In the statement of principles of IFNOTNOW, an American Jewish organization opposed to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, is the claim that there are as many ways of being Jewish as there are Jews. (http://ifnot.net/about-us/our-principles/) This claim is exaggerated, but it contains a kernel of truth. Because no one central Jewish authority exists to define acceptable dogma or practice, excommunications have no widely accepted authority and are localized. In the 17th century, the Amsterdam Jewish community excommunicated the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and in the 20th century 200 Orthodox American rabbis placed a ban (herem) on Mordechai Kaplan, founder of the modernizing Jewish Reconstructionist movement, and publicly burned his Reconstructionist prayer book. Kaplan lamented the herem in his journal:
“If I were asked what I regard as the most disheartening aspect in Jewish life as reflected in the tragi-comedy of the herem, I would say that… we have rabbinical gangsters who resort to Nazi methods in order to regain their authority and on the other hand our Jewish journalists are cynical about the whole business and treat the very attempt to articulate religious values in terms of a modern outlook in life as silly and superfluous.”
Today Spinoza is widely respected as a philosopher, at least by non-Orthodox Jews, and Mordechai Kaplan’s Reconstructionist Judaism, while a minority Jewish movement, is flourishing.
But IFNOTNOW is more concerned with the variety of Jewish attitudes toward Israel than with religious differences. For many in the American and Canadian organized Jewish communities, Zionism is a greater marker of Jewish identity than religious belief or practice. For them, anyone who seriously questions Israeli policy is either an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew. Thus secular Jewish nationalism attempts to impose its own herem on dissenting opinion This tactic is quickly losing its credibility as more and more American and Canadian Jews, who are overwhelmingly liberal in their politics, find it increasingly difficult to ignore the oppression of the Palestinians. A sure indication that Jewish opinion on Israel is shifting is the fact that Bernie Sanders, the first Jewish American to be a viable presidential candidate, has broken the taboo in American politics on mentioning sympathy for the Palestinians.
The American organization IFNOTNOW takes its name the Words of the Jewish Sage Hillel “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”
A Canadian organization, of which I am a member, has taken the same name but has no formal connection to the American organization. Here is our web page: