Our Relationship to the Land

‘Every Jew has a stake in the Land of Israel, and therefore what is done in Israel is the business of every Jew.’ – the Lubavitcher Rebbe, 1970

In the above quote, the Lubavitcher Rebbe was responding to criticism that, from his home in Brooklyn, he was too involved in the state affairs of Israel. His involvement, it should be noted, was very right wing– for decades, he counseled Netanyahu and the many other leading Israeli politicians who visited him in Crown Heights to hold on to every inch of land in the West Bank, to see Israel’s wars as wars of expansion, to see all Palestinians as Amalekites, etc.

But this quote resonated with me, ironically, as an American Jewish BDS activist. While the Rebbe, were he alive today, may recoil in horror to hear me say so, I actually share his sentiment. It drives the work I do, to advocate for an end to occupation and apartheid, and for the return of Palestinian refugees. I do this firstly, not as a white person fighting American empire and global white supremacy, but as a Jew (and yes, as a white Jew specifically), as a Jew with a stake in the affairs of his people, and with a concern, today, for what we’re doing in the holy land. I think the Rebbe’s quote can serve as an effective model to help Jews doing anti-occupation/BDS work articulate a healthy self-interest in our work, and a healthy relationship to that land, wherever we live around the world.

When we ask ‘what is the future of Judaism beyond Zionism?’, or ‘what will the new Jewish identity look like?’, another question is folded within these- ‘how should we conceive of our relationship to Eretz Yisrael, outside a Zionist framework?’ Thankfully, many different answers exist to this question, as they should- you have the secular ‘doikayt’ diasporists on the one hand, attached only to ‘Zion’ as a symbol for the future liberation of humanity, and those who gravitate towards some form of ‘old time religion’ on the other, grounded in apolitical devotion to the living stones of the land. And, of course, you have many shades in between, within and around these two points I have chosen, somewhat arbitrarily, amidst many others in the rich tapestry of Jewish experience.

Mostly, I have drifted around the former camp, with at least one toe in the latter. My family is rooted in America and, before, that Europe; I am a Marxist spiritual agnostic, I have a pious rabbi and a fiery radical jostling within me in sometimes uneasy, but always creative, tension. And while I cling to a fierce diasporism, I see alot of beauty in directing our prayers towards Jerusalem, as a compass for our souls; I resonate with the idea of Eretz Yisrael as a throbbing in the heart of every Jew in exile in an unredeemed world.

In many ways, this dream of Zion has always been a deeply diasporist one for our people, steeped, for every Jew who has muttered it three times a day throughout the centuries, in the yearnings, sorrows and joys of their experience in history. For so many Jews across the spectrum of observance and identity, the hegemony of political Zionism, among other forces of modernity, has erased from our memory this sensibility of a relationship to Zion suffused with the travail of exile, an exile at once spiritual and physical, personal and collective, signifying the incomplete redemption of the soul, the Jewish people, and the world. Instead, Zionism has taught too many Jews to hear the cries of our sages for Zion, as little more than an injunction to pray today for the political victories of the modern nation-state of Israel, as one would cheer for a football team.

I feel drawn to this larger idea of Zion as a modality of exile, but I feel a connection to the physical Eretz Yisrael as well, one made all sorts of complicated by the two months I spent in yeshiva in Jerusalem, followed by four months doing activist work in the West Bank, in 2011. My time at the yeshiva, during which I occasionally traveled to religious sites (including occupied Hebron), was in many ways problematic- from the politics and the patriarchy, to the very fact that I, as a Jew, could visit there while Palestinians couldn’t (which applies, also, to my time in the WB)- but many of my religious experiences were very beautiful. And while some of these experiences- like the study of Torah and Talmud in a spiritually charged community- could also occur with equal force elsewhere, many were not wholly unrelated to that land, and the centuries of Jewish yearning somehow calcified in its stones. In many ways I’ve repressed the joy I felt, unable to let myself fully re-embrace those experiences, to let myself dream of them occurring again in that place, because of the reality of the occupation, the awareness of the continuing Nakba that remains unrecognized.

It’s as if my activism now is driven, at the end of the day, by a desire to see justice in that land, so that my- our- spiritual relationship to it, as an idea and as reality, can be authentic again, without blood on our hands. I don’t need my people, in the present day, to constitute a nation-state there, atop someone else’s land, driving another people from their homes- but I want to be able to make holy pilgrimage there, as my ancestors did for generations, to sing and cry at its holy places. Until we have repented for and ended occupation and apartheid, and allowed the refugees to return, I don’t want to excise from my prayer book all the words about Eretz Yisrael, Yerushalayim, the Temple- I pray most fervently during those parts of the service, sometimes. ‘May our eyes behold Your return to Zion with compassion’- may we understand that the return of the holy presence to Zion may occur through none other than the attribute of compassion, and may we act accordingly.

In truth, our personal and collective relationship to the Eretz Yisrael, Zion and Jerusalem in our prayer books cannot be separated from our relationship to those actual locations in the world, and never has been, for any period in Jewish history. When our ancestors prayed for the holy land, they prayed partially, but not solely, towards an idea- their prayers were charged with the energy, full to bursting, of what they were experiencing in their own time, caught as they were, in their unique historical moment, in the tension between the travails of exile and the desire for liberation. And, their prayers were also directed towards a very real place, one they may have visited themselves or heard from other pilgrims about, one they may have hoped to be buried in. And today, Jews continue to pray for Zion with words charged with the passions of our historical moment, words related, viscerally and imminently, to a real place on the earth’s surface. Just as some Jews on the right today, sadly, read prayers about the rebuilding of the Temple and think literally of the shattering of the Dome of the Rock, Jews on the left should, and do, read the words in their Siddurim about peace and mercy in the holy land quite literally, and pray, wholeheartedly, for a just peace in Israel/Palestine.

 

But whereas yesterday, we looked towards Zion and dreamed of being liberated from exile, today, we claim to be liberated, as a people, in Zion, but in truth we remain deeper in exile. Zionism has helped us forget that, all along, exile for us meant much more, as a concept, than the simple dispersal of Jews across the earth’s surface- it meant the unredeemed sorrows of an unjust world; the continued existence of oppressors and oppressed; the incomplete process of redemption embedded within creation itself. Today, as the exile of the world continues, the exile of the Jewish people assumes a new and wholly unprecedented dimension. On the surface of things, we appear to be reconstituted, as a people, on our land- we appear to have miraculously ended 2000 years of Galut. We’ve even written this proud declaration into our very prayer books, alongside the pleas to Zion that made our ancestors tremble! Or at least the non-Orthodox prayer books have been altered in this way- these loftiest of claims made by Zionism upon the very core of Jewish history and identity were never accepted by traditional Jewry, including the predecessors of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, though he cheered on the conquests of the Zionist state.

But with Zionism, just as we have driven another people into physical exile, so have we driven ourselves deeper into spiritual exile as well. When we pray towards Jerusalem today, we must fervently pray for this exile to end; we must pray, in an old-and-new way, for justice, mercy and peace to dwell upon that land; and we must reaffirm that ‘every Jew has a stake’, as the Rebbe said, in demanding an end to Israeli occupation and apartheid, in demanding the right of return for refugees, in rectifying our relations, as a people, with the Other, with Hashem, with the land and with ourselves.

As the Rebbe showed in his life’s work, it is foundational to Jewish being-in-the-world that we remain invested, concerned, implicated in the affairs of the Jewish people, the affairs of the world at large, and the relation between the two. In this way, Jewish being-in-the-world has always been ‘political’ in the broad sense, long before that word came to connote the affairs of modern nation-states. And as the Rebbe said in the quote above, this ‘political’ sense of Jewish being-in-the-world has always somehow involved the land of Israel, whether as yesterday’s futural promise or today’s political nightmare. May we pray today, with the thoughts of our heart and the work of our hands, that this nightmare come to an end.

 

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

Published in the Summer 2013 issue of Jewish Currents

jfrej_crop

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.”

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

Image

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.