In the saturated arena of anti-Israel political activism in the U.S., the once little-known Washington D.C.-based organization IfNotNow (INN) is catapulting its way to the forefront of the pack.

In one of its boldest moves, IfNotNow is planning to train camp counselors to “teach” campers at Jewish summer camps about the Israeli “occupation.” Given IfNotNow’s politics, described below, the teaching without a doubt will be anti-Israel. Parents who are sending their children to Jewish summer camps, motivated in part by establishing their children’s connection to Israel, will be undermined without knowing it and probably without the camp administration’s knowledge.

Founded in 2014 to protest Israel’s military operation against the Hamas terrorist organization that governs Gaza, INN presents itself as a hip left-wing group of young Jews who want to “transform the American Jewish community’s support for the occupation into a call for freedom and dignity for all Israelis and Palestinians.”

According to a recent statement, the group now has over 1,700 members and chapters in more than a dozen American cities. It’s also a growing presence on campus, as demonstrated by its hosting ‘anti-occupation Passover seders’ at a number of universities this past week.

Maybe INN is growing because its sister organization—Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP)—has become so tainted by charges of antisemitism. That is, maybe INN is becoming increasingly popular because people mistakenly see it as a legitimate player on the Zionist political left in a way that JVP isn’t.

But the reality, as I document further below, is that INN’s perspective on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and its activism on and off campus, is virtually indistinguishable from that of JVP.

Now INN is planning to take its anti-Israel messaging to summer camps across the country. The group will host Jewish camp counselors at a pre-camp seminar over Memorial Day Weekend where they’ll learn how they can better “teach campers about the complexities of Israel, Palestine, and the 50-year-long Occupation.”

Most Jewish parents across America send their kids to Jewish summer camps to instill in them a love for Judaism and Israel. So it’s important to expose this attempt to infiltrate the camps to exploit the position that counselors have over campers.

The whole point of INN’s latest campaign is to undermine Jewish camp policies and positions, without prior notice to parents that their children will be subjected to what will amount to biased and factually inaccurate political activism about Israel and Middle East.

Background on IfNotNow

Like JVP, which seeks to drive a wedge in the American Jewish community over Israel, INN attempts to convince young Jews that they should be disillusioned with an Israel that they’ve been taught to love and admire. So the primary targets for INN’s materials and programming are millennial Jews and American Jewish organizations that fund and support educational and cultural opportunities for American young people in Israel.

Origins & Funding

Founded in 2014 during the Israel-Hamas war, INN claims to be unaffiliated with any other political organization, but it’s important to note that JVP “celebrated” INN’s activism and assisted the organization from the start.

The two groups partnered up several years ago to field a ‘public Passover action’—a five city series of ‘seders in the streets’ and in various buildings that house major Jewish organizations. As we highlighted in a post at the time, the purpose was to appropriate the holiday’s rituals and texts for a vehemently anti-Israel narrative, Anti-Israel activists hijack Passover, turn it into Palestinian liberation event.

There’s likely a lot of overlap between the JVP and INN memberships. But INN’s leaders are actually former J Street activists who were affiliated with J Street U, the organization’s campus arm, during their college years.

This has led some critics to view INN as J Street’s “anti-Israel front group”:

It postures as an independent volunteer grass roots anti-Israel group. In fact it’s a group of J Street U people trying out a new brand.”

There’s certainly a connection to J Street, an organization which describes itself as pro-Israel, pro-peace and anti-occupation.

The foul-mouthed Simone Zimmerman, who U.S. presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders hired as his Jewish outreach coordinator, was an INN founder—but prior to that she was a J Street U National Student Board President (Zimmerman was subsequently fired by Sanders when a profanity-laden Facebook post about Prime Minister Netanyahu surfaced).

Simone Zimmerman | credit: Facebook

Still, there’s no tight link between J Street and INN—the two are different organizations. In fact, according to Freedom Center’s Shillman Journalism Fellow Daniel Greenfield,

The official narrative is that If Not Now parted ways with J Street because the group was insufficiently opposed to the Jewish State and insufficiently supportive of Hamas.”

INN is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization according to its website. But as noted by the watchdog group NGO Monitor, it lacks any transparency or accountability regarding its budget and donors or donation amounts, none of which it publishes.

Basically, at the moment there’s no way to know where INN is getting the money to fund its activism. Much of its work probably still doesn’t require a lot of funding, and activists are likely paying a lot out of pocket. Still, as the group ramps up its programming, more serious financing is going to be necessary. For example, it’s new summer camp counselor “Training on the Occupation”, which promises travel stipends and that “no one will be turned away for lack of funds”, can’t be done on a shoestring.

Bottom line: As INN grows as an organization, it’ll be important to unpack its funding sources. Like JVP, the group may now be financing its activism with an amalgam of small donations along with larger contributions by individuals and foundations with virulently anti-Israel agendas, Anti-Israel ‘Jewish Voice for Peace’ Funding Network Revealed.

Activism & Programming

Like JVP, INN operates in multiple arenas to appropriate Jewish culture and traditions, putting them into service for a vehemently anti-Israel propaganda campaign. INN doesn’t officially endorse the boycott of Israel (BDS), but it also doesn’t reject it. It also partners with BDS supporters and routinely promotes BDS goals and talking points. In its various rallies in Washington DC, New York City, and Boston this past week, INN uncritically adopted Hamas propaganda to falsely accuse Israel of massacring innocents along the Gaza border.

  1. Targeting Major American-Jewish Organizations

Claiming to represent Jewish millennials and insisting that American Jewish organizations must listen to younger voices, INN’s main activities have been protests and sit-ins at the headquarters of American Jewish institutions and Israeli consular offices.

INN initially gained notoriety by organizing and hosting a series of public demonstrations outside the headquarters of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti-Defamation League, the Conference of Presidents, and the Jewish Federation of North America. At these venues, they frequently made such a fuss and spectacle of themselves that they ended up getting arrested for trespassing and disorderly conduct.

As we highlighted in our prior post, INN activists often seem to go out of their way to concoct elaborate publicity stunts at their protest venues, an indication that their main goal isn’t really dialogue with those they criticize in the Jewish community, but media attention.

In 2016, INN members were arrested after they chained themselves inside the Boston AIPAC lobby. It’s a stunt that the group repeated this past week, when members of the Boston chapter locked themselves up to the exterior door of the Israeli Consulate, an action taken to oppose Israel’s counter-terror measures in Gaza last weekend. The Boston police then arrested eight INN members for disturbing the peace in the course of the fracas.

INN activists also protested at AIPAC headquarters in DC and in front of the headquarters of the Union for Reform Judaism in New York City.

At these events, and in the group’s write-ups and social media posts about them, INN has displayed a shockingly poor understanding of the ongoing confrontations on Israel’s border with Gaza.

Here’s just a few tweets. There are many more on INN’s social media timeline:

INN’s interpretation about what’s happening at the Gaza border is bizarre.

As we’ve highlighted in a series of posts on the Hamas-orchestrated militarized actions in what they’re calling the “March of Return”, from the beginning they’ve involved a significant degree of violence which wouldn’t be tolerated by any country.

So far, the Gaza border protests, which began last Friday on Passover Eve, have included violent rioting, acts of war under the cover of huge crowds of civilians and giant plumes of smoke, environmental degradation, and numerous attempted terrorist infiltrations across the border:

Footage of militants affiliated with Hamas and other terror organizations opening fire on Israeli soldiers and hurling firebombs, and repeated attempts to damage or breach the border security fence, clearly puts the lie to INN’s accusation that the IDF is indiscriminately killing innocent civilian demonstrators.

INN activists have repeatedly claimed this past week that Gaza is “under the occupation of the Israeli government”. The reality is that Israel doesn’t occupy Gaza, but (along with Egypt) maintains a stringent security blockade to prevent its enemy from building up a terror and war-fighting infrastructure.

It’s also important to note that during their rallies and sit-ins, INN wasn’t just criticizing Israel’s counter-terror measures against the Hamas governing authority in Gaza. The group was actually defending Hamas, which aims to murder Jews and destroy the Jewish state—along with any chance for peace. INN protests have even involved the shameful spectacle of activists reciting the Jewish mourner’s prayer (the Kaddish) over the death of these terrorists:

It’s truly a disgrace that INN can’t seem to get that after 11 years of rule the Hamas “jihadi struggle to wipe out the Jews” has turned Gaza into a “military staging area” at the expense of the population. These protests are organized by a radical Islamist terrorist organization, which cynically exploits even Palestinian children to “score propaganda points.” Hamas wants more dead Palestinian civilians, but Israel isn’t obliging. Most of the people killed have been known to be active fighters and militants.

Bottom line: As others have rightly argued, it’s possible to criticize Israel’s policies without joining those who want to see Israel destroyed. But INN’s critique isn’t a serious or reasonable one. The group is playing into the hands of Hamas by calling Israel’s measured response to terrorist violence along its border a massacre of peaceful protesters.

  1. Usurping the Jewish Life Cycle and Religious Holidays

Like JVP, in its written materials and presentations INN reinforces that its anti-Israel positions are consistent with Jewish values. Toward this end, it appropriates the Jewish life cycle and religious holidays by incorporating anti-Israel themes into traditional celebratory and commemorative events.

“Liberation Seder” at AIPAC offices | Boston | April 19, 2016 | credit: Twitter

This identity theft has been particularly visible at Passover, but INN has hijacked other Jewish rituals and holidays too:

Over the last week INN managed to politicize the Passover holiday once again by convincing three universities to host ‘anti-occupation liberation seders.’

As with its 2015 and 2016 street seders, the explicit goal of this past week’s campus seders was to replace the essential and timeless Passover themes—the retelling of the exodus from Egypt and the Jewish people’s redemption in the land of Israel—with a program concentrated on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Central to its messaging during these holiday hijacks is the claim that support for Israel makes Jews “complicit in Palestinian suffering” and that the occupation is a “system of violence and separation” denying Palestinians freedoms and dignity.

It’s important to realize that this reflects a simplistic understanding of the historical, political, and legal issues surrounding Israel’s presence in the West Bank—and the situation for Israeli Arabs (one of the student organizers of Harvard’s INN-inspired seder reportedly expressed breathtaking ignorance when she claimed that Palestinians “living in Israel” are “not free” and are deprived of “basic human rights”).

In general, INN activists seem completely unfamiliar with the laws of occupation, or the jurisdictional framework for the West Bank territory delineated under the Oslo Accords. They also appear to be unaware of the many ways in which the governing Palestinian Authority (PA) mistreats and oppresses Palestinians. In researching this post, I couldn’t find a single instance on its website or social media feeds in which the group recognized the injustices routinely meted out by the PA.

Further, at all of their gatherings INN activists state that the occupation is a “daily nightmare for Palestinians” (a claim that also appears in nearly all INN writings and public pronouncements). The reality is that, while Israel’s counter-terror security measures do pose hardships for Palestinians, there’s a lot of positive engagement between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank.

As we’ve noted in a number of prior posts, Israeli settlers often intervene to assist Palestinians in their dealings with the IDF and other Israeli authorities. They also find ways to work with neighboring Palestinian communities to resolve their differences in amicable get-togethers (which get shut down by the PA):

  1. West Bank Tours

Like JVP, INN offers tours of the West Bank that provide highly biased accounts of the conflict in an attempt to erase the “pride and fascination” in the Jewish state which may have been fostered through the prior educational programming that the participants received.

I was particularly struck by the fact that INN partnered with the group Breaking the Silence (BtS) during its recent trip. As we’ve highlighted in several posts, BtS is a discredited Israel-based NGO that once served as a support group of sorts for young IDF draftees who needed to process the challenges and difficulties of their tours of duty but has now become an arm of the anti-Israel BDS movement:

Also revealing is the fact that INN’s “Anti Occupation Delegation” met with Issa Amro and Bassem Tamimi during their visit to the West Bank. As noted by LI occasional author and investigative journalist Petra Marquardt-Bigman, Amro is hardly a peace activist committed to the principle of nonviolent action, Issa Amro is no “Palestinian Gandhi”.

As for Tamimi, in multiple posts we’ve highlighted his exploitation of his own and other Palestinian children for anti-Israel propaganda purposes; his dissemination of vile antisemitic posts on social media; and how he urges young American kids to become violent freedom fighters, a presentation that gave at least one child nightmares.

INN activists have posted a number of short essays (see for example, here, here and here) about their recent West Bank tour on Medium. They’re worth reading because they absolve the Palestinians of any responsibility in perpetuating the conflict, largely by inciting and glorifying violence and rejecting multiple peace offers.

They also contain a large number of factual inaccuracies (one article, for example, employs false figures on the number of Palestinians arrested by Israel’s security forces; it also asserts that settlers living in the West Bank should be subject to Israeli military courts just like Palestinians, thus displaying a lack of a basic understanding about the laws of occupation).

One of the blog posts even uses the image of an octopus to describe Israel’s settlement policies (“…the Occupation is an octopus, its tentacles reach into every corner of Palestinian life…”). INN is either unaware that Israel is depicted as bestial and savage, including frequently as a ravenous octopus, or it doesn’t care that its work traffics in antisemitism.

https://www.adl.org/blog/arabic-language-media-propagate-anti-semitic-cartoons-in-wake-of-president-trumps-recognition

Bottom line: INN activists are unfamiliar with the lived experiences of Jews and Arabs in the West Bank. Its activists work with groups that seek to demonize and vilify Israel and Jews in Judea and Samaria—the ancient lands of the Jewish nation.

IfNotNow’s Latest Campaign: “Camp Counselor Training on the Occupation”

In a new INN campaign, Jewish camp counselors from across the country are being invited to sign up for a multi-day training session to learn how to give their summer campers “an honest Israel education.”

The training session, which is set to happen on May 27, is being “planned and coordinated” by INN members who self-describe as alumni of Jewish summer camps. There’ll be an optional Shabbaton (learning and community-building session over the Jewish Sabbath) on May 25-26. Participants are also being encouraged to stay on for the official INN orientation on May 28.

INN anticipates that the gathering will include at least 50 Jewish summer camp counselors from at least 10 different camps in North America.

This new initiative comes after a months-long effort by INN alums of Ramah—the Jewish Conservative movement’s camping arm—to convince its leadership to include the ‘occupation’ as part of its Israel education programming.

INN recently admitted that Ramah leaders, including Rabbi Mitch Cohen, executive director of the National Ramah Commission, had recently met with the group where they “affirmed” a commitment to discuss the creation of a broader Israel curriculum “with the goal of providing our teens and staff members at our camps and Israel programs with a full range of opinions on the conflict.”

In particular, Rabbi Cohen recognized that “staff training and a changed curricula” were areas that could be “improved” and where he would begin to “channel his efforts.”

So Ramah administrators are already willing to teach about the occupation at their camps and will be working with experts to devise best practices for doing so. But apparently that’s not enough for INN, which is now trying to do an end-run around Ramah’s leadership.

INN promotional materials for the May 27 training don’t describe what will be covered beyond that participating counselors will

learn about what the Occupation looks like on the ground, from people who have witnessed it firsthand and from Palestinians who experience it everyday.”

The likelihood that the summer camp counselors will be hearing from Palestinians who’ve been harmed by the Palestinian Authority or who actually prefer working in businesses owned by Israeli settlers is nil.

That said, there’s no problem with teaching summer campers about the left-of-center position on Israel’s post-1967 settlement project, provided its done in an age appropriate manner, includes factually-accurate materials, and presents opposing centrist and right-wing perspectives fairly. Israel is a raucous and vibrant democracy, where people holding diverse positions on a range of policies can freely express their views. So there’s no reason why campers shouldn’t be exposed to that diversity as a way of enhancing their connection and attachment to the Jewish state.

But in this regard, it’s important to realize that INN’s perspective is totally out of sync with leftist Zionist positions. Specifically, the left-of-center Zionist opposition doesn’t reject the security measures that keep Israelis safe. Anti-occupation left-wing Israeli politicians, for example, have called for completing unfinished areas of the security fence—what INN activists call the ‘separation wall’ and demand must be dismantled. Further, unlike INN, the Zionist left-wing also rejects a wholesale return to the 1949 armistice lines in any final deal much less endorses a ‘right’ of return for Palestinian refugees, which would put an end to the world’s only Jewish state.

Bottom line: Given the nature of INN, Jewish summer camp administrators who want to retain the Zionist mission of their institutions and want “all of our kids to love Israel” shouldn’t let INN anywhere near their programming on these topics. Parents need to make sure that they clearly and strongly convey to camp leaders that they won’t be sending their kids to camp this summer if they’re going to be subjected to an ‘education’ about Israel from counselors who’ve attended INN’s Memorial Day Weekend training workshop and who plan to bring its radically anti-Israel message to the camp.

Conclusion

IfNotNow self-describes as the important voice of a new American Jewish generation. But in its early years, it didn’t look like the organization would survive within the already crowded arena of virulently anti-Israel activism.

Anti-Israel activists liked the fact that INN was attacking JFNA, AIPAC, the ADL and other American Jewish organizations for supporting “Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.” But they weren’t so happy that INN leaders expressed a “subtle endorsement” of J Street or that they “refused to define” what the occupation specifically entailed.

That is, the anti-Israel movement wanted INN to not only oppose Israel’s post-1967 presence in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, it also expected INN activists to unequivocally support BDS and to “recognize that the Israeli State has brutally occupied Palestinian land since the moment it was established”.

INN still doesn’t have an official position on BDS, neither supporting nor disavowing it. But now it looks like that’s no longer a sticking point. Clearly, the initial hesitance to fully embrace INN has dissipated. The group has become the up-and-coming darling of the anti-Israel crowd, who are now celebrating its achievements and providing it with much encouragement:

Bottom line: It’s easy to confuse IfNotNow with other left-wing Zionist groups because it doesn’t officially endorse BDS, claims to be merely anti-occupation, and doesn’t overtly and consistently trade in classical antisemitic tropes and canards in the way that JVP does. But looks can be deceiving, and in the case of INN it’s important not to be fooled. Like JVP—whose activism and talking points it largely reproduces—INN legitimizes hostility toward Israel, emboldens its enemies, and ultimately has the potential to put fellow Jews at risk.

Miriam F. Elman is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Inaugural Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 65 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @MiriamElman