How Jewish activists are turning online organizing into IRL action

The most effective organizing in 2019 makes an impact online and in real life.

This is a tricky needle to thread, but it is absolutely essential to break through the noise of the era. A successful real-life action may not get coverage beyond its immediate area without social boost; conversely, an organization that is only online will be mocked for “slacktivism.” For those looking to pull off this tricky feat, look no further than the work being done by the progressive Jewish groups IfNotNow and Never Again Action.

Never Again Action has only been on Twitter for less than a month, and has already amassed nearly 23,000 followers. The group’s aim is to push back on the narrative that ICE detention centers are not “concentration camps” by staging actions at the camps and against companies and individuals that support them.

The group’s mission is to create “a mass mobilization calling for Jews to shut down ICE and hold the political establishment accountable for enabling both the deportation machine that has separated immigrant families across the U.S. for decades and the current crisis at the border.”

Never Again Action believes that as Jews they are uniquely positioned to make explicit comparisons between current U.S. policy and the historic treatment of the Jewish people, as both involve “dehuman[izing] and strip[ping] an entire group of people of all their civil and human rights.”

It might seem as though Never Again Action came out of nowhere. While its rise is impressive, it was made possible by existing progressive groups that have robust online and IRL infrastructure. IfNotNow has been on social media longer than Never Again Action, joining Twitter in 2014, shortly after the group’s founding. Since its inception, IfNotNow has had three demands, “Stop the war in Gaza, end the Occupation, and freedom and dignity for all.”

IfNotNow co-founder Yonah Lieberman spoke with the Daily Dot about the organization’s efforts. He says:

“Our strategy is to bring the dual crisis facing the American Jewish community—the Occupation and rising white nationalism—to the forefront of the mainstream conversation. For too long, American Jewish leaders have told us that the greatest threats to the future of our community are BDS, assimilation, and intermarriage. We know that this is not just false, but dangerous. Our community’s support of Occupation is eroding the moral fabric of our community while white nationalist violence is threatening our lives.”

Recently, IfNotNow has unveiled an incredibly effective social media strategy as a means of reinforcing the message. The group plans to ask every Democratic presidential candidate if they support ending Israel’s Occupation of Palestine, and stream the dialogue on social media.

So far, the group has been able to get Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on the record.

This strategy was first laid out in a Politico article from Holly Otterbein at the end of June which was published concurrently with the announcement that Sanders would be the first candidate to publicly support the movement. The article also disclosed that IfNotNow is launching a formal 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, putting staffers on the ground in the early primary state of New Hampshire, and aiming to raise $100,000 in a quarter.

We asked Lieberman what was behind this effort to get candidates on the record. He told us, “By challenging politicians to answer to us, we are setting a new agenda and empowering masses of American Jews to join a diverse coalition fighting for a better future and for progressive political transformation in this country.”

So far, the strategy has been effective. A photo of Sanders standing in solidarity with IfNotNow activists garnered almost 2,000 retweets and over 5,000 favs.

A July 8 video of activists getting Warren saying “Yes. Yes. I’m there” when asked if she would move to end Israeli occupation of Palestine had a similar number of retweets and almost 8,000 favs after only 24 hours online.

Both videos also garnered a glut of media coverage from both left- and right-leaning publications in the United States and in Israel.

Even when the approach doesn’t yield the desired result, IfNotNow still finds a way to make good content, as is evidenced by an encounter with Amy Klobuchar, documented by one of the IfNotNow fellows on the ground in New Hampshire.

Klobuchar isn’t where IfNotNow would like her to be policy-wise, but the photos, as they say, are worth a thousand words.

Never Again Action has also had viral success with videos from actions at ICE detention centers, government buildings, and at businesses that contract with ICE.

As with IfNotNow’s actions, Never Again Action’s internet savvy is obvious in its planning. For example, one of the group’s recent targets was conservative internet villain Peter Thiel’s company, Palantir.

In its short time being active, Never Again Action’s Twitter account has posted a variety of photos and videos from various actions, including sit-ins, traffic disruptions, protests in front of facilities, and public speeches.

Examining Never Again’s timeline, you see a variety of posts, including videos of arrests, pictures of crowds, and historical anecdotes. To date, images and videos of their members taking arrests are the most viral.

But, it is clear members are using numerous types of posts and then focusing on what works. Their online presence is dynamic and effective in a way that bigger and more established political organizations can’t seem to achieve.

Here, the strategy differs a bit from IfNotNow, but the impact is the same. Never Again Action posts all sorts of content from its actions, not knowing what media will go viral. But as members aggressively post, they are reacting, shaping their posts along the lines of what resonates.

Lieberman says that the teams at IfNotNow and Never Again Action—the organizations share many local and national leaders—aren’t surprised that their content goes viral. He says that people pay attention because “[IfNotNow and Never Again Action] are acting authentically in line with our values.”

Beyond the videos and photos these groups post, they have clear and consistent messaging in the text of their messages. Repetition is key in political organizing, and clarity is essential.

One of the underrated aspects of both groups’ approach is their clear messaging. Occupy Wall Street was a movement with notoriously muddled demands. As many millennial activists cut their teeth there, clear messaging and concrete demands have become a cornerstone of modern organizing. Clarity has sometimes been a challenge for other progressive groups, like the Democratic Socialists of America, whose “big tent” ethos sometimes results in prominent members staking out opposing viewpoints on an issue.

By contrast, IfNotNow and Never Again Action have become incredibly effective at communicating their goals in hashtags and simple phrase while distilling their demands down to clear, concise goals.

For Never Again Action it is #CloseTheCamps. The group also uses #NeverAgainMeans, #NeverAgainIsNow, and #NeverAgainForAnyone.

Though IfNotNow doesn’t leverage hashtags as often on its Twitter account, it repeats a few key phrases that emphasize the policy goals.

“End the occupation” shows up in dozens of its tweets and is central in communications. In his dialogue with the Daily Dot, Lieberman used the word “occupation” four times in the course of answering five questions. This language is important for IfNotNow, as members try to gain strength on the issue because many American’s wouldn’t describe Israel’s policy toward Palestine as “occupation.”

These demands: “close the camps” and “end the occupation” are clear in a way that other progressive groups struggle for. There is no ambiguity here, whereas we’ve seen how demands from other movements like “Medicare for All” and “Green New Deal” can be co-opted and distorted in the public eye.

The extent of the impact that IfNotNow and Never Again Action will have on the political realities of American policies toward Palestine and immigration has yet to be seen. Even if these groups fall short of their ambitious goals, the clarity and precision of their messaging, along with the way they use IRL actions in tandem with social media should be a blueprint for progressive activists everywhere. Already, it is undeniable that these groups have changed the conversation by asserting that American Jews are not monolithic.

The first step to accountability is forcing the issue, and on that score, IfNotNow and Never Again Action have been incredibly effective.

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Brenden Gallagher

Brenden Gallagher

Brenden Gallagher is a politics reporter and cultural commentator. His work has been published by Motherboard, Complex, and VH1. He’s the co-founder of Beer Money Films, an indie production company. Based in Los Angeles, he works in television drama as a writers assistant.