Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now nearly a year into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world. Today’s interview is the 99th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.
Today we bring you a conversation with Sarah Brammer-Shlay, a member of IfNotNow, a movement to end the American Jewish community’s support for the occupation of Palestine. Brammer-Shlay discusses how Trump’s decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem will inflame tensions in the region, and how IfNotNow is working to transform the Jewish community in order to move it away from supporting Israeli occupation.
Sarah Jaffe: This weekend, you had several actions protesting the Trump administration’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. Tell us how the actions went.
Sarah Brammer-Shlay: The actions were great, they were very powerful. We had actions in Boston, Washington, DC, New York City, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Minnesota, Chicago … hope I’m not forgetting any. Our movement was really prepared to take action on this … cities all across the country stood up to say, Hey, we do not support this move, this is a dangerous move for Palestinians and Israelis, and as American Jews, we need to be on the forefront of opposing this, and we’re refusing to be political pawns for Trump’s horrible foreign policy decisions.
You said you were prepared as an organization for this to happen. Give people who may not follow this that closely some background on why and how this administration decided to do this, and why it’s such a bad idea.
This is a really wonky issue. So, in 1995, Congress passed a bill that was written by AIPAC — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — that said that the US Embassy would move to Jerusalem. For the past 22 years, every six months, the president has signed a waiver to delay this. What Donald Trump did on Wednesday, he did sign the waiver and he said, “We have a plan to move the embassy to Jerusalem once we get all the logistics worked out. But I’m going to do something that has never happened before, I’m going to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”
Trump is further cementing the occupation and land takeover in East Jerusalem.
Why is he doing this? This is a push from major donors, such as Christian evangelical organizations, Sheldon Adelson, other members of the Jewish establishment and from the Israeli government … Jerusalem, in Israel’s mind, is its capital, but no country has their embassy in Jerusalem…. Jerusalem is a really contentious issue for achieving any sort of peace agreement in the region, because this is a really important city and place to both Israelis and Palestinians…. Anyone who knows anything about this issue would say that this is obviously an act of incitement and there’s going to be violence in the region because of this decision.
It’s also a major slap in the face to Palestinians to say, We do not recognize your connection to this city, a city that is not only holy to Jews, but also to Muslims and Christians; and this is also further cementing the occupation and land takeover in East Jerusalem…. Even people who talk about the occupation often really focus on the West Bank, and Jerusalem is really forgotten about. In East Jerusalem, Palestinian families are being kicked out of their homes in increasing numbers, and it’s just something we’re not talking about. This further cements the land takeover by Israel of Palestinian land.
Let’s talk a little bit about the history of IfNotNow. Tell us about the founding and the work that you’ve done as an organization over the past couple of years.
IfNotNow was founded in 2014, during Operation Protective Edge, which was a major war on Gaza. What our community was seeing was … establishment Jewish organizations overwhelmingly supporting Israel at all costs during this war — a war that killed over 2,000 Palestinians, including over 500 children. And we saw that our … community was not siding with the values that we grew up with. And so, a group of young Jews in New York City decided to hold actions reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, which is a prayer for the dead in Jewish tradition.
What we saw in that moment was actually major resonance across the country of young Jews saying, I’m also really upset with my community’s response to this, and so it naturally spread across the country, and cities all over were doing these Mourner’s Kaddish actions. And then the war ended and the siege on Gaza did not end and we saw that there was actually a major void we were filling by really targeting the American Jewish community and saying, We deeply care about the Jewish community, but we cannot support a community and be a part of a community that supports endless occupation.
And so, we paused for a year. About 15-20 people that I was a part of … came up with a long-term strategy for the movement and relaunched in December 2015. We take a direct-action approach and also community-building and do a lot of training to get people on board with the strategy and to be able to enact it themselves. In December 2015 we started these trainings to relaunch our movement, and after Trump was elected, this was a time where people really wanted to act politically. And then Steve Bannon was announced as chief strategist of the Trump administration. What we saw was our community, the establishment of our community, not saying, Hey, this is really messed up, even though this is a known white supremacist.
And that’s because our community has gone overboard with our pro-Israel-at-all-costs politics. So, we launched a series of actions using the “#FireBannon” hashtag to say our community needs to oppose this nomination of Bannon and actually side with Jews — why would we, as a Jewish community, be supporting someone who is an anti-Semite? It makes no sense at all.
We are actually working to transform the Jewish community.
What we saw was … our membership actually tripled because there was such a void for Jewish organizations taking actions on this. IfNotNow was not the only one, by any means, but what we saw was the establishment really not standing on the right side of history.
We’ve seen that continue this year, with Bannon, with [former deputy assistant to Trump Sebastian] Gorka, with other people who have histories of anti-Semitism who are part of this administration. And then, on the other hand, you have not just [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, but right-wing Jewish organizations that embrace people like this. For a long time, criticism of Israel has been accused of being anti-Semitic, so I wonder if you can talk about this really tangled moment we’re in, in terms of anti-Semitism and the politics of Israel.
It’s pretty wild. I think a pretty frequent question that’s been asked is, “Wait, can someone be a supporter of Israel and still be an anti-Semite?” And the answer is, yes. We’ve seen that.
There’s a lot of different layers. I think it’s important for us to note that the US government — and we see this with the embassy move — the US government has its own reasons for supporting the occupation. We, as Jews need to say, We’re not your pawns for doing this.
Christian evangelical organizations that our community … would totally not align with in situation[s] where they’re supporting Israel, give them our support. There … was a synagogue in California recently that hosted an event with the head of Christians United for Israel, which is the biggest pro-Israel lobbying group, and this is an organization for which the idea behind supporting Israel is so that the Rapture will come, and that’s not a good situation for Jews. This is not a love for Jews, but we’re seeing a conflation of supporting Israel at all costs with saying they side with Jews, and that’s not actually true.
This is also really connected to Islamophobia as well.
Can you say a little more about that?
Yes, I think what we’re seeing here is that Israel is seen as a Western country in this region, and … especially with these Christian evangelical organizations, it’s an anti-Muslim effort to say, “We support Israel and we support Jews, we don’t support the Arabs in the region.”
Talk a little bit then about using a direct-action approach, as well as the organizing you’ve been doing in the community. What are some of the actions that you’ve taken, the successes that you’ve had?
Why direct action? We believe that this is a crisis and that we need to raise attention on it, and … we are actually working to transform the Jewish community. What that means is that we deeply care about it. Our actions are almost always rooted in Jewish ritual and really are demonstrating ourselves as a Jewish movement with the goal of transforming our community and not having our community be one that supports occupation….
A poll found that 80 percent of Jews in the US do not support an embassy move.
Bannon is no longer the chief strategist and we were really able to push that narrative — that Steve Bannon is a danger for all people in our country and Jews, too. That’s been a major victory.
We had the largest-ever Jewish protest outside of the AIPAC conference last spring and this was a major thing. We had a thousand people there protesting AIPAC saying, Hey, we have a different future in mind for the Jewish community, and it’s not one that supports endless occupation. We’re going to demonstrate to our community that we deeply care about it, but our community is in need of a redirection right now, and we are going to help lead that redirection.
Moving forward from this moment, what are next steps around this — what are the plans to put pressure on them and to further challenge the narrative that to be Jewish is to be pro-Israel at all costs?
I think we’re also figuring out what is the best approach for this. Like I said, the waiver has been signed, so we do have work to do over the next six months. A lot of it is that this is actually an issue that people don’t really understand. There actually needs to be a lot of education around this.
The violence in the region has already started … we’re seeing an increase in violence and repression already. We need to get the message out there that this is a condition that is going to lead to violence and unsafety — for Palestinians, especially, and also Israelis, too — and our community cannot support that.
We also have to call out politicians who are supporting this, too. Chuck Schumer was actually someone who really encouraged Donald Trump to push this forward. In a time where people are really focused on electoral politics and we’re seeing Democrats so openly side with the president, we have to ask ourselves: What is the reason for this? It’s really unacceptable.
How can people keep up with you and IfNotNow and join if they’re interested?
You should go to IfNotNowMovement.org and you can sign up there to see what actions are coming up next, as well as signing up for trainings which give you an in-depth look at our long-term strategy. I’m praying that violence does not intensify, and I’m not hopeful for that, so we’re going to be out in the street demonstrating that Jews do not universally support this decision. In fact, AJC [American Jewish Committee] released a poll [which found that] 80 percent of Jews do not support an embassy move. So, one thing that’s really important for us to do is actually show that the numbers are not on the side of our community supporting the embassy move. It’s really important that we make our voices heard so that that is not conflated. Joining us in the streets is our first ask, and getting to a training, supporting us, if you want to make a donation that’s wonderful. And you can find us on Facebook or on our website.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.