IfNotNow protesters march down Market Street in San Francisco during 2016 High Holidays. (Photo/from file)
IfNotNow protesters march down Market Street in San Francisco during 2016 High Holidays. (Photo/from file)

Advice for IfNotNow protesters: Grow up

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To the members of IfNotNow who chose to stage a disruption at Bret Stephens’ talk at Emanu-El last week, singing and unrolling a banner charging Stephens (and AIPAC, which presented the talk) with not living up to “Jewish values”: It’s a shame you were promptly escorted out, as expected, because you missed an excellent and nuanced presentation.

My wife and I were the people you engaged in conversation at the restaurant after the event. I appreciated the opportunity to hear your viewpoint and the civil conversation, though I doubt we changed your minds. You certainly didn’t change ours.

I’ve been thinking about some of the points we discussed, and I’d like to share them with the readers of J.

You’re very upset that Israel is not a perfect society, as you claim to have been taught in Hebrew school. I can understand that; after all, America also has deep problems about which you were not taught when you were 8 or 12 years old. Many of our childhood myths are rudely overturned by the complex reality we learn about as adults.

Humanity lives in deeply flawed societies. Judging Israel — or America, or your family, or your work — on the basis of an idealized picture, and rejecting it when learning that the truth is far more nuanced, is a poor recipe for navigating your way through life. Looking at Israel’s actions completely in isolation from its environment is like watching a boxing match in which you only see one of the fighters punching, and you wonder why he is acting so aggressively.

You claim that you oppose Israel’s actions — and many of you oppose Israel’s very existence — on the basis of “Jewish values.” But your reading of those values is quite selective. You have decided to accept only those Jewish values you like, and ignore others. Jewish values also include self-defense and self-preservation (“remember what Amalek did to you”), along with Jewish peoplehood (kol Yisrael arevim ze lazeh). Managing the tension created by conflicts between these many important values is part of the challenge of governing a Jewish state, and scholars such as Rabbi Donniel Hartman and Yossi Klein Halevi write thoughtfully and eloquently about addressing this challenge.

You clearly prioritize ending the occupation over all other issues, including Israel’s very survival. After all, your own mission statement reads, “We do not take a unified stance on BDS, Zionism or the question of statehood.” So it’s no surprise that you don’t have a clear concept of “what comes after”; many of you apparently don’t care if Kalkilya and Tulkarem become Gaza-style missile bases, with their civilians used as human shields while missiles are rained down on Israel’s own population centers.

If you had a credible plan for the day after the occupation ends, then you might be more than a fringe organization whose position is supported by few American Jews — and even fewer Israeli Jews.

It’s not that American Jewish leaders don’t want to see the occupation end; even Stephens explicitly called for that when he spoke. However, we insist that it be on the basis of peace and the end of claims for “Palestine from the river to the sea.” As long as many of you are anti-Zionist activists, your group is simply working to enable their goal of ending the occupation as the first step to eliminating Israel as a Jewish state. Your intellectual and moral dishonesty in being “agnostic” about Jewish statehood is transparent and untenable.

You state that the American Jewish community will lose your support — and imply that it will be the support of your entire generation — because of the occupation. Yet as Stephens noted, “Israel does not exist to make American Jews feel good about themselves.” And for those of you who are anti-Zionist, there is nothing Israel can do to satisfy you except commit suicide as a nation-state and turn Jews into a minority in our own homeland. Given the fate of minorities across the Arab Middle East over the past century, that’s an express route to exile — or to the cemetery.

As I told you that evening, we will go on without you — but with plenty of dedicated young supporters of Israel in this country. Thousands of college students attend AIPAC’s Policy Conference every year, while a few dozen of you stand outside protesting alongside Hamas supporters. StandWithUs works with dedicated and passionate pro-Israel students at campuses across the country. There will always be an anti-Israel fringe movement among Jews, but the broad American public support for Israel is only growing stronger every decade.

I’m glad we talked. I agree with you that you’re not “self-hating Jews.” You are very passionately in love with yourselves and with your idealism. I hope that you can eventually add some wisdom and maturity to that.

Dr. Michael Harris
Dr. Michael Harris

Dr. Michael Harris is one of the founders of San Francisco Voice for Israel, now the Northern California chapter of StandWithUs. His book “Winning a Debate with an Israel Hater” was published in October 2015.