Now that Occupy Wall Street New York has issued an official statement against anti-Semitism, the economic protest movement’s Jewish offshoot is hoping it can refocus on religious and social justice programming.
That is, assuming the protesters are allowed to stay in Zuccotti Park, after Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s move early Tuesday morning to clear the space.
Concerned about lingering perceptions, by some, that Occupy Wall Street is anti-Semitic and that pro-Palestinian activists at Occupy Wall Street could influence the entire movement, members of Occupy Judaism had shifted some of their energies during the last two weeks to a debate about whether and how to respond to anti-Israel sentiment at the protests.
“We spent a lot of sweat on this,” said Rabbi Alana Suskin, an Occupy Judaism activist in Washington, D.C. “Should we do anything about it? Should we let it blow over? Will we make it worse?”
In the past few weeks, several incidents prompted Occupy Judaism to focus on anti-Zionism, said Occupy Judaism leader Dan Sieradski. These include an Oct. 28 “Keffiyeh Day” event in Zuccotti Park (organized by a pro-Palestinian group called Existence is Resistance) and a tweet — later retracted — that expressed Occupy Wall Street’s support for an attempt to break the embargo on Gaza.
In addition on Nov. 7, several young activists with Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, disrupted a Birthright Israel event, calling on people to “Occupy the Occupiers,” a reference to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
“This was getting the movement in trouble,” Sieradski said. “This is a protest about the economy and not about Palestine, and if you make it as being about Palestine, the media will portray it as anti-Israel.”
The movement’s target is the economy, Occupy Wall Street spokespeople also say.
“We’re trying to talk about economic inequality, not foreign policy,” said Beth Bogart, a spokeswoman. “People have asked for press releases on Israel and Palestine, but that’s not our mission.”
The decision by Occupy Wall Street New York’s General Assembly, the only body empowered to speak on behalf of the local movement, to make a statement condemning anti-Semitism after vandals burned cars and spray painted swastikas in Brooklyn, was a turning point, said Occupy Judaism activist Naomi Less.
“It helped the Jews feel like they could unwaveringly support this movement,” she said.
That statement, released Saturday, begins: “Friday’s anti-Semitic, racist acts that occurred on Ocean Parkway in the Midwood Section of Brooklyn and the attempt by the Daily News to link Occupy Wall Street (OWS) to these heinous acts have compelled us to release this statement.”
“When an act of violence and bigotry occurs in our community, we, as a group, need to take a leadership role and stand with other community leaders and fellow New Yorkers to speak out in opposition to these acts,” it continues. “History teaches us that silence can be interpreted as approving or condoning the bigotry.
The statement also criticizes “the media” for attempting “to implicate OWS in these criminal acts while offering zero evidence to support their claims.”
Conservative entities such as the Emergency Committee for Israel and Commentary magazine have focused attention on anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism within Occupy Wall Street, with the committee running a television ad showing footage of an anti-Semitic rant in Zuccotti Park despite a statement by Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman that he saw no evidence that anti-Semitic views were representative of the movement or gaining traction.
“The Jew-hatred among protestors and sympathizers is diverse and unapologetic,” at Occupy Wall Street, wrote Abe Greenwald of Commentary, in early October. “It is, in fact, atmospheric.” Neither the committee nor Commentary responded to requests to comment on the General Assembly’s official denunciation of anti-Semitism.
Occupy Judaism has members in at least nine cities, but it is not clear how many individuals are involved or have participated in its events. Its Facebook page has gotten 1,512 “likes” so far.
Although “for about two weeks” anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism was “one of the major threads of discussion” in Occupy Judaism e-mail conversations and on conference calls, “we’re talking about [anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism] less because of the statement Occupy Wall Street put out,” Suskin said.
New York’s Occupy Judaism chapter will host a Rosh Hodesh Kislev service on Sunday, Nov. 27 that will combine an abridged version of the Hallel prayer of praise and thanksgiving with paired text study, said event organizer Shuli Passow, a rabbinical student at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.
“Rosh Hodesh is also Yom Kippur katan [little],” said Suskin. “How can we individually take responsibility for fixing the world? It’s not just about saying I’m sorry and moving on.”
Occupy Judaism also issued a statement denouncing Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision to clear Occupy Wall Street’s Zuccotti Park camp early Tuesday morning. Members are planning to press Jewish institutions to house displaced protestors as churches have offered to do, Less said.
Ultimately, Occupy Judaism’s goal is to turn the broader movement’s critique of inequality back on the Jewish world, said Less, who would like to see a town hall-style meeting in which the community comes together to discuss the distribution of money and power.
“The conversation comes back to power in the Jewish community and how willing are people to stick their necks out for folks who are fighting for justice when they’re being funded by people who are part of the problem,” she said.
Earlier this month, 15 prominent Jewish politicians and organization leaders, including former Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, issued a statement in support of Israel and Occupy Wall Street and against “right wing-attempts to smear the movement with false charges of anti-Semitism.”
Three groups, Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and Jews Say No! issued a statement defending the rights of protesters to express solidarity with Palestine.
However, Jewish Voice for Peace Director Rebecca Vilkomerson told The Jewish Week she does not intend to push for further connection between Occupy Wall Street and the cause of the Palestinians.
“We’re not going to the General Assembly to say, ‘You must pass this thing,’” she said. “I don’t have any interest in making Occupy Wall Street take on Palestine per se. It’s a U.S. economic justice movement.”