How do you teach a six-year-old Jewish child in the US about the “occupation?” The leaders of a far-left Jewish organization called IfNotNow have been dealing with this issue over the past few years, as part of their effort to get Jewish American community to stop supporting Israel and usher “the end of the occupation in Palestine.”
This summer, students at the vast Camp Ramah system, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement in the United States and Canada, are expected to receive inciting education against Israel from instructors at the camps, in defiance of the organization’s leadership.
It will start with seemingly marginal details, such as camp signs. Every sign posted in the pastoral camps of perhaps the most Zionist summer camps in the United States, is written in Hebrew and English, sometimes only in Hebrew. So every camper knows the meaning of Cheder Ochel (dining room) or Beit Knesset (synagogue). This summer, IfNotNow affiliated camp counselor will add signs in a third language – Arabic.
“For children aged 6 to 12, you can prepare signs in Arabic, tell stories and teach Arabic words, teach them about Arab food and tell stories consistent with the Palestinian narrative,” was one of the ideas at a brainstorming session was held for counselors in recent weeks which reached Makor Rishon.
Camp directors will try to fight this phenomenon, but they may not be able to control what is essentially expected to be a stealth insurgency.
In recent weeks, ahead of the opening of the Jewish community’s summer camps in North America, IfNotNow has organized several training workshops for camp counselors, who are mostly youths. The goal was to expose the counselors to materials and programs that portray Israel as an occupying state that violates human rights.
The training was conducted by consultants from the organization throughout the United States. One of the workshops took place on the Internet for teenagers who could not physically participate. One of the invitations said that “the training will be carried out with emphasis on coping with the complexity of Israel, Palestine and the occupation.”
The IfNotNow philosophy suggests that the change of discourse and of reality will not take place by influencing a single camp counselor nor through one activity in a single camp. They believe in forging a comprehensive system of activities that will lead to a whole new movement of Jewish youth who has been exposed to “reality as it really is.”
As part of these efforts to forge a new movement, IfNotNow organized Kaddish prayers for Arab terrorists killed in the recent riots alongside the Gaza Strip border fence.
About a week ago, I joined a closed Internet workshop with about 20 young Jews from all over the United States (the concluding email mentioned some 60 participants), most of them from the Camp Ramah network of the Conservative movement in the United States. Many of IfNotNow’s founders and its affiliated organizations are alumni of these camps.
Young people from the summer camps of the Reform movement, Hashomer Hatzair, Habonim Dror, Young Judea, and even a graduate of Bnei Akiva in the UK participated in the same workshop. They all explained why they wanted to instill in their campers an awareness of the “occupation.”
I took part in the workshop for a while until its managers suspected I was a journalist and removed me.
It should be noted there were other unauthorized participants, whom the group dubbed as representatives of “extreme right,” who harassed the leftist activists and uploaded video clips that interfered with the discourse.
Earlier this year, following reports in the Jewish media about the organization and the failure of its attempts to enter the camps officially, IfNotNow decided that if the Jewish mainstream summer camps are unwilling to introduce the group’s anti-Israel agenda, the group will do it informally, through their recruited counselors.
They tweeted: “This March, 15 Camp Ramah alumni met with @NationalRamah to explain why the reality of the Occupation is a necessary part of Israel education at camp. We are saddened and hurt that Ramah’s leadership is implying that these 15 alumni were attempting to bring anti-Semitism to camp.”
To which they received a response tweet: “Were they going to say kaddish for dead Hamas fighters, like you often do? Then yeah, Ramah made the right call.” Many other tweets were in support of the leftist group.
Mitch Cohen, head of the Camp Ramah umbrella organization told Makor Rishon: “Ramah has nothing to do with IfNotNow, and we will not support any anti-Zionist activity. While our youth and staff represent a wide range of opinions, we do not allow the transmission of anti-Zionist messages as part of the educational program. One of the most important values of Ramah is the imparting of the love of Israel to our disciples. It will never change.”
HOW TO RUN A SHABBOS WALK
The training session for counselors offered a variety of educational ideas, including an entire chapter on how to approach the campers and how to convey easy to digest messages. For ages 12 to 15, IfNotNow suggests telling “stories about Palestinian children their age, play music and read Palestinian literature.”
They also propose to hold Bar / Bat Mitzvah projects in order to donate the proceeds to the Palestinians, and even to teach what we can learn from the shmita year about supporting the needy in the PA and Gaza.
The most hallucinatory suggestion: “Practice with them saying the Kaddish every morning for Palestinians who have been killed in Gaza or its environs.”
The older the age group, the greater the detail and the distortions:
“Boys and girls aged 15 and older can be offered programs in Israel,” the group says. Also: “Take the campers on a hike and discuss with them the environmental harm inflicted by the occupation.”
It was also proposed to hold a discussion with the campers comparing the pro-Palestinian education they received in camp about Israel with to the teaching they received in their Jewish schools. The goal is clear: to convey a message that “your educators and your parents are hiding from you the real information about the occupation and the discrimination against the Palestinian people.”
One of the workshops addresses the psychological aspects of the organization’s teaching: “Tell them that their parents are good people,” meaning, they’re good even though they have lied to their children about the “occupation.”
One of the sections proposes to hold one-on-one talks: “Raise the subject and offer the camper or the staff member: I’d love to go with you on a Shabbos walk and delve into this issue.”
What to talk about during this meditative Shabbos walk? “Talk about settlement construction on the one hand, and the destruction of Palestinian homes on the other.”
There is also a plan for to join the Israeli delegation in each camp to in a program with all the campers, but invite only the leftist delegates.
NO RECOGNITION OF THE STATE OF ISRAEL
The former head of the Reform movement, Rabbi Arik Joffe, wrote a few years ago in Haaretz: “I have no problem with the fact that the organization is demanding education on Israel and Palestine, but I have a problem with IfNotNow’s refusal to take a stand on the existence of a Jewish state.” In the absence of recognition of the importance of a Jewish state, the organization refuses to consider the safety or even the living reality of the 6.5 million Jews in Israel, refusing to recognize the importance of national sovereignty for the Jewish people, which has been forced to fight for its survival, and who, after 2,000 years, can finally control its own fate.”
The IfNotNow story is dramatic because it is not an fringe group such as Jewish Voice for Peace, which is one of the leading BDS organizations. Here we are talking about summer campers from the Jewish American mainstream who use the rhetoric used in the camps for their extreme agenda.
The drama is intensified by the fact that these extreme left-wing messages are disseminated in camps that educate for a religious lifestyle. These camps, which have been run for decades in a religious format, every year bring over dozens of young religious Zionist Israelis to work as staff members.
In an interview with the BBC about a month ago, Camp Ramah counselor Sylvia Rosen, a member of You Never Told Me, which is affiliated with IfNotNow, said: “They never taught me about the occupation. They never told me about the oppression of those people.”
Rosen’s group includes alumni of summer camps and Jewish schools who are angry with their parents and educators for not exposing them to the “wrongdoing” of the State of Israel.
“This summer, I will be responsible for a few groups and counselors, and I will make sure that my counselors talk to the campers about the occupation,” Sylvia promised, adding, “There is an assumption among the young Jewish generation in the United States that it is possible to criticize the State of Israel. Some will argue that Israel should not exist, others will support the two-state solution or other solutions. There are many ways to be a Jew in America, you don’t need to support Israel in order to express your Jewishness.”
BDS GROUP PAR EXCELLENCE
IfNotNow was established in 2014 during Operation Protective Edge, in protest of the situation in Israel and in opposition to the pro-Israel lobby in the United States. The organization’s ultimate goal is a conceptual change in the Jewish American community, with the aim of changing the political status quo in Israel.
The organization’s leadership is staffed by young Jews, most of whom were born and raised within the Jewish community. Some of them are religious, and some have even had a thorough Jewish education, visited Israel many times and even lived there.
Minister of Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan, whose office is engaged in monitoring and fighting such organizations around the world, told us that he knows the group and its activities.
“Unfortunately, extreme Jewish leftwing organizations are joining Israel’s enemies in activities that undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel – and do so under false pretenses of human rights activity. The purpose of their activity is to create a rift within the Jewish world, and it must be condemned forcefully. It is important to know that IfNotNow does not object to a boycott of Israel, and thus it undermines our struggle against the boycott and BDS.”
Another IfNotNow internal document that reached Makor Rishon details “the ways in which the Jewish American community supports the occupation.”
The group mentions, among other things, the contributions that large organizations such as the Jewish Federations and JDC give Israel, but also refers to specific individuals such as Prime Minister Netanyahu. This document also mentions Education and Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett, who, according to the IfNotNow, has decided to support the Jewish campus network Hillel with tens of millions of dollars through a non-profit he founded, called Mosaic United.
“The goal of Mosaic United’s programs is to address criticism of the occupation on university campuses and raise concerns about intermarriage among young Jews,” the IfNotNow document says.
IfNotNow operates 13 branches in major US states and several on campus. Among its principles: a demand from the Jewish community in the United States to end its support for the “occupation”; a commitment to the (cherry picked) values of Jewish tradition; transparency and public dialogue; taking the initiative; and nonviolent protest.
The group is based on volunteers and donations. In their view, they focus on closeness rather than division – and are not part of the BDS movement, debates about Zionism, or the question of dividing the land – only on ending the “occupation.”
However, the group did tweet less than a year ago, in response to US laws against boycotting Israel, that “no matter your position on BDS (we do not take a position), boycotts are not a crime. The law against boycotting Israel is neither constitutional nor American.”
Another tweet says “the Jewish American establishment drives the fear of BDS, and usually sides with Israel’s deteriorating democracy, the violent arrests of Palestinian children, and the nightmare known as the ‘occupation.’ The BDS is not the problem, the occupation is the problem.”
Members of IfNotNow are very active in demonstrations against Israel. Last year, they crashed the Senate confirmation hearing of US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. Recently, they held demonstrations against JNF branches in the United States.
But beyond the demonstrations and the protests, IfNotNow invests its resources in conducting study and exposure workshops for young Jews in the United States and Canada.
Those who might be directly harmed by IfNotNow are members of the Israeli delegations to the summer camps, who are mostly Jewish Agency emissaries. The Agency said in a statement: “We are conducting extensive educational activities in various frameworks (summer camps, youth movements, campuses) in order to provide the trainees with tools to deal with the phenomenon and to repel it.”
IfNotNow did not respond to a Makor Rishon request for a statement.
This article first appeared in Hebrew in Makor Rishon.