Former Tufts Hillel president Harry Weissman speaks on ‘anti-occupation’ movement IfNotNow

Harry Weissman (LA '17) poses for a photo in Davis Square on April 4. Ben Kim /The Tufts Daily

Harry Weissman (LA ’17) was the former president of Tufts Hillel and is currently an active member of IfNotNow, a national movement “to end American Jewish support for the occupation.”

IfNotNow has organized several demonstrations in Boston over the past year, such as an anti-Semitism vigil in August, a rally calling for the release of Moroccan activist Siham Byah in November and a protest against President Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem in December.

Most recently on April 3, eight protesters from IfNotNow were arrested after chaining themselves to the door of the Israeli consulate in Boston to protest the violence against Palestinian protesters in the Gaza Strip, according to an article in the Boston Globe. The next day, the Daily sat down with Weissman for a conversation about his role in this movement and his time at Tufts.

Tufts Daily (TD): What is IfNotNow?

Harry Weissman (HW): It’s a movement of young Jews seeking to transform our community’s support for the occupation in Israel and Palestine into a call for freedom and dignity for all people, including Israelis and Palestinians. We know that part of our community’s reason for upholding the occupation is because of our fear that anti-Semitism is going to wipe us off the map, and our fear of annihilation, which comes from centuries of trauma and near-annihilation. That fear sometimes incentivizes our community to cozy up to power where that can actually be hurtful to us. But, as long as we’re supporting the occupation in Israel and Palestine, we’re not aligning with our Jewish values of freedom and dignity.

TD: When you say “the occupation,” what is IfNotNow’s definition of it?

HW: It’s a system of violence and separation that denies Palestinians civil, political and economic rights. We don’t take a stance on Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS), nor do we take a stance on statehood. We don’t all have to agree on those questions to agree on the fact that it’s bad that we support the occupation.

TD: What is your role in IfNotNow?

HW: Part of what I do in IfNotNow is thinking strategically about college campuses and students, to think about how they can get involved. The reason IfNotNow is popping up on a lot of campuses is because we see that the American Jewish community and institutions are really hyper-focused on young people. There are so many organizations on college campuses that have the purpose of, or have a secondary goal of, promoting Israel on campus. What we’re thinking about in IfNotNow is that only supporting Israel doesn’t align with our Jewish values.

TD: How would describe the effect of IfNotNow in the community, at Tufts and in Boston?

HW: It certainly has a huge effect on the Boston community. IfNotNow is a national decentralized movement. We have chapters, which we call hives, in different cities and the largest ones are in New York and Boston. There are currently 250 people who have been trained by IfNotNow in the Boston area.

As for Tufts itself, it’s hard to say. It’s mostly up to the students who are currently there. However, I will say that Tufts has more alumni in IfNotNow than any other school in the country. There are 60 or so Tufts alums who have been trained by IfNotNow.

TD: How did you learn about IfNotNow and why did you choose to join?

HW: It was a few weeks after Trump was elected. This Facebook event popped up on my news feed: Fire Bannon: Jewish Resistance Against Trump. It was a protest downtown that was meant to protest the appointment of Steve Bannon because he is an anti-Semite. We know, as Jews, having an anti-Semite in the White House is not going to help us. So I went, and it was really beautiful. I think I’d only been to one or two other protests in my life. This one felt authentically me as a group. It was quite a few months between the anti-Trump rally and when I did my orientation training and joined [the movement]. As I continued through my senior year, I started to learn more about the occupation and the issue itself.

TD: How did you get to learn more about the occupation?

HW: My senior year, I was President of Tufts Hillel, and it forced me to grapple with the issue in a way that I had never really had to before. I used to be able to say, “This is too complicated, I just want to be Jewish in a Jewish community and I don’t want to think about Israel or the conflict.” Once I became president, this was a little harder to do because there are people in the Jewish community that have differing views and very strong views on this issue. I began to learn more, partly just by actively doing my research and partly by interactions I was having with other people in Hillel.

The primary experience where I learned so much about the occupation was when I actually got to go to Israel and Palestine during my spring break last year for this Visions of Peace trip, sending a group of interfaith students to learn about the conflict from people on the ground, and also to learn about the co-existence and peace work that was being done there. We had the opportunity of touring a city where the Israeli settlement and the Palestinian neighborhoods are divided. The Israeli part is a very happening place, while the Palestinian neighborhood is pretty ghettoized and rundown. I remember walking through this Palestinian marketplace, and we can see above us this wire fence casting long shadows on the ground. Lying atop this wire fence was all this garbage because Israeli settlers would often throw junk down at the shopkeepers below, which is extremely dehumanizing. Seeing the difference between the lives of Israelis and Palestinians, regardless of how we feel about Israel as a state or BDS or any issue, this clear separation between the peoples is awful.

TD: How did you reconcile what you saw during your spring break with your responsibility and duty to your community as the President of Tufts Hillel?

HW: I remember feeling very proud of Tufts Hillel. I knew that Hillels at other schools can be conservative  How many Hillels would send students on a trip like this? It was really exposing us to the horrors of the occupation, which I don’t think is something most people expect of their Hillels. My Hillel cared that we were having informed conversations and meaningful conversations with people who speak from perspectives and experiences.

However, three weeks later, some students proposed a resolution  to the [Tufts Community Union] Senate, calling on Tufts to divest from four companies that profit off the occupation, so this was a BDS resolution. It’s a nonviolent tactic to boycott Israel and put pressure on the occupation. The majority of my community and Hillel were opposed to this resolution. I saw us pouring our resources into fighting this [resolution], and I didn’t see BDS as the issue where we should be putting our priorities.

We were having discussions on racial justice and how to bring that into the larger community. We were talking about ways Hillel could be more sustainable. We were having discussion groups for LGBT students and Jewish women. What was upsetting to me is that these are the things we should be prioritizing, but I saw so many people show up to oppose the BDS resolution that I had never seen before in Hillel. I don’t blame them because I think this is the narrative we’re fed, that this should be our priority, but I don’t agree with that.

TD: What, then, do you think is the purpose of IfNotNow in this context?

HW: I’m not against my community. It’s the exact opposite. IfNotNow strives to transform the Jewish community. I want all of us to say that we do not support the occupation. Our community has strayed a bit, and we know that our community is better than that, and that’s why we’re moving our whole community with us.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.