Jewish Journal


January 12, 2012

[[[Opinion]]] Panel discussion: What so Jewish about the Occupy Movement?



Occupy Everything.

On January 11, 2012, I helped welcome a group of panelists who were invited to speak about the Jewish-ness of the Occupy movement.  My fellowship cohort and an audience that was both live and virtual joined the panel of experts at the top-tier, newly re-located and Eco-friendly host synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadishim (BCC), which I must say, is breathtaking.  Rabbi Lisa Edwards of BCC, “the world’s first synagogue founded by, and with an outreach to, lesbians and gay men” moderated, and the free event was sponsored by Progressive Jewish Alliance + Jewish Funds for Justice.

BCC’s website stated:

Inspired, in part, by the Occupy Movement, Time Magazine named “The Protester” the person of the year for 2011. With the movement set to make more waves this year, it’s time to examine the relevance of the Occupy Movement to Jewish progressives and our relevance to the movement.  

Panelists will include:

    • Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and author of the new book “Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-on Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community”

    • Professor Peter Dreier, Director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Program at Occidental College and author of “The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City”

    • David Levitus, Jeremiah Fellowship Alumnus, PJA & JFSJ, Southern California Regional Council member, and Ph.D. Candidate in History at USC

We were also joined by Scott Shuster, an Occupy LA activist, and NYC City Councilman and former community organizer, Brad Lander.  Afterward, my cohort continued to dialogue and listen to a few of the panelists, the Councilman and the dynamic Occupy LA Activist, Elise Whitaker, who both attended the public panel in the audience and then joined us and the panelists in a private hour-long discussion. There were so many insightful perspectives shared and many great questions posed by the audience.  There were fascinating ideas discussed in the private session.  However, I came away with the following throughout the evening:

The Occupy movement may not be “mainstream”, but it sure is viral. And in the age of New Social Media, is it not more impactful to be viral than mainstream, even if just to start? In our private panel discussion, Ms. Whitaker relayed a sentiment that went much like, and I paraphrase, “The fact that they could organize in one area of Oakland and be hit with such violent opposition, and then almost immediately London was protesting in solidarity of the Occupiers in Oakland,… made the events of 2011 a success.”

Though there were obstacles, the people who participated in the movement accomplished great miracles as far as collaboration with a diverse range of people goes.  Mr. Shuster, Occupy LA activist, mentioned at one point during the public panel discussion some of the experiences organizing with all of the backgrounds that participated in the movement. I don’t know about you, but how many people can say they’ve had members of skid row help them learn how to make an intentional community - and welcome it because their expertise was valuable? How many of those same people have worked with so many people, with so many opinions, and from such diverse backgrounds and perspectives, -all at once-, with the commitment to at least coming to a 90% consensus on each issue addressed, no matter what?

At least for the Occupy LA movement, when it comes to anti-semitism, there was just as much of that as there was “anti-everythingisms”. I’m not sure if that is because Los Angeles is such a melting pot and therefore more stereotypes are apt to be scapegoated, or if Los Angeles’ residents are simply equal-opportunity rude to all other residents they encounter. Regardless, anti-semitism was addressed, and to help come up with a way to create change, specifically by Jews, Professor Peter Dreier, Director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Program at Occidental College and author of “The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City”, said “Jews should confront Jews and their oppressors.” I believe this was significant, as it put accountability back in the hands of Jews to hold other Jews accountable who oppress others (i.e. slumlords), as well as making sure to not just preach to the choir, but also speak out against oppressors (e.g. Ron Paul), so that senseless hatred is combated.

But the answer I derived in response to the discussion’s topic “What’s so Jewish about the Occupy Movement?” was:

• The women.

It occurred to me first when panelist Scott Shuster took to the mic with not a question, but a comment.  After speaking briefly about the dynamic of presence of women at Occupy LA he stated, “Women have been oppressed by men so much for so long that there’s no movement that’s going to be lead by men.” [In the video, this section starts at 53:36] It was fascinating that in that one comment, my eyes opened to the power of women, though even prior to his statement, I had found myself so enthralled by the eloquence of Rabbi Jill Jacobs, who communicated to the audience in such a clear way that was made even more inspiring by her fluidity of answering questions three at a time.

It also occurred to me the movement is very much still bubbling up and the organizers are already beginning to understand a little more about what worked and what didn’t in 2011.  However, like anything successful, the movement will gain momentum over time, rather than simply “overnight”, and I say this to nay-sayers and proponents of the movement alike.  Professor Drier stated, “The radical ideas of one generation are usually the common [sense] of the next,” which we’ve seen happen in the examples of women’s suffrage (which started in the late 1800s and was actualized in the early 1900s), black civil rights and even homosexual sanctions.

Additionally, it must be taken into account that nothing is accomplished without communication, especially that of effective communication.  Whether the means of communication is by mouth, technology or carrier pigeon, “it’s not enough to be right, you have to meet people where they are,” said panelist David Levitus, Jeremiah Fellowship Alumnus, PJA & JFSJ, Southern California Regional Council member, and Ph.D. Candidate in History at USC.

I couldn’t agree more.

So let’s hope for the sake of the Occupy movement, the Jewishness of the Occupy movement, and even just for the sake of any radical shift bubbling at the surface that could potentially become a “movement”, access to quality education increases so that communication is effective and people are met where they are; people unite for longevity versus immediacy, and therefore create change through consistency; and women are supported in leadership roles either after claiming their spots or being promoted.  Unfortunately, the latter of the two choices for women is usually not the top-most option; but hey, anything’s possible, as illustrated by the Occupy movement and the fact that TIME crowned “The Protester” 2011’s Person of the Year... and the image was that of a woman.

View the entire Panel Discussion here: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/19709431


Video streaming by Ustream

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