By NEIL COSGROVE
The anti-Semitism made manifest in Pittsburgh on October 27th was, like all hate crimes, a denial of both the humanity and the uniqueness of each person under attack, a reduction of each individual to some twisted perception of that person’s religion, or ethnicity, or national origin, or some other “threatening” identity marker.
IfNotNow is a national movement of young American Jews seeking to counter the hateful tendencies found within their own religious communities and directed toward the Palestinians. IfNotNow regards the long-term occupation of Palestinian lands by the state of Israel as a “moral disaster” for Jews everywhere; the movement first gained a clear identity during the 2014 Gaza War. Across the country IfNotNow “hives” have been forming, including one in Pittsburgh about a year-and-ahalf ago. (IfNotNow adheres to a theory of organizing social movements through “swarms,” Pittsburgh “hive” member Moriah Ella Mason tells us, “based on flexibility and decentralization.”)
Three days after the Tree of Life shootings, IfNotNow helped organize a Jewish ritual of mourning, a teachin about anti-Semitism, and a protest against President Trump’s visit to the city, at the corner of Darlington and Murray in Squirrel Hill, that drew hundreds of participants. (See accompanying photo.)
“We … recognize that Jewish trauma is regularly used as justification for the Occupation. But the Occupation is not making us safer. Demolishing Palestinian homes and shooting protestors in Gaza is not making us safer. We need to … confront the real purveyors of anti-Semitism in the U.S.— white nationalists and the politicians who have brought their beliefs back into the mainstream,” says Ms. Mason.
IfNotNow members are troubled by Jewish organizations that have failed to criticize Trump’s encouragement of white nationalism because of the President’s support of “Israeli militant segregation,” Ms. Mason adds. “This is an unacceptable political partnership and it’s dangerous for American Jews and for people of color, Muslims, and other marginalized groups. Ultimately our safety lies in solidarity.”
Just as Merton Center members are still motivated to struggle for peace and social justice by the writings of Thomas Merton, IfNotNow members are guided by the moral and religious teachings of Hillel the Elder, a rabbi who lived during the last century before the Common Era. The movement’s name derives from Hillel’s three questions: “If I am not for myself, who am I? But if I am only for myself, who am ‘I’? If not now, when?”
“We are asked to check our Jewish values at the door when it comes to Palestine,” says Ms. Mason. “As a result, young Jews have been pushed out of our own heritage.” Like all great moral teaching, however, Hillel’s packs a powerfully universal punch. When a Gentile asked Hillel if he could explain the Torah to him while he stood on one foot , the teacher offered this formulation of the “golden rule.” “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”
IfNotNow seeks to provide “a deep need for community and ritual” that Ms. Mason says many young Jews are not finding in “our institutions.” The Pittsburgh “hive” organizes “regular Shabbat dinners to build community and educate our growing hive about the Occupation and ways we can take action. We’ve held protests and actions in opposition to speakers and events that support the occupation.”
The local movement has also joined the Pittsburgh Coalition to End the Deadly Exchange, a campaign seeking to halt exchanges with units of the Israeli military designed to introduce militarized policing practices to the city’s police force. In addition to these ongoing activities, the Pittsburgh “hive” plans to offer “trainings about anti-Semitism and white nationalism” during the coming year.
IfNotNow now reports it has over 1,800 members nationwide, and chapters in 13 American cities, plus Toronto. Its web site (ifnotnowmovement.org) is quite informative and its local chapter can be contacted via Facebook or e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Neil Cosgrove is a member of The NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center board.
Photo: Members of Pittsburgh IfNotNow sing during the Shiva organized by the group, on October 30th in Squirrel Hill. Photo Credit: Neil Cosgrove.