'Going forward, we're going to need to see their plans'

How IfNotNow is getting 2020 Democrats to talk occupation

The progressive US Jewish group is hitting the campaign trail, pressing presidential hopefuls to take a stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and getting answers

Illustrative: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders poses with IfNotNow activists in New Hampshire, including University of Michigan student Becca Lubow on the far left, and holds a sign that reads 'Jews Against Occupation.' (Courtesy/IfNotNow)
Illustrative: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders poses with IfNotNow activists in New Hampshire, including University of Michigan student Becca Lubow on the far left, and holds a sign that reads 'Jews Against Occupation.' (Courtesy/IfNotNow)

WASHINGTON —  In the US, presidential candidates — or even hugely popular politicians with massive followings — are among the strongest vehicles for bringing policy ideas from off-Broadway to the bright lights.

For insurgent advocacy groups, campaigns are a chance to influence candidates looking to differentiate themselves — and who may later hold a position of power — and, in the process, get them to help bring their cause more attention.

That is the thinking driving IfNotNow’s latest effort to get 2020 Democratic candidates to come out swinging against Israel’s presence in the West Bank.

The strategy of using campaigns to amplify issues has proven useful in the past for other special interest causes: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 bid brought single-payer healthcare and free college to the forefront of the Democratic discourse. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has already brought confronting corporate monopolies closer to the party mainstream since vowing to break up tech giants in March.

And now, the progressive Jewish group — which doesn’t take an official position on whether Israel should be a Jewish state – is disbursing activists to early primary states where the candidates are bound to be. While there, they go to their events to confront the candidates on camera and ask how they would approach the conflict as president.

“We are trying to get candidates to move from a place of repeating empty AIPAC talking points to a place where they will commit to actually putting pressure on the Israeli government to end the occupation,” said Rebecca Lubow, an IfNotNow activist and rising senior at the University of Michigan.

So far, the group’s members have engaged face-to-face on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with five of the leading 2020 candidates: former vice president Joe Biden, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, Warren and Sanders.

Lubow, 21, has personally confronted Warren and Booker, and she also posed with Sanders in a widely circulated photo in which the senator held a sign that read “Jews Against the Occupation.”

She described that moment as groundbreaking. “That was one of the first times that he’s publicly identified not just as someone who is for ending the occupation, but that those politics come from a Jewish place,” she told The Times of Israel. “It was exciting and energizing to our base who want leaders like that.”

Lubow is currently part of a group of six full-time fellows living in New Hampshire who attend candidate events and other forums open to the public. If the activists don’t ask their questions on camera, they at least want it to be in front of an audience — a setting that makes it difficult for the candidates to blow off the question.

Lubow and her colleagues haven’t asked every candidate the same question, but generally they ask whether he or she thinks that Israel’s role in the West Bank is a “human rights crisis” and, if so, what would he or she would do about it?

In some cases, if the candidate has a record of speaking out on the issue, such as Sanders or Warren, they may simply ask if they will pressure Israel to pull out of the West Bank.

In all cases, however, the candidates’ answers have been revealing.

Biden called the occupation a “real” and “significant” problem, but stopped short of calling it a “human rights crisis.” Israeli settlements, he added, are “unnecessary,” yet Palestinians have to learn to accept Israel. “It’s a two-way street,” he said.

Buttigieg told the IfNotNow activists: “The occupation has to end.”

Warren, asked if she would pressure the Israeli government to end the occupation, said: “Yes. Yes. So I’m there.”

Booker, on the other hand, refused to call the occupation a human rights crisis. “If that’s your issue, I would understand if you want to support somebody else,” he told Lubow.

Each time one of these candidates has responded to IfNotNow’s questions, the answer has made headlines.

This is the result of a decision the group made earlier this month to launch a 501(c)(4) nonprofit designed to “bring the crisis of the Israeli military Occupation over the Palestinian people to the forefront of the 2020 Campaign.”

Now that IfNotNow is making noise, traditional Democratic pro-Israel operatives argue that the organization is beginning to frame the discussion around Israel early in the primary process.

“What I think is most surprising is how much of an impact this far-left group is having on the conversation around the presidential candidates and Middle East policy,” Aaron Keyak, the former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council, told The Times of Israel. “There’s no question they’re punching way above their weight.”

What comes next?

Lubow grew up in Columbus, Ohio, where she’s taught Hebrew school. She said she became interested in anti-occupation advocacy as a high school student during the 50-day Israel-Hamas war in the summer of 2014.

In college, she was part of J Street U, serving on its midwestern region leadership team. Earlier this year, however, she became involved with IfNotNow. Asked why during a phone interview, she would not elaborate.

Democratic Senator Kamala Harris of California (center) meets with AIPAC activists in her office on March 25, 2019. (Kamala Harris/Twitter via JTA)

Lubow said the IfNotNow experiment has verified that the party recognizes that there’s a constituency that wants the American government to treat the Israeli-Palestinian issue differently.

“These aren’t low-tier candidates,” she said. “The people leading the Democratic primary are saying openly, publicly: ‘The occupation is a problem. It has to end. We need to do something.’ That’s a shift that reflects the fact that the Democratic base and American Jews do not support the occupation.”

Indeed, the top polling Democratic hopefuls are, as of this writing, Biden, Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg and California Senator Kamala Harris.

“The Democratic Party leadership is finally starting to catch on that this is what their base wants. They wouldn’t be making these public statements if it hadn’t become clear that [Democratic voters] want to see a future for Israelis and Palestinians better than endless occupation and the status quo,” said Lubow.

To be sure, former president Barack Obama spoke often against Israeli settlements, warning that they threatened to destroy Israel’s democratic foundation and hurt the eventual emergence of a Palestinian state.

Former US president Barack Obama delivers his speech at the 16th Annual Nelson Mandela Lecture at the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 17, 2018 (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

Palestinians, Obama said in his 2009 Cairo speech, “endure the daily humiliations — large and small — that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”

Ultimately, however, Obama took few tangible steps to pressure Israel to relinquish its West Bank presence other than publicly criticizing settlement expansion and allowing passage of a UN Security Council resolution at the end of his tenure castigating the enterprise.

Keyak, who now co-runs Bluelight Strategies, a DC-based consulting firm, argued that Democratic candidates shouldn’t mistake IfNotNow’s effective mobilization as reflective of widespread American Jewish or left-of-center thinking.

Former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council, and managing partner of Bluelight Strategies, a Washington-based consultancy, Aaron Keyak (Courtesy)

“They’ve been somewhat successful in working toward their own goals but we can’t let these types of groups dictate the conversation we’re having in the Democratic Party,” he told The Times of Israel. “I appreciate that in the media world, on Twitter, these outside voices get more attention than they would get otherwise, but we have to remember how unrepresentative they are.”

He cited that only 16 out of 235 House Democrats voted against a resolution last week that rejects the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. (IfNotNow does not “take a unified stance” on BDS.)

Nevertheless, Democratic hopefuls may not want to get mired in a debate over Israel and the Palestinians when their number one mission is to unseat US President Donald Trump, who liberal Jews argue, is trying to “weaponize” Israel against Democrats — and use it to drive a wedge between them.

Trump has strongly sided with Israel by moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, cutting aid to Palestinians, and officially recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

As a consequence, some analysts have argued that Trump is politicizing the alliance, and that the bipartisan consensus over how to manage this policy portfolio might soon disappear, if it hasn’t already.

Lubow thinks the anti-occupation cause is gaining traction with the Democratic candidates. She is currently planning with her colleagues the next phase of their outreach.

“Going forward, we’re going to need to see their plans,” Lubow said. “What are you going to do about it if you’re the president and have the power to do something about it? That will become the next logical question.”

From Lubow’s point of view, the change is already starting to happen. “I feel hopeful, actually, because the politics on this issue versus two or three years ago are dramatically different,” she said.

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