Monthly Archives: December 2012

Occupy the Port: Demonstrators Confront Ship Carrying Walmart Goods

from In These TimesImage

Hundreds of workers, activists and community members rallied yesterday at the Port of Newark, New Jersey to protest the arrival of a cargo ship carrying Walmart products manufactured in Bangladesh. The demonstrators were seeking to hold Walmart accountable for a factory fire in which 112 workers burned to death last month.

As they attempted to ‘Occupy the Port,’ protesters from Occupy Wall Street and workers’ center New Labor gathered at the entrance to Newark’s docks, chanting ‘Block the Boat! Shut It Down! Turn Walmart’s Smile Upside Down!’ Ultimately, Homeland Security and port police prevented the ralliers from entering the docks, and the cargo ship, the Maersk Carolina, arrived from Oman and unloaded its freight as scheduled. The action concluded without arrests.

On November 24, a devastating fire at the Tazreen Fashions garment factory in Bangladesh left 112 workers dead. Workers on the upper floors of the eight-story building found themselves trapped as managers prevented hundreds from leaving sewing machines even after the fire alarm sounded. Labor activists touring the burned-out building afterwards found shorts emblazoned with Walmart’s “Faded Glory” logo in the wreckage. In the ensuing weeks, it was confirmed that the factory, which had failed fire safety inspections earlier in the year, was indeed subcontracted to produce goods for suppliers of major American corporations like Sears and Walmart. Wal-Mart has maintained that one of its suppliers had subcontracted work at Tazreen Fashions “in direct violation of our policies.” But reports from Bloomberg and the New York Times revealed that Walmart, in an effort to keep costs low, had played a key role in blocking improvements to fire safety standards at factories like Tazreen.

By targeting the Port of Newark, protesters also sought to sway already tense negotiationsbetween port operators and workers of the International Longshoremen’s Association, who have threatened to walk off the job on December 29th if employers do not agree to a new contract guaranteeing increased compensation, job protections, and shift guarantees for loading and unloading crews. Though protesters hoped to inspire workers to refuse to report for work, Homeland Security and port police blockaded the entrance to the port.

In a statement written for the event, leaders from the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF) and the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS) expressed solidarity with the port occupation. “We hope that this action will help paint a new picture and a new future, one where the deaths of mothers, husbands, brothers and sisters will not be quickly forgotten. This action proves that carelessness and death in the workplace have repercussions—especially to those companies that expect their goods to be moved as usual despite the deaths of their own workers.”

Though it could not be verified that the Maersk Carolina was carrying goods produced at the Tazreen factory, organizers of ‘Occupy The Port’ sought to draw attention to the interconnected nature of the global supply chain. The port occupation builds on a mounting wave of struggle against Walmart throughout its distribution network, from successful strikes at warehouses in California and Illinois this fall to the massive walk-outs of hundreds of retail workers at stores nationwide on Black Friday. These worker-led actions called attention to the unsafe conditions, unfair practices, illegal retaliation, and unsustainable employment that plagues workers throughout Walmart’s supply chain.

“I’m glad people came out to hold Walmart accountable,” Walmart warehouse worker Mike Compton, who went on strike with 30 other workers at a major Walmart distribution center in Illinois in September, told In These Times. “Whether it’s a factory fire in Bangladesh, or a low-wage temp job with no security or respect in America, this is what happens when major corporations like Walmart choose maximum profit over minimum levels of safety and dignity for their workers. Those products from Bangladesh that are coming off that ship today, and that will hit the shelves of America’s stores tomorrow, were made at a terrible price, and Walmart has the blood of Bangladeshi workers on its hands.”


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Vital Signs: Power to the People After Sandy; Occupy Boehner’s Stocking

Power to the People: On Saturday, 100 residents of New York City’s Far Rockaway district marched from a shopping mall through Far Rockaway streets, protesting the lack of government response after Hurricane Sandy. As winter arrives, many of the neighborhoods ten thousand residents still lack heat or electricity. Supported by Occupy Sandy volunteers, the community rallied against the slow pace of mayor Bloomberg’s ‘Rapid Repair Program,’ which they say has done little to alleviate distress in an area where, as Jeremy Saunders of the community justice group Vocal-NY noted, “you already had half the population living below the poverty line.

Asylum-Seekers March in Italy: Hundreds of asylumseekers from Libya demonstrated in the northeast Italian Region of Emilia Romagna December 16, demanding resident status and access to social services before their temporary permits expire on December 31. The refugees’ demand to be considered ‘citizens’ reflects the shortfalls of Italian refugee policy, which has long demonized asylum seekers and neglected consideration of social inclusion and justice. In the wake of the overthrow of Libyan leader Mommar Gaddafi, over 20,000 people fled to Italy, many of whom were not Libyan nationals but had fled to Libya from other countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Hungary for Education Justice: On December 17, thousands of students rallied in Budapest, pressuring the government for the third time in weeks to give up plans for cuts in state financing to higher education. After marching through central Budest, students arrived at the public radio station, which broadcast a summary of their demands. Starting in 2013, the government, citing the national deficit, plans to cut by two-thirds the number of students receiving federally-subsidized university education.

Occupy Boehner: Demonstrations against proposed cuts to social services in the “fiscal cliff” deal continued this week. After marching to Speaker Boehner’s office and delivering coal on Monday, delegations from a coalition of progressive groups held sit-ins at 30 Republican offices.

Anti-Morsi Demonstrations Continue in Egypt: On December 18, thousands of protesters rallied in Cairo against state referendums set to approve an Islamist-backed draft constitution decreed by President Morsi. The constitution, which received a lower-than-expected 57% ‘yes’ vote in the first half of the referendum, is criticized by the opposition as curtailing women’s rights. As the air is thick with accusations of voting fraud and violations surrounding last week’s referendum vote, Egypt’s newly appointed public prosecutor resigned on Monday.

Leave a comment

Filed under Vital Signs

Vital Signs: Labor Takes On Durbin; Indigenous ‘Idle No More’ Movement Escalates

from In These Times

Peace Prize Protests: Thousands of protesters marched in Oslo, Norway last weekend in protest of the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union. While the Nobel committee awarded the prize to the European Union for its purported role as an instrument of peace and unification for the continent following two world wars, activists argue that the EU is an undemocratic institution that encourages militarization and austerity in Europe. Past Nobel Prize winners Desmond Tutu, Adolfo Perez Esquivel and Mairead Maguire have spoken out against the Nobel committee’s decision.

Fiscal Cliff Showdown: On Monday, thousands of union members and activists across the country staged ‘Jobs NOT Cuts’, a national day of action designed, in the heat of Congress’s ‘fiscal cliff’ showdown, to pressure lawmakers to end tax cuts for the wealthy and protect Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. In cities across the country, crowds marched into the offices of Senators and representatives demanding meetings, delivering petitions and making their voices heard. In Chicago, hundreds of home and healthcare workers gathered outside of Senator Richard Durbin’s office at Federal Plaza to protest his recent decision to endorse, in the spirit of ‘compromise’, cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.

Indigenous Activists ‘Idle No More:’ The same day, thousands took to the streets across Canada, as indigenous communities and their allies kicked off a nationwide campaign against the passage of Bill C-45, a budget bill that they say will weaken environmental protections and infringe on Indian Reserve land rights. Declaring themselves ‘Idle No More’, protesters occupied sites and marched on governmental buildings in cities throughout the country. In the capital city of Ottawa, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence launched a hunger strike, declaring her willingness to starve to death unless a request for a meeting between Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Queen Elizabeth II and First Nations leaders is approved.

‘Protect the Peaks’ Activists Charged: Four activists were served Tuesday with federal charges and arrest warrants in Flagstaff, Arizona for their role in a campaign to prevent construction of a ski resort on the San Francisco Peaks, a sacred site for the Dine’ Navajo tribe. The ‘Protect The Peaks’ campaign, spearheaded by a coalition of indigenous groups and community supporters, have used direct action, community organizing and advocacy to seek to halt mountaintop construction, which, in addition to large-scale clearcutting, uses retreated sewage effluent to produce artificial snow for the resort. The activists have reportedly been served with arrest warrants relating to a September action at the Coconino National Forest Service lobby.

Leave a comment

Filed under Vital Signs

Chicago Community Group Files Lawsuit Against Johnson & Johnson Supplier for Racial Discrimination

There’s no more tears, but a Chicago community group is crying foul about the hiring practices of Vee Pak Inc., which bottles Johnson & Johnson products.   ( OKyleL, Flickr, Creative Commons)

On December 5, the Chicago-based Coalition Against Segregation of Temporary Employees (CASTE) filed a class action discrimination lawsuit in federal court against Vee Pak Inc., a supplier of Johnson & Johnson shampoo and lotion products. The lawsuit seeks to hold Vee Pak accountable for the “systematic discrimination” practiced against African-American applicants by the Austin neighborhood temporary agencies that Vee Pak licenses to staff its distribution warehouses.

After filing the lawsuit and holding a press conference at the Dirksen Federal Building, CASTE—backed by its parent group, the South Austin Coalition Community Council (SACCC)—held a spirited midday demonstration outside a Chicago-Austin Walmart supercenter, which sells Johnson & Johnson products supplied by Vee Pak.  A delegation of African-American workers and consumers, joined by workers from the Chicago-area workers’ rights organizations Warehouse Workers For Justice (WWJ) and the Chicago Workers Collaborative, presented their grievances to managers of the store. Meanwhile, New Labor, a workers’ center New Labor in New Brunswick, N.J., and the National Staffing Workers Alliance in Los Angeles took part in solidarity actions, escalating a nationwide campaign whose slogan—‘If we’re good enough to buy it, we’re good enough to make it!’—adds its voice to a rapidly expanding movement of American supply chain workers.

“A year ago, we had African-American workers coming to our Austin neighborhood office and complaining that they never got any work at all,” says SACCC organizer Elce Redmond. “They would go to the day labor agency, sit there for hours and be told to wait, while Latinos, and specifically undocumented Latinos, would come in and be immediately taken out on an assignment.” Of the 720 Vee Pak workers hired by Austin temp agencies that year, SACCC determined in May, only seven were African American.

Such discrimination, CASTE charges, increases unemployment and poverty within Austin’s largely African-American community. But “we didn’t want to pit African American against Latino workers,” explains Redmond, “so we created a campaign that addresses the rampant discrimination of African-Americans alongside the exploitation of Latinos based on their immigration status.”

Organizers insist that African-Americans and undocumented Latino temp workers both suffer under the same intimidation-based policies, so long as, under the temp system, they remain unprotected before the whims of the employer. “If African-American workers speak out,” explains Redmond, “the employer will say ‘Well, this person has a criminal record, so we gotta fire them.’ If undocumented workers speak out, they’ll say ‘This person is undocumented, we gotta inform immigration authorities.’ ”

The answer, for CASTE, is to “bring African Americans and Latinos together with a rainbow coalition of folks organizing within America’s supply chain to rebuild communities, and put people to work with a living wage so they can afford to take care of their families.” By finding allies for its anti-discrimination campaign in warehouse workers’ centers like WWJ in Joliet, Ill., Warehouse Workers United in California and New Labor in New Jersey—all of which have spearheaded successful strikes and organizing campaigns this fall—CASTE’s campaign champions a common struggle for jobs with dignity and respect that is shared by workers across America’s low-wage, “perma-temp” supply-chain workforce.

The challenge, for CASTE, is similar to that faced by supply-chain organizing efforts across the country. In order to end the discriminatory practices of the Austin-area temp agencies, pressure must be applied not only to Vee Pak, but also to Johnson & Johnson and, all the way up the chain of distribution, to retail stores like Walmart.

“This is just the start of a much larger campaign,” Redmond insists. “With the tragic garment factory fire in Bangladesh, we saw that Walmart tried to avert the blame to a middleman. But a company like Johnson & Johnson, that markets heavily within the African American and Latino communities, will be forced to pay attention when these communities are mobilized against them.”

Austin resident and plaintiff Brian Lucas is emphatic. “Vee Pak is not about diversity,” he says. “Johnson & Johnson products are in stores all over Austin. But I won’t buy what I can’t make.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Clocktower Occupation at Cooper Union Enters Second Day

published at In These Times


At noon on December 3, 12 students from New York’s Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art entered the top floor of their school’s Foundation Building, slid wooden barricades across the doors, and released a communique announcing their occupation to the public. Calling themselves Students for a Free Cooper Union, the occupiers took direct action in protest of the school administration’s decision to begin charging tuition to students of the historically tuition-free university. While a “Day Of Action,” featuring presentations, performances and public educational events, unfolded outside the building, students inside threw their bodies against the barricade as maintenance crews attempted to drill through the blockaded entrance.

“It was definitely a really scary moment for us,” said occupier and Cooper Union senior Victoria Sobel in a phone interview later that afternoon. “Our bodies were literally pressed against the doors. It took about a half hour of yelling back and forth—‘Get off the door!’, ‘We’re not gonna get off the door! Stop drilling, you’re gonna hurt us!’—before they stopped, but we were prepared to do that. That’s the length we were willing to go to.”

Today, all 12 students are still barricaded inside. They insist that they will continue holding their space until their demands are met or they are forcibly removed.

Since its founding by industrialist and inventor Peter Cooper in 1859, Cooper Union has offered full scholarships to all its students, regardless of economic background. Though today’s administration, besieged by an unprecedented budget crisis, insists that it must “creatively alter” this legacy of free education, university organizers claim, in the words of the communique released by Students for a Free Cooper Union, that “an expansionist strategy and lack of accountability have put this college in a financial deficit,” and that “all tuition-based revenue-generating programs are a departure from Cooper Union’s historic mission, and will corrupt the college’s role as an ethical model for higher education.”

In 2009—when then-President George Campbell’s compensation package totaled $668,473, including a $175,000 cash bonus—Cooper Union took out a $175 million high-interest loan to finance the construction of a  new, $111 million academic center. Today that building serves, in the words of architecture senior Jake Lee, as “a nice photo on their website.” Two years later, the administration revealed a budget deficit of more than$16 million and embarked on a structural adjustment campaign that, according to students, alumni and faculty, has barely involved the Cooper Union community. In October 2011, information was leaked that the Board of Trustees was considering charging tuition to students, and shortly afterwards, plans were revealed to charge tuition for certain graduate programs.

As news of the building occupation spread Monday afternoon, Students for a Free Cooper Union received another document, leaked from an anonymous source, detailing the findings of a behind-closed-doors administrative committee at the Albert Nerken School of Engineering. The document confirms what activists had long suspected- that within 10 years, the administration, contrary to its claims, is ready to charge between $40,000 and $80,000 in tuition to undergraduates at the engineering school.

In addition to insisting on a tuition-free education, Students For A Free Cooper Union want the administration to abide by democratic decision-making structures and are calling for the resignation of President Jamshed Bharucha, whose Revenue Task Force has spearheaded Cooper Union’s plan for financial “reinvention.” By demanding that Cooper Union remain tuition-free, student activists are not seeking to save their own bank accounts; indeed, the administration has assured them that any tuition will only affect future students. The occupiers understand their action as part of a multi-national student movement against austerity, debt and the corporatization of education.

“Our conversation is one of legacy,” insisted Sobel, her voice nearly drowned out by waves of applause from the nearby Summit on Debt and Education. “In New York, there’s a very rich history of student occupation and student protest, whether it’s at the New School, NYU, CUNY, SUNY or here. We are also inspired by the student movements in Quebec, Mexico and Guatemala, and we are grounded in the momentum that’s come out of Occupy…we align ourselves absolutely with all of these struggles, and that’s why the community is behind us.”

“We want to tell people that now is the time to affirm that education is a right,” Sobel continued. “Recently, a lot of my peers and my generation feel like this is a battle that has been lost, because of the rapid development of the student loan bubble, tuition expansion programs and the globalization of education. But it really is not too late to take it back, to reclaim it, and to realize that we are the right people, at the right place, at the right time, to take this back.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Looking Back At New Jewish Agenda: An Interview with Ezra Berkley Nepon


From an article published by Jewish Currents

Ezra Berkley Nepon’s book, Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue: A History of New Jewish Agenda, published in May by Thread Makes Blanket Press, is the first serious attempt to document the history of this progressive Jewish organization of the 1980s and to weigh its accomplishments and shortcomings. NJA was a multi-issue, national membership organization with local chapters in many cities. It worked for a dozen years to advocate for Middle East peace, nuclear disarmament, rights for lesbian and gay Jews, economic and social justice, peace in Latin America, an end to South African apartheid, Jewish feminism, and a variety of other issues in a climate of increasing Reagan-era neoliberalism and Cold War conservatism. Twenty years after the organization’s official dissolution, Nepon seeks to draw inspiration from Agenda’s dedication to what the book describes as “participatory (grassroots) democracy and civil rights for all people, especially those marginalized within the mainstream Jewish community.”

Nepon is a writer, performer and political organizer who was featured in the 2006 documentary filmYoung, Jewish and Left. Nepon has written about gender identity, Jewish identity, and queer culture for Zeek and Tikkun, and has co-created and performed in the annual Purimspiels organized since 2004 by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, and the Great Small Works puppet troupe.

Ben Lorber is a Jewish activist in Tucson, Arizona and a journalist who worked with the Israeli-Palestinian Alternative Information Center in Jerusalem. His articles have appeared in The Abolitionist, Common Dreams, The Palestine Chronicle, Links, Green Left Weekly, The Earth First Journal, and many other outlets. Currently he works with the migrant justice organization, No More Deaths, delivering food, water, and medical aid to migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona’s Sonora Desert, and advocating on behalf of undocumented immigrants.

Ben Lorber: This summer you took your book on tour. What was it like to see former New Jewish Agenda activists and the next generation of Jewish radicals reflecting together on the past, present and future of progressive Jewish organizing in America?

Ezra Berkley Nepon: It was spectacular. For the most part we would have a great group of NJA veterans and a room full of younger activists. Sometimes there were also people who came from the same generation of Agenda activists but hadn’t been part of the organization, so there was more than one dynamic — but there was consistently this exchange happening between Agenda activists and a younger generation, which was very interesting and moving to witness.

In the book, I focused on the organization at the national level, because I was trying to give an abbreviated version of a very long and complex history. The book tour events gave us all a chance to learn the juicy local organizing stories. People shared what on-the-ground organizing for Agenda looked like, with specific details about local issues and the flavor of each community.

BL: In your introduction to Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue, you write that in 2003 you were reading “all the Jewish feminist writing I could get my hands on, and references to NJA kept showing up,” which led you to be “curious about this organization that so many profound movement builders, writers and thinkers had been part of.” But when you went “looking for a book or good long article to learn more,” you found “a strange lack of record.” How do you explain this amnesia that the present Jewish progressive movement displays towards its past?

EBN: I’m in my mid-30s, and I find people of my age to be hungry for stories of people who have done really radical work, yet I’ve met very few  who have heard of Agenda — and that’s just very strange, because it was an influential element in Jewish Left history. One explanation is that NJA was so exhausting for people, especially at the end, because of the rigors of having direct democracy on a national scale, with international allies, but without e-mail, without easy conference-calling, without Skype — people, I think, were drained when the organization ended and were happy to move on to other things. In the ensuing years, Agenda didn’t get talked about that much because people kept doing and thinking about their new work.

But people’s eyes light up as they learn about Agenda, and it has been very powerful to create a space for activists from Agenda to witness the joy that younger people have in learning about their work. We have enthusiasm for critically engaging the details of Agenda platforms and the dynamics of its democratic process. People are excited to think about the theoretical questions Agenda was immersed in: multi- vs. single-issue organizing, the place of identity within organizing, the diversity of tactics,the intersection of issues, etc.

BL: One of the defining things about Agenda was its success as a multi-issue organization. When it closed up shop in 1992, it was replaced by a multitude of single-issue organizations, some of which formed in its wake, others of which were offshoots organized during its existence. One point you bring up is that today there is no unifying force such as Agenda to articulate and coordinate a mass progressive movement among American Jews.

EBN: Many single-issue organizations came out of Agenda, and some were led by leaders of Agenda, but the multi-issue model has been somewhat lost, especially that model of nationwide, membership-based, grassroots organizing. NJA helped a lot of different groups join each other’s struggles. It can be very valuable to have an organizational context through which Jewish groups can stand with other left groups and say, “We are in solidarity with what you are doing,” and to stand together in common resistance against oppression — and to promote that kind of visibility on the left for radical Jewish organizing. Agenda made that possible. Many of the qualities Agenda was known for could today inform the way we build organizations and the way our organizations can align with each other.

At our Baltimore event, at Red Emma’s Bookstore and Coffeehouse, former NJA members related that their organizational model was, “Every issue is a Jewish issue!” Definitely, I want to talk to other people who think that way! I want to talk about how our feminist politics and our Middle East politics relate to each other. I want a space where intergenerational Jewish activists can learn and work together. I want to work on Israel/Palestine, but I also want a broader range of Jewish issues. I want our ethics and our politics to intersect with all our work. There’s a conversation to have about whether the current political moment could support an organization like Agenda — and if not, what options do we have for at least bringing some of those qualities to the work we do now.

BL: Today’s political moment, in many ways, does remind me of the one in which Agenda took root. Two months before the NJA Founding Convention, Ronald Reagan was elected president, ushering in an era that would become known, as you write in Justice, Justice,  “for brutally cutting resources for the U.S.’s poor and low-income, breaking unions,” and concentrating “wealth in what we now call the ‘1%’; for supporting military terror in Central America, the Middle East, Argentina, Grenada, and around the globe; for the Iran-Contra scandal and the Savings and Loans crisis; for an obsessive battle against Communism; and for staying silent as the AIDS pandemic swept the nation and the world.” Since then, the failure of the Oslo Accords, the violence of the second Intifada and Operation Cast Lead, have increased the disillusionment many American Jews feel towards Israel; wealth has become further concentrated; and a neo-imperialist global war on terror has pushed the American political climate further right.

EBN: And we have plenty of organizations to say, “As Jews, we oppose this,” or “As Jews, we stand in solidarity with this” — but I would like to see the different pieces of our Jewish work for justice brought together through dialogue, so we can build wisdom. It’s a Midrashic version of activism, in which different kinds of Jewish work add complexity and nuance to each other.

There’s this story about a khasid who’s lost walking in the forest, and he’s saying to God, “Oh, it’s been days, I’ve been lost for too long, I don’t know if it’s shabes. I want to say the shabes prayers, but I’m so hungry and thirsty and out of my mind, I don’t even remember them. I’ll tell you what, God. I’ll say the alef-beys, and you, in your wisdom, can put the letters together.” I love that story so much: It’s like, we have all the pieces, and our work would be really enhanced by having more opportunities to talk about how those pieces fit together.

BL: In one of the afterwords to your book, Daniel Rozsa Lang/Levitsky speaks of the complicated question of Israel and Zionism in NJA. Agenda broke huge ground within the Jewish mainstream by getting a resolution for a West Bank settlement freeze brought up in the General Assembly of the Council of Federations in 1983, even though the proposal was tabled. And Agenda succeeded in balancing the work of the Middle East Task Force with the work of many other sub-committees devoted to other local and national issues.

EBN: It was a huge balancing act for Agenda, and I argue that they were successful in important ways. Agenda people had to work really hard to get their voices into the mainstream and not to be isolated by their Israel politics. They did that through committed, on-the-ground organizing in their local chapters, and by making opportunities for people who shared their politics —and even those who didn’t — to join in. In our session in Seattle, someone recalled the time in 1985 when Reagan laid a wreath at the Bitburg Military Cemetery in West Germany, which included the graves of members of the SS. The Seattle NJA chapter organized a protest about that, which attracted people who did not have the same politics about Israel but still connected with Agenda about this outrageous thing that Reagan was doing!
Agenda also had activists who were very involved in Jewish communal life and knew people who were “insiders” within the Jewish mainstream. The organization didn’t simply walk around outside the Federation with a sign saying “We’re against settlements” — they created an opportunity to present it to the Federations by finding allies inside. A group pushing hard from the left allows some that are closer to the center to make changes. Part of Agenda’s legacy is found in the changes that other people were able to make because of Agenda’s advocacy.

BL: Still, the Jewish Federation is unabashedly supportive of Israel’s policies, is extensively connected to America’s corporate-political establishment, and represents middle-class and upper-class Jews, marginalizing the voices of queer Jews, Jews of color, and working-class Jews.

EBN: Many things haven’t changed that much ­— but some have! I keep seeing reports of how few women are in leadership in the biggest Jewish organizations. It’s like, “What year is this?” It’s not as if there’s a shortage of amazing and capable Jewish women to be in leadership roles! On the other hand, in the course of my research, I’ve come to realize how many more opportunities I have as a queer Jew today, opportunities that were created by NJA’s generation. Many of the people pushing for those changes built analyses and gained influence together in Agenda — like Avi Rose and Christie Balka, who were national NJA co-chairs together and co-authored Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian, Gay and Jewish, which was a groundbreaking publication in 1989.

BL: You end your book by saying that “the new Occupy Judaism movement, and the Occupy movement as a whole, have reinvigorated strategies of mass mobilization and direct action that challenge the trend of professionalization in social-change work, and bring new voices from the margin to the people’s mic every day.” What do you think Occupy Judaism takes from the legacy of Agenda?

EBN: One of the primary positives of the Occupy movement is creating big gathering spaces for people to come together in person and figure out what they want to do together. Agenda did not have social media, and people had to be together physically in a way that built culture, built community, and provided opportunities for synchronicity and spontaneous inspiration. That provides for the kind of relationship building that allows you to go through something hard with somebody and still want to talk to them: You actually know each other, and have actually seen each other grow and change over the course of days or weeks or years.
Another very powerful aspect of Occupy Judaism is the commitment to direct action, including the street-theater element — enacting spiritual ritual in the midst of public space. All the holidays that were celebrated during Occupy Judaism were mobilizing and inspirational, and that was a crucial New Jewish Agenda tactic, to bring Jewish life out into the streets, into public parks, into alignment with protest movements, and to put politics and culture together. It sets a great example for Jews on the left to say, “We are here as Jews in solidarity, we are going to have a public ritual to say why we are here as Jews, we’re going to talk about how Jewish culture has brought us here and about what Jewish culture says about this issue.” That’s what New Jewish Agenda did.

BL: NJA also allowed progressive Jews to ally themselves, as a unified bloc, with social justice movements in the larger community. As we speak, I am sitting in the office of No More Deaths, a humanitarian aid and advocacy organization that fights for migrant rights along the U.S.-Mexico border. No More Deaths grew out of the Sanctuary movement, which counted New Jewish Agenda as a powerful ally.

EBN: The Sanctuary movement started with churches providing sanctuary for refugees fleeing the dictatorships in Latin America, and NJA linked up early on to bring Sanctuary into synagogues. Agenda sent out packets with information on the sanctuary issue to over two thousand synagogues, and many congregations got involved.

This legacy of working with allies continues today. One example is Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), which over the last decade has allied with the Domestic Workers Union (DWU) to fight for a domestic workers’ bill of rights and advocate for economic justice for domestic workers. JFREJ went to synagogues and did education, reached out to Jewish legislators and community members — many of whom employ domestic workers for childcare and elder care — to raise awareness on issues of fair pay, sick days and other rights.

BL: There are many times throughout its history that Agenda experienced what you describe as “growing pains” — instances when local and national task forces came face-to-face with manifestations of white privilege, racism, and homophobia within the organization. You relate how the Feminist Task Force (FTF), for example, sought in 1985 to convene meetings among African-American, Arab and Jewish women in New York to address the contentious “Zionism equals racism” equation that surfaced at the UN Decade for Women Forum in Copenhagen. FTF received a challenging letter from Carol Haddad of the Feminist Arab Network, identifying the problematic power imbalances inherent in the proposal for meetings, and pointing to the need for FTF members to examine their own white privilege and racism. Your book also brings up the lingering homophobia within NJA that challenged queer Jewish organizers in the mid-1980s, as well as NJA’s last official conference in 1991, which, as you wrote, “received significant criticism, especially for a lack of representation of Jews of color, reinforcing a false dichotomy between white Jews and African, Latino/a or Arab peoples.” How did Agenda deal with these problems within its own organization, and what can we learn from that today?

EBN: Everything that exists in the larger world also exists in activist organizations, and a lot of the time the exact dynamics we are trying to fix in the world show up in our organizations. This is part of what happens when people are building new awareness about the ways that privilege works in a community: people who are able-bodied and can’t imagine otherwise, or men who aren’t aware of all the sexism that’s happening, or white Jews who think all Jews are European. NJA functioned as a space where people could find each other, build power, and make demands. All the conversations and confrontations about the organization’s platforms, over the years, served as a space for analysis to happen, for people to show up and say, “We need to have a position about Jews of color, we need to have a position about economic privilege in the Jewish world.” That’s why that letter from Carol Haddad is so powerful: somebody taking the time to write a letter like that is offering a gift! It’s upsetting to learn that you’ve contributed to someone else’s marginalization, of course, but when people speak up about dynamics that need to change, that’s how we transform.

BL: If there’s one central legacy that NJA can leave to a new generation of progressive Jewish activists, what does that legacy look like?

EBN: As the keynote speaker at one of Agenda’s national conferences, Adrienne Rich asked, “If not with others, how?” Having all of our politics in the same room matters, having a space to show all the facets of ourselves matters. Being able to say “I’m Jewish and queer,” “I’m Jewish and feminist,” “I’m Jewish and working-class,” “I’m Jewish and wealthy,” matters. The ability to create that wholeness inside oneself and together in a room — that matters.

At our Seattle event, one veteran of Agenda  said that “the wins were momentary wins, and the challenges were ongoing — we were always in debt, we were always overwhelmed by the problems of democracy on a large scale.” Why, given that, did the organization last for a dozen years? The thing that was consistent, from chapter to chapter, was that people were in community with each other. They were doing life-cycle events, they were doing holidays with each other, their kids were friends with each other, they were partnering romantically and creatively —  people were in community together. That enabled them for a dozen years to handle the other things that were ongoing, and that was what weathered the storm.

Readers can learn more about New Jewish Agenda and its legacy at, where Ezra Berkley Nepon’s book can be purchased.


Filed under Uncategorized

Chicago Radicals Feast At People’s Dinner

'Justice Kids' display the banner they made for the People's Dinner at Trinity Episcopal Church in Chicago, IL, December 1, 2012. The banner was adorned with slogans like 'Support Our Schools, Don't Close Them!' and 'Unions Yes, Wars No!'

‘Justice Kids’ display the banner they made for the People’s Dinner at Trinity Episcopal Church in Chicago, IL, December 1, 2012. The banner was adorned with slogans like ‘Support Our Schools, Don’t Close Them!’ and ‘Unions Yes, Wars No!’

Last Saturday, hundreds of Chicago-area activists gathered at Trinity Episcopal Church to celebrate the 20th annual People’s Dinner. As food flowed abundantly and spirits ran high, organizers from the U.S. Palestinian Community Network, the Anti-War Committee, the National Lawyer’s Guild, the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, CODEPINK, and many other organizations reflected on a year’s worth of struggle, and expressed high hopes for the year to come. Highlighting 2012’s most memorable victories, awards were given to Chicago Teachers Union organizer and strike captain Sarah Chambers, Pat Hunt of the Coalition Against Nato/G8 War & Poverty Agenda, Magda Castenada of the Committee Against Political Repression, and the Joliet-based Warehouse Workers for Justice. “Since I was a little boy, I have always had the seed of resistance in my heart,” said Honduran community organizer and political refugee Santos Cruz, as he accepted an award on behalf of his people’s struggle against the U.S.-backed military dictatorship of Porfirio Lobo. “It inspires me very much to see so many people, in one place, united in struggle for a better world.”

The People’s Dinner was started by the newspaper Fight Back! in 1992, as an alternative to Thanksgiving and its association with the violent conquest of the Americas. “The purpose of this dinner”, announced United Electrical Workers (UE) organizer J. Burger to the assembly, “is to give voice to and remember the struggles of the past year. We borrow from those who came before us. Sometimes we’ve had defeats, and sometimes we’ve had steps forward.”

As event organizer Joe Iosbaker succinctly stated- “the leaders we are honoring, coming from the protest movements, [and] union struggles and victories…these are what we’re giving thanks for.”


Filed under Uncategorized