Tag Archives: New Jewish Agenda

JFREJ Versus Stop-And-Frisk: Turning Jewish Radicals Into Radical Jews

Published in the Summer 2013 issue of Jewish Currents

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On a Monday evening in early March, about forty Jews of various ages, gender identifications, sexual orientations, and shades of leftism crowded into a room at the Workmen’s Circle in New York City for a meeting convened by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ). Passover was fast approaching, and the city was in the throes of a struggle to hold the New York Police Department (NYPD) accountable for discriminatory policing and racial profiling. One question was on everyone’s mind: How does the story of liberation from the repressive regime of Pharoah relate to the world in which we live today, a world marked by economic inequality, racism, persecution, and systemic injustice?
Ideas were traded over cookies, chips and hummus, and a vision formed to enact a “Seder in the Streets,” a ritual-as-public-spectacle that would connect the Passover seder to the growing campaign against police racism. Should we portray New York’s Mayor Bloomberg as Pharoah? Could we compare the enslaved Israelites to the underprivileged communities in New York plagued by systemic poverty and racial profiling? Might we collectively part the Red Seas of discriminatory policing?

Three weeks later, inside New York’s federal courthouse, the Floyd vs. City of New York trial began to unfold. The case was a challenge to the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy, which police applied more than half a million times in 2012, 87 percent of the time to detain, question, and search African-Americans and Latinos, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. More than than 89 percent of these stop-and-frisk incidents yielded no criminal charges of any kind. (Data is available at www.nyclu.org/content/stop-and-frisk-data.) In the plaza outside the courthouse, drumbeats and chanting heralded the appearance of giant blue horse puppets, surrounded by a radical marching band and a crowd of Jews chanting an old Russian revolutionary anthem, “Daloy Politsey” (“Down with the Police”), originally written by the Jewish Labor Bund to protest the rule of the tsar in Russia.

The protestors were guided through an interactive reading of the hagode: “We wash our hands of the injustices of stop-and-frisk”; “we eat bitter herbs to commemorate the bitterness of discriminatory policing.” They discussed “The Four Questions of Stop-and-Frisk” and “The Ten Plagues of Discriminatory Policing” (“the 603 percent increase of stop-and-frisks between 2002 and 2011,” “police harassment of homeless queer youth of color,” “police using possession of condoms as evidence to accuse people of sex work,” “police filling quotas rather than keeping people safe”). Finally, they affirmed “next year in a world free of discriminatory policing!”

This Seder in the Streets is the latest in a long line of exuberant political spectacles organized by JFREJ. Formed in 1994, JFREJ aims, in the words of its website, “to pursue racial and economic justice in New York City by advancing systemic changes that result in concrete improvements in peoples daily lives.” Since its inaugural action — a Jewish reception for Nelson Mandela’s visit to New York — JFREJ activists have joined picket lines, initiated and supported boycotts, risked arrest, and stood in solidarity with Chinese, Latin American, and other workers seeking to unionize throughout Manhattan. JFREJ has partnered with myriad progressive organizations to fight Islamophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment, and racism in all its forms, and to organize vocally against Republican attacks on welfare, affirmative action, and immigrants’ rights. The group also holds forums, presents awards, and sponors events that celebrate progressive Jewish history and honor present and past tzadikim of the progressive Jewish community.

JFREJ’s Campaign for Police Accountability started in October 2012, when JFREJ partnered with Communities United For Police Reform and other organizations involved in the fight to end stop-and-frisk and NYPD surveillance of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities. On a Saturday night in February, JFREJ’s eleventh annual Purimshpil brought hundreds of costumed Jews into a Brooklyn warehouse space to watch an extravagant and politically charged recreation of the Purim story, “I See What You’re Doing: Purim, Puppets, Politsey,” complete with puppets, a brass band, and a message of police reform. JFREJ organizers are also working to bring together rabbis and leaders of the Muslim, Arab, African-American and Latino communities to discuss the Community Safety Act — a landmark police reform billbeing weighed by the New York City Council  that would protect New Yorkers from discriminatory policing and establish an NYPD Inspector General Office to provide accountability and oversight of police activity.

JFREJ’s history of resistance to police brutality stretches back to 1999, when a 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea, Amadou Diallo, was shot to death outside his apartment by four NYPD officers. In a dramatic display of solidarity, one hundred and twenty JFREJ activists, including thirteen rabbis, were arrested along with others on the steps of City Hall in response to the acquittal of the officers in their murder trial. “That was definitely a moment where JFREJ provided a very, very visible Jewish presence against police discrimination in New York,” says Executive Director Marjorie Dove-Kent, “and that was a key turning point for people within and outside the organization to see the role Jews could play in multi-racial coalitions within the city around issues that weren’t so obviously issues of Jewish community concern.” Fourteen years later, Dove-Kent insists, “it’s really important that JFREJ is once again a Jewish presence in the issue.”

JFREJ hopes to mobilize rabbis, their congregations, and the broad Jewish community against not only against police profiling of New York’s African-American community but also against the intensive and invasive police surveillance of Muslim communities. The organization’s anti-Islamophobia work started immediately after 9/11, notes Dove-Kent. It reached a height in protewst of Jewish blogger Pamela Geller 2012 subway ads that depicted the World Trade Center in flames next to a quote from the Koran about “casting terror into the heart of the unbelievers.” The ads proclaimed: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” Geller’s organization, Stop Islamization of America, has been identified as a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Still, “there are some Jewish organizations,” says Dove-Kent, “that see a growing and thriving Muslim community in New York . . . as a threat. Some of that Islamophobia comes from 9/11 and other events, both international and the national. The historical and the present-day get confused, and we want to be part of parsing out that confusion.”

Another JFREJ campaign, since 2003, has been Shalom Bayit (Peace in the Home),which has organized synagogues, rabbis, Jewish legislators, Jewish community organizations, and employers of domestic workers within the Jewish community to fight for a living wage, dignity, recognition and protection for domestic workers. As an unorganized, informal, precarious, predominantly immigrant and often undocumented workforce, domestic workers are frequently underpaid and almost completely excluded from the protections of labor law. They usually work without a written or oral contract. In the worst cases, live-in domestic workers are subject to abuse by employers and, afraid to report wage theft or other problems for fear of deportation, are made to endure what Domestic Workers United (DWU) calls “conditions indistinguishable from slavery.” In partnership with DWU, JFREJ helped pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010, a landmark piece of New York legislation that gives domestic workers the right to overtime pay, protection under human rights law, a legally mandated day of rest, and other rights often withheld from this vulnerable population.

JFREJ works to publicize the issue in the liberal, middle-class sector of the New York Jewish community, where many families employ domestic workers, to raise awareness of the rights outlined in the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights and to cultivate networks of support among Jewish families to ensure that the law’s mandates are implemented. Shalom Bayit’s focus on synagogues has its limitations: “A lot of Jews, including a lot of Jews within JFREJ, don’t feel affinity with synagogues,” says Rachel Schragis, one of ten organizers in the 2012 JFREJ Grace Paley Organizing Fellowship, a leadership development program that builds and trains effective organizers within the Jewish community. Nevertheless, she says, “synagogues are a physical space where you have resources, you have programming and events, a relationship to ritual, social groups that want speakers and activities, youth programming that needs content — it makes alot possible.”

Schragis, an arts educator, brought the Shalom Bayit campaign to a mitsve art project class for the bney mitsve students at Congregation Beth Elohim, the largest synagogue in Brooklyn. Students learned about the plight of domestic workers and the need for immigration reform as they created works of art, which were then sent as postcards to New York Senator Charles Schumer, himself a member of Beth Elohim, and the rest of the “Gang of Eight” currently involved in the Senate’s Bipartisan Framework for Immigration Reform. The proof of steady employment required by the Senate’s current immigration overhaul bill threatens to exclude many domestic workers, who are paid in cash and cannot furnish a record of employment. “Our message to the Gang of Eight,” says Schragis, “is to please include domestic workers in immigration reform!”

Schragis’s curriculum makes use of visual art to educate the entire synagogue community, as she experiments. The Hebrew school class, for example, held a bake sale and circulated petitions, and students took their artwork home to middle-class families, many of whom employ nannies, cleaning ladies or home-care workers. “People feel a lot of tension around the issue in privileged communities,” Schragis says. “In saying, ‘Let’s all treat domestic workers with respect,’ you are implicitly accusing someone of not treating a  domestic worker well. My mother often says that she feels a lot of pain about not have been able to give my nanny health care, because as an individual employer, health care is completely unaffordable.”

Parents of students are drawn to get involved, and JFREJ connects them to Hand In Hand: The Domestic Employers Association, a national network built to educate employers of domestic workers about their responsibilities as outlined in the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, and to organize employers to fight for reform. “Organizing,” Schragis adds, “requires a transformation of individuals. Being able to use education and family relationships to make those transformations happen is very effective.” Now, students are creating a Tumblr site to post personal stories about “My Immigrant Nanny,” and JFREJ hopes to form youth groups to help mobilize the community around the issue.

Like New Jewish Agenda in the 1980s, JFREJ allows Jews to engage in progressive politics both as progressives and as Jews. Schragis was first drawn to JFREJ during the Occupy movement, and saw it as “the perfect way,” in her words, “to think about identity politics and spirituality from a Jewish perspective…it allowed me to affirm my Judaism, and to affirm my radical politics, at the same time”. Through JFREJ, Schragis transitioned from what Arthur Waskow in a 1969 essay called a “Jewish radical” — a radical who happens to be Jewish — to a self-identifying “radical Jew.” “At first, I was very intimidated” by the idea of an explicitly Jewish progressive organization, she admits. “I thought, ‘This must not be right! I shouldn’t be organizing around being Jewish!’” Being Jewish, she had been conditioned to think, “was inherently conservative and old fashioned, so if I was going to be progressive and radical, I couldn’t identify as Jewish.”

Schragis also drawn to JFREJ as “a very queer space…which helped me think about, and served as a platform for building a queer community for myself in New York, as well”. Indeed, JFREJ serves as one of many focal points and safe spaces for New York’s vibrant Jewish LGBTQ community to organize around LGBTQ issues, and to affirm the intersectionality of progressive struggle. At anti-stop and frisk-themed events such as February’s Purimspiel- a celebration of what JFREJ called “a favorite Jewish holiday for feminists, young people, queer folks, and party animals of all stripes”-  activists were quick to point out that transgender and queer people are often profiled by police with the assumption of being sex workers.  NYPD officers currently treat possession of even a single condom as evidence of prostitution, and grounds for arrest.

For Marjorie Dove-Kent, the Jewish struggle to organize and resist oppression stretches back, in the last century alone, through the multi-issue progressive mobilization New Jewish Agenda in the 1980s, to the self-defense and food networks of the Warsaw Ghetto, to early-1900s Jewish radical socialist organizations like the Bund. “Jewish political activism has been one of the things that has kept Jews alive, safe, and strong throughout history,” she insists. “Leaving that space and moving to a depoliticized or politically conservative place in the U.S. has not helped us and does not serve us.”

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

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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 www.newjewishagenda.net, where Ezra Berkley Nepon’s book can be purchased.

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New Jewish Agenda(s): An Interview with Rabbi Arthur Waskow

(published in Tikkun Magazine’s ‘Tikkun Daily’ blog, http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2012/08/27/new-jewish-agendas-an-interview-with-rabbi-arthur-waskow/ )

 

When I sat down to speak with radical civil rights activist Rabbi Arthur Waskow at the Shalom Center in Philadelphia this July, I wanted to talk about the hopes and promises of twenty-first century Jewish activism, Occupy Judaism, and the American Jewish progressive movement. But most of all, I wanted to discuss Ezra Berkley Nepon’s recently published book ‘Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue: A History of New Jewish Agenda.’ This book represents the first serious attempt to comprehensively document the 1980s progressive organization New Jewish Agenda (NJA).

Book cover: Nepon, Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue

Book cover: Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue

Considering itself “a Jewish voice among progressives and a progressive voice among Jews,” NJA was a national, multi-issue membership organization that worked throughout the 1980s and early 1990s to advocate for Middle East peace, worldwide nuclear disarmament, rights for LGBTQ Jews, economic and social justice, peace in Latin America, Jewish feminism, and a variety of other issues in a climate of increasing Reagan-era neoliberalism and Cold War conservatism. Today, twenty years after the group’s dissolution, the book seeks to draw inspiration from NJA’s dedication “to participatory (grassroots) democracy and civil rights for all people, especially those marginalized within the mainstream Jewish community,” at a time when the progressive American Jewish movement is seeking a new voice.

As we reflected on the contemporary legacy of Jewish radicalism in America, we found that we could not talk about the New Jewish Agenda of the past without talking about the new(er) Jewish agenda(s) of the present. We could not talk about progressive Jewish identity and spirituality without also talking about “the heart of the matter- the prophetic vision embodied in Judaism, ancient and modern.” We could not talk about Occupy Wall Street without also talking about “the heart of the Freedom Seder…[the] debate between violence and non-violence.” We could not talk about the diversity of contemporary progressive Jewish activism without also talking about the issue of Zionism, an issue that “becomes legitimate when the society around it discovers it has to live with a spectrum of organizations, people, etc. raising the issue.” We found that to speak of a movement as multi-faceted as New Jewish Agenda, one must also give voice the complexities of the present moment.

We also discussed the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research’s recent conference, entitled ‘Jews and the Left.’ There, voices of lamentation repeated the well-worn mantra that, as Ezra Mendelsohn said, “the Left in general is in eclipse, and the Jewish left is dead in the U.S., an expired product of a past historical epoch … a good chapter in our history, but one which is gone.”

When I repeated this quote to Arthur Waskow, he interrupted me with a bemused look of incredulity…

 

New Jewish Agenda march: Jews for Peace

New Jewish Agenda: Jews for Peace march.

Arthur Waskow: Did they invite anybody who was a Jew on the left?

Ben Lorber: One of the criticisms voiced by many was that the conference was mainly an affair of historians and academics, devoid of past or present Jewish activists.

AW: Well, there’s Tikkun, there’s the Shalom Center, and a bunch of different organizations!

BL: Throughout ‘Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue,’ Nepon celebrates that NJA upheld itself for over a decade as a multi-issue organization, tackling problems of sexism, racism, and classism both inside and outside the Jewish community, along with a critique of Israel, and presenting a united front of Jewish opposition to the mainstream. Today, progressive American Jewish organizations exist across the left spectrum as single-issue advocacy groups, often competing with one another for funds, attention and a seat at the table, and struggling to try to influence the mainstream. Do you see this multiplicity of organizations as a weakness of the contemporary Jewish American left?

AW: There are two images we use about ourselves: one is a tugboat that moves the big ocean liner. The big ocean liner can barely change direction, and to change direction at all it needs a tugboat that can change direction, nudging, nudging, pushing up against it. I think we accomplished that metaphor with the Reform movement during the Iraq war. The Iraq war was historically a total disaster, but it also took some nudging for people to get off their habit of total deference towards any President of the United States, and we did help the Reform movement do that. And the other metaphor we use is the seedbed. We can drop tiny seeds that are very small and don’t require much money, and some of them grow big. We see ourselves that way too.

BL: And in many ways NJA throughout the 1980s and early 1990s conceived of itself as a tugboat and a seedbed, steering the tone of mainstream American Jewish discourse towards the left and sowing seeds of dissent on many critical issues well ahead of their time. Today, the seeds that NJA helped plant–the movement of Jewish feminism, and the movement of Jewish-Palestinian solidarity, to name two examples–have blossomed into the decisive political debates of our community.

AW: The difference is that NJA wanted to be a mass organization. We tried, and we succeeded briefly. We were enormously helped by Ronald Reagan’s election. Our first convention was held in the fall after November 1980, after the election, which Reagan won, and thousands more people showed up then we expected. Part of the reason for that was that people were shocked and horrified by Reagan’s victory in the election.

BL: Has the progressive Jewish movement experienced a similar revitalization since the early 2000s, with the rise of Bush and the American neoconservative movement?

AW: Not the same way in the American Jewish community. I think maybe Occupy is the first stage of re-energizing the American and Jewish progressive movement.

BL: But today, two decades after the dissolution of NJA, do you see a hole or a void in the community of progressive Jewish organizations that NJA used to fill? Across the diverse spectrum of groups, is there a lack of a unifying thread, an absence of a ‘We?’

AW: There are some interesting things beginning to happen. There’s the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable and Green Havurah. There’s a serious attempt to create the beginnings, but the one thing it ain’t is a mass movement. It deliberately is an amalgam of organizations, not of people, so that puts limits on it.

BL: An especially powerful legacy of NJA, to me, is its structural emphasis on democratic, horizontal, non-hierarchical decision-making, and organization. These dynamics, with all their pluses and minuses, have re-emerged today most vigorously in the Occupy movement. What does NJA have to teach the present-day Jewish American progressive community in this regard?

AW: I hope, but I’m not convinced, that the Green Havurah model is the most interesting model. It’s kind of a version of NJA’s decentralization, though NJA’s decentralization was geographic, and Green Havurah’s model isn’t geographic as much as it is functional. I don’t know if it makes vigorous action possible. But
it is a different version to preserve a kind of united national body, and to encourage participation and debate.

BL: One of the inspiring things for me about the Jewish Occupy events, such as Occupy Kol Nidre, is this tradition of performing Jewish ritual in public as political action. NJA explored this too–as Nepon relates in ‘Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue,’ during Tisha B’av in 1981, which fell on the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki by the U.S. during WWII, NJA held a public ceremony near the White House and the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., calling for nuclear disarmament.

AW: And we addressed universal issues, not only Jewish issues. Interestingly, two summers ago we did Tisha B’Av on the steps of the capital again, but this time it was to focus on the oil spill that had just happened in the Gulf. We asked, “What is the temple today?” Today the temple is the whole Earth. Every culture and every species has the sacred temple of Earth itself, and the Pharaohs of the human race, like the emperors who destroyed the First and Second Temples, are in the process of destroying our temple. And we did this with about 300 people, maybe half of them Jewish, a whole bunch of secular people, and some Christians and Muslims. It was amazing! We chanted, mainly in English, a new version of Lamentations to the melody of Eicha, of Lamentations.

There was a crucial discussion in Green Havurah a few days ago: what does it mean to take inspiration from theology and challenge people into acting? A bunch of us going off and making Shabbot by ourselves has no impact on society. What if we sat down on Shabbot and somehow interfered with work? I haven’t yet been struck with a spark of how to do that. Martin Buber said, “Life is not really in the I, life is not really in the Thou. Life is in the hyphen.’ Between me and Daniel Sieradski (American Jewish writer and activist), life was in the hyphen! I called him up and asked: “What do you think about doing Kol Nidre at Zuccotti Park?’ He said “Arthur, Kol Nidre! We did Erev Shabbot there last week! But Kol Nidre? I gotta think about it.” And he calls me up the next day and says, “Well, I put it on Twitter and there are 500 people that wanna come!” I couldn’t do it alone, and he couldn’t do it alone.

Occupy Kol Nidre protest, November 2011.

Occupy Kol Nidre, November 2011. Credit: Damon Dahlen/AOL.

BL: As NJA sought to be “a Jewish voice among progressives and a progressive voice among Jews,” Occupy Judaism’s motto today is “bringing the Jews to Occupy Wall Street and bringing Occupy Wall Street to the Jews.” What are the parallels between the two? Is it inspiring to you today that in the midst of the rising of a broad-based American social movement, this tradition of Jewish ritual as public protest has re-emerged?

AW: Absolutely inspiring to me, totally! NJA taught us that you can interweave prophetic religious folk and leftist secular folk. I try not to use the ‘left’ label for myself because it has come to mean almost entirely a secular, sometimes even anti-religious outlook on the world. So I use ‘prophetic’ because for me it embodies both a profound religious sense of contact with God–not at all necessarily according to the structures or the strictures of the prayer book,–and vigorous and radical political action.

During most of its history, NJA was able to weave those strands of thought and action together. I think one of the reasons it collapsed was that some mostly secularist folks thought they couldn’t bear working with people who used ‘God’ language. There was a lot of anger and contempt aimed at religious folk, which ended up in the dismantling of the office and the organization. This did not come from any grassroots decision-making; it was made by people in the steering committee. I think that if there had been a consultation of the national membership, people would’ve opposed abolishing the organization. I thought the closure was a serious ethical and political mistake- none of which I think is in the book.

BL: A few years after NJA was founded, Michael Lerner founded Tikkun, and there was a return to spirituality in the American Jewish progressive movement that was, in many ways, a continuation of the Fabrangen and radical Havurah movements begun a decade earlier. Do you think this schism between secular and spiritual currents within NJA reflected the larger tensions between a secular humanist Jewish movement and a Jewish renewal movement?

AW: Yes, I think that’s right. And both trends have survived. The heart of the matter for me is the prophetic vision embodied in Judaism, ancient and modern, all the way to Buber and Heschel and Judith Plaskow. So that strand for me is the point, and acting on that strand for me is not bringing Occupy Wall Street to the Jews, it is bringing Isaiah and Heschel and Lerner and Waskow to the Jews. Here’s an example of the problem and the gift. Occupy Wall Street breaks through in American consciousness to get the notion of the 99% and the 1% across. Brilliant! Terrific! Now, for twenty years the Shalom Center has been talking about the pharaohs of our generation, which I think is the 1% in Jewish clothes (and I don’t mean only governments, but corporations as well). So it’s true that Occupy broke through in a way that, inside the Jewish community, the Freedom Seder did break through- in an unexpected way. [The Freedom Seder] told everyone that we can all create our own liberating seders! And that changed the attitude of lots of Jews towards the existing liturgy.

BL: Reading the Freedom Seder today, I was drawn to the debate between violence and non-violence as a tactic for social change. Pacifist quotes by Martin Luther King Jr. are back-to-back with celebrations of the race riot, and quotes by Malcolm X advocating change ‘by any means necessary.’ This seems to be especially pertinent today, as popular unrest in America and worldwide straddles the border between non-violent and violent resistance.

AW: And when I said that the race riots were about the confrontation between the Israelites in the streets and Pharaoh in the army, sure! The heart of the Freedom Seder should be a debate between violence and non-violence. I have since become convinced that King-ian, Gandhian non-violence is far better. I’m not an absolute pacifist, but I think it’s far better except in a very few situations, where there is such a tyrannical thing that the only way to resist is physically. But at the time of the Freedom Seder I was saying: “Let’s have the argument, because we can only gain wisdom from the argument.”

BL: The issue of Zionism has obviously had a huge and polarizing influence of the progressive Jewish Left since the 1960s. How has the discourse on Palestine changed from the 1970s to today on the Jewish Left?

AW: There’s more of a spectrum now. Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) can exist alongside J Street, and both of them can exist. I think there is a big majority for at the J Street outlook, but it’s interesting- organizations don’t like to confront even small minorities, especially organizations that are feeling that they are barely treated as legitimate anyway. There are two ways to behave if you think you are being treated by the big boys as barely legitimate. One is to say ‘fuck you!’ and do whatever really bold and trouble making stuff you wanna do. The other one is to be very careful not to annoy people. JVP has done the first, and I sort of feel attracted to its tone and method, but I see a problem with its unwillingness to affirm the right of the Israeli people to make their decision about having an Israeli state, and therefore to reaffirm that we can only go beyond a two-state solut
ion if each of the two people says they’re ready to go beyond it. As of now, Israeli society is not willing to go beyond a two-state solution. For me, JVP doesn’t have to say: “We support a two state solution,” but it does have to say: “We support a solution in which the existing state of Israel and its people agree.” And they don’t quite do that. So that’s one of my problems with it, and I think it’s probably a problem with a lot of people who would otherwise feel attracted to JVP. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who do feel attracted to JVP, because they say ‘fuck you’ to the Federation world and all that.

So, the very fact of a more diverse spectrum means that the repression has not been able to succeed as much. In a way, an issue becomes legitimate when the society around it discovers it has to live with a spectrum of organizations, people, etc. raising the issue. It’s easy to polarize and expel, to excommunicate so long as there is a clear separation between viewpoints. But most Americans from Peace Now and J Street bridge the gap enough that it’s clearly impossible now to wipe out that kind of energy, and the greater spectrum means that there are enough Jews who are connected with official Judaism.

I’m not so happy with J Street either, by the way. J Street established this metaphor of itself that it was going to watch Obama’s back. And I ask, “What about his front? What about confronting him when he doesn’t do what makes sense?” Their whole description of their role was that whenever people were beating up on Obama for being too pro-peace or of Israel, J Street would hold his back and argue that he’s okay. But when he insisted on vetoing Abbas’ bid for recognition at the U.N., for instance, J Street was not prepared to say, “Oh, that was a bad mistake.” So I didn’t go to the last convention. If I could wave my wand and there would be an organization that carried out BDS on the products created in the West Bank, period, I would do it. Peter Beinart (an influential American Jewish journalist), Lerner and I are not just liberal Zionists; we’re something more than that. Lerner does try to organize around it and has done more to unite the two than most anybody, including the Shalom Center.

BL: In 2009, you cited five American ‘pro-Israel, pro-Peace’ Jewish organizations that were worth supporting in a context of increasing polarization within the American Jewish community: Meretz USA, Americans for Peace Now, Rabbis for Human Rights, J Street, and Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace (Brit Tzedek v’Shalom). Daniel Lang/Levitsky stated that since 2009, “U.S. Zionist ‘peace’-oriented groups like Brit Tzedek-v-Shalom, J Street, and the Tikkun Community have continued to decline in influence, visibility, and effectiveness, while non- and anti-Zionist projects from JVP to Jews Say No to the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAZN) have steadily grown in both size and strength.” Do you see this trend? Why?

AW: Yes, because people are getting more and more fed up with the ever more disgusting behavior of the Israeli government. The worse it gets, the more people that say I’m not even interested in J Street. So J Street tries to walk this very difficult line, but I don’t think the line has to be as wishy-washy as they make it.

BL: What, to sum up, can Jewish occupiers, and the entire Occupy movement, draw from prophetic Judaism? What can the prophetic Jewish heritage teach us about this imperative to resist, to speak the truth to power?

AW: I know I sort of got imprinted on the Pharaoh model by the Freedom Seder, and you might say I’ve just been reworking that metaphor for forty some years, and in some ways that’s true. And my most recent book with Phyllis Berman, my wife, is about the Exodus and the wilderness at a far deeper level than the Freedom Seder. But I think that’s the master Jewish story, whether its fiction or history. We begin that book, Freedom Journeys, with these three lines: “If the Pharaoh fell in the Red Sea and nobody told the story, did it happen? No. If no Pharaoh fell in the Red Sea but we told the story for three thousand years, did it happen? Yes. Is it still happening? Yes.”

BL: I love Sieradski’s quote, in an article for the Forward in November 2011, where he asserts the direct identity between the values of Judaism and those of Occupy- “In retelling our story (“We are the 99%”), recounting our values (“social and economic justice for all”) and carrying forth our tradition unto the four corners of the Earth (“Occupy Everywhere”) we are empowered to bring the spirit of the occupation into every facet of our lives.”

AW: Exactly!

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