By Ben Sales
(JTA) — Days after Israeli ground troops invaded Gaza in 2014, a group of leftist millennial Jews gathered to plan a public protest of the military operation. The new group, which called itself IfNotNow, discussed a public demonstration in front of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an establishment Jewish umbrella group.
Max Berger was one of the planners who urged them to take it a step further: The protesters should get arrested at the Presidents’ Conference headquarters in New York, he suggested. And they should recite Kaddish, the traditional Jewish mourner’s prayer, for Israelis and Palestinians who had died in the fighting. When the protest took place, on July 28, 2014, that’s what they did. Berger was one of nine Jews arrested in the Presidents’ Conference building.
IfNotNow was a new group, but for Berger, who is Jewish, disruptive protest was an old game. Berger, 33, is already a journeyman of the activist left, from Occupy Wall Street to IfNotNow to Justice Democrats, the outfit that supported Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s unlikely primary win. In addition to IfNotNow, Berger co-founded Momentum, a group that trains progressive activists.
Now, he’s working for Sen. Elizabeth Warren as her director for progressive partnerships. The Warren campaign did not make Berger available for an interview.
Berger’s presence in the Warren campaign has angered Jews on the political right, and even some on the pro-Israel left.
While he has deleted most of his tweets, screenshots and quotations preserved by his critics show personal support for boycotts of Israel and calling Israel’s killing of Gazan protesters in clashes on the border a “pogrom.” A tweet he wrote in 2017 says “I agree with BDS, but it’s not a mistake to consider it largely anti-Zionist. For Zionists, it’s an existential question.”
For much of the Jewish pro-Israel mainstream, on the left as well as the right, BDS is anathema, because its Palestinian leadership refuses to accept a Jewish state in any part of historic Israel. Critics of IfNotNow note that, according to its principles, the Jewish group does “not take a unified stance on BDS, Zionism or the question of statehood.”
Mark Mellman, president and CEO of another new group, the Democratic Majority for Israel, told JTA said it’s “deeply troubling at a policy level that he cofounded an organization that does not recognize Israel’s right to exist.” Mellman did not call for Berger to be fired.
The Progressive Zionists of California, a grassroots group of about 200 members, said IfNotNow displays “one-sided condemnation and vilification of Israel” and called for the Warren campaign to dismiss Berger, whom they grouped among “enemies of Israel.”
“It puts [Warren] at risk to have someone with his public stances,” said Susan George, a founding member of the California group and a 2016 delegate for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. “Personally I’ve been a huge fan of Elizabeth Warren. But to put someone like Max Berger in such a position to influence progressives, it is concerning.”
Still, Berger’s presence on Warren’s campaign may be paying off for those who want candidates to be tougher on Israel: When IfNotNow activists asked Warren, at a campaign event, if she would “push the Israeli government to end the occupation,” she replied, “Yes, yes,” then added, “So I’m there.”
Berger has more moderate views than some of his Jewish leftist comrades. He criticized Rep. Ilhan Omar’s statements echoing antisemitic stereotypes, as well as the Movement for Black Lives accusing Israel of genocide. But he also encouraged the Jewish community to stand with both Omar and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Berger grew up in Massachusetts and attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon. In high school, he organized a trip to Washington, D.C. to protest against the Iraq War. After college, he worked at J Street, the liberal Israel lobby, as a new media assistant. He gained notice as an organizer of the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, where he was part of its more moderate wing.
“I don’t want to live in a fucking commune. I don’t want to blow shit up. I want to get stuff done,” he told New York Magazine.
In 2017, after Donald Trump won the presidential election, he and Waleed Shahid, now the communications director at Justice Democrats, co-founded All of Us, a campaign to elect progressive Democrats that eventually merged with Justice Democrats.
In 2016, he was an outspoken supporter of Bernie Sanders, writing in Haaretz that the Vermont senator “speaks with a prophetic voice that is at the heart of our tradition.” But even then, he carried a torch for Warren, writing in a Medium post on the first debate between Sanders and Hillary Clinton that “there isn’t anyone else on stage who people can imagine as president. [Clinton’s] real victory came months ago when Elizabeth Warren decided not to run.”