, when I clicked on a video the other day that IfNotNow had produced as part of its social-media campaign about “the most important” Biden appointment “you’ve never heard of” — the special envoy on antisemitism. 

The two-minute video, which has been viewed more than 44,000 times on Twitter since its Feb. 12 posting, is made up mostly of young people calling for “an envoy with integrity” who “understands that the fight against antisemitism is part of the fight for multiracial democracy” and decrying an “outdated approach” in which “self-appointed Jewish leaders have been more interested in silencing Palestinian-rights advocates than in fighting violent antisemites.” The video , along with a series of Instagram posts, also condemns the publicly discussed contenders for the envoy roles, especially Abe Foxman, the former longtime head of the Anti-Defamation League. 

IfNotNow, which sits firmly on the far left of the political spectrum on Israel, has many complaints against Foxman; one of the Instagram posts lists five reasons he should not get the gig, including the ADL’s 2010 opposition to the building of an Islamic Center near the World Trade Center site; Foxman’s call for the ouster of Simone Zimmerman, one of the group’s founders, from Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign; and his “overreaction” on whether the (Jewish) creators of “The Rugrats” had drawn an antisemitic character.

But the video also includes the specious accusation that Foxman, a Holocaust survivor, and the ADL, the nation’s leading fighter of neo-Nazi activity, does not care enough about right-wing extremism. And it offers a wildly unfair and outdated portrayal of him as someone who “even enabled and encouraged President Trump.”

In a highly edited and undated montage of TV clips, the video shows Foxman saying of Trump, “I don’t think he’s a racist, I don’t think he’s an antisemite” and that something the president had done “was a welcome move” (there is no context provided, but my guess is it was the 2017 relocation of the American embassy to Jerusalem).

Foxman said those things, of course, they’re on tape. But IfNotNow ignores the fact that Foxman also has been harshly criticizing Trump for emboldening right-wing antisemites and racists since the Charlottesville rally in 2017, and by 2020 called him a “demagogue” whose “presidency threatens American democracy,” breaking a 50-year tradition of non-partisanship to endorse Joe Biden for president. 

It’s not hard to find this stuff. I just Googled “Foxman Trump” and the page filled up: the 2017 CNN interview where Foxman said what made Charlottesville “worse” than other neo-Nazi outbursts “is the President of the United States rationalized it” and called on Trump to apologize; the 2018 interviews with The Jerusalem Post and the Times of Israel where Foxman said Trump had opened “sewers of hate,” that the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre was a consequence of his ideology and that he  ”is the only one who can put the genie back in the bottle;” the 2020 OpEd where he stated bluntly: “Another four years of Donald Trump will be nothing less than a body blow for our country and our community.”

Many Jewish leaders dismiss IfNotNow as a fringe anti-Zionist movement, but I take the group — which now has an annual budget of about $800,000 and 12 staff members, up from $105,000 and three employees in 2015 — very seriously. That’s both because it clearly represents a swelling swath of our community, and because its origins reflect the profound failure of generations of Jewish organizational leadership to engage fully and fairly with the impact of Zionism. 

So I wanted to understand why IfNotNow was so interested in the antisemitism envoy — and how it could promulgate a video that treated Foxman the very way it complained day schools treated Israel: ignoring half the story.

Morriah Kaplan, the group’s national spokesperson, said that while IfNotNow’s mission is to end the Israeli occupation, the envoy position was a natural part of that portfolio.

“It was really clear to us right off the bat that we couldn’t talk about Israel-Palestine without talking about antisemitism,” she explained. Kaplan said the group’s main concern was that mainstream Jewish groups were too focused on antisemitism on the left than about the more violent — and more widespread — right-wing extremist version.

“If you were to just base your understanding on antisemitism on press releases and airtime from legacy institutions,” she said, “you would really think that the locus of antisemitism is on college campuses.” The recent “Saturday Night Live” joke about Israel and the vaccination “or comments or speech,” she added, “is actually given a lot more air time compared to the folks who storm the Capitol.”

This is not what I see in my in-box: it seemed like every Jewish group with an email or Twitter account condemned the folks who stormed the Capitol. Many also had something critical to say about the SNL joke (beyond that it wasn’t funny). 

I think that’s actually how most Jews think: yes, we are deeply worried about right-wing antisemites who shoot up synagogues or wear Camp Auschwitz hoodies while assaulting our democratic institutions, but we’re also not thrilled when leftist politicians or celebrities invoke antisemitic tropes. And we’re not that interested in tallying up how much of each kind there is or which is worse — and we want an antisemitism envoy and Jewish leadership that tackles both. 

I frequently see activists on Twitter asking “what about” such-and-such bad behavior by the other side in what feels like a reductionist, score-keeping approach to a set of issues far more nuanced and complex than a basketball game. It seems to me not entirely different from the one-sided approach to Israel education that IfNotNow was founded to protest. 

Kaplan, who is 29 and attended day school in Portland, Oregon, through eighth grade, said she did not personally edit the video, and took in my criticism respectfully.

“That’s not the overarching message we were trying to provide,” she said regarding Foxman and Trump. “It’s a shame if that feels like it undercut everything else.” More broadly, she said the envoy campaign was “the most wonky” the group had tried, a new experiment given the change in the White House, since ”under Trump there wasn’t really the opportunity to engage with the administration in this way.”

“It’s exciting to feel like we have something we can proactively ask for and there is an opportunity to take a new approach,” she added. “Jews need allies, and we need to be good allies, and this feels like a really exciting way, if we can take on antisemitism and be part of the broader movement for justice.”

I fully agree — as long as we tell the whole truth while we’re doing it. 

Your Weekend Reads.

(You can download and print a PDF of these stories by clicking here.)

Let’s tell the whole truth when talking about the antisemitism envoy

Let’s tell the whole truth when talking about the antisemitism envoy

Let’s tell the whole truth when talking about the antisemitism envoy

Let’s tell the whole truth when talking about the antisemitism envoy

Let’s tell the whole truth when talking about the antisemitism envoy

Let’s tell the whole truth when talking about the antisemitism envoy

Let’s tell the whole truth when talking about the antisemitism envoy

Jodi Rudoren is Editor-in-Chief of the Forward. Follow her on Twitter @rudoren, or email rudoren@forward.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.


Jodi Rudoren

Jodi Rudoren

Jodi Rudoren became Editor-in-Chief of the Forward in 2019. Before that, she spent more than two decades as a reporter and editor at The New York Times. Follow her on Twitter @rudoren, email rudoren@forward.com and sign up here to receive her weekly newsletter, “Looking Forward,” in your inbox.

IfNotNow’s antisemitism campaign is unfair

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