Sunday, November 27, 2011

Occupying the Heart - Jews and the Social Protest Movement

Kol Nidre, Occupy Wall Street 2011 - Leah Bee5
In the weeks that marked the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, while protesters were gathering on the streets around the world, another smaller gathering was taking place in Zuccotti Park, in Lower Manhattan. It received much less attention in headlines and on the Internet, but its egalitarian statement spoke strongly about the importance that Jews have played in Occupy’s social movement, just as they did during the 1960s Peace Movement.

While the world was debating whether Occupy movements were fueled by antisemitism and racist intentions, Jews and Gentiles were gathering in a square near Zuccotti Park to hold a Kol Nidre service. Judaism’s holiest day, Yom Kippur, became the inspiration for spiritual unity. This act of unison took root again a little more than a week later in Seattle, as protesters linked arms around a sukkah to protect it from being dismantled by police.  This age-old symbol of Jewish tradition became the perfect emblem by which to signify both the durability and the impermanence of the social movement. It also demonstrated once again the undeniable connection between Judaism and social action. Judaism’s most sacred symbols, such as the sukkah and the hanukkiah hold undeniable places in the story of social justice and human rights.

Jewish Com. turns out for civil rights, Wash. DC, 2009 - Tedeytan

Maybe that is why Jews have had such a strong role in social justice. The PBS documentary, From Swastika to Jim Crow – Black-Jewish Relations, notes that approximately 50 percent of the Civil Rights attorneys in the Deep South during the 1950s, 60s and 70s were Jewish. They played a prominent role in fighting for the rights of African-Americans, and stood shoulder to shoulder with civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Civil Rights banners are in Yid. and Eng, 1909. - Bain News Svc
Jews also participated in protests for labor laws, and for the rights of Irish immigrants in the early 1900s, as my Orthodox grandmother herself attested. Observant and secular Jews had only to look at their own families’ pasts to find the inspiration for empathy.

But the reverse has been true as well.  Jewish spiritual movements that now have an active role in the shaping of Jewish faith and observance such as Jewish Renewal and Baal Tshuva gained their start during the “counterculture” activism of the 1960s. Other congregations – both Orthodox and Progressive - sprang up or were strengthened by the outreach that resulted during this period.

Most recently, the Occupy Judaism movement has helped to inspire new dialogue within the international Jewish community. Concepts such as the Occupy Rosh Chodesh (New Hebrew Month) and Occupy Shabbat have become emblems for a 21st century Jewish consciousness that is fueled by social media and global interaction.

It will be interesting to see whether the Occupy Wall Street Movement and its various followings can overcome the impact of growth and politics. In an exchange of letters with another participant of the Occupy Oakland protests, Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun Magazine ,chair of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives and author of Embracing Israel/Palestine (Tikkun Books, 2011) pointed out that while non-violence has been a strong characteristic of most of the Occupy protests, not all participants at Occupy Oakland have endorsed this stance.
Occupy Oakland - Brian Sims

“(There) is a determined group of violent self-described ‘anarchists’ who ideologically believe in violence and seek it out” says Lerner, who agreed with protester, Jordan Ashe that such action contravenes the spirit of the Occupy movement in general.

Ashe, who identifies himself in his letter to Lerner as a “law student, father, husband and 99%er,” said that he “observed and heard things that left (him) in a state of great concern.  The 99% need healing, they need repair, they need transformation.  The camp was ripe with hostility towards police.” He noted that he found the anti-Israel sentiment that emerged during one pro-Palestinian speech disturbing.

Occupy Portland 2011 - K. Kendall
 As of this afternoon however, there was no evidence of this friction on the streets of New York and Washington, DC, where observant Jews met to welcome in the Rosh Chodesh. With the Torah Scroll carefully spread across a table in the center of a walkway at Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street participants crowded around to hear a reader chant Torah. To the ear it might have seemed like any other Rosh Chodesh. But looking at the photograph of the engaged faces poring over the Torah scroll against a backdrop of skyscrapers and Christmas tree lights, its hard to imagine how anyone attending the reading could look at Jewish spirituality the same again. The Occupy movement may turn out to be short lived, but its message will continue to resonate on many levels for a time to come.

Yom Kippur attendees, Zuccotti Park, 2011 - Leah Bee5

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