American Jews must denounce the occupation: If not now, when?

    The great slew of Jewish holidays from Rosh Hashanah to Sukkot has just passed. For Jews, this means big dinners with family and friends to bring in the New Year and commemorate the ancient traditions of our people. At dinner, my family would pray for peace in Israel. In recent years, I’ve been sitting at the table with a churning stomach, unsure whether or not I should say something about peace for Palestinians. I didn’t want to start an argument or upset my relatives, so I held my tongue, allowing yet another year to pass, promising more violence and oppression.

    My family and community raised me to appreciate the values of social justice and human rights. I heard the stories of Jews who fought for labor rights in the 1920s and Jews who went down south to fight for civil rights during the 1960s. My lineage connects with movements for social justice, movements to end racism, and movements for equality.

    At the same time I was raised to see Israel as my homeland and the only place in the world where the Jewish people can ever be safe. Because I belonged to a history of persecution and oppression, I was supposed to ensure my people are never oppressed again. I supported Israel for many years simply because I felt it was my duty as a member of the Jewish nation.

    It wasn’t until I went to university that I was exposed to alternative narratives that suggested that two core parts of my Jewish identity might actually contradict each other. I learned that the Jewish state, a state built with the idea that all peoples deserve the right to safety and self-determination, is directly responsible for depriving another people of that same right.

    I had grown up with a Zionist narrative in which Israel was the underdog in a David vs. Goliath battle. But this simply was not the narrative that most represented what was — and is still — happening in Israel. I was heartbroken to learn that my idols, the Zionists who built the kibbutz communal villages and established the state of Israel, were the same people who systematically displaced an entire people in the name of Jewish entitlement to the land.

    A tipping point

    I spent years finding ways that I could still defend Israel, still believe in Israel and justify Israel’s actions, but last summer I could not do it anymore.

    The brutal, bloody war over the summer embodied the oppression perpetrated by Israel against Palestinians. This summer 2,200 people died at the hands of Jewish weapons funded by the United States, Jewish weapons fired by Jewish people. Every morning I would wake up to learn that Israel had killed dozens of civilians. I posted articles, talked to my friends, signed petitions, but I could not get the Jewish people to stop killing Palestinians.

    While this was happening, the Jewish community in greater Philadelphia was organizing a pro-Israel and pro-Israeli military rally to show solidarity with the IDF and to mourn the deaths of Israelis in the war. There was no mention of the Palestinian civilians dying by the hundreds, no mention of the thousands of homes destroyed by Israel, no mention of illegal settlement expansion into the occupied West Bank. It was in this moment that I knew I could no longer stand with my Jewish community and remain silent to the violence and atrocities being committed by the Israeli army in the name of the Jewish people and in my name.

    The movement If Not Now emerged out of this moment. The recognition of the silence in our Jewish communities about the occupation, the staunch inequalities caused by Israeli occupation, and the Palestinian lives lost in Gaza has left a generation of young Jews feeling confused, guilty, and deeply saddened. Over the summer, If Not Now brought together young Jews for collective mourning and to show that there is a Jewish community in America who will stand up for justice and who will stand up for peace, even if it means saying no to our own Jewish community. Recently, we organized several actions where young Jews read the mourners kaddish (a Jewish prayer to mourn the dead) for the Israelis and Palestinians who were dying everyday because of the continuation of the occupation.

    On Sept. 30, If Not Now in Philadelphia launched through a tashlich ceremony, a ritual where Jewish people account for the sins they have committed over the past year. Traditionally, Jews cast bread into a body of water in order to symbolically “cast off their sins.” At our service in front of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, we cast dirt onto the sidewalk to show that we cannot continue to repent symbolically every year if we are not going to take an accounting of the Jewish soul and make dramatic changes to reflect our Jewish values.

    The action at the Federation closed with an intimate sharing circling where young American Jews had the opportunity to share their personal stories about Israel and the occupation. The space was validating and supportive of people’s struggles navigating the relationship between Israel, the Jewish establishment, and their own families. One person talked about how they had never even heard of Palestinians in all their years in Jewish day school. Another person said he would speak out privately about the Israeli occupation, but only to break out into horrible arguments with him screaming and his mother crying.

    There is not just one voice

    For me, going there to protest the occupation was very hard. The summer camp I used to work at is housed in this building. But I needed to show that there is dissent among the American Jewish community in regards to the Israeli occupation, even though Israel and the Federation claim to speak for all Jews. The Jewish Federations of North America blindly support Israel’s actions, no matter the cost. We are asking for the Federation to denounce the Israeli occupation and for the larger American Jewish community to take a stand.

    As American Jews, we felt that we must repent on the sins of the summer committed in our name and that we must accept responsibility for our wrongdoings. We should instead commit ourselves to a path of justice and freedom with more vigor and more urgency. If Not Now is organizing communities of young Jews who have come to a similar conclusion that the oppression and violence in Israel-Palestine does not reflect the Jewish values that we were raised on. We do not accept the status quo, and we cannot hold our tongues at the dinner table anymore.

    We are creating a new space for Jewish people to support each other and stand up for justice. In the coming months we will be hosting a series of Shabbat dinners where we will continue to build our communities and share our stories. Out of this grassroots community we intend to take on the mainstream Jewish establishment and demand that Jews take responsibility for the occupation and begin working towards freedom and dignity for all. The occupation must end, the siege must end, now is the right time. If not now, when?

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