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IfNotNow protesters

{Written by Eliana Rudee and originally posted to the JNS website}

Fifteen alumni of six Ramah summer camps, who are now members of IfNotNow, sat down on March 22 with National Ramah Commission director Rabbi Mitch Cohen.

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The alumni wrote in The Forward, “Our meeting on March 22nd went better than any of us would have imagined. We felt validated by Rabbi Cohen regarding the hurt we experienced by being part of a generation of campers who believed we were taught a narrow, one-sided narrative about the conflict in Israel-Palestine. And he committed to prioritizing change around Israel education at camp. We left with a verbal commitment from Rabbi Cohen that, this summer, more of the painful stories of Occupation would be included in the curriculum. As he put it, “Palestinian narratives … what you would call ‘the harshness of the Occupation’ … is language for real human suffering. It exists and it’s horrible and it’s sad and [it] needs to be part of what we teach kids when they learn about Israel.”

The article continued, “Unfortunately, it appears we were wrong. In a series of public statements, Ramah and its affiliates have slowly but surely walked back each and every one of the commitments they made to our faces.”

The statements the alumni are referring to included a June 6 Ramah statement that said, “Unfortunately, some recent articles in the Jewish press have mischaracterized our educational mission, leading some to believe that our 70-year history of strong pro-Israel ideology has changed. It has not. […] Our older teens and staff members represent a range of opinions on many contemporary issues, and a wide variety of positions supporting Israel can be voiced and discussed. We do not, however, permit the sharing of anti-Israel educational messages at camp.”

Ramah later added in an email and Facebook post with their statement: “We have made no changes in our approaches to Israel education from previous summers.”

The Conservative camp sent out a secondary statement on June 11 to institutional partners, saying “Ramah camps have not engaged—and will not engage—in any way with IfNotNow as an organization. This past winter, members of the National Ramah staff agreed to meet with 15 Ramah alumni affiliated with IfNotNow, who wanted to share their perspectives. After listening to their views, we made it very clear to them that while liberal pro-Israel views on the conflict can be voiced and taught at camp, we do not allow any anti-Israel, anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist education at Ramah.”

However, the alumni who met with Cohen called Ramah’s statement that “anti-Israel, anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist messages came up in the meeting” as “false.”

According to Aviva Slomich, international campus director for CAMERA, a media watchdog group devoted to promoting accurate and balanced coverage of Israel and the Middle East, anti-Zionist messages are an essential part of IfNotNow’s messaging. “Our concern with IfNotNow is not that they give the Palestinians a voice, but that they attack Israel, make heavily biased statements and facts, distort the truth, and demonize Israel and the Jewish people.”

IfNotNow’s website clearly states its goals “to end American Jewish support for the occupation.”

It says that “the occupation is a system of violence and separation by which Israel denies Palestinians freedom and dignity by depriving them of civil, political and economic rights. The occupation is a daily nightmare for those who live it—and it is a moral disaster for those who support it and who administer it. […] Through public action and imaginative ritual, we are demanding that our community take action in the struggle for mutual liberation. […] This movement is open to any who seek to shift the American Jewish public away from the status quo that upholds the occupation.”

IfNotNow’s founder, Simone Zimmerman, was national president of J Street U, but later went on to found IfNotNow—an offshoot that sought to do more than the “pro-peace” organizations like J Street in order to shift the American Jewish establishment away from support of the occupation.

In materials that IfNotNow uses for its training sessions, that JNS acquired, the group said that it seeks to “change the way that the Jewish community supports the ‘occupation.’ ”

In noting this, the group listed the “pillars of support for the occupation” within the Jewish, Israel and pro-Israel community. Among those listed include: the IDF, Hillel, AIPAC, Jewish Federations, Holocaust-remembrance groups, Christians United for Israel and Jewish summer camps.

While Slomich acknowledged the importance of providing comprehensive and accurate information about Israel’s past and present, she thought it odd that “IfNotNow is trying to undercut the camp’s operations, but at the same time want to be welcomed while doing so.”

She told JNS, “IfNotNow’s goal is not to provide an accurate picture of what is happening in Israel. Their stated goal is to end the occupation, and there is no reason to push ending the occupation at a Zionist camp where campers go to have fun and learn about Jewish culture, heritage and about the country that the Jewish people of America supports. Within that, there is room for discussion, but not to push a certain agenda unless it’s in Ramah’s mission.”

“People need to take a step back and say ‘if that’s your campaign, that’s fine and you can do that on your own time, but it’s not what our camp or staff represents’,” Slomich added, also voicing the need for comprehensive training for camp counselors and teachers to ensure that they can adequately educate rather than “come out with talking points.”

“For an organization that wants to take down the Jewish establishment and to take down the continuous support of America Jewry for Israel, it’s a serious consideration who they are and what they are teaching young people,” she maintained.

‘Something we should be focused on’

According to the LinkedIn profile of one of the IfNotNow alumni, Talia Kravitz, she is a teacher at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue Religious School in New York City, where she plans and executes Judaic and Hebrew curriculum for 28 fifth-grade students, and works with synagogue leadership to “ensure successful implementation of congregation’s educational vision.”

According to the religious school’s grade-level curriculum described on its website, discussion about Israel is not included in the fifth-grade curriculum, but is taught in grades one and four. The school also has missions to Israel, and has an Israel Committee that works “to promote the ideological and spiritual bonds that connect us to the Jewish homeland.”

Various other IfNotNow Ramah alumni who participated in the meeting had former positions in Jewish organizations and synagogues.

Ramah and the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue declined to comment.

According to Yona Schiffmiller, Director of the North America Desk at NGO Monitor, which produces and distributes critical analysis and reports on the activities of the international and local NGO networks, what is more concerning than the affiliation of IfNotNow members in Jewish institutions is “the types of organizations funding IfNotNow, who are trying to give it a greater voice and influence.”

He told JNS, “When the Rockefeller Brothers Fund is giving money to IfNotNow, that is something that is very worrying—that there are forces outside of the Jewish community trying to prop up groups like IfNotNow—and that’s something we should be focused on more.”

Schiffmiller noted that the Rockefellers funding a host of groups involved in BDS and the delegitimization of Israel, including Jewish Voice for Peace; the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, “which is the umbrella group for BDS activity in U.S.”; and Who Profits, “which is a clearing house for information looking to boycott or divest from Israeli companies.”

In addition, IfNotNow received funding from the Foundation for Middle East Peace, including a June 18 rapid response grant “to support groups leading non-violent protests, documenting abuses and highlighting international law, organizing events and inserting authentic Palestinian voices into mainstream American media coverage.

“The Foundation for Middle East Peace is a consistent supporter of BDS organizations and other groups looking to delegitimize Israel,” said Schiffmiller. “Their funding of IfNotNow is consistent with that agenda and exacerbates tensions in the American Jewish community.”

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