By Ray Epstein
Progressive Jewish circles were always divided on whether to support Israel and even during the early stages of the modern Zionist movement, there was a counterreaction from an anti-Zionist Jewish Labour Federation (“Bund”). Indeed, even among the pro-Israel Jewish community, there is controversy over full-fledged support for Israel, the two-state solution, and beyond that the various governments of Israel. However, one of the latest anti-Zionist Jewish organizations has set itself apart as a uniquely well-connected instrument dedicated to anything but the communal interests of the Jewish community.
IfNotNow was founded in late 2014 under the directorship of Cedar Landsman, Seth Woody, and Simon Mont, and Ethan Miller as Treasurer. While some were active in the Reform Jewish movement including Mont who wrote articles clamoring against the patriarchy in Tikkun magazine, other members are not Jewish at all. Woody, for example, is an activist on the evangelical left and was a lead organizer of the Leadership Development Initiative of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. While Mont is the movement’s chair, he tends to remain in the background as other members take the lead. IfNotNow’s mission is very clearly aimed at Jewish youth: “We will be the generation that ends our community’s support for the occupation [of Palestine]. Will you join us?”
However, IfNotNow is not one movement but a close-knit circle of movements with a much broader purpose that has nothing to do with Judaism, Israel, or Palestine. IfNotNow’s founders are, for the most part, graduates of organizational training by the Ayni Institute and its project the Momentum Community. Woody and Landsman both appear in the Ayni Institute’s 2016 promotional video. Momentum claims to have “incubated” three movements:
- Movimiento Cosecha, which strives to obtain “permanent protection, dignity and respect for the 11 million undocumented people in this country”.
- Sunrise: “a movement to stop climate change, and create millions of good jobs in the process”
Incubation is a light term for what goes on at Momentum, as there is strong cross-pollination between the groups. Sunrise founder Sara Blazevic was originally an IfNotNow organizer; she is Croatian, not Jewish.
Much like the other two group’s, IfNotNow’s origins and strongest branches are in the Boston metropolitan area; its most numerously attended events such as the 2016 #LiberationSeder take place during Passover. The training that IfNotNow and its sister movements’ activists receive through Momentum includes creating cell-like sub-groups to maintain a decentralized and seemingly grass-roots structure to the movement. Some of the trainings are conducted at the Watershed Center, a retreat in Upstate New York whose board includes former JStreet co-founder and MoveOn.org activist Carinne Luck, herself an IfNotNow organizer. The retreat is also the location of Landsman’s training and coaching institute “Relational Uprising”.
Despite its progressive bona fides, Momentum seems to believe that some events must be racially segregated. One of the trainings taking place this August in Durham, North Carolina is only open to black attendants and one scheduled for November 2019 is only for POCs (people of colour), which essentially excludes white people. Of Momentum’s 44 trainers, eight are in one way or another affiliated with IfNotNow.
Grassroots With Heavy Fertilizer
In progressive circles the designation “grassroots” is treasured, yet IfNotNow’s financial backing reveals that this claim is untrue. In 2016, it received $10,000 from the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP), a think-tank known to be especially hostile to Israel, as well as a funding source for the fiercely anti-Zionist +972 Magazine. They also paid a $66 thousand consultant fee to Peter Beinart, a Jewish-American journalist who claims he is a “fan” of IfNotNow and regularly publishes favorable opinion pieces for them in The Atlantic and The Forward. He profusely praised IfNotNow spin-off Never Again Action for their use of the “concentration camp” terminology in condemning US migrant detention centers. He even once called them the “Jewish Black Lives Matter”, a compliment that they rejected in an almost comic public denial. Their humility is absurd as, like IfNotNow, the Black Lives Matter movement has at least eight members among Momentum Community’s trainers. FMEP’s former president, Matt Duss, is now the chief foreign policy adviser to US Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.
On July 8 Duss retweeted an IfNotNow update where they convinced Senator Elizabeth Warren to pressure Israel to “stop their 52-year military occupation over the Palestinian People”. FMEP hired as its scholars, board members, and consultants top diplomats from the Carter and Bush Sr. Administrations that were close to Arab or Islamic governments such as former Ambassador to Yemen Arthur Hughes.
The massive Rockefeller Brothers Fund also funded IfNotNow for several years: In 2017, they received $20,000 and then $40,000 in 2018. They also received a total of $110 thousand from the Arca Foundation, a non-profit founded by tobacco heiress Nancy Reynolds Bagley.
Bold Goals, But For Whom?
IfNotNow’s objective is not solely to influence US foreign policy in the Middle East or Jewish community support thereof. The agenda of the movement is intrinsically tied to a greater effort by the Momentum Community movements to seize control of the Democratic Party. In 2018 and the first half of 2019 much of the pressure was exerted by the Sunrise Movement by pressuring Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi through sit-ins, petitions, and protests to support the Green New Deal. This was used as a fulcrum to attract more public support for the movement, and now thanks to those efforts, Sunrise succeeded in garnering the support of 20 Democratic presidential candidates for a climate change debate.
IfNotNow is another limb of this beast. In pursuit of moving the needle further against the Netanyahu government and Israel in general, they dispatched a team of six fellows to New Hampshire to pressure candidates to oppose the Occupation. Organizer Emily Mayer is quoted as saying: “As we’re putting forward big new policy ideas like Medicare for all, the Green New Deal, I think IfNotNow sees an opportunity to actually extend that kind of bold progressivism that is breaking with the status quo into the realm of Israel/Palestine. So, it feels like an opportunity to make opposition to the occupation be seen as part of a progressive plank that the Democratic Party is moving more and more towards.” Not mentioned is that Mayer is a lead trainer with Momentum.
However, the influence of Momentum-trained IfNotNow leaders is deeply entwined with the organization that seeks to sweep away the old establishment class of Democrats like Pelosi in favour of a youthful progressive radical wing – the Justice Democrats. In 2016, Ha’aretz published an opinion piece by Max Berger calling for Jews to “fight for black and Palestinian freedom as we fight for our own”. The article does not mention his role as a trainer for Momentum, (which he still is), but only his participation in IfNotNow. Momentum’s webpage, though, lists him as a co-founder. The trainer page of the website (where the profiles of all group trainers can be found) also lists him as a co-founder of #AllOfUS.
The now defunct #AllOfUs was an organization founded by Berger and fellow Bernie Sanders 2016 staffer Waleed Shahid, who is now the spokesman for the Justice Democrats. Together, Berger and Shahid helped create The Future of the Party, a policy report that was the blueprint for where Justice Democrats want to lead the Democratic Party as a whole. Berger is now a staffer with the Elizabeth Warren 2020 presidential campaign. Justice Democrats was essential to unseating Democratic incumbents in 2018 by replacing them in the primaries with their candidates Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY) and Ayanna Pressley (MA). Based on the ability of the Momentum movements and Justice Democrats to shift policy within the Democratic Party, as well as among presidential candidates, it is likely that IfNotNow’s influence on the party’s Middle East policies will only grow.