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Creating Sanctuary: Faith-Based Activism for Migrant Justice

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No More Deaths/Kate Morgan-Olsen

Migrants crossing the Southern Arizona desert can die of dehydration if they do not stumble across provisions such as these gallon jugs of water, which were placed near a migrant trail by the faith-based group No More Deaths.

THE SUN SHONE OVERHEAD as we walked through migrant trails etched into the mountainous Southern Arizona desert, looking for the body of a seventy-year-old man. It was a hot afternoon in July, five miles above the U.S.-Mexico border.

For months, I had worked with the faith-based humanitarian aid organization No Mas Muertes (No More Deaths), leaving plastic gallon jugs of water, easy-open cans of pinto beans, blankets, and other necessities along trails sprinkled with clothing, water bottles, food wrappers, cell phones, children’s toys, and toiletries discarded by the hundreds of undocumented migrants who risk the treacherous journey across the border every day. For months, we had found our gallon water jugs slashed and vandalized, and our cans of beans torn open and drained by agents of the United States Border Patrol intent on depriving hungry and dehydrated travelers of life-saving sustenance.

Walking through forbidding desert hills dotted with cacti and mesquite, I dreaded the moment when I would turn the corner and find the man’s remains stretched out under the unforgiving sun. Two days earlier, another group of humanitarian aid volunteers had found an injured seventeen-year-old boy on the side of the road. His group of ten travelers had been scattered by a low-flying Border Patrol helicopter, he said, and he had wandered for days with the seventy-year-old man and a forty-year-old woman. When his companions grew too tired to continue, he tied a pair of red boxers to a mesquite tree and left them underneath, promising to return with food and water. The day after his rescue, volunteers found the body of the woman.

We never found the body of the man, nor did we ever learn his name.

It is well known that Jewish tradition requires the deceased to be buried speedily after death. As the soul returns to G-d, the body must not be left to linger in the land of the living. A Jewish cohen (priest), though normally forbidden contact with a dead body, is commanded to render the honor of immediate burial to a corpse he finds on the street, even if he is on his way to enter a temple’s sanctuary on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. Because the human being is made in the image of G-d, to leave the image of G-d rotting in the street (or in the desert) is to condone the desecration of G-d’s name.

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Creative Commons/Tomás Castelazo (tomascastelazo.com)

Crosses along the Tijuana–San Diego border wall remind would-be migrants of those who have perished in their attempts to cross over.

According to the Arizona-based Coalición de Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Coalition), nearly 180 human remains have been recovered in the Arizona-Sonora desert since October 2011, bringing the total since 2000 to almost 2,500. The number of dead bodies never recovered is undoubtedly much higher. The remembrance of every migrant who has died in the desert — those recovered, and those left to dust — remains as a testament to the horror of U.S. border policy, and bears witness to the cruelest injustice perpetuated by our government on a daily basis.

In the last decade, the United States has been seized by a spasm of anti-immigrant sentiment remarkable for its ferocious nationalism and uncompromising xenophobia. The persecution of neighborhoods, the raiding of workplaces, and the breakup of families by federal immigration authorities has accelerated inside this country. Meanwhile, a policy of increased and selective militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, begun in the 1990s, has strategically sealed off urban hotspots such as San Diego and El Paso to funnel migration into the vast and treacherous expanses of the Sonora Desert in Southern Arizona, deliberately turning the parched desert into a deadly weapon of “deterrence” and casting nearby cities like Tucson into the crosshairs of the national immigration debate. Faith-based communities have a vital role to play in today’s struggle for migrant justice, and in Tucson, they have put their faith into action for decades.

 The Origins of the Sanctuary Movement

Throughout the history of Tucson’s migrant justice movement, faith-based communities have struggled alongside threatened communities in the barrios(neighborhoods), on the border, and in their houses of worship to effect meaningful and lasting social change. In the 1970s, a multi-faith coalition called the Tucson Ecumenical Council worked closely with a broad swath of community organizations to support undocumented families endangered by Border Patrol and INS persecution, lobby the city to establish social services and facilities for impoverished communities, and raise money to fund legal efforts to fight deportation. Most importantly, religious leaders and congregations cultivated and maintained long-lasting personal relationships of faith and solidarity with undocumented families and communities, involving themselves directly in the struggle to better the lives of neighbors and congregants.

Tucson pastor John Fife, a long-time Sanctuary activist, offers this description of the movement’s origins:It initially involved some families that needed help, and of course the church was a place where folks were to help with housing, or with food, or with clothes, or with a family crisis, or whatever it was…. There were then, as there are now, many mixed families, where, for example, the parents were undocumented, but the children were United States citizens. So our efforts to legalize or regularize the status of members of those families, who often were also members of our congregation, represented vital work to protect the integrity of our families. But basically what made it all possible were the many solid relationships developed between community-based organizations and faith-based organizations in the barrio.Communities of faith also took a direct role in protest and activism. In 1970, when the Barrio Hollywood neighborhood held a series of marches, protests, and occupations to demand that the vast acres of the elite El Rio Golf Course be partially converted into community-oriented parks and facilities, religious groups sprang to action, holding regular prayer services on the ninth tee as a disruptive act of protest.

Because close relationships had already developed between religious congregations and migrant communities, faith-based groups working in Tucson’s largely Latino South Side in the early 1980s were quick to notice the growing number of refugees arriving in the barrios to escape political violence in Central America. As congregations like Southside Presbyterian Church worked to provide emotional, legal, and material support to refugees, they came to realize that the United States was funding and assisting Central American death squads with one hand, while working to deny asylum to political refugees with the other. A group of the faithful found themselves called upon to act. “Immigration judges were turning down everyone that we would take in to apply for political asylum, and refugees were dying in the desert,” recalls Fife, who was at the time the minister of Southside Presbyterian Church. Fife says Jim Corbett, a congregant in his church, came to him and asked him to consider two historical moments: the emergence of the slavery abolition movement and U.S. churches’ decision to help form an underground railroad to help slaves cross to safety, on one hand, and the almost complete failure of churches to help and protect Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, on the other. Fife says Corbett then declared, “We can’t allow that to happen on our border in our time,” and added, “I’m going to start a small group of folks who can help Central Americans cross the border safely without being captured by Border Patrol, and I believe that’s the only ethical position that people of faith can take under these circumstances.”

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No More Deaths/Hannah Hafter

Volunteers provide basic medical aid to migrants injured while crossing the desert.

Six months later, when Border Patrol discovered that networks of worshippers were helping refugees cross the desert and housing them in Southside Presbyterian Church, Fife, Corbett, and the entire congregation decided to publicly defy federal law and declare their church a site of sanctuary, where refugee families could seek shelter while applying for political asylum. Citing as historical precedent the role of the church in the Middle Ages as a site of sanctuary for individuals seeking legal arbitration or protection from state persecution, the Sanctuary Movement also drew inspiration from the ancient cities of refuge of the Hebrew Bible, where individuals could escape from blood feuds or obtain a fair trial if accused of a serious crime. During a 1984 gathering of international Sanctuary activists at Temple Emanu-El Synagogue in Tucson, Dominican Sister Renny Golden said “the locus of G-d in history is discovered among the poor and the oppressed,” affirming that the theology of Sanctuary recognized the Torah itself as a document of migration and exodus, and sought to bear practical witness to its commandment to “welcome the stranger in your midst, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19).

To explain their work, the pioneers of Sanctuary in Tucson developed a philosophy of “civil initiative,” which they defined as “the legal right and the moral responsibility of society to protect the victims of human rights violations when government is the violator.” The decision to declare Sanctuary was a collective one, assumed by a congregation united in faith, solidarity, and compassion. “Whenever a congregation that proclaims the prophetic faith abandons the poor and persecuted to organized violation,” wrote Corbett, “its unfaithfulness darkens the way for all humankind. And when it stands as a bulwark against the violation of human rights, it lights the way. The congregational obligation to protect victims of state crimes extends beyond our individual civic responsibilities, because only in this kind of covenant community can we provide sanctuary for the violated.”

By 1986, over 560 synagogues and churches across the country had declared Sanctuary, and seventeen cities— including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco— had declared themselves “cities of sanctuary,” instructing public employees not to cooperate with federal immigration agents. By that time, undercover federal agents had infiltrated the movement as volunteers, collecting secret tape recordings of church meetings, conversations with pastors, and worship services. Priests, nuns, and other religious leaders and community activists were arrested, indicted, and charged with federal crimes, only narrowly escaping lengthy prison sentences thanks to an international outpouring of support.

Desert Aid and the Militarization of the Border

By the end of the 1980s, the Department of Justice agreed to end all deportations to El Salvador and Guatemala, grant all refugees from those countries work permits and temporary protected status, and reform the political asylum process. But as the first incarnation of the Sanctuary Movement drew to a close, a new human rights crisis loomed on the horizon. The inauguration of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 made the Mexican economy, and in particular the production of corn, dependent on American imports, sending countless destitute small farmers across the border to find work. The United States responded to these effects of its own policies by cementing key urban sections of the 2,000-mile border with eighteen-foot steel walls, vastly expanding the Border Patrol, and hyper-militarizing the border with state-of-the-art surveillance technology at taxpayers’ expense. These attempts to deter migration by forcing migrants to cross the treacherous desert have not deterred migration, which continues to oscillate in tune with the ebbs and flows of the U.S. economy, but have instead resulted in the deaths of over 6,000 migrant workers and the injury of tens of thousands more.

In response, faith-based communities in Tucson created the organization Humane Borders in the year 2000 to place water stations, marked by flagpoles, in critical areas of the desert. Today, Humane Borders continues to place over 20,000 gallons of water in the desert each year. Two years later, with the death toll rising, the Samaritans were formed as a brigade of medically trained, Spanish-fluent volunteers sent to patrol the desert on four-wheel-drive vehicles loaded with food, water, and medical equipment. Today, groups of Samaritans from cities across the borderlands descend daily into the desert, treating men, women and children suffering from dehydration, malnourishment, broken bones, rattlesnake bites, and, in some cases, sexual assault. Finally, in 2004, No Mas Muertes was formed to establish a permanent humanitarian aid camp in the desert. No Mas Muertes also staffs aid stations on the Mexican side of the border, in partnership with the government of Mexico, to treat migrants deported from the United States.

In 1984, the first international gathering of Sanctuary activists in Tucson affirmed that “Sanctuary is a dynamic movement that is no longer just place but more than place. . . . [it is] an event and a community.” Just as the practice of Sanctuary spread beyond Southside Presbyterian Church into a nationwide movement, so today’s desert aid movement has spread beyond communities of faith, as independent organizations in border towns most impacted by the crisis mobilize resources and form coordinated networks of solidarity and resistance.

In June 2012, a grassroots organization called People Helping People opened the Arivaca Humanitarian Aid Office in the 700-person town of Arivaca, Arizona, thirteen miles above the border, to offer resources, information, and support to a close-knit community that, in the last decade, has become a battleground of America’s war against migration. The residents of Arivaca, who have lived for decades without a police force or town government, now face the constant presence of drone helicopters overhead, Border Patrol vehicles and checkpoints in the streets, and migrants knocking on their doors day and night, begging for food, water, or shelter.

“I think it’s disgusting living in a war zone,” says Leesa Jacobson, an Arivaca resident, People Helping People volunteer, and Samaritans activist, “and that’s basically what we have here. It’s very incongruous to have so much natural beauty around, and then to have so much human ugliness. . . . It almost gets to be normal to have to go through a checkpoint every time you go to the grocery store, and that’s no good. It almost gets to be normal that Black Hawk helicopters are flying over your head, and they fly low, and you know that people are running for their lives, and getting lost, and that these are the people you will later see turning up at your front door, hurt and sick.”

The Humanitarian Aid Office promotes community-based discussion, education, support, and outreach, and works to spread legal information, material resources, humanitarian aid training, and other services to unite the community in resistance and solidarity. “We have know-your-rights trainings with an ACLU lawyer that are wildly popular,” says Arivaca resident and community organizer Sophie Smith. “We have regular meetings at the office that are incredible magnets for community involvement. And this community resists border militarization in a thousand small ways. People offer their homes for hospitality and respite to travelers in need, people stop on the side of the road to give food and water. . . . Now, having an office in the center of town means that people have a place to go for support when they have issues. The idea is to have a community response rather than a state-based response. Instead of calling Border Patrol, we can help each other.”

Migrant Justice in an Age of Economic Violence

Today’s migrant justice movement in America faces a vastly different political context than that faced by organizers in the 1980s — one marked not by the immediacy of death squads and military dictatorship but by protracted neoliberal economic exploitation. While the refugees who crossed the border then were fleeing U.S.-orchestrated political violence, today’s migrants are fleeing U.S.-orchestrated economic violence. While many of yesterday’s refugees came temporarily to escape brutal dictatorship and sought ultimately to return to their countries of origin, many — though certainly not all — of today’s migrants cross the border to find work and build new lives in the United States.

Today, a plurality of organizations such as Humane Borders, the Samaritans, No More Deaths, and People Helping People work tirelessly to alleviate suffering at the border and in the desert, while broad-based initiatives work throughout the country to strengthen and support undocumented families and communities.

In Tucson, recent xenophobic public policy has banned Mexican-American Studies from the public school system and has authorized police to demand proof of citizenship for even the most routine traffic stop, as the Border Patrol continues to terrorize the city’s proud, vibrant, and resilient barrios. In response, grassroots organizations such as Coalición de Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Coalition), Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty), El Cora zón de Tucson (The Heart of Tucson), and countless others offer legal representation, support networks, and other vital services for families threatened with deportation, while advocacy organizations such as We Reject Racism, U.N.I.D.O.S., and Fuerza! work to raise awareness and influence public policy around specific issues. Activists and organizers continue to pressure the Tucson Unified School District to lift their ban on ethnic studies courses, while shops, restaurants, and homes throughout the city proudly display “We Reject Racism” posters to passersby, affirming their solidarity with Tucson’s Latin American community.

From the Sanctuary Movement to No Mas Muertes, faith-based resistance in Tucson, too, has changed within this evolving political context. While yesterday’s congregations openly defied federal law, today’s religious activism in Tucson, from faith-based desert aid organizations like No More Deaths to church-based day laborer centers like the Southside Worker Center at Southside Presbyterian Church, commits itself primarily to community support and humanitarian aid within the parameters of law. Nationwide, the New Sanctuary Movement functions as an invaluable organizing platform for congregations to resist the criminalization of migrants, support undocumented communities and advocate for political reform.

“Today, the war in poor countries is more economic than military,” said California Sanctuary veteran and New Sanctuary Movement activist Ched Myers shortly after the New Sanctuary Movement’s founding in 2007, “but the casualties are the same: families pushed and pulled from their homes by the displacing forces of globalization. . . . We are again confronting a painful landscape of human suffering, which again offers our religious congregations an urgent opportunity to practice our faith.”

In the 1980s, faith-based communities in America practiced Sanctuary with a long-range perspective. “Today,” they reasoned, “we provide shelter for the refugee in the hope that tomorrow, through the combined efforts of the entire movement, justice may prevail.”

Today, faith-based migrant justice activism in America — whether it takes the form of a gallon jug of water in the desert, a day laborers’ center in the barrios, a protest on the streets, or an entirely new social movement — continues the tradition of civil initiative, bearing witness to what Sanctuary founders described as “the legal right and the moral responsibility of society to protect the victims of human rights violations when government is the violator.” Like the Tucson Ecumenical Council in the 1970s, congregations today must apply themselves directly to the issues facing their local undocumented communities. Through forming interfaith coalitions, building networks of material and spiritual support with community organizations, raising aware ness, and taking direct action against deporta tion, racial profiling, and all other forms of anti-immigrant xenophobia, faith-based communities can amplify the movement for comprehensive immigration reform, bearing prophetic witness to the words of Leviticus: “The stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).

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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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