Last week the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s official summer camping arm, the National Ramah Commission (NRC), pledged not to partner with an activist group of Ramah camp alumni affiliated with the far-left “IfNotNow” (INN) group.

In a letter distributed on June 11th to its institutional partners, whose programs this summer include more than 11,000 children and staff members in the U.S., Canada and Israel, the leaders of Camp Ramah explicitly noted that they will “not engage in any way” with INN as an organization.

https://www.algemeiner.com/2018/06/13/after-pressure-from-anti-occupation-group-camp-ramah-affirms-opposition-to-any-anti-israel-antisemitic-anti-zionist-education/

As we highlighted in a recent post, INN is seeking to subvert Ramah’s approach to Israel education within its summer camp network, Group plans to infiltrate Jewish summer camps to turn campers against Israel.

Founded in 2014 by a group of young American Jews who broke away from JStreet on the grounds that it was too pro-Israel and insufficiently sympathetic to the Palestinian narrative, INN fraudulently presents itself as merely opposed to Israel’s ‘occupation’ but in fact regularly promotes anti-Israel propaganda and BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) talking points.

As we documented in our prior post, INN isn’t very different in terms of its messaging and activism from the virulently anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace, which explains why INN is fast becoming the new darling of the anti-Israel movement in the U.S.

Camp Ramah’s leaders made the right move in refusing to work with INN, even though it means saying “no way” to a group of alumi. But reportedly “broken hearted” and “furious” that their effort to hijack the camps has now been publicly and strongly rebuffed, INN is threatening to continue to support counselors who still want to change the Israel education at their camp over the summer.

So Ramah officials need to devise a plan for dealing with the handful of INN-affiliated counselors who will apparently get to keep their jobs.

Background: If Not Now’s Campaign to Hijack Ramah’s Pro-Israel Mission

As we described in our prior post, in the saturated arena of anti-Israel 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.

INN doesn’t explicitly support Zionism or take a “unified stance” on BDS or the “question” of Israel’s statehood. This means that even if some of its members are self-identified Zionists who gravitate to the group merely in order to oppose the ‘occupation’, INN can also welcome those who don’t support Israel’s right to exist or to protect itself, and its materials can also portray Israel as an unjust aggressor with no acknowledgement of Palestinian violence or rejectionism.

When it initially formed, INN activists spent much of their time and effort on public and often disruptive protests at American Jewish organizations like AIPAC and appropriating Passover themes and customs by conducting ‘Palestinian liberation seders’ in the streets. These days, as we showed in our prior post, its outdoor spectacles have taken an even nastier turn, with Kaddish (the mourners’ prayer) recited for Hamas terrorists and mock coffins delivered to Senator Schumer’s office:

[credit: Facebook]

But one of its boldest moves has been a campaign to take its anti-Israel messaging to summer camps across the country.

The group first held a protest outside Ramah’s national headquarters last November, with some 20 activists calling on its leadership to commit to ‘educating about the occupation.’ At the time, Ramah’s leadership agreed to meet with the group, but they refused.

Then, in March a group of 15 Ramah alumni comprising both campers and counselors affiliated with INN sat down with the National Ramah Commission (NRC) director Rabbi Mitch Cohen. As we discussed in our prior post, at the March 22nd meeting Cohen said that he was open to presenting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a variety of perspectives and giving campers and staff members the chance to voice a full range of opinions. He also expressed an interest in working with experts to improve the camp’s Israel-related curriculum.

But that wasn’t enough for INN, which proceeded to do an end-run around Ramah’s leadership by conducting its own training sessions for counselors. The campaign continued with a training in May, attended by about a dozen counselors from eight different camps including Ramah and other Jewish camp programs.  According to INN, some 50 counselors who were unable to attend this May 27th training joined a follow-up call on June 4th where they reviewed what was discussed at the in-person training.

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To the best of our knowledge, Legal Insurrection was among the first media outlets, if not the first, to report on INN’s plan to train camp counselors at the Boston pre-summer camp seminar over the Memorial Day Weekend. Subsequent to our writing about it, news coverage of the trainings picked up, especially after the Boston sessions took place. The media attention reportedly led to Ramah camp directors being inundated with queries from concerned parents.

Legal Insurrection obtained copies of several of these letters, along with the responses. In one case, the director assured the parents that they weren’t aware of any hired counselors who were INN members or who had attended their training:

[Letter from parent to Camp Ramah, shared with Legal Insurrection | Reprinted with permission, names redacted]

In response to the following letter (shared with permission; identifying information redacted) sent to the director of Camp Ramah New England, the director replied that the camp had no connection to INN and didn’t support anti-Zionist education.

Further, the director stated that while a wide range of opinions would be welcomed at the camp—including liberal ones—the key remained to instill a deep and enduring love for Israel and that “this will not change.”

These responses from individual Ramah camp directors were eventually echoed in two NRC statements released on June 6th and June 11th.

The National Ramah Commission (NRC) Draws a Red-Line on INN’s Anti-Israel Rhetoric and Activism

On June 6th the NRC released a “Statement on Israel Education.” The statement objected to “some recent articles in the Jewish press” that it claimed “mischaracterized” Ramah’s educational mission. The NRC used the statement to reaffirm its “70-year history of strong pro-Israel ideology” which it insisted had “not changed.” However, INN wasn’t mentioned by name in the statement.

In its statement released on June 11th, the NRC asserted that its camps “have not engaged—and will not engage—in any way with If Not Now as an organization.” It also stated that while Ramah’s Israel programming would continue to engage on different opinions and political perspectives regarding Israeli policy, it would never welcome anti-Zionist or antisemitic education.

The June 11th statement does a good job of differentiating between legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies and anti-Israel rhetoric that can cross the line into antisemitism. It clearly and correctly identifies INN as a radical organization that can’t be accommodated in its camping network which is designed to help campers make meaningful and lasting connections to Judaism and Israel.

Here’s a copy of the June 11th letter:

[credit: Facebook]

IfNotNow Responds to the NRC Rebuff

In a series of posts on social media, an op-ed for The Forward, and in multiple interviews INN has condemned both NRC letters. In particular, they’ve asserted that Ramah’s leaders are lying about what was said at the March meeting. In their minds, Mitch Cohen “committed to prioritizing change” around Ramah’s Israel-related education and he and the NRC were now reneging on their promises.

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Basically, INN now insists that they were given reason to believe at the March meeting that their ideas would be taken into consideration and that Ramah would initiate a major overhaul of its Israel programming in time for this summer’s camp experience. But Mitch Cohen, the director of the NRC, never gave any such assurances. As we noted in our prior post, what Cohen did tell the group was that liberal pro-Israel views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be engaged at Ramah.

Cohen didn’t commit to any sped-up timetable for curricula changes nor did he promise any radical revisions to Ramah’s Israel-related programming for this summer before any such new materials could be prepared in conjunction with experts in the field and undergo a proper vetting.

So INN’s accusation that Ramah “walked back” some earlier commitment is disingenuous.

Slamming the NRC as “cowardly and offensive”, defiant INN leaders are now vowing to “work directly with counselors” while camps are in session so that campers can still be exposed to INN’s message.

Will INN Be Able to Hijack Camp Ramah’s Mission?

INN’s plans to infiltrate the camps may create some tensions at individual camps this summer, but it’s important not to exaggerate the problem as this will hardly sink Ramah.

[Camp Ramah Berkshires | YouTube screenshot]

For 70 years, Ramah’s system of 15 overnight and day camps in the U.S., Canada and Israel have sustained a “successful blend of Hebrew, Zionism, and Judaism” and have generated a very devoted following of campers, alumni, and staff (see, for example, the many recent testimonies of alumni and veteran Ramah staffers who reject INN’s messaging, collected here; interestingly, a number of them note that Camp Ramah already has plenty of balance and nuance in its Israel-related education, which was INN’s initial request).

Ramah hires hundreds of staff members and only a couple of them at most reportedly participated in the INN May 27th training. Even if you add to that number a few more Ramah counselors who RSVPd to INN’s open-call on June 4th, it’s simply not realistic to think that a handful of INN-trained activist-counselors trying to teach campers subversively this summer will be able to upend this hugely popular and successful pro-Israel educational outlet.

Here’s just a few videos of the Ramah camping experience which clearly demonstrate its “success story” (with dozens more online). It’s a bit silly to think that a program this long-standing and effective will be destroyed by a few disgruntled alumni:

Bottom line: it’s important not to overstate the damage that INN can do now that Ramah’s leadership has officially turned down any and all engagement with it. Essentially, the better way to view the latest developments is to recognize that INN’s effort to subvert one of America’s “most cherished Zionist education venues” is proving to be a total failure.

Conclusion

In a section of his chapter for Andrew Pessin and Doron S. Ben-Atar’s important new book about the pernicious effects of anti-Zionism and BDS on college campuses, professor of music and computer science Shlomo Dubnov relates how IfNotNow’s co-founder Simone Zimmerman, the short-lived Jewish outreach coordinator for presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, “left her Zionist upbringing and American Israel Public Affairs (AIPAC) youth activism” to start siding against Israel during her undergraduate years at the University of California at Berkeley:

what is troubling is not merely that Zimmerman switched sides but how quickly it happened and how far she went. In roughly her first year at Berkeley, she went from pro-Israel enthusiast to slanderer of Israel…on to whole-hearted endorsement of the true goal of the BDS movement…ending Israel as a Jewish state the way we know it today.”

Dubnov traces the conditions at UC Berkeley that produced Zimmerman’s transformation, including her “repeated exposure to Israel-bashing” on the campus and especially her encounters with a campus Hillel subgroup that was allowed to “present programs demonizing Israel and the IDF” and which collaborated frequently with the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine.

Dubnov correctly notes that “listening to Palestinians complain for hours about Israel” during campus BDS campaigns isn’t guaranteed to convert every long-established Israel-supporting Jewish student (he presents the examples of his own two children who attended UC Berkeley at roughly the same time as Zimmerman and who didn’t get sucked into BDS and “did not switch sides”).

But he’s right that the repeated exposure will have “an effect on some or many”—in particular when the virulently anti-Israel messaging comes from Hillel, from the “home within a home” and the Jewish community on campus itself.

In this regard, it’s worth noting that Aviva Schwartz, the INN activist and former Ramah camper and counselor who has reportedly been instrumental in the group’s campaign to move Jewish summer camp curriculum away from support for Israel and to distance Jewish campers from the Jewish state, is employed as the director for Jewish Student Life at the University of Washington’s Hillel:

[credit: Facebook]

Bottom line: IfNotNow is mostly comprised of young American Jews whose support for Israel, built-up at Jewish day schools and summer camps, has been (perhaps irreparably) undermined largely by the poisoned anti-Israel atmosphere that they’ve encountered years later on their universities and college campuses. The U.S. Conservative movement of Judaism’s camping arm has made the right decision to formally reject any partnership with this organization.

Miriam F. Elman is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the 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 60 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 on Twitter @MiriamElman