What the Jewish Left Learned From Occupy

Liza Behrendt: I looked at [Jewish events at Occupy] as another opportunity to build Occupy, rather than feeling a deep sense of Jewish identity in those spaces. The framing of the movement really flattened and erased identity; I was not particularly aware of any of my identities in the space, as a white person, or a Jewish person, or a queer person. There was a sense that we were all just going with the flow together, which I think did not feel affirming to a lot of people, and probably meant that the movement was less principled and less radical.

Yotam Marom: I definitely noticed that a lot of us in leadership were Jews, disproportionately. It became something I went on to write and talk about: What the fuck is it that all these Jews are on the left and just don’t talk about being Jews?

Menachem Cohen (organizer, Occupy Judaism Chicago; rabbi): [In Chicago,] we made an interfaith group, which I think we called the “spiritual care committee.” We were there to let people know that if they wanted someone to talk to, or some spiritual recharge, we were available. It wasn’t, “Let’s organize as Jews.” It was like, “It’s exciting that we’re a bunch of Jews here.” We took some energy and maybe some pride from it, but we didn’t have a bloc.

Juan Carlos Ruiz (pastor, Church of the Good Shepherd; co-founder, New Sanctuary Coalition; organizer, Occupy Sandy): There was a mixed response to us [as religious figures] at Occupy. Because the Bible, the Quran, has always been in the hand of the conqueror, while the other hand has the sword, or the pistol. Some of us began trying to give a sense of historical memory, because the youth, in their fervor of organizing Occupy, did not have it. There is this whole historical memory that is subversive, these traditions that take on that prophetic voice of the marginalized, of the impoverished. So I began to tap into that and say, “You guys are a link in this chain of solidarity.”

Arthur Waskow (organizer, 1969 Freedom Seder; founder, Shalom Center; rabbi): I went to New York as part of the National Council of Elders, which is made up of veterans of the [social] movements of the 20th century. We got the leaders of Occupy to agree that we would lead a prayer service. Most of those people were totally uninterested in prayer, synagogues, churches. But we created a service that was of its time. There might have been a couple of pages of notes, but certainly there was no printed prayer book. And people loved it. We were astonished.

Daniel Sieradski: I remember there was one communist secularist who was like, “Religion has no place in this movement, it’s a secular movement, you shouldn’t be doing this.” And I remember a couple of antisemites just straight out being like, “Fuck you, get the fuck out of here.” They got shouted down and chased out of the park. But apart from that nobody was ever anti what we were doing. It was always, “Thank you so much for being here.”

Liza Behrendt: I wasn’t quite defining myself or my work as anti-Zionist or in solidarity with Palestine at the time, it was much more anti-[Israeli-]occupation. We were on the edge of grasping a critique of colonialism, but I know I wasn’t there yet.

I never tried to bring Palestine up in a General Assembly. I don’t remember trying to infuse it into any larger strategy in Zuccotti Park, partly because I felt like I didn’t have the stamina to try to impact the larger strategy. But me and Carolyn [Klaasen] and others in the JVP chapter saw Occupy as an opportunity to help bring Palestine into the conversation.

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